Faced with an uprising from property owners, conflicting recommendations from its advisory boards and deep ambivalence within its own ranks, the City Council on Monday night backed away from a staff proposal to revise the sidewalk rules on Palo Alto's congested and eclectic stretch of El Camino Real.
The proposal on the table would have given the Architectural Review Board the flexibility to determine building setbacks based on context. Rather than having a strict 12-foot "build-to" line (which effectively requires buildings to be 12 feet from the curb) the change would require that the ground floor of a building be placed 12 to 18 feet from the curb, with width depending on such factors as land use and setting. The ordinance would also allow upper floors to be placed at zero setback, provided that the ground floor is positioned further back to provide pedestrians with walking space.
The goal of these changes was to encourage a more pedestrian-friendly environment on the car-heavy, north-south thoroughfare and to further the goal of the regional Grand Boulevard Initiative, which aims to create vibrant "nodes" of pedestrian activity along El Camino. The revisions also aimed to encourage better urban design along El Camino and Alma Street, where recent developments such as 801 Alma St. and Alma Village have been widely criticized for being too massive and standing too close to the street. In an April 2013 memo, Councilwomen Karen Holman and Gail Price and Councilmen Greg Scharff and Greg Schmid cited "consternation in the community and a strong negative reaction by members of the public as to how close these new buildings are to the street and how the buildings turn their backs on the public right of way."
But staff's effort to address this wave of community criticism has only sparked it anew. Dozens of property owners have come out against the proposed ordinance, which would empower the architecture panel to require sidewalk widths of up to 18 feet if its criteria for context is met (currently, the width is generally 12 feet). Many argued at Monday's meeting and at prior hearings that this is tantamount to the city seizing private property. Andrew Pierce, an attorney representing a group of El Camino property owners, told the council Monday that by requiring more space for pedestrians on El Camino, the city is basically taking land from private owners and putting itself at a legal risk.
"I'd urge the city to think very carefully about what amounts to taking a right of way without paying for it," Pierce said "Because I don't think the courts are going to be very friendly to the city if that happens."
Others made similar arguments and claimed that the new rule will make it hard or impossible for property owners to redevelop their properties. They noted that many properties on El Camino are small and shallow and that they already face numerous restrictions relating to density, height and parking requirements. The fact that the ordinance would apply only to new developments brought little solace, as one property owner after another argued that the new rules would make redevelopment difficult, if not impossible, on their properties.
"The city wants to take a sizable portion of land from miles of privately owned properties for the purpose of widening sidewalks," said Tracy May, owner of 2080 El Camino Real. "The city has taken other portions for alley use and with ... significant building and land ratio restrictions, most property owners will have little useable property left and in some cases, no usable properties."
Simon Cintz, whose family owns two properties on El Camino, cautioned that creating larger sidewalks and adding landscaping would make businesses along the strip less visible to vehicular traffic. This, he said, would threaten their existence.
"These stores will virtually disappear and not be visible to most of the people who drive along El Camino," Cintz said.
It's not just the property owners who are urging caution. In April, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission declined to endorse the proposed rule change. Instead, it directed staff to integrate this discussion into the broad community conversation over Palo Alto's future, an effort known as "Our Palo Alto."
The Architectural Review Board, meanwhile, recommended a slightly different version of the ordinance, one that would allow 9-foot setbacks on certain small lots with ground-floor retail. The board vehemently rejected, however, a separate staff proposal that would have reduced the allowed building density for residential developments in El Camino's "neighborhood commercial" zones.
Even Holman, a leading proponent of revising El Camino rules, was visibly underwhelmed by the proposal in front of her and called its focus on sidewalks "frustrating." The April 2013 memo, she said, was about much broader issues concerning the design of buildings on El Camino and Alma.
"It was never about just sidewalks," Holman said. "I don't know how it got understood this way."
She also criticized the wording in the proposed ordinance for being too vague.
With no clear path in sight, the council voted 9-0 to follow the planning commission's advice and fold the debate of sidewalk widths and building setbacks into the broader community discussion of the city's future. This conversation, which is meant to inform the update of the city's Comprehensive Plan, is set to stretch until the end of next year.
Councilman Larry Klein, who proposed deferring the decision, pointed at the complexity of setting a uniform rule in a part of the city with such a wide variety of land uses and property types.
"Trying to set one set of rules creates all sorts of problems, as we heard from a lot of individual land owners," Klein said, adding that it's "back to the drawing board."
The council vote also directs staff to bring back "as soon as reasonably possible" refined proposals to update the city's "build-to-line" rule, which many see as unnecessary or counter-productive.
Holman and Councilman Pat Burt argued that staff should also take actions in the coming months to beef up design requirements for El Camino. This includes creating new design standards for developments on El Camino (currently, development is subject to "design guidelines," which are little more than suggestions). The proposal passed 5-4, with Klein, Price, Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss dissenting.
Some council members also challenged the very idea of trying to turn El Camino into a more vibrant pedestrian strip. Klein said the Grand Boulevard vision doesn't really apply to Palo Alto's stretch of El Camino, which is known more for speeding cars than for pedestrian destinations. Kniss was even more blunt.
"I don't want to stroll on El Camino Real," she said. "The speed limit is still fast, the fumes are really unpleasant. Perhaps we're doing it more for the aesthetics than for actual usage."
While planning staff said the ordinance is legally defensible because setback requirements are common zoning tools, Kniss placed her sympathies with the property owners.
"It may not be a legal taking," Kniss said. "I wonder whether or not this is an ethical taking."
She also pointed to the high level of opposition to the new ordinance as a good reason not to proceed with the changes at this time.
"I wish one person had come forward and said, 'This is a fabulous idea. We totally support it. Go for it.'" she said. "But I didn't hear it from anyone tonight. As your representatives, we need to hear what you have to say."