News

Palo Alto commission defends 'planned community' zoning

Notorious zoning process should be improved, not abolished, commissioners agree

Palo Alto's planning commissioners made a case Wednesday for preserving the city's "planned community" zoning, a controversial process by which developers circumvent zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated "public benefits."

The zoning was requested for recent developments such as Alma Village (formerly known as Alma Plaza), Lytton Gateway and the College Terrace Centre but was suspended in February so that the City Council could consider reforming it. The moratorium came after last November's vote on Measure D, by which voters overturned the council's approval of a housing development on Maybell Avenue that included 60 apartments for low-income seniors.

Though the PC process remains suspended, members of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission argued on Wednesday that the zoning designation remains a beneficial tool for promoting valuable developments that are not compatible with the zoning code. They noted that in the vast majority of cases, the designation has enabled the city to add important amenities, such as affordable housing, public parking and child care facilities. Aside from the recent controversial developments, the list of projects that relied on PC zoning also includes Channing House, the 44-unit Tree House Apartments complex for low-income residents on West Charleston Road; and the Opportunity Center, which provides services for the homeless.

"Of the 20 projects or so we've had since 2000, we're probably talking about a very small handful that are problem children," Commissioner Eric Rosenblum said. "What do we do about them?"

The commission answered this question through a long series of "straw poll" votes. Though it didn't issue any formal recommendation, members endorsed by an overwhelming majority changes such as defining what exactly constitutes a "public benefit" and giving the public earlier opportunities to comment on proposed PC applications. Because the term "public benefit" is not defined in the Municipal Code, developers have offered everything from sculptures and public plazas to affordable-housing units and cash contributions to secure the city's approval. This has sparked anxiety for local land-use watchdogs, who often refer to the PC-zone process as "wildcard zoning" or, more concisely, a scam.

It hasn't helped that some public benefits don't pan out as planned. The developers of College Terrace Centre, who used the "Save JJ&F" campaign to win approval for the 57,900-square-foot development, succeeded in winning the council's approval shortly before the beloved JJ&F Market decided to leave. And several "public plazas," including ones near Saint Michael's Alley and Caffe Riace, became less public after the respective restaurants effectively appropriated them for outdoor seating.

The commission also agreed unanimously that the council's role in the process should be made clearer and that the city should add an "enforcement and monitoring" mechanism to ensure that developers provide promised benefits. They also rejected a suggestion from Commission Michael Alcheck that the process should permit developers to simply make a cash payment, allowing the council to direct the funds toward what it considers to be the city's most pressing need.

Alcheck too pointed to the table of PC projects that the city approved since 2000 and observed that the vast majority of them were not controversial at all.

He concluded that, based on recent history, "we're a lot more cynical about this process than this table suggests we should be."

At the same time, everyone agreed that the process could work better. Vice Chair Arthur Keller made a case for relying less on "planned communities" and more on "specific area plans," intense studies in which the city specifies the types of land uses and development standards that it wants to encourage in a particular section of the city. The city used this process a decade ago when it adopted the South of Forest Avenue (SOFA) area plan. Most of Keller's colleagues agreed.

Most commissioners also agreed that they should retain their present role in "initiating" the PC zone change, the first step before the proposal is refined and goes through a formal approval by the commission and, ultimately, the council. Keller also suggested having a preliminary commission review before the project moves forward so that the public and members can offer their opinions before a developer has made a significant investment in the application.

"We should be willing to say 'no' early on to projects we don't like, instead of wasting the developer's time or the public's time on projects that we think are ridiculous," Keller said.

Alcheck took a different stance and argued that it should be the City Council that initiates the process.

"If they weighed in, it would give the developers of these projects a more comfortable process because they'd know what the expectation of the City Council were prior to the process," Alcheck said.

Commissioner Carl King said different types of PC proposals should be evaluated by different criteria. Projects that include senior housing or below-market-rate units are the "types of projects that seem a perfect fit for the PC-type process," King said. Projects that are strictly for-profit should be considered differently.

Everyone agreed Wednesday that despite the recent controversy over PC zoning and the current PC hiatus, the process should be retained and improved, rather than abolished. Patricia Saffir, a resident who addressed the commission, made this point before the commission began its series of informal votes.

"I believe the process has generally served us very well for many years," Saffir said. "Now, because the voters who chose to vote rejected a project approved by the council, we seem to be sort of panicking and I don't think we should do that."

Comments

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2014 at 10:16 am

How many of us residents really care what this planning commission thinks? This commission is heavily involved in the development. While all live in Palo Alto—that's about the extent of these people's links to the community. This panel is selected by the City Council, without any visible concurrence by the voters, or the residents. These people are more-or-less free to say anything they want, about anything they want—without any consequences.

Occasionally, a P&TC member rubs someone on the CC the wrong way, and those individuals are not reappointed. But it's hard to find any evidence that the CC has demanded a Commission member to resign, for cause.

Conflict of interest is always a problem with this particular panel—given that they tend to give the green light to most of the development projects that come before their scrutiny. We have to trust them—which is increasingly more difficult to do, particularly in like of the Karen Holman situation.

As to the continuation of PC zoning—what makes any of these people experts on the impact of PC zoning? Certainly from the point-of-view of developers, PC means "more flexibility" to be sure, but it also means "more profit". Which leaves us with the question: how much is this panel concerned about Palo Alto, and its future, and how much is this panel concerned about increasing the profits of the industry with which they are often employed?

The failure of the City to be able to determine the value of a public benefit, or to enforce the public's access to those benefits on the property zoned PC is well-known. This panel has never seemed to have a problem with developers making hard-to-believe claims, and then once the project is approved, walking away from those promises.

