But the most puzzling and glaring thing about the city's Housing Element — which is perhaps the most critical portion of the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan — is the time span it covers. With a planning horizon of 2007-14, the document is laying out a vision for a period that began when Barack Obama was a junior U.S. Senator from Illinois and concludes next year. In short, it took a while to put together, and it will soon require another update.
Now, after years of negotiations and revisions, the 236-page document is finally nearing approval. On Wednesday night, April 10, it scored its first victory when the Planning and Transportation Commission voted 6-0, with Greg Tanaka absent, to endorse it.
The reasons for the delay range from the difficulty of finding viable sites where new housing could be built to demands for revisions from the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Among the trickiest assignments for Palo Alto planners was identifying sites for 2,860 units, which includes the 1,217 homes that the city has already approved in the planning period and the 1,643 for which it needs to find space. In late March, after a vigorous back-and-forth, the city finally received an endorsement from the state for the draft Housing Element, which is slated to be formally certified in May or June.
The Housing Element seeks to meet the state mandate by concentrating future homes along major transportation corridors — namely, around downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real. The new document also offers incentives for developing housing under existing zoning while avoiding increasing the density in neighborhoods with single-family homes.
The planning commission on Wednesday praised the document, with Vice Chair Mark Michael calling it "impressive," Commissioner Arthur Keller lauding it as an "excellent report" and Commissioner Michael Alcheck calling it a "good read."
"If more community members read it, they'd really understand what we're dealing with here," Alcheck said,
Land-use watchdog Bob Moss called the draft Housing Element "the best compromise we can come up with," citing the city's greatest challenge in meeting housing mandates — lack of affordable land. This makes the prospect of having the city fund construction of hundreds of homes highly unlikely, if not impossible. State law doesn't require the city to build the housing, only to plan for it.
"When they talk about building affordable housing in Palo Alto — unless the people who are asking for it come up with the money, it isn't going to happen," Moss said.
The Housing Element, available at www.paloaltocompplan2020.org, articulates the city's housing vision as: "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 considers new incentives to encourage affordable housing, promotes development of "underutilized sites," encourages buildings that mix both homes and retail or office space, and commits the city to give preference, when considering residential projects, to those developments that serve people who have extremely low incomes.
Assistant City Attorney Cara Silver said the city's long journey to complete the Housing Element is now in its "home stretch." Keller used the word "stretch" in a different sense when he commented on the document.
"It's certainly a stretch for Palo Alto to absorb the amount of housing ... if they're fully built," Keller said.
Some voiced concerns about the late date of completion. Even before the document is formally approved, the city is already looking ahead to its next Housing Element revision, which covers the period between 2015 and 2022. Senior Planner Tim Wong said the state deadline for completing the next version is in December 2014.
Advanced Planning Manager Steven Turner attributed the late submission of the document to an extensive public process in the beginning phases (this included meetings with a 15-member stakeholder committee) and to the fact that the vast majority of the work was performed in-house, without reliance of consultants. The length of time to prepare the document, Turner said, "far exceeded our expectations."
He also noted that one of the benefits of completing the element at the end of the cycle is that it will allow the city to move much more quickly on the next element, with all the issues and trends still fresh on everyone's minds.
"I think we are ahead of the game for the next element," Turner said.