Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 10, 2010

Palo Alto shifts housing strategy

City looks to transit corridors, mixed-use buildings to meet housing needs

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto, a city with a reputation for affluence and astronomical property values, is banking on small apartments scattered near rail stations and bus corridors to meet its daunting "fair share" requirement for affordable housing.

The city is in the process of putting together its Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out the city's housing needs and its strategies for meeting those needs. The document also has to address what many city leaders agree is an impossible task: finding room for 2,860 units of new housing in a city that officials say has almost no land to spare.

City planners discussed this dilemma with residents at a Tuesday evening workshop on the new Housing Element, which they hope to complete by early next year and which covers the period between 2007 and 2014.

Though the final details are still being hashed out, planning officials indicated the new document would concentrate new housing near Caltrain stations, within a quarter mile of El Camino Real and in mixed-use buildings.

The strategy is a far departure from the city's current Housing Element (1996 to 2006), which calls for the city to develop non-residential lands as residential and mixed use. It also calls for the city to "aggressively pursue a variety of housing opportunities that enhance character, diversity and vitality of the City" but does not dictate where this housing would be built.

One reason for the city's change in strategy is the recent mushrooming of dense, multi-family housing developments, particularly in south Palo Alto. Between 1996 and 2006, the city approved 1,713 units of housing, 316 more than its "fair share," as determined by Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). Of these new units, 1,372 were built for residents of "above moderate" income. Since then, many residents and city officials have criticized the new developments for increasing neighborhood traffic, providing inadequate parking and forcing local schools to accommodate more children.

Others have lamented the transformation of local institutions such as the Hyatt Rickey's and Palo Alto Bowl into housing developments. Though the bowling alley continues to operate, the city last year approved a proposal to build a hotel and town houses on its land.

Planning Director Curtis Williams said the influx of dense housing developments over the past decade, particularly in areas far from transit corridors, encouraged city planners and City Council members to be more selective about housing locations in the current Housing Element. The last Housing Element was much more "scattered" than the one staff is currently working on, he said.

City Planner Ron Babiera said the city's approach now is not to rezone sites from commercial to residential and to consider smaller units in mixed-use developments near major transit corridors, as the City Council had directed in May.

The council specifically requested the city evaluate possible housing locations within areas that are "well-serviced by transit or are likely to be well-served." The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is eyeing El Camino Real as one of several corridors on which it could launch its Bus Rapid Transit service.

The city isn't required to build the new housing but merely plan to accommodate it.

Some residents at Tuesday's workshop said they were skeptical about the prospect of more housing along El Camino Real, which they said isn't particularly transit friendly. If the busy corridor doesn't see an improvement in transit, the new housing could further worsen the driving and parking conditions in nearby neighborhoods, they said.

"We feel real transit can lead to certain housing, not potential or theoretical transit," said College Terrace resident Doria Summa, who participated in one of two "break-out groups" that discussed the city's housing needs and challenges. "We agreed that it would be a mistake to base (housing) on some theoretical transit."

Babiera said the city faces a series of steep obstacles to meeting the "fair share" quota, including an existing shortage of affordable housing, limited available land and high property values. It's not uncommon for people to spend five to seven years on the waiting list to get into one of Palo Alto's existing affordable-housing facilities, he said.

Palo Alto has been working on the new Housing Element for more than three years. In 2008, the state granted the city a two-year extension. Babiera said the city hopes to have a draft of the Housing Element approved by the council in December.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 8, 2010 at 10:38 am

I believe Menlo Park increased its housing allotment a few years back by allowing existing "granny units" to be brought up to code and made into "legal" housing with minimal permit costs. Since many of these are already illegally rented out, there would not be any increase in traffic or students in schools, just a move from an existing unit that is not currently legal to one which is. How to make the ABAG happy without detracting from our existing character.


Posted by OutofTowner, a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 8, 2010 at 11:02 am

Affordable and Palo Alto in one sentence = a non sequitur. This is hopelessly wishful thinking.

Palo Alto could generate more housing by efficient land use policies along El Camino as mixed use development. This avenue is an embarrasment of old stip mall uses and a hodge podge of other uses.

However, there is no political will in P.A. to really address this issue of additional housing, and the need for a housing and jobs balance.


