News

Palo Alto treads cautiously on housing policies

City Council moves ahead with Housing Element that includes no rezoning proposals

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.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 6, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Just for reference, how much does Zane MacGregor pay for the add on this page?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 6, 2014 at 2:42 pm

>Under state law, the city is required to plan for 1,988 units during the time period of 2015 to 2023.

That is the essential problem, state mandates. Palo Alto needs to be a leader, among other state cities, to overturn this mandate. I think the most direct way to achieve this goal is to threaten to put all the new housing in the elite PA neighborhoods...stop dumping it on the non-elite neighborhoods. Greg Scharff seems to think that he can get away with dumping housing away from him and his friends/neighbors. He is wrong. On the other hand, he could be an effective leader to lead a charge against the state mandate.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rupert of henzau
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2014 at 3:45 pm

College terrace, should therefore get more new housing. Some may say that CT is not " elite"-- however the facts say otherwise. Which neighborhood has their own library bench? Which neighborhood has a residential parking program? Which neighborhood has endless traffic calming measures( blocked off streets) ?which neighborhood used to have a grocery store that was protected from competition by the city council? Which other neighborhoods have any of those things? Which neighborhood,is elite? I propose more new housing in CT. Withnthempassage of prop 41, CT would be a perfect location for BMR housing and perhaps even a place for car campers


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 6, 2014 at 4:27 pm

>Some may say that CT is not " elite"--

Count me among them. CT has been fighting a defensive battle for several decades (cut through traffic, saturation parking, car camping, welfare housing, etc.). However, in no way are we "elite". Time to get real, Rupert.

Any new housing should go into the truly elite neighborhoods, like Old
Palo Alto and Crescent Park. Who, on our CC, could disagree with this?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rupert of henzau
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2014 at 4:32 pm

But, Craig, new housing is going into CT-- have you forgotten the mayfield agreement. There is no " welfare housing" in CT. Anyway with a 70% yes vote on prop 41 , you are clearly on the wrong side of the BMR argument ( and yes, Craig, this was a secret ballot). Plus prop,41 is about housing for military veterans, surely people that called for us to honor veterans on Memorial Day should not be against providing real,help for,our former service people and not just pay lip service on this forum.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 6, 2014 at 4:43 pm

>But, Craig, new housing is going into CT-- have you forgotten the mayfield agreement. There is no " welfare housing" in CT

Rupert, try to do your homework. The Mayfield deal and the JJ&F deal is full of welfare housing. It shouldn't be, but it is. Instead of dumping even more welfare housing on CT or South PA, why not attempt to dump it in the elite neighborhoods in North PA? Are you trying to protect the elite neighborhoods, Rupert?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Read the Paper
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jun 6, 2014 at 4:59 pm

There was an article in the DailyPost a couple of days ago about Karen Holman's conflicts of interest with a local developer AND with Zane MacGregor Real Estate.

Were this any other city, she would have been kicked off the city council and replaced. [Portion removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 6, 2014 at 5:09 pm

>There was an article in the DailyPost a couple of days ago about Karen Holman's conflicts of interest with a local developer AND with Zane MacGregor Real Estate.

Holman is a major supporter of [portion removed] housing in PA, especially if it can be dumped on South PA. When she comes forth to demand that such housing is imposed on the elite neighborhoods, she may gain some credibility...but not until then.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 7, 2014 at 7:59 am

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

Posted previously in another thread, but it's relevant here.

The fewer incumbents run, the better chance PASZ (Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning) have to see more than one "property rights" advocate gain a seat on the city council.

Of the five seats to be filled, only Nancy Shepherd has so far announced her intention to run. Larry Price is termed out, Gail Price decided not to run. If Karen Holman, who up till now has been cited by "No on D" forces as someone who fights to restrain developers--despite her vote to approve the affordable housing project at Maybell--can be dissuaded from running it improves chances of getting a "true believer" onto the council.

I'm concerned that Palo Altans who favor mass transit, affordable housing, Open Space restrictions on development, and "green" policies generally may be complacent about what this election represents. They shouldn't be.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 7, 2014 at 10:15 am

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

Correction to previous post:

Nancy Shepherd is the only incumbent so far to announce her candidacy. Karen Holman and Gregg Scharff haven't declared their intentions yet. Claude Ezran and Tom Dubois have filed, so up to now there are three candidates for five seats.




 +   Like this comment
Posted by Tom DuBois
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2014 at 11:41 am

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

Well, election season is clearly here.

The exaggerated, near-libelous focus on Karen Holman's comments in a committee meeting is is a rather obvious political witch hunt against her and, as far as I can tell, is a complete non-story.

Karen was 100% upfront about any involvement several years ago with the property owner and recused herself from the vote, not because she legally had to but because it was the right thing to do. Karen's integrity is impeccable.

