In rejecting the proposed sidewalk ordinance by a 3-1 vote, with Chair Mark Michael absent and Vice Chair Arthur Keller dissenting, the Planning and Transportation Commission suggested instead to include the sidewalk changes in Our Palo Alto, the broader city initiative meant to encourage community conversation about the city's future. The two-year effort aims to engage the public in building a long-term vision for the city, concurrent with the ongoing upgrade of the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan.
The sidewalk ordinance was drafted in response to the City Council, which in recent years has been fielding criticism from residents upset about dense and massive new buildings going up close to the city's curbs. Commonly cited examples include the Arbor Real townhouses on El Camino and the former Miki's Farm Fresh Market on Alma Street (a space now occupied by Grocery Outlet).
Last April, council members Greg Scharff, Karen Holman, Gail Price and Greg Schmid issued a memo complaining about developments that have "generated consternation in the community and a strong negative reaction by members of the public as to how close the buildings are to the street and how the buildings turn their backs on the public right of way due to inadequate setbacks and building articulation and openings to reduce the building mass."
The ordinance drafted by staff would increase the sidewalk requirement on El Camino Real from the current level to 12 feet, though it would fall short of the 18 feet envisioned in the regional Grand Boulevard Initiative. The proposal would maintain a 12-foot minimum while also requiring an average building setback of 15 to 18 feet. It would only apply to new developments, a point that staff emphasized Wednesday but did little to alleviate the angst of the property owners in attendance.
Chief Planning Official Amy French said the ordinance would be the first step in a broader effort to revise building regulations on major thoroughfares. The second phase would consider thoroughfares beyond El Camino and look at other factors such as building heights. She stressed that the new rules would introduce more flexibility into the review process. They would, for instance, allow a property owner to build columns or arcades 9 feet away from the curb, a design that would allow upper floors of a building to be closer to the curb than the ground floor.
The proposed ordinance would also modify the "build to line" requirement that forces buildings to be 12 feet from the curb unless the developer receives an exemption from the city. The ordinance would eliminate this requirement for all streets except El Camino and specify that on El Camino the requirement could apply to upper floors if the ground floor is set back further from the curb. The ordinance would also empower the Architectural Review Board to modify this requirement on a project-by-project basis, based on context.
"The focus of the ordinance is to allow for flexibility in the review of buildings coming forward along El Camino," French said.
Staff had also proposed reducing the allowed density at 33 properties on El Camino that under state law will now be allowed to raise the number of housing units per acre from 15 to 20. The council suggested reducing the allowed floor-area ratio (total development footage) to ensure that the new units are small.
Though the architectural board approved most of the proposed changes on March 20 (with the notable exception of the density reduction), the sidewalk ordinance ran into a wall of resistance at Wednesday's planning commission meeting. Some property owners derided the regional vision of El Camino as a "grand boulevard," while others argued that the new ordinance would limit their ability to redevelop their properties.
The commission voted 3-1 to incorporate the sidewalk discussion into the Our Palo Alto initiative and concluded its discussion to a round of applause from relieved property owners.