Palo Alto officials bet city's future growth on a thriving Caltrain
When developer Jim Baer approached Palo Alto's planning commissioners last month to pitch a glassy, new five-story "gateway" building at the intersection of Alma Street and Lytton Avenue, one theme dominated his presentation: location, location, location.
The project would require a "planned community" zone an often controversial zoning designation that allows developers to exceed zoning regulation in exchange for "public benefits." In the case of Lytton Gateway, the tentative list of proposed benefits includes the usual fare for similar projects: public art, a garden, a unit (or several units) of affordable housing and a small cafι on the ground floor. But the top selling point, from both the applicant's and the commission's perspectives, was where the building would stand: right on the doorstep of Caltrain's second-busiest station.
The proposal epitomizes Palo Alto's evolving land-use vision. Just about every major new development these days is viewed through the transit lens, with proximity to Caltrain trumping such previously sacred cows as limiting building height and using existing zoning designations.
Baer, who has shepherded more than 20 PC-zoned projects through Palo Alto's tortuous approval process and who is serving as an adviser for Lytton Gateway, pitched the new project as a way to put the new policies that the council has been talking about for the past year into practice. These include the council's stated goals to welcome young start-ups to the city and to focus dense developments near Caltrain stations.
"Our hope was we can create this as a laboratory parcel," Baer told the planning commission, which, sharing this hope, voted 6-1 (with Susan Fineberg dissenting) to begin the rezoning process.
The linking of transit and housing is far from new in planning circles, having arisen from the "smart growth" movement of the 1970s. It spread through progressive communities over the next three decades and emerged as one of the main themes of California's landmark 2008 climate-change legislation, Senate Bill 375. The bill, which seeks to fight urban sprawl and reduce pollution from vehicles, gives financial incentives and support to communities that embrace transit-oriented development and make an effort to cut down on solo driving.
The idea is simple and largely intuitive: If you build dense housing and offices near train stations and major transit corridors, people will drive less, easing congestion and lowering greenhouse-gas emissions. What's new is the extent to which Palo Alto is starting to embrace the concept.
Torn between a regional mandate to come up with thousands of new housing units and an outcry from residents to protect their quiet enclaves from dense, traffic-causing and parking-space-hogging developments, the city is looking to transit centers as the most promising solution. Developments in transit-friendly areas, particularly around the University Avenue and California Avenue train stations, would allow new development without necessarily adding congestion and exacerbating parking woes. So, at least, goes the thinking.
Palo Alto is a fairly recent convert to this mantra. Five years ago, the city took a step in this direction when it revised its zoning regulations to create a "Pedestrian Transit Oriented District" around California Avenue. The new designation enables developers to pitch and build projects with a greater density and a less stringent parking requirement than would otherwise be allowed. So far, two small mixed-use projects have used this designation to get the city's approval.
Now, Palo Alto is taking the philosophy to the next level. Just about every major new development and construction project going through the city's pipeline these days is viewed through the transit-oriented lens. In fact, just one week after the planning commission initiated the zone change for Lytton Gateway, it rejected another PC application a 23-home development on San Antonio Road largely because the commission felt (despite arguments to the contrary from the developer, SummerHill Homes) that the transit services in the area are insufficient.
"With San Antonio having one train per hour, it's not really a place where there's going to be a lot of transit use," Commissioner Arthur Keller said.
Minutes later the commission voted 6-1 to deny the proposed zone change, with Eduardo Martinez dissenting.
Palo Alto's wholesale embrace of transit-oriented developments has emerged at a time when both the city and the main transit agency it depends on face seismic changes. After more than 30 years of inertia, the city's population spiked by nearly 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, far eclipsing the growth in surrounding cities, according to the U.S. Census.
Its housing stock followed a similar trend and, after three decades of flatness, jumped by about 8 percent over the last decade as massive new developments such as the Campus for Jewish Life, Altaire, Echelon and Vantage went up in south Palo Alto, where transit services and other amenities are generally scarce.
The conversion of the Rickey's Hyatt hotel into Arbor Real, a 181-townhouse development on El Camino Real and Charleston Road has been particularly contentious. With its narrow private streets and lack of access to thriving public transit (given what some officials consider the flagging bus service along El Camino), the new townhouse development is routinely cited by council members, planning commissioners and land-use watchdog as a textbook example of housing policies gone awry. The council responded in 2006 by tightening the zoning regulations to make it more difficult for developers to pitch purely residential El Camino Real developments.
