With pressure mounting against Palo Alto's effort to widen sidewalks on El Camino Real, the city's planning commissioners took a stand Wednesday against a staff proposal to require new developments to be built farther back from the curb.
In rejecting the proposed sidewalk ordinance by a 3-1 vote, with Chair Mark Michael absent and Vice Chair Arthur Keller dissenting, the Planning and Transportation Commission suggested instead to include the sidewalk changes in Our Palo Alto, the broader city initiative meant to encourage community conversation about the city's future. The two-year effort aims to engage the public in building a long-term vision for the city, concurrent with the ongoing upgrade of the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan.
The sidewalk ordinance was drafted in response to the City Council, which in recent years has been fielding criticism from residents upset about dense and massive new buildings going up close to the city's curbs. Commonly cited examples include the Arbor Real townhouses on El Camino and the former Miki's Farm Fresh Market on Alma Street (a space now occupied by Grocery Outlet).
Last April, council members Greg Scharff, Karen Holman, Gail Price and Greg Schmid issued a memo complaining about developments that 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."
The ordinance drafted by staff would increase the sidewalk requirement on El Camino Real from the current level to 12 feet, though it would fall short of the 18 feet envisioned in the regional Grand Boulevard Initiative. The proposal would maintain a 12-foot minimum while also requiring an average building setback of 15 to 18 feet. It would only apply to new developments, a point that staff emphasized Wednesday but did little to alleviate the angst of the property owners in attendance.
Chief Planning Official Amy French said the ordinance would be the first step in a broader effort to revise building regulations on major thoroughfares. The second phase would consider thoroughfares beyond El Camino and look at other factors such as building heights. She stressed that the new rules would introduce more flexibility into the review process. They would, for instance, allow a property owner to build columns or arcades 9 feet away from the curb, a design that would allow upper floors of a building to be closer to the curb than the ground floor.
The proposed ordinance would also modify the "build to line" requirement that forces buildings to be 12 feet from the curb unless the developer receives an exemption from the city. The ordinance would eliminate this requirement for all streets except El Camino and specify that on El Camino the requirement could apply to upper floors if the ground floor is set back further from the curb. The ordinance would also empower the Architectural Review Board to modify this requirement on a project-by-project basis, based on context.
"The focus of the ordinance is to allow for flexibility in the review of buildings coming forward along El Camino," French said.
Staff had also proposed reducing the allowed density at 33 properties on El Camino that under state law will now be allowed to raise the number of housing units per acre from 15 to 20. The council suggested reducing the allowed floor-area ratio (total development footage) to ensure that the new units are small.
Though the architectural board approved most of the proposed changes on March 20 (with the notable exception of the density reduction), the sidewalk ordinance ran into a wall of resistance at Wednesday's planning commission meeting. Some property owners derided the regional vision of El Camino as a "grand boulevard," while others argued that the new ordinance would limit their ability to redevelop their properties.
Tracy May, who owns the property at 2080 El Camino, was in both camps.
"People in Palo Alto don't want to walk or eat along a busy state highway because there are much nicer places in town for these activities," May said.
She called the proposed ordinance a "death sentence" for owners of small properties, who cannot afford to lose land to new setback requirements.
"Some businesses are so small that if they had to rebuild they'd have nothing left to build upon," May said. "Past and future restrictions have and will make it impossible for people to build on their properties."
Simon Cintz, whose family owns numerous properties on El Camino, made a similar point. The proposed ordinance, he said, would have a particularly big impact on "mom and pop" stores.
"The sorts of things you're proposing here are hurting the small businesses and hurting the small business owners," Cintz said. "And they really have nowhere else to go."
The four commissioners in attendance (Chair Michael was absent and the other two seats are currently vacant) offered a range of opinions on the ordinance, with Vice Chair Arthur Keller proposing moving it forward with some minor modifications and Commissioner Michael Alcheck vehemently opposing it, offering his own vision for El Camino.
Alcheck lauded the regional vision of turning El Camino into a "grand boulevard" but soundly rejected the proposal to reduce floor-area-ratio on El Camino properties. To the contrary, the city should encourage more density and redevelopment along the strip, along with greater heights, he said.
"I think we have to articulate an ordinance that considers increasing floor-area ratio," Alcheck said. "Not keeping it the same -- dramatically increasing it. I refuse to support any initiative where we increase sidewalk space and we reduce the developable square footage on these sites without dramatically increasing height."
The road should be a "canyon," rather than a stretch of one- and two-story buildings, Alcheck said.
"Our goal is to increase the walkable livability of that place," Alcheck said. "I think we do it with dramatic increases in density."
While French suggested that the city consider the issue of heights at a later time, Alcheck said the issues should all be considered together. He urged his colleagues not to support the approval of the new sidewalk ordinance, which the City Council is scheduled to consider later this month.
Other commissioners were less gung-ho about growth on El Camino and based their reluctance to support the ordinance on a lack of information about its impacts on property owners. Commissioner Carl King defended the proposed vision for El Camino pedestrian-friendly nodes interspersed along car-oriented corridors. King said he understands the views of property owners that El Camino is not a place where people like to walk. But that doesn't mean that the city shouldn't try to change that, he said.
"An overarching goal is to make it so people would want to walk El Camino Real," King said. "There's a chicken and egg thing."
Commission Greg Tanaka agreed.
"Just because it's not walkable today, doesn't mean it's not good for it to be walkable," Tanaka said.
However, both Tanaka and King said they cannot move forward with the proposal without further analysis of its impacts.
"I think there are some implications that are involved in this and I think there are important elements that need to be considered to make this complete," Tanaka said.
Only Keller was prepared to go ahead with the proposed ordinance, which he said would not in itself adversely impact property owners (especially if the commission, like the architectural board, scraps the proposal for density reduction).
"It would give more flexibility to property owners and also more flexibility to the ARB in terms of exactly how much setback they would be allowed to have," Keller.
With no one else willing to recommend advancing the proposal, the commission voted 3-1 to incorporate the sidewalk discussion into the Our Palo Alto initiative and concluded its discussion to a round of applause from relieved property owners.