Palo Alto will get along just fine without PC zoning. It's long past time for it to be removed from our zoning codes.


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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 28, 2014 at 10:17 am

If they were supposed to be a public benefit - why do we continue to allow St. Michael's Alley and Cafe Riace to use "public plazas... for outdoor seating" ? Why haven't we required them to turn the plaza's back over to public use?


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Posted by alongwell
a resident of The Greenhouse
on Aug 28, 2014 at 11:06 am

It was my understanding that the property in front of Cafe Riace remained public property, and that, if you wanted to,say, toss(or kick) a ball around or walk your dog (properly leashed, of course), you could do so. Your only restriction would be concern for the safety of other individuals using the property at the same time, same as the sidewalk. Please correct me if I'm mistaken.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 28, 2014 at 11:41 am

Questions: when a plaza such as those at St. Michael's Alley and Café Riace are technically public are they subject to park rental reservation policies the same way that public park areas are? And to the extent those businesses use the public areas for the benefit of their own establishment, do they pay rent to the City? Is the City responsible for maintaining those plazas? If someone tripped over something not properly maintained and was injured, is the City vulnerable to a lawsuit?

As for the P&TC defending the use of PC zoning, as much as I appreciate the reasons for keeping options open, I think they mostly just made the upcoming election more interesting.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Commission watcher
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 28, 2014 at 11:45 am

Commissioner Alcheck said something memorable: If the public doesn't like what is proposed, they can Referend it.
Attorney Alcheck knows very well how much work is required to Referend anything -- collecting many signatures, legal filings, and expensive publicity to inform the voters.
The duplicity in Alcheck's statement is noteworthy.
He also mentioned that he had been involved in a PC application but didn't specify. Perhaps for the Alcheck Properties company.


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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 28, 2014 at 11:55 am

@alongwell - so if I go to the plaza in front of Cafe Riace with my lunch from home, I can just sit there and enjoy the plaza? What if I want to set up my easel to paint, can I move the tables and chairs out of the way? Same question for St. Michel's Alley. Or if I'm homeless, can I spread my sleeping bag on the ground and take a nap? Between the diners?

@annette - good questions, who is responsible for maintaining these "parks".


 +   Like this comment
Posted by jm
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 28, 2014 at 12:30 pm

Unfortunately the pro-developer majority on the city council have in recent years appointed members whose professional affiliations and allegiances tend to align with their own.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 28, 2014 at 12:50 pm

So the best argument for PC Zoning is that it brought the Opportunity Center to Palo Alto?? So it seems obvious, get rid of PC Zoning.

If there is another referendum needed, it is the one to get rid of PC Zoning, and freeze new development. Take a look over at Menlo Park and how the residents there are trying to take back control of development in their city. Godspeed to them, and may it inspire some sanity in Palo Alto.


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Posted by Commissioner Mike Alcheck
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 28, 2014 at 1:20 pm

@Commission watcher"

You have mis-characterized my comments and while I typically don't comment on these forums, someone brought it to my attention and suggested I should correct you.

Last night I made the case that the City Council should have the sole authority to initiate a PC review. Since PC projects are particularly controversial, I suggested that our City Council members, who are directly elected and accountable to the residents of Palo Alto, are the more appropriate body to determine whether such projects should be considered. Under the current law, the PTC can initiate a PC Review. However, my fellow Commissioners disagreed suggesting they wished to retain greater control over this process.

I certainly appreciate the amount of effort that went into the referendum on Maybell. There will always be varied opinions about our developments, but thankfully we have a system that allows residents to unwind any decisions that they overwhelmingly disagree with. That is an important check on the system. As I suggested above, having the City Council oversee the initiation process would provide even more accountability in my opinion. I was not suggesting that the referendum process be the community's sole source of input or oversight.

To be clear, the goal of our review last night (and on two previous occasions) of the PC process is ultimately to suggest fixes to the process. I believe that once the City Council provides more clarity regarding the definition of public benefits in the code, the Commission will be in a much better position to advise and articulate community input on whether PC proposals satisfy the code requirements. It is easy to underestimate the difficulty we encounter when evaluating a public benefit when no legal definition is provided. That being said, one could argue that in the past 14 years, this lack of clarity has not resulted in a plethora of disastrous projects. Nonetheless, moving forward, I continue to advocate for greater direction from our elected leaders.

Finally, I would also like to clarify that I have never been involved in a PC project in Palo Alto in any capacity, other than as a Commissioner reviewing the two proposals that have come before us during my tenure. What I said last night was that while I have never been involved in a PC personally (or professionally), I have heard many complaints from project applicants that the process lacks clarity of what's demanded of them and the lack of certainty is unwelcome. This is yet another reason Palo Alto's leadership is reviewing the PC Zoning process - nearly every party to the PC process is unsatisfied with the current model.

Hope that sets the record straight. For even more clarity, check the transcribed minutes from last night's meeting once they are published online.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Joel
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 28, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Joel is a registered user.

How does the developer get away with offering "public benefits" so ridiculous as side walk parks so small and at high traffic intensity? Who would sit there; in the middle of traffic to try to relax? Maybe the homeless could benefit from those areas but I doubt even they would choose there to relax.
Come on Planning Commission and City Council get real with this type of "Public Benefit" mitigation by developers.
Geez!!!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by 6Djockey
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 28, 2014 at 1:26 pm

The problem with PC zoning was highlighted by the defeat of Measure D. More of us residents were awakened to the fact that the current council, and the planning commissioners they appoint, have ties to developers. And the developers have certainly taken advantage of PC zoning.