And yet, Palo Alto officials agree that the city needs more housing. The Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional planning organization that sets "fair share" housing requirements for cities in the nine Bay Area counties, released a recommended planning scenario in February that calls on Palo Alto to plan for 12,000 units of new housing over the next 25 years a mandate that city officials see as ridiculously excessive. But as the city's population continues to grow and increased traffic congestion becomes inevitable, few disagree that some new housing will need to be provided to reduce the swell of commuters.
The broad discussion includes one colossal wildcard -- Caltrain. The agency, which draws its funding from three Bay Area transit agencies, is facing a $30 million deficit on a $100 million budget because of reduced contributions from the agencies. Caltrain has been considering a series of drastic service reductions, including halting of weekend service and station closures. On Thursday, Caltrain officials weighed a staff proposal to axe weekend services at California Avenue in Palo Alto, San Antonio in Mountain View and 10 other stations. The Caltrain board decided to postpone the decision until April 21.
Caltrain's struggles have created anxieties all along the San Francisco-to-San Jose corridor, where commuters depend on the transit service. But these anxieties are particularly acute for those communities whose land-use plans were drawn up around Caltrain. Officials from cities along the corridor attended the Thursday meeting and stressed the crucial role Caltrain plays in their transit-oriented-development plans. They included Palo Alto Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie, who urged Caltrain officials not to curtail weekend service for the California Avenue station. He stressed Caltrain's importance to the city's long-term land-use plans for the business district.
"Cutting weekend service -- that's when most riders need it," Emslie said. "It has a very serious impact on the PTOD."
Similar concerns have popped up in Mountain View, a long proponent of transit-oriented development. The San Antonio station, which serves close to 550 passengers per weekday, stands next to "The Crossings," a densely developed residential community built in the mid-1990s that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now lists as a paradigm of "transit-oriented development."
Faced with the possible closure of the San Antonio station, the Mountain View City Council sent a letter last month to the Peninsula Joint Powers Authority, which oversees Caltrain, expressing the city's anxieties. The March 3 letter, signed by Mayor Jac Siegel, states that discontinuing service at the San Antonio station would "conflict with (the) city's long-term 'smart growth' planning efforts," including the city's program to reduce greenhouse gases and its traffic model. Both efforts assume greater residential and commercial intensity near transit stations, Siegel wrote.
"A substantial number of city land-use and planning efforts would be jeopardized should Caltrain discontinue commuter rail service at the San Antonio Station," Siegel wrote.
For example, Mountain View is weighing an ambitious proposal to redevelop the San Antonio Shopping Center, which sits at the corner of El Camino and San Antonio Road. The project would add more than 300 residential units and more than 300,000 square feet of commercial space to the mall. The existence of a Caltrain stop a short stroll away provides much of the justification for the intense density.
Other cities, including San Mateo and South San Francisco, are also planning transit-oriented developments around stations on Caltrain's list of possible closures. While neither of the two Palo Alto stations is on the list, the question of Caltrain's viability is a critical one for city officials and their planning efforts.
Palo Alto Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd, who sits on the council's Rail Committee, summed up the region-wide concerns Monday morning, when the committee considered its response to Caltrain's proposed service cuts.
"There's no incentive for developments and the city to organize themselves around train stations if the train stations are closed," Shepherd said. "These developments are starting to get approved and the stations are closing."
The uncertainty over Caltrain's future has led some Palo Alto residents to question the city's push toward more transit-oriented developments.
Barron Park resident Doug Moran, who attended the public hearing on Lytton Gateway, expressed skepticism about the transit-oriented proposal and its reliance on young, tech-savvy Caltrain commuters from San Francisco.
Moran argued that Caltrain's schedule particularly, its infrequency outside the rush hours makes it difficult for workers from San Francisco to commute to Palo Alto. Matters will get even worse if Caltrain imposes service cuts.
"You can't count on Caltrain being a good support for things," Moran said.
