Palo Alto Weekly
Spectrum - June 27, 2014
Editorial: For developers, tough sledding
Citizen activists put city staff and council to the test in reviewing new projects
For real-estate developers in Palo Alto, 2014 may be looked back on as a turning point in how things work for them at city hall.
Experienced property owner-developers with track records of quality projects have enjoyed a relatively hospitable environment at city hall for a long time. The likes of Chop Keenan, Jim Baer and Roxy Rapp, and the architects they hire, have had good professional relationships with city staff and commission members and enjoy easy access to council members. And they have generally been more appreciated than criticized for their projects, even as they ask for zoning concessions or favorable rules interpretations.
More often than not, these developers have been able to win approvals because the quality of their buildings has been viewed as superior to what others might build. They also have an advantage of more historical knowledge about the details of the zoning laws and how they've been applied in the past than the planners who are reviewing their applications.
But there is a palpable change taking place, and it is disrupting council alliances and creating angst and discomfort among planning staff and city management. It's as if a metaphorical compass has been lost, and everyone is trying to sort out this new political landscape, unsure of just how tough to be with these familiar developers with long track records in the community.
At least between now and the November election, there is little appetite on the city council for giving any more ammunition to vocal critics of past policy decisions.
The city council's heightened sensitivity to a wave of public concern over development, parking and traffic, particularly downtown, was on full display Monday night, when it appropriately rejected a staff recommendation allowing for a significant expansion of the iconic historic building at 261 Hamilton Ave. just vacated by University Art.
A few years ago, it is likely that a majority of the council would have voted to support this project. Instead, it was rejected on an 8-1 vote, with only Gail Price supporting it.
The key issue was building owner Roxy Rapp's plan to expand the building with a new three-story wing behind the current historic structure, along the alley called "Centennial Walk."
The existing building size already vastly exceeds the current zoning limits but is grandfathered under the law, meaning that Rapp can maintain the current usable square footage but not add to it. In an ingenious move, he proposed converting the large basement to a garage with parking for nine cars, which he argued then allowed him to reallocate the 6,000 square feet of basement space to enable the building of the new three-story office wing.
His reasoning was that since below-grade parking does not normally count in a building's square footage under the zoning law, by switching the basement's use to parking he "gained" 6,000 feet in new above-ground development potential.
As opponents pointed out, this method of creating 6,000 square feet of brand-new additional commercial office space where the existing building already exceeds the current zoning is just the sort of increased development that residents are rebelling against. The nine new parking spaces wouldn't begin to accommodate the number of workers who would occupy the new wing of the building, so downtown's parking deficit would have only worsened with Rapp's proposal.
Remarkably, the planning staff went along with Rapp's interpretation of the rules and recommended that his plan be approved.
Fortunately, the proposal found an ally only in Gail Price, who felt the benefit of the building being renovated with improved fire-safety features was worth the additional square footage. The other council members, especially those anxious to be responsive to a restless electorate, could hardly wait to go on record opposing the project. It is but another indication of the sea-change in attitude that has come over Palo Alto politics.
The council clearly made the right decision in this case, and by doing so hopefully makes clear to developers that under-parked projects are dead-on-arrival no matter the offsetting benefits. And the same should apply to other creative developer efforts to stretch current zoning limits by offering offsetting benefits.
We have little doubt this will remain the current council's attitude until the election; our hope is that the council elected in November will make this a clear mandate for the future.
Posted by Greenacres,
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 27, 2014 at 3:13 pm
The way our City has dealt with development has an analogy in how our technology can dominate our lives and make us less productive. The City manager/staff and Council don't prioritize the nuts and bolts City business things like safety, big picture planning, quality of life, protecting the character of our neighborhoods and quality of the environment, solving civic problems City "business" processes aren't structured to keep development in proper context, so developers (between their money and narrow view toward their own wants) end up dominating. Development dominates staff time, City business, City focus, and, when developments are built, they just plain dominate.
Nuts and bolts City work is hard, often thankless, boring work. If you fight tooth and nail to ensure your town has a proper egress network mapped out in case of large-scale emergency, no one is likely to thank you even if the worst happens and everyone survives because of it. Usually fighting tooth and nail for safety before the worst happens is an extremely difficult task, it's why "safety first" is such a necessary reminder for most humans. If someone dies in a neighborhood because response time is 1 minute longer, probably no one is even going to notice. (Who would know, really, if the person would have survived?) It's so much easier to schmooze with nice developers and architects. But we hire and vote for people to run our City so that they put those kinds of nuts and bolts civic concerns first, especially safety.
Residents have expressed alarm and concern for a long time about what has been happening to traffic circulation and safety. Both of those issues are actually mandated as distinct elements in the comprehensive plans of California cities, but we don't have them in our Comprehensive Plan. Safety, for example, is rolled up into "natural environment" and there are very few specific policies that address our current safety needs, particularly with all this development. Safety isn't first, it's an afterthought.
The Maybell development took up so much of everyone's time and attention last year. Before the vote on rezoning the residential neighborhood, neighbors repeatedly called for the "heightened scrutiny" of school commutes that is the City's own policy demands. But what did that entail? There were no rules whatsoever, no specific guidelines that could be enforced, challenged, or improved. The neighbors hired a respected traffic engineer who found there was no examination of the impact to students biking to school or walking at all in the report. The only thing they could do was point out the total absence of any scrutiny, but what guidelines or processes or big picture planning for safety did "heightened" scrutiny even entail?
For lack of a strategy, a "business" process, that prioritizes what's most important, our City just kept treating development as the de facto priority. [Portion removed.]
Cities can deal with safety and traffic circulation elements in their comp plans however they wish, they don't have to have separate elements, but there are specific requirements. Did you know that traffic circulation is even supposed to take the CONVENIENCE of residents into account? We roll those elements into other elements, but it's left us without any sense of civic priority, and in the face of pressure by developers, City Council just picks up whenever developers ping.
When NO on Measure D won, it felt a lot like that scene in Horton Hears a Who where the residents of Whoville finally got that "Yop!" through and those intent on destroying their little dust speck finally hear the residents yelling "We are here! We are here! We are HERE!"
I feel really sad that the result of hearing us is that our City staff become confused, rather than refocused on what's important to residents. It isn't just that they need to change the insular culture, we need good management from Council to examine how to focus City business processes on what's important. Otherwise, they'll just go back to picking up the phone whenever developers call and leaving the most important business of civic life as neglected as now.
I do think Eric Filseth and Tom Du Bois will refocus the priorities on what's most important, so long as we get a majority of residentialist candidates who are as good as they are. I think this kind of clarity will be good for developers eventually, too.
To post your comment, please click here to Log in
. This topic is only for those who have signed up to participate by providing their email address and establishing a screen name.