The only solution is to elect candidates who will stand up for residents. But beware, even Scharf and Sheppard are claiming to be residentialists and they have the strongest ties to developers. Ask yourself "What have the candidates actually done to support the residents by their actions, not their words, in the past?"


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Posted by Susan
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 28, 2014 at 1:40 pm

If the "public plazas" stop having the adjacent businesses overseeing them those plazas will become hangouts for the homeless. The St Michael Alley site is close to the Opportunity Center where we already have a problem with some homeless men drinking and urinating at the entrance to the Homer Underpass.
Charging the businesses for their use of the plazas makes absolute sense. And giving the rent to the Opportunity Center makes it especially appropriate.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Commissioner Alcheck's suggestion should be the other way around: each PC should require a public referendum for its initial approval, instead of to reverse it.

Since referendums are so easy, there should be no problem getting voter approval of projects with clear public benefits.


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Posted by Voter
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 28, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Mr Alcheck: You are the most blatantly pro-developer commissioner on the PTC. Your refusal to even consider an amendment that reduced the for-profit upzoning portion of the Maybell disaster from 15 to 12 stack and pack houses, but left the 60-unit behemoth in place typifies your allegiance. PAHC themselves were fine with 12 units when the CC pushed them on that point to give the optics of negotiating. You, on the other hand, weren't interested in anything but taking care of your developer friend.

Your positions, coupled with your smug, dismissive attitude which you attempt to hide behind a "deer in the headlights" persona ("I'm amazed by all this outcry? Why didn't you come earlier?"), has pissed off enough residents that your credibility with the electorate is effectively gone, for both your actions on the PTC or as a future council candidate.


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Posted by another voter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2014 at 3:00 pm

Have we heard this before?

Council appoints the commissioner mouthpieces - treating them as some sort of planning experts - which they are not, and then accepts whatever they say.

How do we change the commissioner system - other than changing Council all the time.

Using PC to loot the CIty to do developer charity is not a good idea. There are many much more worthy causes.


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Posted by Anciana
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 28, 2014 at 3:58 pm

I would like to get rid of the PC category completely. It is being abused. All those fortress-like buildings running down Alma are sickening. Palo Alto is being turned into a concrete jungle.


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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Either get rid of PC zoning or require every PC zoning request be approved by referendum. Rosenblum claims that of the 20 or so PC projects since 2000 very few have been a problem. No it's the other way around, of the 20 or so projects very few have provided any public benefit. PC zoning should be the exception and not the norm. To make sure it's the exception, it should require a referendum for approval.


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Posted by jm
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 28, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Commissioner Alcheck makes the case that the council should be the watchdogs for proposed PC developments.

I dispute this assertion. The recent controversial 2100 El Camino PC is a classic example. The Planning and Transport Commission turned it down. Repeatedly over several years. In their wisdom, and after untold hours of due diligence and scrutiny, they concluded that a commercial enterprise with a guaranteed subsidized lease as the public benefit for a PC was not viable and a bad precedent.

After repeated attempts to persuade the Planning and Transport Commission members the developer stamped his foot, complained loudly about the "Palo Alto Process," and appealed to the council.

The developer hired a public relations firm to conduct a "Save JJ&F" campaign. Only he could save the much-loved JJ&F by having his PC approved. Touting his love of JJ&F, and as he also loudly and insistently proclaimed, and a huge financial loss and great sacrifice. In other words, not in his interests at all, and everyone knows that the city has never enforced the continuation of a public benefit after the fact.

The council, dependent on public approval for election, having a heavy workload and not the time, experience, and expertise to scrutinize the merits and ramification of a proposed PC that members of the Planning and Transport Commission have, overturned the Planning and Transport Commission vote.

Indeed, soon after the council gave the developer the go-ahead, his public support for JJ&F quickly evaporated. The owners of JJ&F had their hands tied. Prior to the developer discovering JJ&F was the bait to gain a PC he had initiated an eviction lawsuit against them, and there was a nondisclosure clause as part of the settlement.

In hindsight, the council's lack of judgement in overriding the Planning and Transport Commission's vote speaks for itself.

Interestingly, Mr. Alcheck seems not to remember the council fiasco around the council's approval of the proposed PC development at Alma Plaza, which the Planning and Transport Commission had also previously voted to deny.

A good argument can be made that PC proposals should be scrutinized and decided by the Planning and Transport Commission, and only be reviewed by the council should there be a compelling legal reason to do so. And not just the threat of legal action.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 28, 2014 at 4:37 pm

>They noted that in the vast majority of cases, the designation has enabled the city to add important amenities, such as affordable housing....

There we go again, folks: The subsidized housing uber planners are driving the PC process. Just removed all elements of subsidized housing, then watch most of the PC projects get abandoned.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by jm
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 28, 2014 at 4:42 pm

Unfortunately our majority pro-developer members of the council such as Scharff, despite his sudden shift in the face of an election, have been appointing members to the PT&C who represent their own professional affiliations and allegiances, turning down those who do not.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 28, 2014 at 4:43 pm

How about that. The Planning Commission defends the "planned community zoning!"
We also have the fox defending the henhouse and the cat carefully caring for the mice.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Eric F
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2014 at 5:06 pm

The bottom line is that somehow the process between the PTC, the ARB, the Staff, and the City Council produces too many outcomes which a majority of residents would consider a net negative to the community.

A high priority for the next Council will be to dig into this process and identify some adjustments.


