Faced with state mandates and market pressures to build more housing, Palo Alto officials are considering a wide range of locations -- from city-owned parking lots to the sprawling site of Fry's Electronics -- to address the city's housing needs.
New planning efforts, which will stretch until early next year, aim to both address the city's lack of affordable housing and to comply with state law, which requires Palo Alto to plan for 1,988 housing units between 2015 and 2023. The housing mandate, which is dictated by the Association of Bay Area Governments and is part of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation cycle, includes 691 housing units for residents classified as "very low income" -- those who earn less than 50 percent of the area median income.
The sites that will house the new units, along with the city's vision and policies for encouraging more housing, will all be part of the new Housing Element the city is preparing to adopt early next year. The document is one of the most critical chapters of the Comprehensive Plan, the city's guiding document for land-use decisions, and the only chapter that has to be approved by the state. Failure to comply will leave the city liable to lawsuits and ineligible for housing grants, Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said Tuesday.
The city would also be required to update its Housing Element every four years, rather than every eight. It could also, in the worst case scenario, lose local control over planning matters such as issuing of permits.
To assist with this onerous task, the city has appointed a new citizens group filled with neighborhood leaders, past commissioners, developers, civic activists and land-use watchdogs. The advisory panel, which held its inaugural meeting the afternoon of Tuesday, March 11, will help staff identify local sites that are ripe for growth and consider new policies to encourage denser building without further exacerbating the city's parking and traffic problems.
The good news for Palo Alto is that much of this work has already been completed. After years of delays, officials last year finally approved the Housing Element for the previous cycle, which covered the years 2007 to 2014. The vast majority of the housing units identified in that document -- 1,788 -- can thus be carried over from the previous Housing Element to the new one. Because planning staff is requesting that the city plan for between 10 to 15 percent of housing units beyond the allocation, the city is actually looking to identify sites for 369 new units in the next Housing Element.
The bad news is that this time the city won't have the luxury of flexible deadlines. Planners are facing a Jan. 31 deadline for the new Housing Element, followed by a grace period of 120 days. Furthermore, recent experiences have demonstrated that finding affordable-housing sites in Palo Alto is a daunting task. Last year, the City Council approved a 60-unit affordable-housing development on Maybell Avenue only to see the voters shoot it down in a November referendum. Later this month, the citizens panel will consider some of the sites staff has been exploring for the new housing.
At Tuesday's meeting at Lucie Stern Community Center, Senior Planner Tim Wong stressed to the citizens committee that the city merely has to plan for the units, not build them.
"We do not need to construct those units, but as part of the process we're putting in opportunities to facilitate, if you will, the development of affordable housing," Wong said, after a member of the public suggested that the housing inventory may end up little more than a hypothetical exercise. "The market will take control of that aspect, in the actual development."
Yet even if the city doesn't actually build these units, the policies it adopts as part of the Housing Element process could result in the construction of more housing. On Thursday, the City Council's Regional Housing Allocation Committee will consider several early proposals for raising the number of units in the city's inventory. One proposal would count "secondary units" (better known as "granny units") that the city expects to get built at properties that are zoned for single-family homes and are large enough to accommodate the additions.
Another proposal would increase the capacity of properties currently in the city's housing inventory. For instance, the current Housing Element assumes that sites will be developed at 67 percent of the allowed density (roughly 20 units per acre). By revising the site to accommodate 85 percent of the zoning capacity, the city would be able to add 358 units to the element. The major challenge, according to a report from the planning department, would be convincing the state Department of Housing and Community Development that the city would actually approve projects of such high density.
"However, it has not shown that these denser type developments are more the rule than the exception," the report states. "If chosen, HCD may not accept the City's proposal."
Another proposal in the report is considering parking lots downtown and California Avenue for residential projects, though given the city's existing parking shortage and the council's past rejection of this approach, this option is unlikely to win much support.
A more likely alternative is the sprawling site of Fry's Electronics near Portage Avenue. The site is already zoned for multi-family housing and can account for 174 new housing units in the next Housing Element. Another 195 units can be located at 17 commercial sites on San Antonio Avenue. These would have to be part of mixed-use projects, however, because developments that are exclusively residential are not allowed at commercial zones.
The community panel -- which includes architect Tony Carrasco, planning Commissioner Greg Tanaka, former Mayor Dena Mossar, and Palo Alto Neighborhoods co-chair Sheri Furman -- will consider these sites at a March 27 meeting.
This week's meeting was intended as an introduction and a broad overview of the task at hand. Even so, members had plenty of questions and suggestions. One member asked about the fate of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, which is currently undergoing a closure process (the proposal to close the park and redevelop the Barron Park property is scheduled to undergo a review from a hearing officer in the coming months; Gitelman said the panel needs to "keep it on our list as something to talk about"). Another asked if it would ever make sense for the city to use eminent domain to meet its housing mandate ("I think we'll be able to identify sites without the use of eminent domain," Gitelman responded).
Furman suggested considering policies that institute minimum-density requirements. Such a policy could, for instance, prevent a developer from building two or three giant homes on a site that is zoned to accommodate 20 or 30 apartments. Currently, the city has no such policies, Gitelman said, though it could consider adopting them.
"Some of the sites do get built on," Furman said, referring to the sites in the housing inventory. "We want to make sure that if they do get built and are counted against the allocation, that it's as great (a number of units) as possible."