The city's Housing Element, a 210-page vision statement that the Planning and Transportation Commission discussed Wednesday night, April 11, seeks to address a variety of housing challenges and regional mandates that the city is facing or is projected to face in the coming years. It lists the city's housing inventory, identifies locations for new housing and introduces a host of programs aimed at encouraging more residential development in the largely built-out city. These include a greater emphasis on mixed-use developments, intense building near train depots and homes built on city-owned parking lots in certain commercial districts.
The commission considered the document Wednesday and decided to resume its discussion on May 9.
The new document also takes aim at one of Palo Alto's most famous restrictions — the city's 50-foot height limit for buildings. A program in the Housing Element calls for the city to "explore limited exceptions to the 50-foot height limit for Housing Inventory Sites within a quarter mile of fixed rail station to encourage higher density residential development."
The Housing Element is, in some ways, both a guide for new developments and a reflection of land-use trends that are already taking shape in Palo Alto. The City Council has enthusiastically encouraged development near Caltrain stations and is now weighing two dense projects near the downtown station — a Lytton Gateway building featuring offices, space for nonprofits and apartments; and a proposal by philanthropist John Arrillaga for a large office building and theater at the current site of the MacArthur Park restaurant.
The Housing Element begins with a vision statement: "Our housing and neighborhoods shall enhance the livable human environment for all residents, be accessible to civic and community services and sustain our natural resources." It then lays out dozens of programs and policies that seek to strike a balance between encouraging new housing (particularly affordable housing, the city's most glaring weakness) and protecting existing neighborhoods.
The document's strategies for new housing stress smaller and more affordable units, ones that could accommodate the city's growing senior population. According to the Housing Element, the population of Palo Alto residents aged 65 and older rose by 13 percent between 2000 and 2008. The trend isn't expected to abate anytime soon. The new document notes that the city's population of residents between 45 and 65 went up by 18 percent between 2000 and 2008.
"Smaller units are generally more affordable and generate fewer impacts to many of the City's infrastructure and services, including roads, water, sewer and schools," Senior Planner Tim Wong wrote in the staff report that accompanied the Housing Element draft. "As Palo Alto's senior population continues to increase, the need for smaller senior units is important as many senior households have become 'empty nesters' and would prefer to downsize. There is also a growing demand for multifamily units near services and transit, by both seniors and young urban professionals, who are choosing to live closer to services, thus reducing traffic impacts."
Proximity to transit is another major theme of the Housing Element, which aims to make sure any new housing is supported by amenities such as schools, transit and shopping areas. The city's goal of building housing near these types of amenities is the main driver behind the Housing Element proposals to make exceptions to the city's 50-foot height limit for projects within a quarter mile of transit stations and to consider allowing higher density for mixed-use projects within half a mile of transit stations.
Though much of the Housing Element deals with abstractions, projections and big-picture policies, the document is more than an academic exercise. The city is required by state law to submit the document to the Department of Housing and Community Development, an agency that will review it for compliance. Palo Alto is required to zone for 2,860 housing units by 2014 to meet the state's projections under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment.
The new document lays out a conceptual plan for accommodating 2,976 housing units, a number that includes 1,192 units that have either been built or are currently going through the permit process. The new Housing Element is meant to address the planning period between 2007 and 2014. If Palo Alto is unable to accommodate its allocation, the city could lose out on housing, transportation and infrastructure grants, according to Wong's report.
But aside from the legal requirements, the document is also intended to provide a framework for helping the city achieve its housing goals.
"The overall intent of the Housing Element is to enable an adequate variety of housing to be accommodated in appropriate locations and densities that ensure neighborhood compatibility," Wong wrote in his report. "An emphasis is also placed on encouraging smaller units that minimize community and school impacts and reflect the City's changing workforce and demographics."