This loss affected me — I pay attention to decisions our city makes, knowing its wonky process can elevate or diminish us, with great consequence in our daily lives. I don't want our town to lose more than it gains as we grow and change.
This is why I am interested in the train wreck known as Planned Community (PC) zoning — a category of zoning that often diminishes, rather than builds, our community.
Let me tell you about PC zoning.
A developer agreed to build a 1,786-square-foot plaza in Palo Alto for public use as part of his successful application for PC zoning. When the plaza was finished, it measured less than 600 square feet, including just over 100 square feet of useable open space.
The same developer agreed to color-tint public sidewalks on Channing and Alma, adjacent to his project. Permanent color was to be mixed into the cement, but apparently it was applied superficially, fading away along with its beautification benefit to the public.How did this happen? After an 18-month investigation of 10 city-approved PC-zoned developments, I think I know. This is what I found and what we can do about it. It matters because PC-zoned projects are all over town, and when the public benefit component fails, it is to our detriment.
Planned Community zoning was intended to provide greater flexibility for exceptional projects. In practice, it enables developers to change zoning to build bigger and denser projects that produce vastly greater profits than possible through regular zoning. Acquiring PC zoning has practically become the default setting for big development in Palo Alto. According to Planning Department staff, the city has granted about 140 PC rezonings.
"Public benefits," provided by the developer and supposedly not otherwise attainable under regular zoning, are a fundamental requirement for a change to PC zoning. The city and its residents must absorb the impact on infrastructure, traffic and services caused by over-sized development, so it is only reasonable that public benefits should be significant, valuable and substantial — and permanent.
Yet all too often public benefits are minimal and short-lived, used to barely justify a developer's desire for a PC-zoning change.
The current PC ordinance should be amended to require the value of a project's public benefits to approximate the increased profit a developer gains from building bigger and denser under PC zoning, putting an end to measly benefits.
Two PC agreements I reviewed contain contradictory language or conflicting components — guaranteeing a public benefit failure. The responsibility for poor drafting lies squarely with staff and the City Council. An example of contradictory language is found in the PC agreement for the project at Sheridan at Park Boulevard:
"The project includes a plaza which will be accessible to the public. The plaza will include a water feature, benches and landscaping. The public accessibility of the plaza shall not in any manner restrict or limit the owner of the subject property in the lawful exercise of any property rights the owner may have with respect to the subject property, including the plaza area."
Predictably, the owner exercised his right to use the supposedly public plaza and its amenities for private use, installing an outdoor cafe that fills the plaza with paying customers enjoying our "public benefits."
The little plaza at Homer and High is an example of conflicting components written into a PC agreement that guarantees failure. According to the agreement, the plaza was to be a comfortable space, open and accessible to the general public for informal socializing without charge. However, the plaza could also include seating restricted during business hours for patrons of the project's retail use. The agreement goes on to state that any restricted access shall be supportive of, rather than in conflict with, free public use.
A restaurant now crams the plaza with furniture 24/7, with nary a square inch of space for the non-paying public. This is a flagrant violation of the PC and a later use agreement — but the city turns a blind eye.
The issue is not the worthiness of these restaurants but the broken promises to the public and how the city crafts and enforces our public benefits.
The community room planned for the Alma Plaza PC illustrates how the usefulness and value of a public benefit can be eroded during the approval process. By imposing onerous time restrictions on the use of a proposed community room in order to free up parking spaces, the developer successfully transferred value from the public back to himself. Now you see a public benefit, now you don't.
Surprisingly, PC projects pass final inspections and meet City conditions of approval even when a major public benefit is missing or flawed. The undersized plaza on Channing, mentioned above, is an example. I found no explanation for this inspection negligence.
The most shocking failure by the city to enforce its own laws is in section 18.38.160 of our PC ordinance. This requires the building department to inspect all PC-zoned projects at least once every three years. Yet no inspections have been conducted on any PC property, according to staff. An inspection would have found the defective coloring of the sidewalks at Channing and Alma and other post-construction problems elsewhere.
Lack of inspections is not a recent lapse due to a crummy economy or understaffing, — the requirement is decades old. I wonder how many public benefits from 140 PCs have been lost because the city doesn't enforce its own ordinances or conduct inspections? The city should levy a fee on PC project owners to cover the costs of these inspections, just as other towns do to finance annual fire inspections.
I filed three complaints with Code Enforcement more than a year ago regarding lost public benefits. The complaints remain "in process," with no resolution, even for blatant violations. There is a $500 per-day penalty for violating zoning laws, and the city should use it to secure our public benefits.
We are collateral damage in a PC zoning game of Three-Card Monte, with agreements and benefits shifting and disappearing like cards in a con man's hand. This is unacceptable. The City Council must be willing to protect the interests of Palo Alto residents, and must amend the PC ordinance, ensuring it is only used for truly exceptional projects, laden with enduring, valuable, desirable and measurable public benefits.