Seeking to carve out a leadership position in what promises to be a prolonged battle against regional housing mandates, Palo Alto officials Tuesday night vehemently rejected a proposal to designate El Camino Real and University Avenue as areas ripe for dramatic growth.
In deciding not to designate El Camino and downtown as "planned development areas," the City Council acknowledged that it could be foregoing transportation grants from regional planning organizations whose ambitious strategy for reducing greenhouse gases includes significantly greater density of buildings near transit corridors. But the council agreed by a 7-0 vote, with Greg Scharff and Karen Holman absent, that going along with the regional strategy would turn Palo Alto into a city of residential high-rises without achieving any significant environmental benefits.
"It puts the cities and communities in a tough bind," Councilwoman Gail Price said at the Tuesday meeting. "Who in their right mind would not want to be eligible for transportation funding? The question is, 'What are the tradeoffs required to get that?'"
The price for these grants could be steep, according to Planning Director Curtis Williams. To accommodate the projections from Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) -- the two agencies charged with implementing the regional growth strategy -- Palo Alto would have to accommodate as many as 25,000 new jobs and 12,500 new housing units by 2040. Under the two regional agencies' "Sustainable Communities Strategy," much of this growth would be based around transit centers in designated "planned development areas."
Williams said that ABAG projections would transform Palo Alto from a city of three-to-four-story buildings to five-to-six story buildings. In the most concentrated areas, ones near major transit corridors and rail stations, buildings would be far higher and denser, he said.
"I don't see how we can do that without quite a few six- to 10-story buildings scattered around El Camino Real and downtown and California Avenue," Williams said.
The council also agreed that the environmental benefits from the scenarios proposed by the two agencies would be close to negligible. The three major planning scenarios are projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 7.9 percent to 9.4 percent, depending on the scenario. However, the difference between these scenarios could mean planning for thousands more housing units -- developments that could lead to an encroachment of dense housing complexes into single-family neighborhoods.
"Staff believes that the differences between the three land use scenarios (1.5 percent) is not significant and certainly not worth the cost and consternation associated with substantial changes in the city and county land-use control," Williams wrote in a report to the council.
Councilman Pat Burt noted at Tuesday's discussion that the city already has a slew of programs aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions -- including green-building codes and an ambitious bicycle plan that is now picking up momentum. The city needs to emphasize its status as a green leader in its conversations with the regional authorities, even if its arguments often fall on deaf ears, Burt said.
"We are embracing a sustainable community vision, and they're offering something that's titled 'Sustainable Communities' … and that's a disconnect," Burt said.
As in the past, the council compared its opposition to the new mandates to its ongoing battle against California's proposed high-speed rail system -- another project with laudable goals and dubious details. The city had favored the rail project in 2008 but gradually turned against it as more details emerged about the rail system's proposed design and ridership projections. Over the past three years, the Palo Alto council became one of the state's most vehement opponents of the project.
Some of the city's outreach efforts are already bearing fruit. Councilman Greg Schmid analyzed various population-growth projections and demonstrated that most of these projections far exceeded actual population growth. The Contra Costa County Transportation Authority, one of the few Bay Area agencies to protest the regional mandates, cited the Schmid report in its letter to ABAG and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. In the letter, the transportation authority argued that the forecasts for the proposed scenarios "remain at the high end of remotely plausible outcomes for the forecast period."
"We find insufficient justification for the forecasts used in the alternative scenarios in the material provided to us," David Durant, chair of the authority's board of directors, wrote in the letter.
Palo Alto's battle against the regional housing projections is still in its embryonic phase, but the council agreed Tuesday that the city should reach out to other cities and agencies and build alliances. The council also agreed to send letters to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and ABAG laying out the city's concerns about the agencies' grant criteria and housing projections. Councilman Larry Klein also suggested that staff consider hiring a Sacramento lobbyist to work on this issue -- a suggestion that the rest of the council quickly endorsed.
"I see this as a law whose underlying foundation makes no sense," Klein said. "It's philosophically inconsistent -- a program that, when you get into the analysis, hardly produces any benefits."
"I think we have to keep hitting away at this," he later added. "The fact that we're taking a stronger approach makes it very clear that this doesn't make sense for our community and, indeed, for the Bay Area."
Mayor Yiaway Yeh said that the council's actions, including its Tuesday directives and its recent decision to create a special committee to work on the issue of housing allocation, sets out a "clear framework" that other cities can also adopt.
"I know from the perspective of Palo Altans, the least acceptable form of planning is one that's just imposed on you by regional and external entities," Yeh said.
The Council Regional Housing Mandate Committee plans to discuss the city's response to Alternative Land Use Scenarios for the Sustainable Communities Strategy starting at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23, in the Council Conference Room at City Hall (250 Hamilton Ave.).