'Time out' proposed for disputed zoning rule

Palo Alto City Council to consider freezing, overhauling 'planned community' zone process

Bowing down to intense community pressure and years of criticism from land-use watchdogs, Palo Alto officials have announced a plan to suspend and reform the city's controversial "planned community" zoning process, which allows developers to barter zoning exemptions for public benefits.

Planned community (PC) zoning -- originally devised to allow for unconventional developments that would contribute to the public good -- was at the forefront of last November's election battle between the City Council, which approved a PC-zoned housing project on Maybell Avenue in June, and the residents who mounted a referendum against it. The referendum, which led to an overwhelming Election Day victory, alleged the proposed housing development was incompatible with the rest of the neighborhood's zoning and character.

Even before the Maybell project was shot down, residents, watchdogs and even Planning and Transportation Commission members warned that the zoning process was fraught with problems. Many cited "public benefits" that were promised but that never materialized, with the most glaring examples being the public plazas at Cafe Riace in the California Avenue area and next to St. Michael's Alley restaurant downtown. Each plaza was offered as a benefit for a PC project and was subsequently swallowed up by the adjacent restaurant.

The problem has become more pervasive in the years following the 2009 economic downturn, with more applicants proposing beefy PC projects whose massiveness would be offset by the public benefits.

The renovated Edgewood Plaza along Embarcadero Road and downtown's Lytton Gateway, a four-story commercial project at 101 Lytton Ave., were the most recent PC projects to win the council's green light (not counting the overturned proposal on Maybell, which included 60 units of housing for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes).

The planning commission, which reviews all such proposals, recognized the challenges with PC projects more than a year ago when a troika of commissioners issued a memo calling the existing process "the greatest challenge to land-use planning in Palo Alto today."

To address this challenge, city staff is now recommending a "time out" period for PC projects -- a moratorium that would stay in effect until the city revises the zoning rules. In a report issued Wednesday afternoon, planning staff acknowledge that the process has been "viewed by many as too opaque and transactional."

"While many acknowledge the success of some past PC developments and advantages of PC zoning as a tool, the process and some of its outcomes have been critiqued as inadequate," the report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment states. "Furthermore, the ad-hoc nature of each separate negotiation has contributed to the community concerns about the lack of a coherent set of values or vision for the future."

The proposed time out would allow staff to consider possible reforms, including ones recently suggested by the planning commission. These include specifically defining the types of projects that may apply for a PC district; defining the minimum size of a property that would be eligible for PC zones; establish a buffer zone between such projects and low-density residential zones; creating a menu of "public benefits" that a developer could offer under a PC proposal; and establishing a "better mechanism" for monitoring stipulations and conditions placed on a project.

Though the reforms would not resolve all the issues around the zoning (the council would still have to weigh the drawbacks of high density against the benefits offered), they would add some predictability to a process that has at times resembled a late night, high-stakes poker game between developers and elected officials. Because the zoning code doesn't specifically define "public benefits," the offerings have ranged widely, from small plazas and large angel statues to affordable-housing units and cash.

Perhaps the boldest public benefit ever offered was Jay Paul Co.'s recent proposal to build the city a new police headquarters in exchange for permission to build 311,000-square-feet of office space at a site that is already built out to the zoning limit. In December, with the Maybell election in the rearview mirror and public tensions rising high over dense developments, Jay Paul withdrew the offer, citing the city's "political climate."

The new recommendation signifies a determination by staff that the only way to save the PC zone is to kill it, at least temporarily. With the Jay Paul application withdrawn and the Maybell project defeated, the only PC project now in the city's pipeline is 2755 El Camino Real, site of a former Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) lot on the busy corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road. If approved, the 33,000-square-foot office project would consist of four stories of office space to be occupied by a bank.

Palo Alto officials have recently commissioned an independent study to consider the value of the offered public benefits, which include $275,000 toward intersection improvements at El Camino and Page Mill, $175,000 for electric-vehicle charging stations near California Avenue and a $1.4 million contribution toward the city's soon-to-commence upgrade of California Avenue. According to the planning report, consultants had concluded that a "potential development could be profitable under both a PC zoning designation and a C-S (service commercial) zoning designation." If the City Council agrees on Monday to accept staff recommendation, the project at 2755 El Camino would be put on hold until the process is reformed.

This would not be the first time that the city is making changes to the PC zone, which has been in existence since 1951. Intentionally vague, the ordinance establishing PC's stated that the districts are intended to accommodate projects such as "neighborhood and district shopping centers, professional and administrative areas, multiple housing developments, single-family residential developments, commercial service centers and industrial parks or any other use or combination of uses which ca be made appropriately as part of a planned development."