Local attorney William Ross made a similar complaint when voicing opposition to the city's streetscape project at California Avenue a project that includes reducing lanes from four to two and creating a more pedestrian-friendly environment. In February, Ross and a group of California Avenue merchants took their complaints to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which is providing most of the funds for the project. Ross cited Caltrain's financial struggles and described the city's efforts to reduce lanes near the California Avenue station as a "bridge to nowhere."
"Are we authorizing a project for transit capability that doesn't exist?" Ross asked.
Curtis Williams, the city's planning director, said in a recent interview that the city doesn't assume that everyone in the new transit-oriented developments will use transit, but it assumes that some will. Palo Alto is, after all, already one of the most crucial stops for the commuter service. The city's downtown station is second only to San Francisco's in terms of volume of commuters, and Palo Alto's ridership numbers have nearly quadrupled in less then a decade. Between 1992 and 2010, the number of passenger boardings at the University Avenue station rose from about 1,000 to about 3,900. By building around Caltrain stations, the city is doing its part to keep the service viable, Williams said.
"If we say that Caltrain isn't here right now or that it's uncertain so we won't plan that way, we're assuring that Caltrain will not be financially feasible," Williams said. "We're providing on our end what we can to help it exist, though it needs more than that."
Residents in neighborhoods close to the two main transit areas also have reasons to be concerned about increased density near the Caltrain stations. In Professorville, a historic neighborhood south of downtown Palo Alto, getting a parking spot next to your house used to be a right. Now, it's the rarest of privileges.
More than a dozen Professorville residents attended a council meeting on March 14 to decry the new development. One speaker after another complained about workers who choose to forego the two-hour parking restrictions in place throughout most of downtown and park in Professorville, where such restrictions currently don't exist. One neighbor tried to ward off the downtown workers by placing cones in front of her house. It didn't work.
Professorville resident Linda Scott said the number of workers who park in her neighborhood has gone up and called these parking-poachers "arrogant, aggressive and rude."
The College Terrace neighborhood, which is next to the California Avenue business district, faced similar challenges last year and has convinced Palo Alto officials to institute a permit program in the residential neighborhood. In Evergreen Park, which is located across El Camino Real from College Terrace, concerns about parking are becoming more commonplace.
Dense new developments near the two transit stations are unlikely to improve the parking situation in these neighborhoods. Even under the rosiest projections, more than half of the workers and residents in the transit-oriented districts would continue to rely on their cars.
Palo Alto has not performed any studies on whether transit-oriented development really reduces congestion because the city's supply of such developments is too small, Williams said. But evidence from elsewhere in the U.S. suggests cars will continue to be the preferred mode of transportation in these developments, though to a much smaller extent than in other parts of the city.
A 2006 study by Ohland and Shelley Poticha of transit-oriented developments in and around Portland, Ore., showed that in transit-friendly, mixed-use areas, 58 percent of the residents relied on cars for their commutes and 12 percent used transit. In areas with good transit alone but no mix of commercial and residential development, 74.4 percent of residents drove and 3.5 percent took transit. In the remainder of the county, 87 percent relied on cars and only 1.2 percent on transit.
The Portland study also showed that households in mixed-use, transit-oriented districts own about half as many vehicles as those in parts of the region without good transit options (0.93 versus 1.93 autos). The households in the former category also drove less than 10 miles per day, compared to the 21.8 miles driven by those in the latter category.
An informal survey of Palo Alto residents who live near California Avenue Caltrain station suggests that location does indeed lessen reliance on cars. When the Weekly asked 40 people who live near the station about their commuting habits, 18 of them (45 percent) said they rely on their cars as their main mode of transportation while nine (22.5 percent) said they rely on Caltrain. The rest rely on buses or bikes.
Some residents said they chose to live in the complex specifically because it's close to the Caltrain station. Some said they would rely on Caltrain more if express trains stopped there.
"I like living in a transit-oriented environment, but the problem with this one is that the Caltrain station isn't an express stop," resident Jamie Beckett said. "You can't even pick up a local train, stop in downtown Palo Alto and take an express because the times don't match up."
If Caltrain cuts its services, concerns like Beckett's would become more prevalent around California Avenue, and the area will inevitably become less transit-oriented despite the best efforts of city officials.
