As Palo Alto moves toward adopting a new vision for growth, officials are considering one ambitious alternative that would significantly transform the city's commercial hubs: a transition into a "net-zero" community.
The concept, which is one of four that the Planning and Transportation Commission is set to discuss tonight, calls for Palo Alto to "lead the state and the country in testing various 'net zero' concepts," according to a report from Senior Planner Elena Lee. These could include net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions, net-zero vehicle miles traveled or net-zero use of potable water.
The "net-zero" concept is the boldest and potentially the most transformative of the four concepts that the planning commission will consider at its meeting. While single-family residential neighborhoods would be protected and preserved, commercial areas such as downtown, California Avenue, Stanford Research Park and East Meadow Circle would see significant changes.
In downtown, the existing cap on non-residential development would be replaced with a "zero net" restriction on vehicle trips, which means that new development could not result in additional traffic. The policy is similar to the one Stanford University must follow as part of its "general use permit" agreement with Santa Clara County.
Downtown would "be promoted as a cultural gathering place for all ages, with a full range of services for residents and employees," but significant enhancements would be made to transit services and pedestrian amenities. In addition, there would be "free shuttle service to destinations throughout the city," the report states.
On El Camino Real, the 50-foot height limit would be relaxed in three areas along the corridor, where new development would be "models of sustainability," featuring with small housing units, access to public transit and an emphasis on car-sharing rather than on resident parking, net-zero energy consumption, and net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions. The concept also calls for wider sidewalks, enhancements to bike routes and amenities and local-energy projects such as solar panels all along the corridor.
Stanford Research Park would become a "cutting-edge proving ground for innovative concepts in energy generation, carbon sequestration, recycled water, urban farming, and drought tolerant landscaping." This means landscaping that uses low or no water; a bike-sharing program and new shuttle services; and new streets "to break up the current 'superblocks.'"
East Meadow Circle in south Palo Alto, which includes a mix of commercial developments and residential complexes, would be "transformed from a research and office park to a new village center with housing around a central plaza, as well as a potential new school."
Another concept the commission will consider is termed the "do nothing" scenario, which is a legal requirement for the Environmental Impact Report that the city is putting together as part of the revision of its Comprehensive Plan. This would basically leave all existing policies and land-use designations in place.
Under another option, the city would keep the existing land-use designations unchanged but create new procedures for limiting non-residential development. This "slow growth" strategy could include the introduction of a yearly cap on commercial development. New housing would have be low-density, and the city's 50-foot height limit on new developments would remain in place.
The third concept would also limit non-residential development but would provide more leeway for new housing, particularly projects near transit hubs and areas with neighborhood services. It would add high-density housing downtown and slightly increase the city's height limit, to 55 feet, for residential projects. On El Camino, new development would be focused near transportation centers and stations of the planned Bus Rapid Transit system. One of the most dramatic aspects of this proposal is redeveloping the site around downtown's transit center to include housing, according to Lee's report.
The four concepts emerged after a series of community meetings sponsored by the city as part of the Comprehensive Plan upgrade. Staff had developed three "alternative future concepts," with varying degrees of growth and development. These concepts were then modified based on feedback at the community workshops and developed into nine separate alternatives. These nine were in turn were consolidated to form the four concepts that the planning commission will be discussing.
"All of these alternatives assume that R-1 (single-family residential) neighborhoods and open spaces would be protected and that any growth and development that occurs in Palo Alto over the next 15 years will be directed to specific focus areas where some level of change is deemed acceptable," Lee stated in the report.
The commission will meet Wednesday, July 9, at 5 p.m. in the Council Conference Room at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave. Read the agenda here.