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Posted by words matter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2014 at 5:35 pm

"by which voters overturned the council's approval of a housing development on Maybell Avenue that included 60 apartments for low-income seniors."

Why does the media continue to use this politically charged, lopsided description?

The voters DIDN'T overturn the Council's approval of a housing development on Maybell. Voters didn't approve the Council's increasing the density, height limits, daylight plane, underparking significantly, etc. The voters had nothing to say about whether the property could have 60 units for low-income seniors, because the ordinance had nothing to do with allowing or not allowing that, in fact, many neighbors favored PAHC coming back with a plan for those units closer to zoning, which they could have done if they had been willing to spend closer per unit to what was paid at 801 Alma, or they had been willing to be on a different time schedule in which they sold in-zoning single-family homes around the perimeter rather than just the upzoned property for the sake of a stack-and-pack developer.

I mean, really, why is this never described as, "in which the voters overturned the approval of a housing development on Maybell that included 2- and 3-story for-profit houses on 2,000 square foot lots in an R-1 residential neighborhood? The for-profit portion was after all on the majority of the property. It would be equally inaccurate, though, the ordinance at issue was for violating the ZONING, not for approving or disproving a project. And in fact, the vote was not to overturn Council's approval of anything, but rather to give Council a chance to get the people to approve what they did. Council's ordinance never technically went through because of the referendum.


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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2014 at 6:43 pm

@words matter makes a point, albeit perhaps lost in the sound of the rattling of the swords. Remember too, that the folks who managed to get a win on Measure E claimed that this was a vote to authorize some sort of experimental technology to process sludge (or some such) from the water quality plant--when in fact it simply was an approval of a zoning change that would allow such a plant to be built.

Of course words matter--that's why we all have to read everything carefully, and trust absolutely nothing that people in government say, or anything that people pushing for more government have to say.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Palo Altan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 28, 2014 at 9:12 pm

The city council and the various city commissions and the city manager are a bunch of crooks. They are aligning themselves with unscrupulous developers so that when they leave their city posts, they can line their pockets with money. What a disgrace our city government has become. City Hall is tone deaf and defiant.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 28, 2014 at 11:12 pm

Lining pockets? Many of them are always dreaming of any wealthy donors who can fund their fantasies of being the next Diane Feinstein or winning a full-time elected office. Few of them ever support any term limits. But, I suspect they love lining their political campaign war chests and the chests of their political "betters" more than having cash slipped into their own pockets and risking jail.

Having watched the City Council for decades, the main issue here seems to me to be more their wanting to see their own new and shiney dreams in stone than stick to a comprehensive plan written in the past for very sound and hard fought reasons by others. Saying, "I got that new building built" is much more glamorous than saying "I enforced or helped update the Comprehensive Plan."

The night Crescent Park and East Palo Alto flooded in 1998, Sunnyvale which got as much water as us and is several feet lower thanks to excessive aquifer pumping in the old orchard days had no standing water on city streets. Why? A wise Council there fullfilled an unglamourous long term plan to build a powerful pumping station to rid the town of such flood waters. As the water gushed over the levies, the Mayor there could not get the press to come see that wonderful success. 16+ years later... no fix yet for our flood waters, just a lot of childish finger pointing.

Isn't safety from flood waters supposed to be more important than shiney new PUCs? Pity Palo Alto Police when their building pancakes them flat if we get a 1906 quake while the City Council basks in their very fancy and expensive new interior for their ground floor.... while Mitchell Park library still is not open...

Until wise and long term successes get more attention, we are plagued here with shiney toys like PUCs and ZipCars. So, why not put a sludge processing facility on precious park lands? Emperor Nero and his fiddle would fit right in. (Would New York City put a brand new sludge facility in Central Park?)

The PUC fiascos, San Francisquito Creek and Mitchell Library scandals, and loss of the full Comprehensive Plan Baylands park to a small sludge processing facility which will never be as efficient as a larger facilty are prime examples of how our Council just thinks short term with me, me, me! Throw in whiz-bang ideas like ABAG's "More Housing! And who cares if you have virtually no open land left zoned residential and decided not to allow taller buildings, you mean, selfish rich folks!" and we get the toxic brew of idiotic new development before even having the plans or funds for the minimal infrastructure from parking to schools to support it.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by HolmanProblems
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 29, 2014 at 7:18 am

As long as Karen Holman is selling influence for Dollars (...er, "finders fees"), we have a corruption problem.


And let's face it, a small patio is not much of a public benefit - many are simply privatized benefits in disguise.

Here is a suggestion - the council should develop a shopping list of public needs: parking, police station, blue-ribbon infrastructure projects we already know we need. The public can vett this liist, and it is built with cost estimates transparently.

The developers negotiate from the list. Eliminate developer - suggested "public good" and eliminate back room dealmaking by Holman.

You want a variance, pick from the list and defend it on a public forum. If the public doesn't like your project, you can pick a more expensive item from the list.

If the real public good is too expensive for you, poss off.

Even better we could short list a few projects an let them compete for projects from the list.

Open systems of negotiation and auction undercut the corruption of. "Handout" Holman.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 29, 2014 at 11:03 am

Let me get this straight... the Planning Commission basically reviewed themselves and said they should keep doing things the way they always have? Is that what this article really says?!?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 29, 2014 at 11:19 am

I would personally support continuing the PC designation but ONLY with a list of REAL public benefits. For example, Heritage Park at the site of the old PAMF location is a real benefit. A public plaza that reverts to being used by a nearby restaurant is not a benefit. The goofy save JJ&F requirement is not a benefit, that building should simply be required to be built under existing zoning.