Posted by Paul, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 8, 2010 at 11:07 am

Why do they think putting these new housing units near "transit corridors" will reduce traffic? Has anyone surveyed residents of housing projects already built near transit to find out if they use transit? The Abitare, directly across Alma from the Transit Center, would be a good place to start. Likewise the projects near CalAve CalTrain. I suspect nobody has done the survey, very likely because they suspect it will yield an unwanted answer. These people drive cars like the rest of us.

Building near El Camino and other current bus routes makes even less sense, because bus routes can change (or disappear) anytime.

Finally, why the push to relegate a select class of people to a second-class existence relying on slow, inconvenient public transit? Try grocery shopping via bus and you'll see what I mean.

If we must have high density housing, for trophy or just ABAG checklist purposes, put it in the low-density suburbs. The water saved by converting landcover from lawns to concrete will almost provide for the new residents' needs.




Posted by Evan, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 8, 2010 at 12:28 pm

This sounds great! An apartment in a vibrant downtown (whether that be Cal Ave or U Ave), near a high-speed rail and Caltrain station, parks, restaurants and grocery stores. Now that's a place I want to live in 10 years.


Posted by Evan, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 8, 2010 at 12:30 pm

@Paul, you wrote:

"Why do they think putting these new housing units near "transit corridors" will reduce traffic? Has anyone surveyed residents of housing projects already built near transit to find out if they use transit? The Abitare, directly across Alma from the Transit Center, would be a good place to start. Likewise the projects near CalAve CalTrain. I suspect nobody has done the survey, very likely because they suspect it will yield an unwanted answer. These people drive cars like the rest of us."

I'm sure you're right. However, it's not about dropping car trips to zero. It's about making most trips easy to walk to, bike to or take transit to. For certain trips, you'll likely always need a car.

But I've been getting around Palo Alto without a car now for 3 years, and it's really not to bad. Sometimes I fall back and borrow one, but often it's not necessary.


Posted by YIMBY, a resident of University South
on Sep 8, 2010 at 12:53 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

I noticed the first commenter was concerned about "detracting from our existing character." I believe the housing element, and the general plan itself, is a document meant to consider what the city will look like in the future - how we house our children, and their children. Focusing only on present concerns is very short-sighted, IMO, and is not what a general plan does.


Posted by John, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 8, 2010 at 1:10 pm

The driving ideological forces behind the "fair share" housing are global warming and welfare housing. Ask Larry Klein and PAHC.

The driving economic force behind "fair share" is business interests, who will not suffer its consequences (they live in the hills, or isolated protected zones).

I submit that the rest of us should not submit to these interests.

ABAG demands are the consequence of regional planning, another ruse perpetuated by those who demand a grand plan. Our neighborhoods and communities are being destroyed by the large plans of the grand planners. Just say no! The only penalty is that we forego state monies for even more welfare housing. Dah?!!!

There is a ton of housing available in Salinas and Tracy and other towns. They are begging for employed buyers of their houses. Extend CalTrain and BART to these outlying towns. Better yet, set up van pools.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I believe parking is a big problem in some of the town homes built recently in Palo Alto. It seems that residents do not like to use their tandem garages as it means that they have to keep moving one car to get to the other.

In other words, unless the housing has adequate parking for 2 cars which is not tandem, then there will be problems. People still want to own their one car each adult and until such time as Caltrain and other services provide better service, the status quo will continue.


Posted by J, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 8, 2010 at 1:47 pm

I worked near the Mountain View train station earlier this year, and, since I lived within walking distance of the California Ave. Caltrain station, I tried to find a way to take Caltrain to work.

The schedule did not provide me with any reasonable way to commute from California Avenue to Mountain View. In order to get to MV by 8:30 am, I had to get myself to the Palo Alto train station, and there was no easy way to do that.

Taking the bus was not a good solution either -- Nearly two hours to take the 22 bus and a long walk instead of a 15 to 20-minute car drive. (I tried transit511, and it offered no good alternatives).

The idea that the California Avenue area is well-served by public transit is a joke. And the plan to dump more high-density housing in that area is based on a fallacy.