In 1978, the city reformed the process and introduced a more extensive public-review process for PC projects, along with the concept of "public benefits" that a developer has to offer. The revised PC ordinance, which remains in place today, specifies that the "planned community district is particularly intended for unified, comprehensively planned developments which are of substantial public benefit, and which conform with and enhance the policies and programs of the Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan." Though it was initially intended as an exception to enable particularly beneficial project, it has become commonplace in recent decades, particularly during times of economic boom. The city currently has between 100 and 150 such developments.

Recognizing the frequency of such applications and public anxieties surrounding them, planning Commissioners Mark Michael, Eduardo Martinez and Michael Alcheck wrote in their March 2013 memo, "The forces for development in Palo Alto, the scarcity of available land, the impact of higher density land uses, and the infrastructure required to support existing and new development demand that we revisit this aspect of the 'Palo Alto Process."

The process of reforming the PC zone coincides with the city's revision of the Comprehensive Plan, its land-use bible. In the Wednesday report, staff offers two options for proceeding with the time out. One would freeze the zoning mechanism until late summer, when staff presents the council with an analysis and recommendations. Another approach would link the PC conversation with the broader update of the Comprehensive Plan, an option that would extend the timeline for reforming the zoning process.

Whichever approach the council chooses, members are unlikely to kill the PC zone entirely. At their Dec. 2 discussion of the topic, several council members said that while they would be open to reform, they would be reluctant to scrap it entirely, as many in the community have urged. Then-Mayor Greg Scharff said he would support, for instance, inclusion in staff reports of the "pros and cons" of such proposals.

"What we need is community buy-in into the PC process and not this fear," Scharff said.

Councilman Pat Burt, meanwhile, observed that for all the hype, PC projects make up only a small portion of the proposals in front of the council (only two were in the pipeline during the time of the Dec. 2 meeting, which was two weeks before Jay Paul pulled out). The more pertinent issue, Burt said, is large developments in general. Those people who are focusing on the PC zone as the "primary culprit of our problems of having too much development occurring too rapidly -- which I agree with -- are misguided and doing a disservice to those in the community who are concerned about the rate of change and growth," Burt said on Dec .2.

Councilman Larry Klein was the most outspoken opponent of a moratorium at that meeting, observing that moratoriums often have "unintended consequences." Councilwoman Karen Holman, meanwhile, took the opposite stance and said the city should "have a moratorium on PCs, including those in the pipeline."

"I'd like to be a community where commercial entities that want to enter Palo Alto are welcomed, not referended, not appealed," Holman said.


Like this comment
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2014 at 7:35 pm

This is easy, just let the folks vote on all PC projects with the election paid for by the developer. If it is a good deal, folks will recognize that and vote for it. No more back room deals.

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Posted by Eric F
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 29, 2014 at 8:24 pm

PC's have plenty of "unintended consequences" too -- traffic, congestion, parking woes, pollution, impact on city services, indirectly on schools, etc. If the argument is that the unintended consequences of a moratorium are worse than those of the PC's themselves, I'd say that one's pretty dubious. If PC's have not been a net "public benefit," then indeed they should be stopped, or at least each one subject to a public referendum.

Pat Burt's point last month wasn't that stopping PC's was bad. It was that stopping PC's wouldn't go far enough, since there are so many other City loopholes that a savvy developer can use to get around Palo Alto zoning codes. The city is right to reform density bonus law, but there's more to tackle. Burt's other suggestion, to simply start downzoning land so that once all the exemptions are applied it comes back to the original intended density, is a good idea and deserves a serious look.

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Posted by Disappearing Public Benefits
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 30, 2014 at 1:10 am

Another set of "public benefits" that disappeared are plazas at the corner of High and Homer and the one at the corner of High and Channing.
And the biggest disappearing act of all, the 57 parking spaces under 800 High that were supposed to be free and open to the public. FIFTY SEVEN spaces.

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Posted by boscoli
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 30, 2014 at 7:29 am

PC zoning should be eliminated, not get a time out. It produces more traffic, more noise, pollution and population density. PC zoning enrich the developers and reduce our quality of life. How all this benefits the community is a total mystery to me.

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Posted by Professorville Resident
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 30, 2014 at 10:40 am

The first step in revising the PC guidelines should be to rename it Planned Development so its name more accurately reflects its true intent. Incidentally, that is the name many local municipalities use for such non-conforming projects.