Things like a new, real park (not a 1000 square foot patch of grass), a new public safety building, a new school site, etc. are real public benefits. A small, unavailable conference room or a grocery store that will probably never succeed and will revert to some other use, not much of a benefit.


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Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 29, 2014 at 11:57 am

The benefits of the PC only exist in the imaginary world of political rhetoric. In the real world, the PC will always be abused.


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Posted by Voter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 29, 2014 at 4:04 pm

@Palo Alto res,
I thought Heritage Park happened after a citizen initiative because residents were promised a park but didnt get it? It's before my time, but I'm pretty sure it didn't nicely materialize as a public benefit.

Developers should have to take a propopsal to the public and win a 2/3 vote. If it's really a public benefit, likely to materialize, then the public will agree. Perhaps a less formal but fully inclusive process could be put in place that doesnt cost as much as an election. Woukdn't it be great to give major feedback along the way?


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Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 29, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Words matter

"by which voters overturned the council's approval of a housing development on Maybell Avenue that included 60 apartments for low-income seniors."

Why does the media continue to use this politically charged, lopsided description?"

Would you be satisfied with an edit like the following: The voters overturned the Council's approval of a housing development on Maybell that included 60 apartments for low-income seniors <because> they didn't approve the Council's increasing the density, height limits, daylight plane, underparking significantly, etc.?

That would represent one point of view in the debate, wouldn't it?





 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 29, 2014 at 7:51 pm

Unfortunately most of the City Council and Planning Commission members are very pro development. They care not how ugly or what sort of impact a proposed project will have on a near y neighborhood, especially if the neighborhood is south of Oregon/Page Mill.
We need to stop dumping all of the high density, below market rate developments in this one area. Try to find a new area for ugly, overly dense projects--perhaps east of Middlefield and north od Churchill. We do not want any more projects such as those currently being built along El Camino in the Barron Park/Ventura and south areas.
Stop trying to turn Palo Alto into a low income ghetto.
We do not need to build every high density project that some developer wants to put into Palo Alto.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by de. Groot
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 29, 2014 at 8:20 pm

There is no defense for this, it is insanity, it is ugly, it is unconscionable!


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Posted by words matter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 29, 2014 at 10:30 pm

@ Jerry Underdal,

"The voters overturned the Council's approval of a housing development on Maybell that included 60 apartments for low-income seniors <because> they didn't approve the Council's increasing the density, height limits, daylight plane, underparking significantly, etc.?
That would represent one point of view in the debate, wouldn't it?"

That wouldn't be correct either.

The action of the City Council, necessary in an ordinance, was to change the zoning. That's it. The developer was always able to put senior affordable housing in there within the zoning rules, there was no need to create an ordinance to allow it.

In San Francisco, where they have an impartial ballot process, a nearly identical measure ballot question asked only whether to pass the ordinance allowing the developer to violate the height limit by 80 feet. That's it. There was lots of other stuff in the ordinance, including millions for affordable housing. But the the ballot question dealt only with the change of law, and thus the media also appropriately discusses what the measure was about. Gavin Newsome and Ed Lee were free to get on TV and say what they wanted about it as political speech. But it was not legal for them to advocate for the election in the ballot by bringing up stuff in that didn't require an act of law to achieve - the developer was always free to give SF $12 million for affordable housing if he wanted, for example, it didn't require an ordinance.

If we had the same impartial standard, the ballot would have dealt only with the ordinance - the change of law - the zoning violations. Many people still believe the City was voting on whether it would be possible to allow a low-income senior apartments there, as if it required some change of law in a city that otherwise doesn't allow it. This has the impact of continuing to create divisions and frankly to be demoralizing for housing advocates, unnecessarily making it seem like PA is a hostile place for low-income people and becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy everytime it gets repeated.

The ordinance was necessary to allow the violation of zoning rules, not because the City had a rule against building affordable housing. That should never have been the feature of the ballot question, especially since it was even on only a minority of the property. The media should not be perpetuating the negativity of what amounts to illegal bias by the City Council in a ballot.


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Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 29, 2014 at 11:23 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@words matter


"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."--Lewis Carroll

I think Gennady Sheyner's brief characterization of the Maybell controversy gives readers a pretty good description of what happened. Readers, like you and me, with a position on the brouhaha last year, might wish that every mention carried a full rendition of what we think. But in my opinion that's not necessary for a statement to be true. You see it differently, so there we are.


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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 30, 2014 at 7:21 am

I agree with @words matter. If you call a spade a spade--people will know exactly what you are talking about. If you call it a pre-automated digging device, that may be true, but it's not clear.

The English language gives us all the tools to provide a precise description of just about anything in this world.

Mayfield was a two-part process for the Council. A zoning change, and then a project approval. Certainly having the zoning change overturned by the voters effectively killed the project at that location, but it did not do anything more.

Jerry Underall constantly wants to politicize this Mayfield situation into things that it is not. Using simple, clear, English, to describe events is one way to thwart people like Underhill from recoloring events to his own views, rather than what they are, or were.


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Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2014 at 9:52 am

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Joe

". . .having the zoning change overturned by the voters effectively killed the project at that location, but it did not do anything more."

That's a pretty minimalist take on the impact of the whole Measure D campaign. lt was held up by the Daily Post as an example that would sweep up and down the peninsula. Mimi Steel, an inspirational leader of the libertarian property rights movement opposing regional planning, held it up as an example of the people's triumph over the tyranny of state and regional government. And posters here have constantly cited Measure D as an inflection point for city political life, with good reason.

