Is mixed-use zoning the path of city's future?
Council pressured to act due to ramifications of Prop. 90
The path of least resistance to maintaining a balance between retail and housing is apparently combining the two in one building.
That was the City Council's only option Monday night in a race to rezone the city to protect ground-floor retail before Proposition 90 appears on the ballot on Nov. 7.
The "Anderson Initiative" — a state constitutional amendment that deals with the use of eminent domain and would affect the city's ability to rezone its own land — "Would affect our ability to direct our land-use destiny for a long time," Planning Director Steve Emslie said.
Choosing the quickest, easiest way to limit housing developments on commercial land, Council members voted 7-0 to change zoning to allow mixed-use developments and forbid single-family homes in commercial sites. Council members John Barton and Peter Drekmeier absent were absent.
"We have to prevent housing being built on a willy-nilly basis," said Councilman Larry Klein.
The council also approved a separate motion — which passed 5-2 with Councilwoman Dena Mossar and Mayor Judy Kleinberg opposed — that would rezone the locations of the Palo Alto Bowl, the Mayflower Motel and Summerwinds Nursery to commercial sites.
Currently, those lots are zoned residential.
Though in a similar situation as Palo Alto Bowl and other tenants whose functions do not fit zoning requirements, Fry's Electronics was left out of the motion because the council already directed staff in July to examine rezoning that location for commercial use.
Council's motivation to prevent housing from replacing retail comes from the number of new housing projects that will be built over the next few years and a wish to increase sales-tax revenue.
Palo Alto's housing sites inventory includes a minimum of 818 new units that will take the place of commercial and other uses, including 185 housing units replacing Hyatt Rickey's and 352 units replacing Sun Microsystems at the new Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life.
On Monday night, staff presented council two options to curb housing developments in commercial sites: prohibiting housing entirely on commercial sites or allow mixed-use developments but no single-family homes in those zones.
The council lacked wiggle room because the looming Nov. 7 election could potentially bring the passage of Proposition 90, and subsequently prevent future rezoning efforts.
Given the limited amount of time before the election, choices were limited.
City Attorney Gary Baum called the mixed-use option "less draconian" and more feasible because it would not require an amendment to the city's comprehensive plan and could be accomplished by the Nov. 7 election.
"Sometimes half a loaf is better than nothing at all," Klein said. He added that the number of housing projects approved from 1999 until the present should provide the city more than enough.
Only Mossar spoke strongly against restricting housing developments on current commercial sites.
"Just because you want something to be in commercial — you want to keep Mary Sue's coffee shop — doesn't mean that's what you're going to get," she said. "Zoning isn't going to guarantee the economic outcome."
Kleinberg favored mixed-use, amending Klein's motion to require that ground-floor commercial space be used for retail and not offices. But she and Mossar did not support rezoning Palo Alto Bowl and other spots for commercial-only.
"With the zoning you're suggesting, Fry's could become an office park and frankly, I don't want Fry's to become an office park. I'd rather have housing," Mossar said.
The council's action to rezone commercial spots to allow for mixed-use developments would include retail along El Camino but not areas like Alma Plaza and Edgewood Shopping Center, over which council members has discretion to approve housing and retail projects.
Molly Tanenbaum can be e-mailed at email@example.com.