After seeing their prior effort to encourage wider sidewalks fizzle in June, Palo Alto officials are now narrowing their ambitions and pursuing a less dramatic change to the city's zoning rules.
The Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to consider on Wednesday night a proposal to eliminate the "build-to line" requirement for new developments on major thoroughfares. The build-to line requires buildings to be placed 12 feet from the street unless applicants receive an exemption from the city. By eliminating the rule on all major thoroughfares except for El Camino Real, the city hopes to encourage greater setbacks for new buildings and wider sidewalks.
The effort to widen sidewalks was prompted by a flurry of criticism from residents and council members about new developments being too massive and imposing. In April 2013, council members Karen Holman, Gail Price, Greg Scharff, Greg Schmid issued a memo acknowledging the popular sentiment against massive new developments in a colleagues memo, which directed staff to consider new design guidelines to promote wider sidewalks. They cited recent public outrage about new developments such as the grocery store at Alma Village, the Arbor Real townhouses on El Camino Real and the affordable-housing complex at 801 Alma St.
Yet the most recent attempt by planners to reform the sidewalk rules faltered in April, when El Camino Real property owners protested that a proposed ordinance would limit their ability to redevelop their properties and threaten local businesses. The ordinance would have required sidewalk widths of 12 to 18 feet, depending on context, and would have allowed upper floors to be placed at zero setback as long as the ground floor provided pedestrians ample space to walk. It also would have reduced the allowed density on dozens of El Camino properties zoned "neighborhood commercial."
In June, the council voted to not pursue the ordinance and directed staff to include these potential changes in the broader conversation about the city's future, an effort known as Our Palo Alto. At the same time, the council directed staff to eliminate the build-to line requirement, which is now seen as inimical to the city's mission of encouraging wider sidewalks.
The ordinance that will go in front of the planning commission Wednesday aims to do just that, while leaving broader questions about building design for a later date. Chief Planning Official Amy French wrote in a report that eliminating the build-to line requirement "will alleviate the 'fortress like' feeling of a recent development on Alma," a reference to 801 Alma St. "Instead, the City's existing context based guidelines will be used to provide a more context based analysis to determine setbacks on a case by case basis."
The ordinance eliminates the build-to line requirement on all streets except El Camino, an eclectic thoroughfare where setback decisions will be based on factors such as surrounding buildings and existing sidewalk widths. There, the requirement will remain but staff will conduct context-based analysis "to ensure that new buildings do not overpower existing development and to allow additional flexibility depending on land use."
The proposed ordinance states that on El Camino, "placement of building frontage shall be based on context including land use, adjacent and nearby properties' existing building setbacks, proposed or adjacent building design, lot size and similar consideration," the proposed ordinance states.
The ordinance also would not apply to Town & Country Village and Stanford Shopping Center.
Like the colleagues' memo, the proposed ordinance acknowledges community concerns about new developments and notes that new buildings on El Camino "are inconsistent with local and regional visions for vibrant boulevards.
"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, how they loom over the roadway 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 reads.
View the Planning and Transportation Commission's July 30 agenda here.