Palo Alto, a city with a reputation for affluence and astronomical property values, is banking on small apartments scattered near rail stations and bus corridors to meet its daunting "fair share" requirement for affordable housing.
The city is in the process of putting together its Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out the city's housing needs and its strategies for meeting those needs. The document also has to address what many city leaders agree is an impossible task: finding room for 2,860 units of new housing in a city that officials say has virtually no land to spare for those developments.
City planners discussed this dilemma with residents at a Tuesday evening workshop on the new Housing Element, which they hope to complete by early next year and which covers the period between 2007 and 2014.
Though the final details are still being hashed out, planning officials indicated that the new document would concentrate new housing near Caltrain stations, within a quarter mile of El Camino Real and in mixed-use buildings.
The strategy is a far departure from the city's current Housing Element, which was adopted for the period between 1996 and 2006. The existing document calls for the city to increase the development of non-residential lands to residential and mixed use, including "converting non-residential lands to residential or mixed use." It also calls for the city to "aggressively pursue a variety of housing opportunities that enhance character, diversity and vitality of the City" but does not dictate where this housing would be built.
One reason for the city's change in strategy is the recent explosion in dense, multi-family housing developments, particularly in South Palo Alto. Between 1996 and 2006, the city approved 1,713 units of housing, 316 more than its "fair share," as determined by Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). Of these new units, 1,372 were built for residents of "above moderate" income. Since then, many residents and city officials have criticized the new developments for increasing neighborhood traffic, providing inadequate parking and forcing local schools to accommodate more children.
Others have lamented the transformation of local institutions such as the Hyatt Rickey's and Palo Alto Bowl into housing developments. Though the bowling alley continues to operate, the city last year approved a proposal to build a hotel and town houses on its location.
Planning Director Curtis Williams said the influx of dense housing developments over the past decade, particularly in areas far from transit corridors, encouraged city planners and City Council members to be more selective about housing locations in the current Housing Element. The last Housing Element was much more "scattered" than the one staff is currently working on, he said.
City Planner Ron Babiera said Tuesday the city's approach during this planning period is "not to rezone any sites from commercial to residential," and to consider smaller units in mixed-use developments near major transit corridors, as the City Council had directed in May.
The council specifically requested that the city evaluate possible housing locations within areas that are "well serviced by transit or are likely to be well-served." The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is eyeing El Camino Real as one of several corridors on which it could launch its Bus Rapid Transit service.
The city isn't required to build the new housing, but merely to demonstrate that its plans could accommodate it.
Some of the residents at Tuesday's workshop said they were skeptical about the prospect of planning more housing along El Camino Real, which they said isn't particularly transit friendly. If the busy corridor doesn't see an improvement in transit, the new housing could further worsen the driving and parking conditions in nearby neighborhoods, they said.
"We feel real transit can lead to certain housing, not potential or theoretical transit," said College Terrace resident Doria Summa, who participated in one of two "break-out groups" that discussed the city's housing needs and challenges. "We agreed that it would be a mistake to base (housing) on some theoretical transit."
Babiera said the city faces a series of steep obstacles to meeting the "fair share" quote, including an existing shortage of affordable housing, limited land availability and high property values. It's not uncommon for people to spend five to seven years on the waiting list to get into one of Palo Alto's existing affordable-housing facilities, he said.
Palo Alto has been working on the new Housing Element for more than three years. In 2008, the state granted the city a two-year extension. Babiera said the city hopes to have a draft of the Housing Element approved by the council in December.