Editorial: In city that loves plans, Palo Alto's creates cynicism

Awash in development proposals, city's aged planning vision takes a back-seat

Palo Alto's official and legally mandated Comprehensive Plan bills itself as "the primary tool for guiding future development of the city" that "strives to build a coherent vision of the city's future from the visions of a diverse population."

These days, however, the 15-year-old, 300-page document is treated almost like a quaint historic relic of how things were for the city back in the late 1990s.

But as the Weekly's cover story this week explains, it's also a document that is still selectively used both to justify and criticize development proposals. Regardless of which "side" one may take on any given project, there are Comprehensive Plan provisions that are readily available to support that point of view.

The idea that everyone can find their viewpoint reflected in the plan if they look long enough isn't anything new. Even when the plan was fresh it presented policy goals that sounded good but that directly conflict when almost any specific project came along. And when an update to it is eventually approved sometime next year, that probably won't change.

That tension is both the beauty of the plan and its Achilles' Heel. On the one hand, the vision is broad enough to try and capture community values and retain flexibility. On the other hand, everyone can find policies in it to justify their personal views.

The idea is that a city's Comprehensive Plan should guide zoning, which creates the precise contours for what is allowed to be developed on every parcel of land in the city. With that zoning, everyone, residents and developers alike, have clear ground rules and expectations and the only friction point is supposed to be the project's design.

Enter the infamous "planned community" zone.

Seeking to encourage creativity by developers, the city long ago created an alternative path that bypassed the normal zoning. By using this "PC" process, developers are free to propose anything they wish, including projects that far exceed the zoning limits, in exchange for providing "public benefits" either on-site, such as some extra parking, public art or affordable housing, or somewhere else, such as funding a child-care center or building a public-safety building. Or, in one recent case, simply paying cash to the city was deemed a public benefit.

Developers have learned that while building under the existing zoning is simple and straightforward, the bigger financial pay-off comes from successfully negotiating a PC project, because it provides a lifetime of added value for what is generally a one-time cost for the offered public benefit.

How do developers convince the City Council that their projects deserve to violate the zoning? Often by citing specific provisions of the Comprehensive Plan that promote whatever "benefit" the developer is offering.

With virtually every significant development proposal now coming to the city as a PC application, citizens have plenty of reasons to be cynical about the noble purposes outlined in the Comprehensive Plan and to question a process that in almost every instance results in an approved project that significantly exceeds the established zoning.

We have been raising concerns about this process for many years, and one major breakthrough occurred last year when City Manager Jim Keene committed to having an independent economic analysis completed for every PC application that quantified the value to the developer and the value of the proposed public benefits. We are anxiously awaiting the first application of this new policy.

Long-needed economic analysis, however, does not solve the larger issue of resolving the trade-offs between conflicting Comprehensive Plan policies when developments are being considered.

In an interview for today's cover story, Keene made the startling admission that staff reports on proposed PC projects are not intended to identify conflicts between Comprehensive Plan policies, but are meant to provide the findings needed for the council to adopt the staff's recommendation.

That helps explain why, in the case of the staff report on the recently approved Maybell senior housing project, only policies that supported the project were cited, something that helped to fuel neighborhood belief that the outcome was predetermined by staff and council.

Keene acknowledges that the city can and should do a better job at presenting trade-offs in staff reports, and we look forward to seeing that needed change.

An important test of how the community feels about all this may come from a referendum on the Maybell project, assuming sufficient signatures submitted this week are verified.

It's not the most egregious example of the problems with the PC process, but it has catalyzed a revolt among residents who believe it symbolizes a broken planning process.

With some very large projects in the pipeline for city review, the staff and City Council would be well-advised to reconsider how they approach the public review process, or they will find that Maybell is not the last to go to the voters.

A discussion of this editorial topic is taking place on Town Square.

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