Palo Alto takes great pride in its ongoing, aggressive efforts to fight climate change and encourage transit use, but a regional plan to do the same is rubbing local officials the wrong way and prompting an outpouring of criticism from City Hall.
The city, like other Bay Area municipalities, is now in the final stages of reviewing Plan Bay Area, a state-mandated vision document filled with strategies for reducing carbon emissions by 15 percent by 2040 and providing adequate housing to accommodate job growth. The goal is to make sure each community in the Bay Area provides its "fair share" of housing, thereby reducing the need for sprawl and the number of vehicles on state highways carrying just one person.
The plan, which was released in March by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, seeks to accommodate a projected increase of 2.1 million residents and 1.1 million jobs in the Bay Area in the period between 2010 and 2040. In recent months, the new plan has been a thorny subject for the City Council, which had formed a committee two years ago specifically to deal with the latest housing mandates. Members have consistently disagreed with the regional agencies about the growth projections, arguing that they are overstated and that the housing mandates cannot be reasonably met.
On Wednesday night, May 1, the Planning and Transportation Commission took its own crack at Plan Bay Area and voiced similar concerns. The commission voted 5-0, with commissioners Alex Panelli and Greg Tanaka absent, to approve a letter from the city to ABAG challenging the agency's approach for allocating housing and calling its projections "highly unrealistic and excessive."
Palo Alto, under the plan, would have to build 2,860 housing units over the next decade, growth that council members have long argued cannot be accommodated in a city with astronomical real estate prices and a shortage of undeveloped land. The city's letter argues that expecting Palo Alto to increase its housing supply so significantly is "entirely unrealistic, and using such an assumption as the basis for growth scenarios and transportation investments will likely result in failure of the planning effort."
Planning Director Curtis Williams called the regional projections "aspirational" rather than realistic.
"We believe they are very high, most likely overstated, but there seems to be a drive from a business (and) economics standpoint to shoot for the greatest amount of growth that we think the region could have," Williams said.
The letter from the city recommends that the agencies' plan include a range of forecasted growth, with a "low," "medium" and "high" scenarios; that the plan give communities more flexibility for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions; and that it include projections that are "not allocated to cities and counties but are used to provide context for regional transportation projects."
Plan Bay Area's chief tool for fighting sprawl is requiring cities to plan for more housing near major transit hubs. Cities were asked to identify "priority development areas" that could accommodate the bulk of the new housing. Grants would then be made available to help cities add transportation amenities in these areas.
In Palo Alto, the only "priority development area" is around California Avenue, where the council has been pursuing road improvements and encouraging mixed-use developments with housing components. The number of jobs in the area, according to Plan Bay Area, is expected to increase by 1,660 between 2010 and 2040. Two other areas, around downtown and on El Camino Real, were also considered, Williams said.
Plan Bay Area states that the distribution of housing "directs growth to locations where the transit system can be utilized more efficiently, where workers can be better connected to jobs, and where residents can access high-quality services." But some commissioners argued Wednesday that the city doesn't have the type of transit infrastructure that would be required to get people out of their cars. Building the kind of housing the plan demands would make the city's traffic congestion even worse than it already is, they said.
Chair Eduardo Martinez said he was concerned about a process that first identifies housing sites and then proceeds to transportation funding. He likened it to "chicken coming before the egg."
Commissioner Arthur Keller agreed.
"What Plan Bay Area seems to be designed to do is make it impossible to drive in communities like Palo Alto, so people will be forced to essentially take transit that doesn't exist," Keller said.
Keller also argued that the regional process should give more latitude to cities for reducing greenhouse gases. The city has recently celebrated a series of major accomplishments on that front, including an adoption of a carbon-free electric portfolio and a 53 percent reduction in emissions from citywide operations between 2005 and last year.
"We're forced to shoehorn into the techniques of the region instead of getting credit of what we're actually accomplishing," Keller said, adding that the plan's process "doesn't necessarily work for us."
Plan Bay Area also projects a major increase in multi-family housing, particularly in urban areas near transit hubs. Multi-family housing, the plan says, comprised 35 percent of housing construction in the Bay Area in the 1990s. That percentage went up to nearly 50 percent in 2000 and to 65 percent in 2010. The number of people per household is also expected to rise from 2.69 in 2010 to 2.75 by 2040.
"Market demand for new homes will tilt toward townhomes, condominiums and apartments in developed areas near transit, shops and services," Plan Bay Area states.
The plan projects that the number of jobs in Palo Alto will grow by 33 percent between 2010 and 2040. The city boasted 89,370 jobs in 2010, trailing only San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Santa Clara and Fremont in the nine-county area.
The City Council is expected to officially approve the letter to ABAG later this month.