An effort by Palo Alto officials to encourage wider sidewalks and to set buildings farther back from El Camino Real is creating anxiety among property owners, some of whom characterize the reforms as an infringement by the city on private property rights.
The proposed changes were suggested last year by the City Council, which in April 2013 endorsed a memo by four of its members calling for wider sidewalks and, more broadly, for a better relationship between buildings and streets. The memo cited new developments, particularly along El Camino and Alma Street, that are inconsistent with local and regional visions for vibrant boulevards. Recently constructed developments, such as 801 Alma St. and the Arbor Real townhouses on El Camino, have both been subject to widespread public criticism, with many arguing that these massive buildings loom over the roadway.
The April memo, penned by Greg Scharff, Karen Holman, Gail Price and Greg Schmid, argues that recent developments have "generated consternation in the community and a strong negative reaction by members of the public as to how close the buildings are to the street and how the buildings turn their backs on the public right of way due to inadequate setbacks and building articulation and openings to reduce the building mass." For guidance, the council members pointed to the Grand Boulevard Initiative, a vision developed by cities and agencies along El Camino, which recommends an 18-foot minimum between buildings and the edge of the curb. Palo Alto currently has a 12-foot minimum, which includes a 4-foot planting strip.
Since the memo was issued, staff has been drafting new sidewalk rules and discussing them with the city's Planning Transportation Commission and Architectural Review Board. The architecture panel on March 20 unanimously accepted a staff proposal for a series of changes to the zoning code intended to address building setbacks, sidewalk widths and the city's "build to" requirements, which often force developers to position their buildings close to the street. The only change that the board members took a firm stance against was a proposal to make new buildings on El Camino less dense.
The board's vote came despite criticism from several El Camino business and property owners, who argued that the new rules will make life difficult for small businesses looking to renovate or redevelop their properties. Brian Knudson, who owns property on the 2000 block of El Camino, said that while the wider sidewalks may look nice, it should not a requirement that is codified in a city ordinance.
"I don't see it as a safety item and I think it just limits the landowner's ability, when and if he develops," Knudson told the board. "It's just adding on another limitation to what can be done to a particular property."
Ben Cintz, whose family owns several properties on the 3500 block of El Camino Real, made a similar point. Cintz said the city's proposal would hurt businesses, particularly small ones who would now have to deal with "another layer" of city-imposed restrictions.
Opponents of the proposed changes have also been circulating yellow flyers around El Camino with the title, "The City Wants Your Land for Their Sidewalks!" The flyers also claim erroneously that the city is "looking into widening sidewalks on all major thoroughfares," that there is a plan to "add an 18 foot sidewalk along El Camino Real" and that the "set back line" will be increased to 20 feet from the road.
"Concrete is more important to the city than families and people trying to make a living!" one flyer states. "We are losing our property rights!!!"
The changes approved by the board actually fall far short of the Grand Boulevard Initiative's recommendations. It pointedly does not recommend expanding the width of sidewalks to 18 feet. Instead, it keeps in place the existing 12-foot minimum setback between the curb and the building and couples it with a new requirement for an "average setback" of 15 to 18 feet. Staff decided to allow for some flexibility based on land use, lot size and building designs, Chief Planning Official Amy French said during the March 20 meeting.
The new ordinance would also specify that the "build-to line" requirement will only apply to properties that front El Camino (it currently includes commercial sites on other thoroughfares, including Middlefield Road and California Avenue) and make clear that buildings can have features such as arcades and colonnades on the ground level, which could push the actual building walls even farther back.
Staff and the board made clear last week that these changes would not apply to existing buildings along El Camino. They would, however, take effect if a property owners wants to redevelop the property or expand a business.
Assistant City Attorney Cara Silver stressed that courts have made it increasingly difficult for cities to require property owners to dedicate portions of their lots for sidewalks or other amenities. But while the city doesn't seek to do that, officials hope that the new rules for setbacks and build-to standards will lead to wider "effective sidewalks" (the distance between the building and the curb).
"As buildings redevelop, what we want to do is encourage them to set their buildings back further in order to create that illusion of a wider sidewalk," Silver said.
While the architecture board was generally sympathetic to the council's direction for wider sidewalks, members took a strong stance against a separate proposal: to reduce the density of buildings allowed on El Camino sites zoned "neighborhood commercial" (CN). The council called for a reduction in density in response to state laws that require cities to grant density bonuses to providers of affordable housing. The state requirement prompted the council to reluctantly raise the amount of units allowed for such projects from 15 to 20. The added density would apply to 32 properties on El Camino Real.
The council reasoned during a January meeting that while the city has to allow more units to comply with state law, it can also make sure that these units are small by reducing the "floor-area-ratio" (FAR) -- or the square footage of development allowed at a given site.
"While it's true that we have to go from 15 units per acre to the 20, we are not bound to the FAR that we have in our current zoning," Councilman Pat Burt said at the time.
Though Burt's colleagues went along with his suggestion, the architectural board took a highly unusual step of opposing the council. The board's 5-0 vote on March 20 included a statement explicitly opposing the density changes. Vice Chair Randy Popp said he was "absolutely against" lowering the allowed density at these sites.
"We have all kinds of other limitations in place that will restrict size and density in other ways," Popp said. "Telling people that if they want to provide more smaller units, they don't have as much square footage to do it there, is really sending a negative message and I can't support that at all."
In response to concerns from businesses, Palo Alto officials have set up a meeting to discuss the planned change on April 1. City Manager James Keene said staff is concerned about the flyers, which he said "contain some misinformation." The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at Creekside Inn, 2400 El Camino Real.
The Architectural Review Board and the Planning and Transportation Commission also plan to discuss the proposed rule changes at a joint session on April 9.