A regional plan to promote "sustainable communities" is facing a chorus of opposition from Palo Alto and other cities, many of which would have to build thousands of houses to accommodate the latest vision for the Bay Area's future.
The City Council is scheduled to discuss the plan, known as the "Initial Vision Scenario," on Monday night (July 11) and consider the city's response to the latest projections.
The debate over long-term growth and housing projections highlights the challenges facing regional agencies as they try to meet the goals of Senate Bill 375, a landmark 2008 bill that seeks to reduce green-house gas emissions by promoting development near transportation corridors. The scenario unveiled by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has the goal of reducing per-capita gas emissions by 7 percent by 2020 and by 15 percent by 2035.
But while officials from Palo Alto and other cities share the regional agencies' zeal for transit-oriented developments and traffic reduction, they are far more skeptical when it comes to the details. Council members and planning officials have consistently argued that the regional housing projections are highly overstated and that the agencies' methodology is fundamentally flawed. In May, the council slammed the proposed growth scenario and called for the entire plan to be overhauled.
Though the planning agencies can't force cities to build the new housing, they can withhold grants from those communities that don't try to comply with the planning mandates. This means Palo Alto could potentially lose funding for road improvements and other transportation projects if it ignores the ABAG/MTC proposal.
At the same time, Palo Alto officials say they believe the projections are too inaccurate to be taken seriously. In late May, the city sent a letter to ABAG Executive Director Ezra Rapport, saying that the agency's plan for sustainable communities is "highly unrealistic and in some ways contrary" to the goal of encouraging housing near transit.
The Initial Vision Scenario calls for Palo Alto to plan for 11,990 housing units by 2035. The city currently has 28,216 households, according to the 2010 Census.
What's particularly striking from the city's perspective is that only 45 percent of these houses would be planned for areas that the city has identified as ripe for growth (mostly areas near major transit centers and corridors). The rest would be scattered in other parts of the city, including single-family neighborhoods. This "puts a significant burden on Palo Alto to provide more housing in areas without sufficient available land and in conflict with goals to provide housing close to transit and services," Curtis Williams, the city's planning director, wrote in a report to the council.
The planning scenario calls for the city to build about 480 new houses per year, far more than the 200 units it's been building per year over the past 14 years, according to Williams.
"Staff believes this is an unrealistic rate of growth, particularly given the limited land resources and multiple other constraints," Williams wrote.
Other Santa Clara County cities, including Campbell and Mountain View have expressed similar concerns about the regional projections, Williams wrote. Like Palo Alto, these cities argued in letters that the Initial Vision Scenario doesn't adequately address job growth, transportation networks or the cities' "extensive constraints" to new housing. These include school and road capacities and infrastructure.
The subject of dense new housing developments is especially thorny in Palo Alto, which has seen a spike in large multi-family developments over the past decade, particularly in the southern part of the city. The city is now revising its Comprehensive Plan and has made it a priority to concentrate new housing near transit centers. Palo Alto is also trying to find ways to address its $500 million infrastructure backlog, which makes it even more difficult for the city to accommodate major growth in housing.
At recent discussions, planning officials and council members agreed that there is no way the city could even come close to meeting ABAG's projections unless the numbers get significantly scaled down.
"In our mind, it's not feasible to do that," Williams told the Weekly. "We don't have the infrastructure and support services to make that happen, even though they're talking about grant funding to help with some of those things."
Williams said ABAG and the MTC are now devising alternative growth scenarios, including ones that would focus more growth in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, put a greater emphasis on placing jobs near transit centers, and concentrate new housing near "growth opportunity areas" identified by the cities. The agencies plan to release these concepts in the coming weeks.