Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 5, 2013

On Deadline: Defining (and enforcing) 'public benefits' is a decades-old quandary

by Jay Thorwaldson

There are some challenges on which cities, and communities, never seem to be able to get a handle.

One of those, for Palo Alto, is two-pronged: first defining what a "public benefit" is when it comes to new developments that exceed zoning restrictions, then enforcing an agreed-to "public benefit" once the development is in place. Even defining such a benefit has proved impossible.

There are some egregious examples of "public benefits" that have been whittled down to virtually nothing — as in a metal bench on a sliver of a "public plaza" — or completely subsumed into a private business, such as Caffe Riace's outdoor eating area south of California Avenue or St. Michael's Alley in downtown Palo Alto.

City officials aren't even sure how many public benefits exist as part of the numerous "planned community" zones the city has granted over the past five decades.

One estimate is that there are about 140 such benefits attached to PC zones. But no one is quite sure of the overall number or even where they are. And when it comes to enforcement of those known to be in violation, the city thus far has declined that course of action — to the continuing consternation of some city watchdogs and neighborhood critics.

Some in the past have even called for a moratorium on PC zones until the "public benefits" definition and enforcement policies are straightened out. Well, that could be a long moratorium, and few are actively pushing for that at the moment.

The current effort is to define public benefit and then determine appropriate size relating to the extra size and impact (and profit) of a project.

The Palo Alto Neighborhoods group has taken the issue up this year, discussing it at a meeting last week, and the Planning and Transportation Commission has designated it a top priority.

The PC zone itself has an interesting history. It emerged from the "zoning battles" of the 1950s when it was still an open question as to how far cities and counties could regulate uses of private property.

While zoning regulations date from the 1920s, as a reporter covering Palo Alto from the mid-1960s through the 1970s I recall discussions by planners in the mid-1960s of how the relatively new PC zone might liberate projects from straight-jacket zoning requirements so developers could be more creative.

In the 1950s and 1960s teams of planning consultants roamed the state selling local communities on "general plans," resulting in zone-colored maps that hung behind the local City Council dais but were most often ignored.

In Palo Alto, then-new Planning Director Naphtali Knox in the early 1970s shifted the approach to the "Comprehensive Plan" process. He noted that general plans usually hit the rocks of reality when specific decisions needed to be made, so his new approach was to make those tricky ground-level decisions first (over months of meetings and community involvement) then fashion the plan itself based on those decisions.

But that didn't solve the problem of the PC zone and its attached "public benefits." As it evolved in Palo Alto, in many cases the zone became a mechanism by which developers could "push the envelope" to increase density, height or overall size of projects.

Some type of "public benefit" added to the project was the trade-off that emerged in exchange for the extra size, etc., of the project.

And the use of the PC zone, rather than as a special-case situation, became increasingly a way to submit larger projects for city review and approval. Some local developers became adept at reading the desires or needs of city officials and neighborhood leaders.

The new wave of attention to the zone and public benefits has emerged over the past decade. The Palo Alto Weekly contributed an excoriating assessment in an editorial on Aug. 18, 2004.

Resident Winter Dellenbach in 2005 raised specific concerns about how public benefits seemed to disappear from some PC developments.

But progress — where any has occurred at all — has been glacial.

Now there is a new initiative underway at several levels to address the concerns and, it is hoped, address them effectively.

One aspect of that initiative is from the city staff. City Manager James Keene in December told the City Council that the staff will be studying the economic aspects of extra size or density of projects to provide a basis for determining the extent of public benefit to be attached.

Curtis Williams, director of planning and community environment, is the point person for that study. Williams said this week that a consultant has been hired and the study will begin with the Jay Paul project, a 311,000-square-foot office project proposed for the former county transportation-system parking lot at Page Mill Road and El Camino Real.

The "public benefit" would be the building of a new public-safety building (or police headquarters) nearby, revised from 60 percent of the building cost (sans furnishings or electronic communications equipment) to 100 percent. Other projects will follow, he said, including the large Arrillaga proposal for 27 University Ave. when it is finalized.

Another facet of the new initiative is a focus by the influential Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) group, consisting of neighborhood leaders from throughout the community. The PAN meeting last week focused almost exclusively on this subject.

A third is a new 10-page colleague's memo, dated March 27, by three members of the Planning and Transportation Commission that clearly defines the issues involved — an excellent read. Written by commission Chair Eduardo Martinez, Vice Chair Mark Michael and Commissioner Michael Alcheck, the memo outlines the grounds for a PC zone and carefully lays the groundwork for rationalizing "public benefits" attached.

But Dellenbach remains skeptical, among others.

Serious reform "feels like an issue that will never go anywhere," she said this week. "I gave it my best shot. It seems to me the direction the horse is running right now is the initial foray of the planning commission — but look at the onslaught of development coming our way."

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes blogs posted on the Weekly's community website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

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