Guest opinion: Why Planned Community zoning makes so much trouble
Nothing brings out Palo Alto citizens with the pitchforks as fast as a Planned Community application. Everybody has a different view of how, or if, a development project provides those notorious public benefits. The reason lies in the ordinance itself. Here are the relevant sections of the municipal code (emphasis added):
The planned community district is intended to accommodate developments for residential, commercial, professional, research, administrative, industrial or other activities, including combinations of uses that may require flexibility under conditions not attainable under other district designations. The planned community district is particularly intended for unified, comprehensively planned developments which are of substantial public benefit, and which conform with and enhance the policies and programs of the Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan.
The planning commission, prior to recommending approval of any PC district application, and the city council, prior to approving an ordinance designating and regulating any PC district, shall make all of the following required findings with respect to the application, in addition to findings required by the ordinance.
(a) The site is so situated, and the use or uses proposed for the site are of such characteristics that the application of general districts or combining districts will not provide sufficient flexibility to allow the proposed development.
(b) Development of the site under the provisions of the PC planned community district will result in public benefits not otherwise attainable by application of the regulations of general districts or combining districts. In making the findings required by this section, the planning commission and city council, as appropriate, shall specifically cite the public benefits expected to result from use of the planned community district.
(c) The use or uses permitted, and the site development regulations applicable within the district shall be consistent with the Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan, and shall be compatible with existing and potential uses on adjoining sites or within the general vicinity.
Please note that the phrase "public benefit" is used in two places, with, possibly, two different meanings. No wonder no one is sure what it means. Let's look at each use in turn.
In the description of the purpose of the ordinance, it declares that the development itself should be of "substantial public benefit." What can that mean? To me, it means that the city and the citizens get something out of this project that they would not and could not get out of a code-compliant project on the same site. An example is Channing House, which was built years ago as a PC and provides a quantity of much-needed senior housing that could not be built on that site under the standard zoning. The Opportunity Center is another such project. No one argues that these projects are not of intrinsic public benefit.
In the list of "required determinations," also called "findings," we see that the development "will result in public benefits not otherwise attainable," and that those benefits shall be "specifically cited" in the ordinance. Somehow, this has come to mean "public benefits that are in addition to the development." This was not always true. Channing House was approved as it stood; its presence was the public benefit.
The difficulty arises when buildings that are not of inherent public benefit, such as office buildings, apply for PC zoning. Since they are no different from other, code compliant, buildings, additional "public benefits" must be found and required — payments into various public funds, plazas and landscaping open to all, public art, and so on.
Since there is no description in the code as to what might qualify as a public benefit, huge arguments ensue as to whether these benefits are sufficient. Some people even add up the cost of the proffered benefits against the profits of the developer, as if it would be OK to sell zoning rights if the price were right.
In my opinion, the reason there is no list to pick from is that the ordinance never intended the public benefits to come from outside the project. If the project has no inherent public benefit, but only profits the developer, no PC — stick to the code.
Now we get to the hard parts: how to decide if a project is inherently beneficial to the public. That is particularly difficult because the public has conflicting needs. Somebody says we need more housing, especially low-cost housing. The next guy says that's the last thing we need because it puts a burden on city services. So the interpretation varies from council to council (and sometimes from day to day).
This city council asked a developer to take all the housing out of his project, leaving only offices and maybe a little retail space on the ground floor. I don't see the public benefit in that, only a large office building in the pedestrian overlay district. However, there are extra street trees and various other amenities proposed. But, you would have a hard case to make that the project, as redesigned by the council, was even eligible for the PC determination at all.
There are several possible solutions to this problem. One is to do away with Planned Communities altogether, rewrite the code to allow for more variety in the types of projects that are acceptable under the zoning, and then stick to it. This alternative is not very flexible and assumes the city has enough foresight to guess what might be beneficial in the future.
An alternative solution would be to redefine the public benefits to be outside the project, in addition to the project, and then have a list of what would be acceptable benefits, perhaps dependent on how many extra square feet were being asked for.
A third possibility would be to clarify the ordinance so that "public benefit" is clearly defined as meaning the same thing in both instances: The project itself is of intrinsic public benefit. End of story, no extras.
Judith Wasserman, AIA, is chair of the city's Architectural Review Board.