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Posted by Mary Anne
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 30, 2014 at 1:07 pm

If we have a rational and well thought out zoning plan that makes sense for our city, there is no reason whatsoever to allow exceptions to it through the PC process.

The current PC process is a de facto system of legal bribery where connected developers can build what they want regardless of whether it fits within the putatively well considered zoning regulations.

If we're to have zoning regs, they should be applicable equally to all - not just to those people who don't have political clout with the City.

If there's something so wrong with the zoning regs that we have to grant as many exceptions to it as we are with the PC process, then the proper solution is to adopt new regs that make sense - not to sell exceptions to the highest bidder.

We ought to do away with the PC process permanently - and if the current Council is too compromised with developers to do it, we ought to do it for them through the referendum process. The folks who led the Maybell referendum already have a pretty formidable organizational start to such an enterprise. Maybe we should see what we can do to reactivate it!

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Posted by Joe in Green Acres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 30, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Joe in Green Acres is a registered user.

To Mary Anne,

We, who led the Maybell referendum, do not need to be "reactivated". We are alive and well. We are now "Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning" and remain extremely concerned about high-density development all over Palo Alto and the failure of City Hall (City Council, City Staff, the Planning and Transportation Commission, and the Architectural Review Board) to enforce the Municipal Code. Too many exceptions are being granted leading to a reduction in the quality of life we had and still desire. Come join us - lend your voice to ours so we can remind City Council who elected them and that they serve at our pleasure.

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Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2014 at 2:09 pm

@Mary Anne

You can't do that because it would a) require the city to accommodate growth and b) wouldn't allow neighborhood groups to inject themselves into any proposal.

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Posted by Zayda
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 30, 2014 at 3:14 pm

@Mary Anne
To amplify what Joe said, there are now a number of active groups in the city who are concerned with the problems of the existing zoning process. Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ) supports the efforts of residents in Downtown North and California Avenue against the out of control parking situation, the residents of Evergreen Park and Ventura who opposed the Jay Paul project and are now fighting the latest Ken Hayes glass and steel edifice at 2755 El Camino, and, of course, our neighbors in Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. Follow our activities at Web Link, on Facebook and @paloaltoville on Twitter. Subscribe to our newsletter and come to our meetings. Get involved and help us put Palo Alto back on course for the future.

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Posted by Confused
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 30, 2014 at 4:36 pm

I am confused. What is “paloaltoville”? What does it have to do with Palo Altans for sensible zoning? Does “paloaltoville” mean you want to turn the city into a rustic village?

Like this comment
Posted by Politics
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 31, 2014 at 10:51 am

This looks like an election year ploy by Scharff and the other pro-developer councilmembers to make it look like they are listening. They are also afraid of a citizens initiative to reform PC zoning and take away their favorite developer-gifting tool for good.

PASZ, please run a slate of candidates this fall. I will vote for whichever five new candidates you field. Bob Moss, please run. Same for Tim Gray, Eric Filseth, Nielson Buchanan. Five new sensible candidates can at least contain Kniss and Berman [portion removed] until they can be voted out in 2016.

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Posted by Silly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 31, 2014 at 11:52 am


Please provide the contact info for Palo Altans For Sensible Zoning.

Thank you!

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Posted by Here for a while
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 31, 2014 at 4:11 pm

"Many cited "public benefits" that were promised but that never materialized, with the most glaring examples being the public plazas at Cafe Riace in the California Avenue area and next to St. Michael's Alley restaurant downtown. Each plaza was offered as a benefit for a PC project and was subsequently swallowed up by the adjacent restaurant."

I'm new to this whole issue, but outraged at the development that has found its way through the "pipeline"in recent years. Can anyone explain the above to me? How can something that was a requirement for development be "swallowed up" (i.e., ignored) at a later date without a response from the City? Aren't the property/ building owners required to honor the public benefits stipulation? If not, couldn't the City have used a permit process for outdoor dining here to control this lack of good faith?

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 31, 2014 at 5:06 pm

You can contact join Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning by going to
Web Link

They are just neighbors and people around town, so more volunteers the merrier.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 31, 2014 at 5:10 pm


PaloAltoville as opposed to PalOpolis. (Or, if you prefer, Palo Alto rather than downtown San Jose wannabe.)

Eric Filseth's Vision A as opposed to Vision B.

Like this comment
Posted by What's a time out?
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 1, 2014 at 5:35 pm

What exactly is a zoning "time out"?

Does Staff tell Jim Baer, Chop Keenan and Roxy Rapp to go sit in the corner with their PC applications?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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