Facing a state mandate to plan for more housing, Palo Alto officials adopted this week a strategy for meeting the requirement that favors caution over ambition.
On Wednesday, the City Council signed off on a draft of the new Housing Element, a state-mandated chapter of the Comprehensive Plan that lays out the city's strategy for encouraging more housing and that identifies specific sites capable of accommodating new housing units. Though some members advocated stronger policies to encourage more housing, the council ultimately approved a document that relies exclusively on existing zoning and that goes out of its way to avoid controversy.
Under state law, the city is required to plan for 1,988 units during the time period of 2015 to 2023. Of these, about 1,379 units can be carried over from the current Housing Element and another 399 can be added because they are currently in the city's development pipeline. This means the new document only has to accommodate 369 units, which includes a required "surplus" of about 200.
To meet the target, the city is looking at three different solutions, none of which require zone changes. The first one relies on "in law" units, which are occasionally added to single-family dwellings. With about four such units approved every year, the city expects to see 32 new ones over the eight-year period. Senior Planner Tim Wong called this option the easiest to accept because the in-law units can be built without seeking additional permission from the city and thus don't require zone changes.
Another 146 units could potentially be built at the Fry's Electronics site at 340 Portage Ave., a sprawling parcel zoned for multi-family residential use. Planners estimate that the area can accommodate about 249 units total, though 75 of these units have already been applied to the prior Housing Element cycle. This leaves 174 units available for the current cycle, though the council agreed to only include 146 in the new document.
The remainder of the units required would be fulfilled on various San Antonio Avenue sites, which are zoned "service commercial" and can accommodate mixed-use buildings with residential components. Staff had identified about 168 units that these sites can accommodate.
Council members agreed that the light-industrial area around San Antonio isn't the best place for new housing. But given the state mandate and the fact that these sites would not have to be rezoned, members agreed to support their inclusion in the Housing Element.
"Those are not ideal," Councilwoman Karen Holman said. "When it comes to identifying housing sites, there's no real ideal. But given where we are right now and given that none of those sites require rezoning, I think it makes sense adding those."
Most of her colleagues generally shared this view as well as stressed the intentionally unambitious proposals in the draft. Councilman Greg Scharff lauded the fact that the sites included in the document are not controversial. The important thing, he said, is to get the document quickly approved and meet a late January deadline. Once that's done, the city can have a broader conversation with the community about housing strategies as part of the Comprehensive Plan update, members said.
"The important part of this motion is that the conversation does not end," Scharff said. "What we're in fact doing is saying, 'Let's get (past) the legal requirement that's hanging over our head like the 'Sword of Damocles.'"
Holman also supported the draft's proposals, praising their "no-harm approach." The council ultimately voted 5-1, with Greg Schmid dissenting and Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilwoman Gail Price absent, to approve the draft, which will now be forwarded to the state Department of Housing and Community Development for feedback.
The council also considered other sites that are less preferable but can also be included in the Housing Element. These include parking lots on California Avenue and University Avenue, which between then could accommodate 97 housing units. Another proposal looked at residential sites with established uses that could be redeveloped to accommodate greater density. Staff identified three parcels that could house 68 units.
None of these proposals made it into the draft, however. Another idea that didn't make it was a proposal to redevelop four sites on the 600 block of Arastradero Road. The proposal, which came from broker Steve Pierce of Zane MacGregor Company, entailed rezoning the sites from single-family residential to multi-family use to allow for up to 88 units. At a prior meeting of the council's Regional Housing Allocation Committee, Holman had suggested that staff explore this proposal. On Wednesday night, after noting that she has received funds from Zane MacGregor in the past, Holman said she will recuse herself from any discussion of these sites.
Holman said she had disclosed her relationship with Zane MacGregor in her financial forms and that she has no legal conflict of interests involving the Arastradero sites. Even so, she announced that would recuse herself from discussions of the Arastradero proposal.
The proposal didn't make it very far. Councilman Greg Scharff, who also sits on the Regional Housing Mandate Committee, called it a major rezone and stressed that the council "is looking not to do controversial things."
Though the council generally accepted the "first do no harm" approach, Schmid and Price both argued that the city should push further. Schmid observed that many of the sites in the proposal are in south Palo Alto, away from neighborhood services and transit stations. The city, he said, should seriously consider listing the California and University avenues surface parking lots as potential housing sites. Price agreed and called the proposals in the draft "timid." Given the city's strong need for workforce housing, Palo Alto can do better, she said.
"I feel we need to be a little stronger in demonstrating a commitment to providing additional housing units," Price said.