In its wake, the Jay Paul project got laughed off the stage, the Arillaga project at 27 University went burbling below the surface, Planned Community zoning was put on hold. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) became a residentialist.

But the campaign itself, long before Measure D was drafted, expressed itself in such a way that it was startling when the referendum supporters cloaked themselves as advocates of "affordable housing done right," that is, without exemptions, bonuses or subsidies. We're seeing now what a fantasy that was.

I'll stop there for now. By the way, you want to thwart Underdal, nor Underall or Underhill, from recoloring events about Maybell, not Mayfield.

Point of agreement: the English language is a remarkably rich tool for describing the world.


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Posted by Josef Stalin
a resident of another community
on Aug 30, 2014 at 12:47 pm

I thought Jerry Underdal said before the election on the Maybell project that we should all accept the results of the election and then move on to something else. Now Underhall has consistently used this forum to continue to raise the issue of that election. Maybe Underhall meant to say that we should only accept the results of the election if the voters approved Measure D, but we should continue to argue what Measure D was about when the voters defeated the Maybell project.


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Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Aug 30, 2014 at 1:29 pm

off topic comment:

@Josef Stalin - While I must admit that I do not follow these threads very closely these days, I was a bit concerned about your well being. I am glad to see you alive and well.

I hope you had a chance to check my old post where I tried to address you - Web Link


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Posted by Words matter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 30, 2014 at 4:36 pm

@Joe and Jerry Underdal,

It's really important for the media to get this right, because they are the 4th estate. Our City had undue influence in the drafting of elections material because the City Attorney was able to draft the elections question and "impartial" description of the measure for the ballot. This is like the fox building the hen house with plans to oversee the hens. This was stopped, and yet the media are still talking about this as if those who stopped it are against farmers having hens.

It was deemed by an elections analysis to be such gross bias for the City to call this a ballot question over senior housing that it was probably illegal. The ballot question was not a decision over senior housing, it was not a decision over low-income housing. Nobody was voting whether to put in senior housing or not. It was not a decision over a plan or a development. It was merely a decision over a specific zoning change at that location, and it should have been described as such in the ballot question and subsequent media articles. To do anything else is to interpret into the situation a malice like Jerry Underdal has, which has torn the community apart and prevented neighbors from coming together collaboratively for solutions.

Neighbors asked for a working group as an alternative, and it was not a hollow offer as the very same neighbors had been involved in saving Terman School from development while also ensuring the 92-unit affordable Terman Apartmetns were built. Put in other words, if the election was lost, the affordable senior housing was not forbid from being built there, it could have been built there under a different plan. The media should not be continuing to report what happened using utterly inaccurate and divisive shorthand.

While I respect Gennady Shayner, it's also lazy, bad journalism to keep describing it this way when it is also technically incorrect. It's not even calling a spade by another name, it's more like talking about a board's voting about a director's raise by some part of the director's intended use of his personal money, as in: In November, the board voted to approve the director's first-class tickets to Tahiti, or In December, the board voted against the director's mortgage payments for the year. The board was merely voting on the raise; the director may have been interested in using some of it to benefit others and more of it to benefit a large for-profit endeavor, but that's his business.

Likewise, our town was never voting on the project, on the senior housing (which was only on a minority of the property anyway), on the way it was being financed, anything. The vote was simply on whether the ordinance to change the zoning was to be allowed, and that's it.

If the media had reported about it truthfully and accurately, it would have been far easier for the public to grasp that it is possible for reasonable people to disagree about a specific course without being against the intent of the plan itself. Which could have been realized with further negotiation if those things hadn't been conflated. The divisions and misconceptions created by that inaccurate description of what happened at Maybell continue to hurt relationships in the community, relationships and synergies that could benefit the community far more than any developer's hollow promises.

But yes, many people realized in the course of waging the referendum that would have consequences to power dynamics in the City. Residents realized it was necessary to win or City Hall would continue to act as if it knew there were no checks and balances by the citizenry, having used the same exact ballot biasing tactic at High Street, which kept citizens from challenging City Hall for a long time -- at Maybell, residents were also told repeatedly they couldn't win.

So again, the media should find another way to describe Measure D. I think if they examined the ethics and standards they are supposed to live by, they can.


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Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Joseph Stalin

I accepted the results of the election when the votes came in. I was surprised that it was as close as it was given the way the campaign developed. More people than I expected in our neighborhood took the public stance of putting Yes on D signs out, which showed that control of the discussion by the Maybell Action Group and a portion of the Barron Park Association was not complete.

There never was an open community discussion in Barron Park about the project in its final form. I called for one at the time but the idea got no traction. Once the project went down at the polls, the next step in moving on was for PAHC to sell the land, pay off its debts and look for new opportunities to build affordable housing. They are still looking, as the report to the state on our housing element describes.

Thank you for recalling the question I posed during the campaign. I don't recall it's being answered in the affirmative by the Against D side before they won the election.



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Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2014 at 5:52 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Joe

I'd like to jump way back to the top of this thread where you commented that "Palo Alto will get along just fine without PC zoning. It's long past time for it to be removed from our zoning codes."

That's just the question that bothered me at the organizational meeting for the Maybell Action Group that I attended in order to pass on what I had experienced on Maybell Ave. in school commute bicycle traffic, which was the hot topic at the time. (No one was interested, they already had a position on the question.)

Looking through the handouts before the meeting started I saw a timeline that showed an intent to call for an end to Planned Community zoning. Being naive but curious I asked one of the two co-conveners of the gathering if there wasn't a risk that it wouldn't be possible to create affordable housing in Palo Alto without PC flexibility. She acknowledged that total elimination of PC zoning might be a step too far and that some accommodation might be sought short of that.

