Several years ago, I asked then-Palo Alto Planning Director Hillary Gitelman whether there was any data on the percentage of residents living in housing units near Caltrain who actually used the train to get to work. Transit-oriented housing was a hot topic in the 20-teen years
“Great question!” she responded, “I’ll look into it.” Her reply: No data. None. She had queried several Peninsula cities and found no city had investigated whether transit-oriented hosing was occupied by commuters, and, if so, how many were using the train to get to work, rather than their cars -- which was the presumed purpose of building apartments near train tracks.
I found her answer interesting because public officials often tend to latch onto what they think are great ideas to improve things, but frequently don’t check back to see if their presumptions were correct.
Fast forward to this year, where the cry for more housing, especially the affordable kind, is a constant refrain among Peninsula cities (and state officials). The state and ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) has allocation quotas for most cities -- 6,086 new dwelling units to be built between 2022-2031 in Palo Alto alone. Typically, those must-build designations are based on the number of jobs in these towns (Atherton’s quota is very low).
The big wrinkle here was when the quotas were set. California was expanding rapidly, with the thought we would continue to grow by leaps and bounds, and officials presumed the growth would continue upward.
However, California’s state auditor re-examined those projections a year or two later, and said they were not only inaccurate, but the predictions on housing needs overestimated the number of new housing units needed in this state by at least 900,000 units, in its stated need of 2.1 million new units. That’s like a 43 percent overcount!
But the state never changed those original quotas. We are still at 6,086 for Palo Alto. Ditto for other cities’ quotas.
And that is the very reason we need solid data on how many units have been built and are under construction the past couple of years in each city and town, and how much is needed, especially what percent is and will be “affordable” lower-income housing.
In the meantime, more people started moving out of state, in part because the cost of living is so high here, couples are having fewer children, and less people are moving in. Soon, the growth curve turned south.
This past year, the cry for more housing has become louder and stronger. Just this July, a new housing proposal is suggesting that several big parking lots in downtown Palo Alto be converted into new housing – with little mention that if that occurs, then where do people park downtown? And what happens to business revenues in the downtown?
In fact, one part of the housing proposal would be to build new units for seniors in the lot on Bryant across from Avenidas, a mecca for senior activities. That way the seniors living there could walk across the street to attend Avenidas events. But that lot is exactly the place current senior members of Avenidas use to park!
And in Menlo Park another new proposal was rapidly pushed out the developer’s door to tear down the lovely Sunset magazine building and its historic gardens at Willow and Middlefield to build four tall buildings, one 300-feet high, higher than Hoover Tower, encompassing retail, office and housing units.
And, by the way, the development would bring more traffic at an already very-crowded intersection.
So, all this is why I want an audit. Do we need to build more and more housing and, in the process, forget about enough parking in downtown Palo Alto and more traffic at Menlo’s Linfield Oaks neighborhood area?
Another reason for an official audit, funded by the state, I hope. or a group of local cities:
We are building lots of apartments already in this area. This past year I see more apartments under construction and seemingly ready to open. Take the massive four-block span of new units already built on the east side of El Camino, just as you enter Menlo Park from Palo Alto. It’s a huge number of units. I don’t know if any of them are designated affordable, but at least 10 percent (the customary number) should be. Better yet, 20 percent.
Over in East Palo Alto there are a guestimated 200 or so apartments fronting on Highway 101 that don’t yet seem occupied.
And then along Alma Street in Mountain View, as you drive south, across the tracks are literally two blocks of apartments under construction.
And on Middlefield Road in Mountain View near Shoreline Blvd., another very large grouping of new apartment buildings.
We just need to count up all these new units in the area, which an audit could accomplish.
If we overbuild, we are in trouble because we’ve taken things like parking lots and church lots and knocking down buildings and replace them with housing units. And what if they aren’t filled? I worry about “ghost-town” sections in portions of our cities.
Don’t get me wrong. Yes, we certainly need more affordable housing, where it is needed, but we have to check our progress.
So, should we conduct an area-wide hosing audit? Should we urge the state to update their housing need figures to portray 2023 needs should we be ware of how much we are buildiing?