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."