Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 16, 2012

Guest Opinion: PRO: Retain the 50-foot height limit to protect residents

by Douglas Moran

Palo Alto is a built-out city — it is increasingly difficult and expensive to expand public facilities such as schools and streets. Traffic congestion covers more and more of the day, and more and more of the city. Yet the City continues to approve projects despite having tried and failed to figure out how to handle the resulting over-burdening of these facilities. The Stanford hospital expansion alone is going to make this worse. And the Stanford campus and Stanford Research Park have approvals for substantial expansion.

Zoning is about protecting property rights, one aspect being protecting your access to a fair share of public resources. Breaking the long-established 50-foot limit would allow favored developers to profit at everyone else's expense. The increased traffic congestion makes you pay in small increments: in the extra time to get places and in the events you decide to skip.

The advocates of taller buildings want Palo Alto to become even more of a regional job center. Their mantra of "near transit" ignores extensive local experience: Less than 10 percent of commuters living immediately next to a station will use Caltrain, and even with an aggressive trip-reduction effort, 50-60 percent of employees will arrive by car. Studies have repeatedly found that for a region to have widely usable transit — reasonable trip times and schedules — it needs a population density much greater than ours.

Will these office workers provide additional revenues for the city? Unlikely. The city's analysis is that new revenues are roughly offset by additional costs. As to the effect on retail businesses, it would only worsen the current trend of driving out the retail that residents need in favor of yet more coffee shops, restaurants and expensive boutiques.

Palo Alto has struggled with its large jobs-housing imbalance, not only with where to build so much housing, but how to accommodate all the accompanying students and traffic. When you are in a deep hole, why choose to keep digging?

Should we sacrifice to have Palo Alto become home to even more high-profile companies? It is already very expensive to do business here, and the consequent rising house prices would not only make that worse, but force more employees into longer commutes, which then increases congestion. Palo Alto's cachet, once lost, could be difficult to regain.

So why is there support within the city for something that benefits the few at the expense of the community? The "public benefits" attached to these projects are an indirect tax. The city has the developer redirect some of his profits to projects that you the voters aren't likely to approve, and you pay with degradation in your quality of life. The benefits are often only for narrow special interests, not the broader community.

Realize that this isn't just about the project at 27 University with over 1,000 additional commuters. The desire is for taller buildings in the University and California Avenue downtowns, and along El Camino. Massive overdevelopment is routinely followed by a crash and slow painful recovery. The 50-foot limit is a crucial firewall to protect the community's quality of life from the excessive growth being promoted by developers and city officials.

Douglas Moran has been active in development and traffic issues for two decades. He is a past co-chair of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), the umbrella group of neighborhood associations. By profession, he is a computer scientist.

Comments

Posted by Look this gift horse in the mouth, please., a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 17, 2012 at 12:12 pm

City Council,

Though I live in south Palo Alto, I do not support the scope and scale of this project. It is completely inconsistent with existing city architecture and allowable heights. I don't like the precedent this project sets, and I hope you will require the developer to propose something more reasonable.

Please follow our Comprehensive Plan and existing zoning and muni codes. I am watching the progress on this project with alarm. The promise of a theater seems to have provoked undue zeal for overriding the rules that protect us all from overdevelopment. I am sure Mr. Arrillaga is counting on that. Please look this gift horse carefully in the mouth.

Thank you.


Posted by Ducatigirl, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Scott Herhold, who is a family friend, wrote an excellent article that says it all very well. It is in the weekend edition of the Daily News (not the Post). He thinks Arillaga's project is ugly and cumbersome and will cause far too much traffic. He notes that it will be extremely high rent, not very likely to find many renters. But, he does list its good points, though they are very few.

The article is very well-wriiten and very worth reading. An excellent accompaniment to Doug Moran's article.


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 17, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On the Herhold article: It is currently available on the Mercury News website (but will go behind their pay-wall at some point):

Herhold: Arrillaga project in Palo Alto needs massive revision (Web Link)


Posted by jan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by pricing, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2012 at 4:25 pm

D. Moran

Thank you for writing this. The next piece I wish someone would write about is City governance.

When Stanford's bid for a NYC campus failed, it was because NY forced the balance in favor of the city.

Stanford Daily quotes Henessy about the failed bid

"Well, the straw that broke the camel's back I suppose, in the end, it was just there were too many conditions imposed on the project (by the city) and I think it just got to the point where the University was being asked to carry the lion's share of risk. The city was dumping risk on the University and wasn't giving us anything in return. It's not like they were saying, "Okay, we're going to give you more land or we're going to give you more money. No, you take all the risk and if it fails, even if it's our fault, you pay us." I mean that was just crazy."

Contrast this to Palo Alto City governance - gives stuff away, practically pays developers for almost nothing in return. Nothing in return for the CIty.

The 50 foot height needs to be among the conditions and pricing in Palo Alto. Developers need to pay up, and if they don't like it, they need to walk away.

How is City governance being held accountable for their give aways?


Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 23, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Doug Moran's arguments to maintain the 50-foot height limit are very compelling.

Since its enactment in the early '70s, the 50-foot limit has served as a crucial backstop that has protected Palo Alto from unfettered development. Together with its City-Charter partner, the public's approval via majority vote for approval of any alternate use of dedicated parkland, the 50-foot height limit has helped maintain Palo Alto as a desirable place to live.

Not that there hasn't been powerful pressure over the decades to bend or break this and other zoning envelopes. PCs of limited public value continue to be proposed and approved; variances and design enhancements exceptions are routinely granted; development agreements create their own rules; and requests for up-zoning are often approved.

Current pressures to scrap the 50-foot height limit have been well-nourished by a chicken-and-egg logic. For years we have been told by city leaders, state agencies, and some housing advocates that we have a very serious jobs-to-housing imbalance and therefore we must build more -- much more -- housing. Now, as the commercial real estate market rebounds, we are told that for various reasons we need more -- much, more -- office space. Blind acceptance of the twin arguments leads to unending development in both areas as well as the mutually-assured destruction of our quality of life.


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