In what one council member called a fight "for the soul of our city," Palo Alto officials agreed on Monday, Feb. 11, to formally appeal a state mandate calling for the city to plan for more than 2,000 units of new housing over the next decade.
The council voted 8-1, with Larry Klein dissenting, to formally appeal a requirement from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) that the city plan for the addition of 2,179 new housing units between 2014 and 2022. The mandate is part of the agency's Regional Housing Needs Allocation process, which projects how many homes will be needed throughout the region and requires cities to plan accordingly.
Palo Alto, which is often referred to by council members as a "built-out city," has been fighting these mandates for years, arguing that the agency's projections are far too ambitious and the city has no way to accommodate the level of housing it is asked to plan for. While ABAG cannot force the city to comply with its allocation, ignoring the mandate could cost Palo Alto funding for transportation and sustainability projects -- a valuable commodity for an ambitious city with a slew of bike-related projects on its wish list.
The council in September submitted a letter to ABAG asking the agency to revise its housing projections, which Palo Alto's letter called "unrealistic." The letter argued that the agency has overstated regional growth and ignores more conservative projections from the State's Department of Finance. The city also requested that the agency consider Palo Alto's panoply of environmental initiatives when allocating housing (ABAG's allocation process is guided by the Senate Bill 375, a landmark 2008 law that aims to curb emissions of greenhouse gases throughout the state, and aims to place homes close to jobs and public transportation).
"In Palo Alto, the built-out nature of the city and multiple school, service and infrastructure constraints and impacts make these projections unattainable," the city's letter stated.
ABAG didn't buy this argument. In a November response, the Oakland-based regional agency wrote that the factors mentioned by the city "cannot be used to lower a jurisdiction's allocation." On Monday, the council responded to this letter with a formal appeal of the allocation.
While the council unanimously agreed that the city should fight the ABAG mandate, members split on the best way to do it. Some, including Klein and Greg Schmid, urged strong language.
They recommended that the city's appeal letter reiterate earlier arguments about the inadequacy of ABAG's projections and the potential impact of thousands of new housing units on the local school district and infrastructure.
Others, including Mayor Greg Scharff, Councilwoman Gail Price and Councilman Marc Berman, advocated a narrower, more pragmatic approach, one that urges ABAG to reallocate 350 Palo Alto units to Santa Clara County. These 350 units are already accounted for in a "general use permit" that the county approved for Stanford University, which plans to build them on Quarry Road, just west of El Camino Real.
Klein and Schmid both advocated using the broader, stronger arguments and remaining aggressive in opposing ABAG's mandates. Schmid, who had analyzed demographic projections from various sources and composed a memo outlining the city's concerns about ABAG's projections, argued that the letter should challenge the process the agency used to arrive at its numbers, not the number itself.
Klein agreed, calling the housing-allocation process a "self-inflicted wound" by California. If the city abandons the arguments it made in early letters, people would be able to say that Palo Alto gave up on this issue. He called the narrow argument over the 350 units "almost meaningless" given what's at stake.
"I think we're fighting for the soul of our city here," Klein said. "This is the issue I hear most often when I attend public events."
But while Pat Burt joined Klein and Schmid in supporting the broader arguments, the rest of the council opted for the narrower, more pragmatic approach recommended by the planning staff. Berman called the pragmatic argument the city's "best bet" for lowering its allocation.
"Rather than trying to rehash arguments or issues that we had with ABAG that they already stated are not grounds for appeal, let's focus on the one area that is grounds for appeal," Berman said.
"If we fight too many fights in this venue, we'll lose all of them," he added.
Most of his colleagues voiced similar sentiments, with Scharff noting that the council has already made all of its broad concerns known in prior letters and that they would take away from the practical goal of the current one.
"This is a limited appeal to gain something a reduction of 350 units," Scharff said. "The rest takes away from that and makes Palo Alto seem less focused and less credible, and we're less likely to achieve our goal of reducing the ABAG allocation."
Klein's suggestion to include in the letter broader criticisms of ABAG's process died by a 3-6 vote, with Schmid and Burt joining him. The council then voted 8-1, with Klein dissenting, to focus its letter on the reduction of 350 units.