Palo Alto, a city with a history of opposing high-rise developments and promoting the small, eclectic neighborhoods, is now reconsidering its 50-foot height limit for new buildings.
The City Council voted on Wednesday night to direct staff to take a fresh look at the limit -- a restriction long viewed as sacrosanct by neighborhood leaders and other opponents of bulky new developments. The council specified that staff should only consider easing the 40-year-old restriction in neighborhoods that are next to fixed-rail (i.e., Caltrain) stations.
The goal is to encourage new mixed-use projects near major transit corridors -- a strategy that city officials, regional planners and state legislators are increasingly promoting in hopes of reducing traffic and creating sustainable neighborhoods. Councilman Greg Scharff, who made the proposal to reconsider the 50-foot height limit, said reconsidering the "sacred cow" restriction would give the city some much needed flexibility in addressing Palo Alto's housing needs.
"I think if we are serious about transit-oriented development, we do need to have the flexibility to look at 50-foot height limits near fixed-rail stations, which is a very limited area," Scharff said. "I'm not saying we should definitely do it and go in that direction, but it's important to be flexible.
"It shouldn't be a sacred cow," he added.
But Councilwoman Karen Holman, a former member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, opposed Scharff's proposal and reiterated her support for barring buildings taller than 50 feet, a restriction the City Council adopted in the early 1970s to stave off new office towers and other tall developments. Holman warned that easing the ban could lead to more exceptions and exacerbate the city's "incompatibility" issues.
"The 50-foot height limit has been one of the sacred cows," Holman said. "Once we start exceeding it or making exceptions to something, there tends to be a creep that starts happening."
Holman and Larry Klein were the only council members who opposed Scharff's direction to staff. The council voted 5-2, with Councilman Yiaway Yeh and Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa absent, to take a fresh look at building heights.
Height limit has been a hot topic around the city since at least the early 1970s, when Palo Alto voters rejected a proposed 11-story office tower north of University Avenue and a downtown hospital proposed by the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. The city's current Comprehensive Plan, which was adopted in 1998, states that the limit has been "respected in all new developments since it was adopted in the 1970s, only a few exceptions have been granted for architectural enhancements or seismic safety retrofits to non-complying buildings."
New developments that exceed this limit, including the Taube Koret Campus of Jewish Life (62 feet), the proposed expansion of the Stanford Hospital (135 feet) and the proposed expansions of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital (85 feet), have also been deeply scrutinized by planning commissioners, council members and the public at large. Some, including former Vice Mayor Jack Morton, have been extremely critical of the new developments, calling them too massive for the surrounding area.
Mayor Pat Burt emphasized Wednesday that the council's decision doesn't outright scrap the city's height rule but merely gives staff direction to reconsider the restriction near major transit corridors. But Burt acknowledged that changing the city's long-standing policy could alarm many residents.
If restrictions are changed, the new limits would be very limited and restricted to areas next to rail stations, he said.
"We're not talking about the height of future Stanford Hospital all around this area or other break-outs from the 50-foot limit that would unduly alarm the community," Burt said.
In other business:
The height limit was one of many planning and land-use issues the council tackled at the Wednesday meeting, which focused on the Palo Alto's ongoing revision of its Comprehensive Plan -- the city's official land-use bible.
Responding to the recent surge of large residential developments along El Camino Real, the council unanimously agreed Wednesday not to rezone commercial sites for residential use, unless the proposed projects are mixed-use development.
The council also agreed to focus on sites within half a mile of transit stations for new developments. Council members also asked staff to evaluate potential sites within a quarter mile of El Camino Real that are well-served (or are likely to be well-served) by public transportation.
The city is seeking to identify potential new housing sites in order to meet a requirement from the Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional organization that allots "fair share" housing mandates to cities around the region. The organization asked Palo Alto to provide 2,860 units of housing, a number the council agreed is impossible for the city to meet.
The council agreed to take the "bottom-up" approach to address the ABAG mandate. This means identifying all of the city's potential sites for new housing and then submitting its housing inventory to the regional agency, even if the inventory fails to reach ABAG's number.