Posted by Midtoqn inhabitant, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Quote from your news article: "One reason for the city's change in strategy is the recent explosion in dense, multi-family housing developments, particularly in South Palo Alto. Between 1996 and 2006, the city approved 1,713 units of housing, 316 more than its "fair share," as determined by Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). Of these new units, 1,372 were built for residents of "above moderate" income. Since then, many residents and city officials have criticized the new developments for increasing neighborhood traffic, providing inadequate parking and forcing local schools to accommodate more children."
Why are South Palo Alto and Midtown paying the penalty of dense housing? For example, Loma Verde Avenue has changed from a residential street with low traffic to a high-speed, traffic-dense thoroughfare since the condo development has been built at the east end of the street. It's too late to do anything about this except put traffic signals at the major intersections, but let's stop this kind of housing before Palo Alto becomes unlivable.
And yes, do we wait until the blind intersection at Loma Verde and W. Bayshore kills a carload of people or do we put in traffic signals?


Posted by Frank, a resident of Ventura
on Sep 8, 2010 at 2:30 pm

I used to live in "The Abitare" and I took the train just about every day as did many of my neighbors. Now I live on Matadero Ave and I ride my Bike either to CalTrain or directly to work.

California Ave is not well served by CalTrain - it used to be but now almost all the trains skip that station. Palo Alto is well served, not only by CalTrain but several bus lines to San Mateo and Alameda counties.

I support high density housing and it should be near good transit.


Posted by Scott, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 8, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Hey let's build more low-income housing around 800 High Street!!

Those "millionaire NIMBYs" deserve it right? There's still room to build one more right in that area. Maybe if we surround the entire block (which it looks like the city is trying to do) the "millionaire NIMBYs" will move out and the city can turn 800 High street into transient housing. What a wonderful plan!

</Scarcasm>

City Council - please spread out these new ultra-low income projects. Make everyone share the burden. Putting them all along Alma and near the train station will ruin our downtown


Posted by do it, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 9, 2010 at 12:18 am

"We feel real transit can lead to certain housing, not potential or theoretical transit," said College Terrace resident Doria Summa, who participated in one of two "break-out groups" that discussed the city's housing needs and challenges. "We agreed that it would be a mistake to base (housing) on some theoretical transit."

Hmmmm, so why not push new, affordable housing AND better intra-urban transit. Seriously, all the hand-wringing about new housing (which IS going to happen) is just code for NIMBY, period.

Where is the political will of liberal Palo Altans who claim "green" on the one hand, and yet even though they know (or should know) that the MOST harmful cause of pollution in our environment is suburban housing and ex-urban development, do they not lobby for more dense urban environments, to counteract ex-urban development trends. Frankly, given all the back-patting, so-called "Greens" around here, this whining about new housing is just short of backpedaling, NIMBYISM, and pure hypocrisy. i.e. get off your butts and argue for BOTH better inter- and intra-urban mass transit, AND more housing along transport corridors. Be "green" in DEED, as well as WORD!


Posted by Dave, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2010 at 10:01 am

Folks moving into transit served locations do drive, but at a much lower rate than the rest of us. So traffic goes up some, but at a much lower rate if the development is near essential services (grocery) and transit that goes to jobs and fun places.

Web Link


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 9, 2010 at 10:04 am

Which doubles the reason that they need adequate parking space.


Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 9, 2010 at 10:41 am

How about taking an inventory of housing expansion that is available within our current comprehensive plan before we start using the artificial ABAG "requirements" to justify giving developers higher density limits, which is a giveaway to developers.

Once we have taken inventory of what additional housing is available in our current comprehensive plan, and provided incentives to have that built out, then we can consider "least harm" expansion of densities with the understanding that the additional density will be allocated to ALL neighborhoods (not just piled in the South).

Further, the additional development needs to have well-defined development fees that funds the full cost of infrastructure costs like sewer, utilities, roads, and schools. Yes, the full cost of land and builings, not just the incremental cost, as one day this growth will cause us to need to build new infrastructure.

Demanding anything less would be participating in robbery of future generations. It is simply fair that the value created by higher density designations will flow to the public good in the form of infrastructure funding, vs. being a political handout to some insider.

Timothy Gray (former City Council Candidate)




Posted by J, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 9, 2010 at 11:39 am

Commenters who use the NIMBY label to describe those who do not agree with them often make other generalizations, such as accusing Palo Altans who don't support their point of view as being "liberals" who claim "green," and an accusation of hypocrisy.

The Palo Altans I know who are concerned about the impacts of high density housing don't claim to be green, though many of them probably live their daily lives more "green" than self-proclaimed environmentalists.

Personally, I have been turned off by the "green" establishment, such as the Sierra Club that pushes high density housing on us, but ignores the root problem the environment faces -- human overpopulation. So I guess that I makes me neither liberal nor green.


