Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 29, 2013

Palo Alto struggles to find the meaning of 'benefit'

City's planning commissioners try to bring order to messy debate over zoning exemptions

by Gennady Sheyner

Philosophers may rack their brains over the meaning of life, but for Palo Alto's developers, neighborhood leaders and elected officials, the meaning of "public benefits" is in many ways a more puzzling matter.

In recent years, the nebulous term has encompassed everything from a frieze of tiny cars, little public plazas and grocery stores to road improvements and large cash payments. Developers looking to build projects that exceed the city's zoning regulations routinely propose packages of public benefits to justify their requests. Under "planned community" zoning, taller and denser buildings are allowed in exchange for these benefits. The zoning has enabled some of the most contentious developments in Palo Alto's recent history, including Alma Plaza, the College Terrace Centre on El Camino Real, Lytton Gateway next to the downtown Caltrain station and Edgewood Plaza on Channing Avenue.

Now, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission is looking to bring a little clarity, definition and transparency to this process. Commission Chair Eduardo Martinez, Vice Chair Mark Michael and Commissioner Michael Alcheck recently authored a 10-page memo addressing the subject of public benefits, laying out the problem and ways in which other communities have grappled with it. The trio's hope is that the memo would "jump-start the process of defining the term 'public benefit,'" Alcheck said Wednesday night.

"Our hope is that by bringing greater clarity and predictability to this process, we will enhance the community's benefits and our satisfaction with these benefits," Alcheck said.

The municipal code is purposefully vague when it comes to "public benefits," leaving it up to the City Council to define the term on an ad hoc basis as development proposals surface.

The process hasn't always worked as expected. Alma Plaza's main "public benefit" will disappear at least temporarily on April 1, when Miki's Farm Fresh Market closes its doors after less than six months in operation. College Terrace Centre still includes the JJ&F Market (the retention of which was a chief "public benefit"), though the store has been sold to new operators and the overall project is currently on hold because of financing. And at Edgewood Plaza, one of the public benefits — retention of a "historic" structure — vanished in a cloud of dust last September when a contractor illegally demolished the Joseph Eichler building that was slated to be disassembled and restored.

On Wednesday, commissioners offered a few ideas, some of which have also been voiced by council members during recent discussions of particular planned-community projects. One is to quantify the project's benefit to the developer and then extract a commensurate quantity in public benefits. Michael and commissioners Arthur Keller and Carl King all made the point that "you can't manage what you can't measure."

Martinez wasn't so sure. He cited the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, which fell into disrepair decades ago and was recently restored to its "former glory" as a symbol of the city.

"You can't measure the public benefit of that," said Martinez, a former Los Angeles resident. The developer, he surmised, made far more money than he gave up in benefits when the project was approved.

"Nevertheless, the historic building is still there, it's part of the Los Angeles landscape, it lives on for another generation or two, and it's an example of a public benefit in the development of this site that is immeasurable," Martinez said.

Resident Bob Moss, a frequent critic of the planned-community process, called many of the recently approved projects under this designation "scams." He added his support to quantifying the benefits to the developer and using this number to help determine the project's public benefits. He also said the city needs to do a better job enforcing public benefits, such as when promised ones fail to materialize or are changed so they no longer benefit the public.

Winter Dellenbach, a Barron Park resident who has long been chronicling disappearing public benefits, agreed and called enforcement "absolutely critical." She also encouraged the city to "do the math" and use the projected profits to measure the required public benefits.

Michael said he would support establishing a menu of eligible public benefits that developers can use when they request concessions. Santa Monica, for instance, offers a list of benefit categories (traffic management, affordable housing, physical improvements, social and cultural facilities and historic preservation) that developers can use to earn points. The points would allow developers to exceed height restrictions.

Michael also said the subject of public benefits should be treated in a more robust fashion in the Comprehensive Plan, the city's land-use bible that is now being updated. The goal, he said, is to move away from the existing "ad hoc treatment for approval."

The commissioners' memo calls planned-community zoning "the greatest challenge to land-use in Palo Alto today." It also argues that the topic of public benefits is about to become even more pertinent as development applications continue to pile up. The use of this zoning designation, the memo states, "will only grow."

Among the major planned-community (PC) projects the city is weighing are a new building for the busy corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road and two dense office towers at 395 Page Mill Road, next to AOL's Silicon Valley headquarters.

"The forces for development in Palo Alto, the scarcity of available land, the impact of higher density land uses, and the infrastructure required to support existing and new development demand that we revisit this aspect of the 'Palo Alto Process.' PCs and their accompanying public benefits do need more clarity. The discussion of the use of pro formas needs to take place. And the standards for recommending a PC must begin now," the memo states.

The discussion will continue to unfold in the coming months, as the planned-community proposals proceed through the city's planning pipeline.

The commission voted 6-0 on Wednesday to make this topic a priority in its next joint meeting with the City Council.

TALK ABOUT IT

Should the city change the way it works with developers who propose public benefits for planned-community projects, and if so, how? Share your opinion on Town Square, the community discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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