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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Downtown Commercial Cap: Once more into the breach

Uploaded: Feb 10, 2019
Remember when City Council was opposing the conversion of the President Hotel building from affordable housing to a hotel? Seems like just yesterday, but it was actually weeks ago. At Monday's Council meeting, they will once again be voting to "grease the skids" for this conversion: by making a major change to development policy. The President Hotel is only the immediate impetus for this change: It can create large problems for years to come.

The proposal this time is to repeal the Downtown Commercial Cap -- officially the "Non-Residential Square Footage Cap". The Cap was designed to trigger a comprehensive re-evaluation of the Downtown area, updating policies and limits. It provided for up to a 1-year moratorium should that be needed. We are either close to, or over, that cap depending upon ambiguities about what to count.

Why aren't such studies already underway? Because in early 2017, the pro-development Council majority directed Staff to produce a repeal of the Cap. This was a Council majority where major policy changes would pop up during Council meetings, not giving Staff or the public time to review, much less comment on, the changes. At least one of these was introduced as an amendment after after the public comment period had closed. These major decisions were made with little discussion, indicating that the Council majority had deliberated behind closed doors in violation of the Brown Act or that they were grossly derelict in their duty to have such discussions. Three members of that former majority are still on the current seven member Council.

One of the tricks in negating data that will be against your agenda is to schedule the decision to be before the data can be collected. Another trick is to broaden the data collection so that the problematic areas disappear into the averages. We see similar tactics here. That Council majority tried to replace the Downtown Commercial Cap with a cumulative one for Downtown plus California Ave and El Camino. That cap is 50K sqft per year, with unused portions rolling forward. It is conceivable that most or all of that could go into Downtown projects in a single year. The current Downtown Cap is 350K sqft, so 50K growth is 14% more in one year than what is already there. How does that 50K sqft compare to historical rates? In the 5 years of 2011-2015, an average of 27K sqft was added (134,400 total), for an average annual growth of 8% of the Cap. In the past 3 years, the average is 13K, or 4% of the Cap. In earlier years, it was far less.

And who is calling for this change? "Pro-development" forces, the ones who argue that building more housing should be Palo Alto's top priority and we should incentivize/subsidize developers by allowing more commercial construction, even when that commercial construction makes the jobs-housing balance even worse.(foot#1) However, when our housing needs interfere with a developer's desires, suddenly the housing priority isn't.

A big unanswered question is how the elimination of the Downtown Commercial Cap would interact with City policies supposedly intended to increase housing in Downtown. Currently commercial space has higher value than housing -- potentially enough to offset the incentives for housing.


For a deeper discussion of the details, I recommend "^Council to revisit Downtown Commercial Cap^" in the 2019-02-08 issue of ^Palo Alto Matters^.
The 91-page Staff report is "^Downtown Cap: Repeal of PAMC Chapter 18.18.040^".

You can send an email to City Council. If you don't use the preceding link, send it to and include a Subject line such as "Feb 11, Agenda #10: Downtown Commercial Cap" to help Council members spot it among the many messages they receive.

1. Making the jobs-housing balance worse:
Facebook's proposed Willow Village campus in Menlo Park is an example of a project promoted as addressing the jobs-housing imbalance.It will have 1500 housing units, a hotel and 1,750,000 sqft of office space,which at a generous 200 sqft per employee translates into 8750 office workers,which in turn is 5.8 office workers per housing unit.
More info: "^Facebook submits revised plans for Willow Village^", The Almanac, 2019-02-08.

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The ^Guidelines^ for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
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 +   9 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 4:50 pm

"And who is calling for this change? "Pro-development" forces, the ones who argue that building more housing should be Palo Alto's top priority and we should incentivize/subsidize developers by allowing more commercial construction, even when that commercial construction makes the jobs-housing balance even worse."

Gotta give 'em credit for integrity. Their campaign contributions, especially those they tried to hide from the public, are advance payments for just such services, which they are delivering whole. This unfortunate circumstance is the fault of those concerned citizens who verbally oppose overdevelopment, but then let themselves be outbid during the election fundraising season.

 +   2 people like this
Posted by Marc, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 5:57 pm

Where did the idea of "...Making the jobs-housing balance worse..." come from? I've lived in the Midwest, East Coast and never heard anyone ever have the idea that people should live in the same town as they work. Or that for every job in town there needs to be a housing unit. On the face of it the only thing this does is keep jobs out of towns.

Jobs are always more dense than housing. A person's work space can be as little as 25 sq ft. How would you ever have a jobs-housing balance?


 +   12 people like this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 11, 2019 at 11:51 am

>> The proposal this time is to repeal the Downtown Commercial Cap -- officially the "Non-Residential Square Footage Cap".

I find it astonishing that developers were able to force this onto the agenda so soon after the election.

Make no mistake about it: if you love traffic and traffic jams, then call your CC and tell them to vote yes on more office space. If you think that we residents are crying out for more cut-through commuter traffic through residential neighborhoods, let them know how much you desire more office development. Let the CC know how much you appreciate driving 6 MPH at rush hour, and beg them to make that 5 MPH, or even 4 MPH.

Oh, and all the election stuff about making "housing" the top priority? Just kidding!!

On a more logical note: 6 MPH was my personal sample measurement for ECR, Page Mill, and Oregon between 5:00 PM and 6:00 PM. Does anyone know of a recent city traffic study which looks at where everybody is going at rush hour, how they get in and out of the city, what routes they take, and speeds along the way? Surely some of the office space developers would actually like to know that, wouldn't they?

 +   11 people like this
Posted by Deception by Statistics, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 11, 2019 at 2:56 pm

Doug, thanks for a very relevant posting.

The comment above this one touched on a point that reminds us of another way people (or more relevantly here: developers) will attempt to obfuscate data when it is not in their favor, in addition to the two Doug mentions (starve or dilute). The technique: gather data but strip it of its context.

Recall when the developer was trying to cram 300,000 square feet of office space at Page Mill (in exchange for a shell police building). Their presentation happily noted that their studied result forecast "only a 2 MPH" decrease of speed through the ECR/Page Mill intersection. This information sounds innocuous but is meaningless without the full picture which includes the base-speed through the intersection.

The poster above me has looked into exactly this critical and essential starting point for any traffic analysis.

From Anon: "On a more logical note: 6 MPH was my personal sample measurement for ECR, Page Mill, and Oregon between 5:00 PM and 6:00 PM."

Let's hope our new city council will be interested in real, meaningful data, and likewise take a skeptical and punitive stand against anyone who "lies with data" to the public.

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