Posted by YIMBY, a resident of University South
on Sep 9, 2010 at 12:05 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

@John, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, who wrote:

The driving ideological forces behind the "fair share" housing are global warming and welfare housing. Ask Larry Klein and PAHC........

Curious, I went to ABAG website (Web Link) to attempt to find the purpose of fair share housing requirement:

"Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) is a state mandated process for determining how many housing units, including affordable units, each community must plan to accommodate. The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) determines the total housing need for a region, and it is ABAG's responsibility to distribute this need to local governments. Working with local governments, ABAG developed an allocation methodology for assigning units, by income category, to each city and county in the nine-county Bay Area. This allocation of need shows local governments the total number of housing units, by affordability, for which they must plan in their Housing Elements for the period 2007-2014. Allocations for each jurisdiction are published in the annual housing report described below."

Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to directly say why this process is required - perhaps it was state legislation - it is a good question though.

The drivi


Posted by YIMBY, a resident of University South
on Sep 9, 2010 at 12:10 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

@J, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, who wrote:'

Personally, I have been turned off by the "green" establishment, such as the Sierra Club that pushes high density housing on us, but ignores the root problem the environment faces -- human overpopulation. So I guess that I makes me neither liberal nor green."

J, we have just seen one person decide to act on that overpopulation perspective - hopefully we won't see any more:
"Discovery hostage taker was a population-obsessed eco-wacko/GRIST, 1 SEP 2010:
Web Link


Posted by J, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 9, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Like I said, labelling and generalizations.


Posted by Me too, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2010 at 2:37 pm

"real transit can lead to certain housing, not potential or theoretical transit,"
is an intelligent statement.
The transit agencies are all cutting back and Palo Alto wants to plan housing around an imaginary future transit center near California Ave? This is dishonest and yes, manipulative planning.
Housing advocates don't mind making up facts.

By the way, south Palo Alto didn't just "explode" with housing. The City Council approved every one of those projects. For more information ask John Barton, Peter Drekmeier and Judy Kleinberg, among others, who led those approvals.


Posted by TrainIsComing, a resident of another community
on Sep 9, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Housing plans are required by state law. State objectives include promoting socioeconomic equity. "Allocate a lower proportion of housing need to an income category when a jurisdiction already has a disproportionately high share of households in that income category, as compared to the countywide distribution of households in that category from the most recent US census"

Web Link


Posted by John, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 9, 2010 at 4:01 pm

"Housing plans are required by state law".

Yes, but the penalty for not submitting such a plan is that we would not qualify for state funding of welfare/high density housing.

So What?!!!

This is the kind of absurd nonsense that we get from the redistributionist, green mega-planners. The underlying ideology is that global warming is coming, thus high density'transit corrdors are required.

The same people who brought us high speed rail are also bringing us high density/welfare housing along transit corridors...as long as it does not, directly, affect them.


Posted by pcpu, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 9, 2010 at 4:13 pm

ABAG is a way to undermine local control. It tries to sound noble, but really it takes tax payer money but is not beholden to the taxpayer.


Posted by Train Neighbor, a resident of Ventura
on Sep 9, 2010 at 6:33 pm

I wonder how many new units were recently built?

- Arbor Real
- Vantage
- Echelon
- Sterling Park
- Summerhill (Elks)
- 899 Charleston
- Altaire

Others?


Posted by jb, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 9, 2010 at 6:47 pm

How do you keep low-cost housing low-cost? Any housing that is actually sold to the occupant enters the lottery for the greatest return possible upon sale. It will never again be bought by a low-income or even middle class buyer. More likely the buyer will be a developer who will remodel it out to the envelope for sale at even more money than you can imagine. When was the last time you saw a house for sale into which a family moved after the sale?

Furthermore, most of the people banging on the Palo Alto door want to get their kids into the schools. They will work where they can and live here.


Posted by YIMBY, a resident of University South
on Sep 10, 2010 at 9:44 am

YIMBY is a registered user.

I do think the housing requirement in state law makes a lot of sense - and calling it 'high density, welfare housing' frankly only shows the prejudice, at best, ignorance, at worst (or should I reverse that?) of the commenter.

I recall that Sen. Simitian would often describe his youth in PA - obviously a good one seeing his success as a state leader, as partly characterized by experiencing the 'mix of families' from different economic backgrounds in the community.