Much later, after I had concluded that the revised Maybell plan deserved support, I asked someone from PAHC if it would be impossible to do affordable housing without Planned Community zoning. The response was that it wouldn't be impossible but very, very difficult. I wonder where we are on that scale a year on from the Measure D election.

If Palo Alto policy excludes any possibility of building affordable housing in a process of its own choosing, will it be compelled by the state to assure provision of affordable housing with far less choice in how to go about it?


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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 30, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Jerry,

There is plenty of affordable housing in PA. Just take out your checkbook and pay for it.

You, like many others, like to confuse affordable housing with subsidized housing. Is that your attempt at a euphemism? If so, you are completely counter-factual.

>I asked someone from PAHC if it would be impossible to do affordable housing without Planned Community zoning. The response was that it wouldn't be impossible but very, very difficult. I wonder where we are on that scale a year on from the Measure D election.

You have identified the core issue, Jerry, probably inadvertently. Without subsidized housing, we would not have nearly as much density demands (up-zoning).

It is so simple, really: Allow each neighborhood in PA to have a secret vote on whether it wants to allow subsidized housing. That way, the city council cannot ram it down our throats. Grassroots democracy in action, Jerry. Do you agree?


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Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2014 at 10:03 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace

I'm going to assume there's some kind of sanction for the city if it doesn't provide the possibility for the full range of housing categories, very low to very high.

So in your plan we poll each neighborhood. If we find that none is willing to allow subsidized housing in the form proposed (it would have to be actual development proposals, not just a generic "do you want subsidized housing in your neighborhood?") you sweeten the pot with some attractive incentives for the neighborhoods to consider in the next round of voting. Fail again, sweeten the pot again--at some point a neighborhood will realize that it's getting a good deal and vote yes. Go through this process a bunch of times, life improves throughout the city and everyone who lives there is pleased to be a resident. (Pretty weak, but hey, I gave it a try.)

Your question is a serious one, the kind I wish we had participants in TS willing to add a broader range of perspectives on. Maybe someday . . .


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Posted by Words matter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 30, 2014 at 11:29 pm

@ Jerry Underdal,
That is an interesting idea, asking neighborhoods who wants to provide the space, similar to the way the MI program found a home after it realized taking over a neighborhood's school without asking caused controversy (duh). BTW, I favor MI, I was just shocked that's how they went about finding a school site! The solution: they were invited. Not with 100% support, but with a good deal.

Why does subsidized housing have to take the form of large projects concentrated in one or two parts of Palo Alto? HUD says that's not even good for the people in the housing. In the meantime, we should be taking a harder look at the actual needs and filling the empty available units, too, as part of a subsidy program. Multi-generational housing is probably good for everyone.

People would almost certainly be more gracious if it weren't for all the other development pressure. It still mystifies me why affordable housing advocates think encouraging development past the tipping point for the public is somehow in their favor. I wonder if in the wake of Measure D, they have rethought the potential advantages of working with communities more directly instead of using the political NIMBY attack approach (if you aren't for what we want, you're against us).

But, I think you are onto something there. There was a suggestion of Channing House increasing its units through dividing what are really large units in half to accommodate more senior units, giving the owner more capacity, too, what ever happened to that? If ever there was a place where the residents would want to be part of the solution, it's there.


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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 31, 2014 at 8:45 am

>you sweeten the pot with some attractive incentives for the neighborhoods to consider in the next round of voting. Fail again, sweeten the pot again--at some point a neighborhood will realize that it's getting a good deal and vote yes.

If the incentive is sweet enough (e.g. all property taxes cut in half in that neighborhood) it might work. However, if it is just something like an improved park, I doubt it. I wonder what it would take for the elite neighborhoods to agree to accept subsidized housing? The point is that the voters in the neighborhood are allowed to decide the matter, not the council and the subsidized housing advocates.


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Posted by Never Again
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 31, 2014 at 1:16 pm

The insult added to the injury of all the noise and commotion that come with living in such a community, is the ever-increasing HOA fees residents are forced to pay. I feel like I am now making two mortgage payments for the "privilege" of living on this noisy environment.

Friends who live at Santana Row, however. have this problem in spades, as it is a much larger, though more luxurious development.

Selling this place has been near to impossible so far, as lookie-loos figure out immediately that this is not a place of quiet repose. This is something that was not evident yet when most of us bought here. If I ever get out, I will NEVER make such an expensive mistake again.


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Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 31, 2014 at 7:27 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Craig Laughton

"If the incentive is sweet enough (e.g. all property taxes cut in half in that neighborhood) it might work."

Your example of what might be sweet enough is interesting. The appeal would be to self-interest rather than community interest. How would it help the city to have tax revenue from a neighborhood cut in half? And wouldn't the neighborhood suffer a loss of publicly provided services along with everyone else? The only benefit would be more cash in homeowners pockets to spend, or save, or gamble with as they wished. And they'd still grouse about the community is running down because of affordable housing programs. Counterproductive.

What if the sweetener were something really desirable, like a state-of-the-art public school. Or a coveted public facility, think Mitchell Park Library as it was designed to, and eventually will, be? After a few cycles, a "stand pat" neighborhood that used to be seen as top of the line will be perceived to be losing its cachet. Perceptions of neighborhoods do change over time as popular features are added or lost.

What set me thinking about this was reading an article contrasting spending on public education in the United States and in Western European. We expect, and usually accept, that more will be spent on public education in wealthy areas than in for the less well off. There, it's the reverse. More public resources are put into less wealthy communities so that education does more to promote social mobility than in the U.S.