I was actually at the Regional Housing meeting where this was discussed. The property owner had submitted a request, attended the meeting and spoke on it. Karen asked a question on whether we could use zoning to specify affordable housing for people who worked nearby. There was a short discussion and it didn't go anywhere, no other members of the committee were interested. The property was never on the official proposed list of sites.

The way this non-story story has been trumped up by the Post makes me think this is an effort to make sure that Karen doesn't run. Don't fall for political witch hunts. We need people with Karen's knowledge, integrity and dedication on council.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Jun 7, 2014 at 12:19 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

I was at the same meeting that Tom discusses above. I do not always agree with Karen's policies with regard to housing but Tom's report of the meeting with regard to the Arastradero proposal is completely accurate.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 7, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Craig Laughton is a registered user.

>Karen asked a question on whether we could use zoning to specify affordable housing for people who worked nearby.

Since there is no database available describing the jobs of those who live in local [portion removed] housing, how could she possibly specify such a zoning change? Or is she proposing that a database be developed?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 10, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I was at the same meeting as Mr. Dubois and Mr. Levy said they were, about Karen Holman's curious comments, that the Post splashed on headlines and the Weekly buries in above.

I am glad the Palo Alto Weekly clarified Karen Holman's role in the discussions of the housing element and most specifically the proposal from realtors Steve Pierce and Adam Touni doing business as Zane McGregor to upzone the property they own across from Gunn High and next to Alta Mesa cemetery. At the meeting earlier in May, apropos of the staff report by Tim Wong of City of Palo Alto, which included a letter from Pierce about his desires -- which I paraphrased as "our greed is good for you"-- I was rather concerned by Karen Holman's statement about a "company-town" opportunity. Pierce and Touni claim that a nearby software company might want to build apartments for up to 88 of their workers, if only we the people would upzone from R-1 to R-30.

The term "company-town" to me sounds like something out of Matewan, West Virginia in the 1920s where the workers are paid in scrip, or maybe even Palo Alto in the 1960s when H-P did not build but tear out 100 homes to create an Expressway on Oregon Avenue, to save precious time, for their gain and not necessarily ours. Results, of course, triggering the Residentialist movement here.

It troubles me that Karen Holman, generally one of the view council members in recent years to be even partly residentialist, --that is, not an obvious shill for the real estate industry or always pro-corporate -- would not see a problem with this, "a company -town" proposal, in this era of inequality, dollarocracy, "Citizens United" and McCutcheon.

That she walks a tight-rope in collecting fees from applicants then being careful about recusing herself in matters of potential conflict, and within a time period, to follow the letter of the law, is problematic, but given her longtime service, as Planning Commissioner before Council, she knows what she is doing, even playing with fire.

If Karen Holman and or other incumbents want to be re-elected, they should take more obvious steps towards showing which side they are on, and step to the step.

Some of the other posters seem to want to frame the debate pretty narrowly, as in Growth vs. Slightly Less Growth and still call themselves "residentialist". Caveat emptor. Buyer beware!

I respect Karen and think she fought the good fight on many cases for the people but with due respect I think she should, in a super bon bon kind of way, step aside.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 11, 2014 at 11:53 am

Craig Laughton is a registered user.

>Some of the other posters seem to want to frame the debate pretty narrowly, as in Growth vs. Slightly Less Growth and still call themselves "residentialist". Caveat emptor. Buyer beware!

I am for smart growth AND protections for neighborhoods (e.g. RPPPs, ending the dumping of welfare housing into non-elite neighborhoods, prohibition of car camping in PA, providing for local parks and playing fields, enforcement of parking regs, strong police and fire protections, effective public transportation, etc.) For example, I think public transit systems are very important, and should be accommodated, with public bus transfers to CalTrain/BART; corporate bus pickups direct to the job.

Karen Holman appears to be all over the map, especially with her current suggestion of "affordable housing" for those workers who might live nearby...again, how could she possibly know, without a database (that does not exist)...just take the word of her finder-fee friends?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by paloaltonative
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 11, 2014 at 4:50 pm

paloaltonative is a registered user.

"Facing a state mandate to PLAN for more housing..." The topic sentence should say it all. As I understand ABAG from previous posts, we have to plan for more housing (driven by a ratio of employees in town to available housing) but we do not have to actually build the homes, right?

If not correct, then the solution remains the same: cap commercial development in Palo Alto. Second, thanks Tom for running for office. Just a few more no-growth advocates and we can shut down and reserve this horrible overdevelopment of Palo Alto over the last three decades.

No more commercial developments, condos, or apartments. Cap user space for commercial open area use, too. Set asides for Art, Work Out, Music, Pet, Barbers, Hair Stylist, and other to be defined "quality of life services that other commercial properties are used for - including worthwhile non-profits. This all can be done. We Palo Alto homeowners and residents are finally empowered to take back our town.


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