I see PA as becoming more like Atherton, LA Hills, etc....there is something very positive and beneficial to be said of economic and social diversity.

Finally, commenting on "By the way, south Palo Alto didn't just "explode" with housing. The City Council approved every one of those projects. For more information ask John Barton, Peter Drekmeier and Judy Kleinberg, among others, who led those approvals.", I would add that we should also ask the neighborhood association that fought the original proposal for the 'dense, mixed-use redevelopment' of Hyatt Rickey's. They were successful in their effort: The hotel left town, and the current development we see there is the result.

I think there is a very important lesson there - beware what you oppose because the replacement could be worse. Other examples of this
result abound in planning efforts.


Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 10, 2010 at 10:02 am

A state housing requirement may make sense - but it should be truly regional. Many of the people who work in Palo Alto live in Atherton, Portola Valley, Woodside, etc. Those communities should be required to build a proportional amount of high-density, affordable housing (and they have a lot more open land than Palo Alto).

Much of the resentment of new housing is simple. Many (most?) people move to Palo Alto for the schools. Dense housing brings more students without much offset in terms of funding for Palo Alto (we spend about 150,000 to educate each student in our district from K-12). If developers were required to donate land for and build schools, there would be less resentment.

Another little detail - most of the new developments are pretty ugly.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 11, 2010 at 2:19 am

For truly affordable housing we need to consider more RENTAL apartments, not for purchase condos etc. I'm not saying this will make current residents happy. But the truth is that not everyone is in the position to buy a home. Being a home owner is not the best choice for a lot of people.

But being able to live in a stable, well cared for, affordable rental is ideal for many people. The developers don't seem to truly want to provide affordable housing they want to sell and take the money and get out.

Would small apartment style housing for seniors count toward these ABAG requirements? Seniors would probably not add much new burdens onto schools, etc.


Posted by TrainIsComing, a resident of another community
on Sep 11, 2010 at 4:16 am

Over a third of California cities are not in compliance with the law. More interesting is that compliance with the housing element law has not resulted in rapidly increased housing. Because the zoning laws allow multiple unit housing does not mean that it will be built.
Web Link


Posted by zanon, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Sep 11, 2010 at 10:42 pm

i am not a NIMBY, i just do not want any high density housing built anywhere near me because it will create traffic and reduce property value.

this is my concern for environment. and it is good sense.

all my friends feel this way. do not label or generalize us please!


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2010 at 8:36 am

Er, that is the definition of a NIMBY.


Posted by YIMBY, a resident of University South
on Sep 12, 2010 at 10:16 am

YIMBY is a registered user.

"What legacy do we leave our grandchildren?" This is a good question for PA residents to ask themselves as we discuss our future as a community. If we only concern ourselves with "me" issues - where will I park, the roads are too congested as it is, will my property values go down - we ignore the next generation - the basis of sustainability.

We can do nothing - and fight change - result is becoming another Atherton....or we can ensure economic and social diversity - and by doing so, provide an environmental underpinning as well.....


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Where are the numbers that Palo Alto voters need in order to make decisions about housing? Palo Alto will never be able to fix its jobs/housing imbalance. Saying it can is a gift to developers. Large employers in Palo Alto do not pay a living wage to their employees who have to contend with the high cost of living here. Stanford University is laying off staff, hiring student graduates, freezing administrative salaries and/or giving small cost of living increases.

The Palo Alto Housing authority needs to slowly buy old apartment buildings and convert them to low cost housing. The battle is between those who benefit from crowded conditions in Palo Alto and those who live here, pay taxes and see their quality of living (health and safety, good schools) deteriorating. One side talks about NIMBYS, the other side talks about pollution from cars, unsafe streets, and crowded schools. NIMBYS worry about gas lines exploding; the other side pays the legislature to ok a safety check of only 7% of gas lines in the state per year. Or do we think families with children lobbied the legislature for this?


Posted by John, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 12, 2010 at 1:34 pm

"....or we can ensure economic and social diversity "

This is otherwise known as social engineering. Otherwise known as command economy. Otherwise known as socialism. Othersie known as the destruction of individual economic choice. Otherwise known as slavery.

"YIMBY" has the arrogance to judge free people, who do not want to be slaves to his/her vision.


Posted by Some Facts, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 12, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Resident, here are some numbers you may find useful.
An independent tally of the housing that's been recently built, or going to be built, in Palo Alto is at
www.NewUSNews.blogspot.com


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