But even with Caltrian's recent troubles, officials say, transit-oriented development continues to be the city's best hope for reducing residents' reliance on cars. Census data indicates that Palo Altans who live near the two Caltrain stations own fewer cars than their counterparts in other parts of the city. The 2000 U. S. Census showed that an average owner-occupied household in Palo Alto owns about 2.03 vehicles, while an average renter-occupied household owns about 1.3. Around Palo Alto's two main transit areas, the averages drop to just under 1.5 vehicles for homeowner and less than one vehicle from renters.
Williams said in an e-mail the main benefit of putting housing near transit is that it allows many of the non-commute trips to be made with much less reliance on the automobile. Though some people would inevitably continue to drive, the percentage of transit users will likely increase over time as gas prices rise and congestion increases.
The only "sustainable" development scenario, Williams said, is "to focus jobs and housing in areas that are proximate to transit.
"Otherwise we can continue 'business as usual' more automobile trips and traffic, increased costs of infrastructure, less walkable and bicycle-friendly areas, increased vehicle miles traveled, dependence on oil," Williams wrote. "These are choices for the city, the region and higher levels of government to come to grips with to accommodate future growth.
Discussion and debate will no doubt follow about how much land should be allotted for commercial versus residential uses and how much funding should be spent on transit, he said.
This discussion is taking shape during Palo Alto's ongoing revision to its official land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan. The broad document, which lays out the city's vision, goals and policies on housing, transportation and the environment, will soon reflect the city's renewed emphasis on transit-oriented development.
In a May 2010 meeting between the City Council and the planning commission a meeting that focused on the Comprehensive Plan and that could shape the city' land-use future for at least the next decade the council declared, through a series of votes, its desire to focus dense developments near the city's two Caltrain stations, even if these developments would exceed existing zoning regulations.
The city's 50-foot height limit for new buildings for four decades an ironclad protection for neighborhood preservationists could soon be breached if the proposed development is next to a Caltrain station, the council decided by a 5-2 vote. Though the council didn't outright eliminate the restriction, members directed staff to "evaluate" the potential for rising above the 50-foot height limit within a quarter mile of "fixed-rail stations."
"I think if we are serious about transit-oriented developments, we ought to be able to look at the height limit near stations," Councilman Greg Scharff said. "It shouldn't be a sacred cow."
Councilwoman Gail Price, a former city planner in Sunnyvale, agreed that the city's housing needs trump its existing growth restrictions.
"It's important for us to look at this community over the next five, 15, 20 years," Price said. "There is going to be population growth. We do need the flexibility."
Councilwoman Karen Holman, who opposed the motion (along with Larry Klein), urged her colleagues not to modify one of the city's bedrock restrictions. Allowing one or two developments to breach the limit would likely prompt other taller-than-desired buildings to spring up.
"Once we start making exceptions to something, there tends to be a creep that starts happening," Holman said. "We've seen that over time."
But the council generally agreed that bigger is better when it comes to developments near the Caltrain stations. The council also agreed that the city should focus its dense developments within half a mile from the Caltrain station or within a quarter mile of El Camino Real, provided the location either gets good bus service or is likely to get good bus service in the near future.
Both policies exceptions to the 50-foot height limit and increased density near Caltrain stations are now included in the draft of the Housing Element chapter of the new Comprehensive Plan. It's perhaps no coincidence then that Baer's 64-foot-tall project, which seeks to break both boundaries, earned a welcome reception from the planning commission last month while the more traditional SummerHill proposal in south Palo Alto did not.
The commission agreed that Lytton Gateway needs to offer more housing units to get the final approval but nevertheless initiated the rezoning process. Commissioner Eduardo Martinez shared Baer's view that the new development will allow the city to practice what its evolving land-use policies preach or, in any event, will soon preach.
"We talk a lot about housing near transit and compact design near transit and more sustainable uses of our precious land resources," Martinez said. "I think this is an opportunity for us to test the waters.
"I think this is a great place to test this concept, to see if this is where we want to go as a city," he added. "And if it doesn't work, California Avenue can be something else."
Staff Writer Sue Dremann and Editorial Intern Kareem Yasin contributed to this report.
TALK ABOUT IT
What do you think about the city's plan to concentrate homes and businesses close to transit? Share your opinion on Town Square, the online discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.