If better schools were a benefit that came to a neighborhood from approving well thought-out affordable housing projects (which, remember, the city must provide opportunity for somewhere) it might change perceptions and outcomes.

Note: I have done no original research in this field and am unlikely to. But I'm still interested in choices that can push against the culture of inequality that we now tolerate.


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Posted by another voter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 31, 2014 at 7:50 pm

Jerry Underdal,

"What if the sweetener were something really desirable, like a state-of-the-art public school. Or a coveted public facility, think Mitchell Park Library as it was designed to, and eventually will, be? "

Or maybe a police building? It seems these have been tried, a theater as well. It's not just the building value trade, but other factors like traffic, and impacts down the road.

Why do PC's always have to have a new building structure as a public benefit?


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Posted by shin a light
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 1, 2014 at 1:01 pm

" but thankfully we have a system that allows residents to unwind any decisions that they overwhelmingly disagree with. "

This is the wrong way around. For PC zoning, only those the voters overwhelmingly AGREE with should go forward.

The city needs to bring ALL PC zoning proposals to the public and not make these important decisions on their own. Given the lack of visibility we've had into those decisions, they can't be trusted

Forcing all PC zoning changes onto the ballot is the only way to provide an effective "check" against the zoning. Would it mean that far less PC zoning's get approved and cost a lot more? Probably. That would be the cost of making the zoning change. At least the changes that do get approved would have the backing of the residents as opposed to the backing a small group of people in a back room.


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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 1, 2014 at 1:26 pm

>Your example (cutting property taxes by half) of what might be sweet enough is interesting. The appeal would be to self-interest rather than community interest

Of course it is, Jerry. How else do you think individuals will buy in, honestly, other than self interest. When enough selfish individuals (like me, btw) buy into the concept, the community benefit will be met...assuming that the larger community is willing to pay for it. I think my example is not too bad...a neighborhood agrees to take subsidized housing, and the rest of the neighborhoods subsidize that neighborhood (through increasing their own taxes). The limo libs will probably go along with it, because all they have to do is write a check.

Don't get me wrong, I oppose all subsidized housing in PA. However, if it is going to pushed by certain political interests in PA, I have offered a possible model that might work.


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Posted by Kristen
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 1, 2014 at 5:20 pm

"The city needs to bring ALL PC zoning proposals to the public and not make these important decisions on their own. Given the lack of visibility we've had into those decisions, they can't be trusted "

I couldn't agree more! ALL PC decisions should be left up to a referendum of PA citizens.


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Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 1, 2014 at 8:24 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Craig Laughton

"How else do you think individuals will buy in, honestly, other than self interest."

You're right. I should have said "pure self-interest," suggesting that there's really nothing about the sweetener that is for the common good. I can imagine a situation where people in a neighborhood who really resent being taxed would be quite willing to accept almost any project--no matter how badly designed or ill-suited for the neighborhood --if they could get their property taxes cut in half, and would lobby hard to get neighborhood voters to accept it despite the harm it might cause.



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Posted by Google Map with Locations
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 2, 2014 at 10:34 am

Can anyone share a link to the comprehensive database of all of the PC Public Benefits?


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Posted by Josef Stalin
a resident of another community
on Sep 2, 2014 at 11:38 am

The current PC zone district regulations and the need for regulations to accomodate "affordable" (i.e., subsidized) housing are two different things that should not be conflated or confused. The current PC zone district regulations are designed to create site specific zoning with each site having its own permitted and conditional uses and its own site development regulations. When the PC zone district regulations are eliminated, "affordable" housing can be accomodated with a new general zone distict or zoning overlay that creates the proper balance of unit size, occupant income, family composition (for example, elderly only; single room occupancy), and parking requirements.


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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 2, 2014 at 11:44 am

"Can anyone share a link to the comprehensive database of all of the PC Public Benefits?"

PC Public Benefits? Any blank screen will do.


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Posted by boscoli
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 3, 2014 at 7:29 am

"Affordable housing in Palo Alto" is the main mantra of the pro development, pro urbanization folks. Unfortunately for them, it's like the Unicorn and hot ice:no such thing exists. Housing in palo Alto is affordable, and will be affordable in the foreseeable future to those who can write a huge check, even for the least expensive home, which makes housing in Palo Alto affordable to a very small group of people.

It's an ironic Catch 22 situation:the more the city is developed, the more expensive housing becomes. The more expensive housing becomes, the shriller and more vocal the pro development folks, joined by the new yuppies, become in whining about how we need to build and urbanize even more in order to make housing more affordable.


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Posted by JayJay
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2014 at 8:29 am

Just try selling a home in a planned community--they are considered undesirable by real estate agents and buyers alike.

To get out of ours, we had to sell below market. The detractions, buyers told us were the noise, pollution from cars and railroad, lack of privacy lack of space, bad location ( too close to retail!). Took two years to get out of this place we originally though was such a great idea--very, very expensive lesson.

Such developments are to be avoided like the plague!


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Posted by another voter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2014 at 9:30 am

Words matter,

"Why does subsidized housing have to take the form of large projects concentrated in one or two parts of Palo Alto? HUD says that's not even good for the people in the housing."

I'd like to see the answer to this question.

Together with JayJay's comment about "selling a home in a planned community--they are considered undesirable by real estate agents and buyers alike." and curmudgeon's "PC Public Benefits? Any blank screen will do" I would wonder what the Planning Commissioners are comparing PC housing to.

I'll assume the commissioners are comparing PCs to nothing which would be irresponsible analysis.


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