Editorial: Skeptical about 'net zero'

Regulating for impacts rather than size of development should raise community concerns

In a desire to explore what it describes as an innovative planning concept that could lead the state and nation in a new approach to managing development, the Palo Alto planning staff has opened up a potential can of worms that we hope the city council will approach with extreme caution.

The idea is one of four different "future scenarios" the staff has put together for how Palo Alto might develop over the next 10 or more years. If approved by the council when it returns from its summer break on Monday, the four alternatives will be analyzed in an environmental impact report required for the pending revisions to the city's comprehensive plan.

The idea is that if future development can somehow be controlled so there are no new impacts from the development, then it won't be necessary to use rigid measures such as growth caps, density and height limits.

The staff gives examples of this "net-zero" concept: net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, net-zero new vehicle miles traveled or net-zero new potable water use. If impacts can be kept to "net zero," the staff reasons, development brings little or no downside.

"No specific growth management strategy would be needed," the report states, "on the theory that the 'net-zero' requirements would address the pace and impacts of development."

The policy might be applied citywide or to specific areas. The report suggests that in applying this approach while planning for the future of downtown Palo Alto the current cap on growth in square footage would be replaced with a restriction on new vehicle trips.

Along El Camino Real, the long-range plan might designate certain areas for exceeding the 50-foot height limit "where projects would be models of sustainability, with small units, car share and transit access rather than resident parking, net-zero energy, and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions."

Stanford Research Park could become a "cutting-edge proving ground for innovative concepts in energy generation, carbon sequestration, recycled water, urban farming, and drought-tolerant landscaping."

The lofty goals, which sound like they come straight out of a planning school textbook, ignore the immense practical obstacles to making the "net-zero" impact concept work. The staff points to no municipality where this approach has been successfully implemented, and we challenge them to do so at Monday's council meeting.

Locally, Stanford has experienced a version of this concept through its development permit negotiated with Santa Clara County. Under that agreement, Stanford must demonstrate through regular independent traffic analyses that new development on campus has not worsened traffic conditions (no net increase in trips.)

That requirement has led to large investments by the university in traffic-reduction measures, such as carpooling, expansion of the Marguerite bus service and public-transit subsidies, and has been enormously successful. In spite of the addition of hundreds of thousands of new square footage on campus, there has been no net increase in car trips. Stanford's ability to continue to build depends on it continuing to restrain growth in traffic.

But while Stanford has been a model for this approach, it also is drastically different from adopting a "net-zero" concept to a city made up of a myriad of property owners.

At Stanford, a single property owner is accountable and pays the price (by being allowed no further development) if it does not meet the required goals. And measuring car trips to and from the Stanford campus, with its few entry points, is a simple proposition.

Based on past performance, it is naïve to think that Palo Alto and its consultants could devise a system that could reliably collect and analyze data of the sort the staff envisions. And it is even more naïve to think the community would have enough confidence in such a system to endorse this as a major pillar in our future planning strategies.

It is important to note that the planning staff's "net-zero" concept is only intended as one alternative for study in the environmental impact analysis and that any policy that might flow from that analysis is a long way off.

But we have seen what can happen when development policies are riddled with available exceptions, exemptions, bonus credits and other ways to bend zoning rules. This proposal runs the risk of creating an alternative that is largely experimental and unproven, and where accountability will be difficult. The council must send a clear message that it doesn't want to go there.

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Posted by That's right. Stanford is not a city.
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 1, 2014 at 1:06 pm

The city has little ability to make public transit and major transportation facilities improvements available. The money for those high-cost"luxuries" is doled out by bureaucratic transit authorities that operate like fiefdoms. Until the state and county demonstrate the political will to merge the transit authorities and yield some board seats to cities other than San Jose, Palo Alto will not get very lucky in the transit funding lottery.

Smart growth REQUIRES comprehensive, regional alternative transportation planning and resources. I am not confident at all that the current political climate and structure will ever provide that to our city.

Aside from transportation impacts of growth, Stanford does not have to educate the additional kids they bring into the community. PAUSD does that for them. Stanford is released from mitigating many of the impacts of their growth--because they are not a city. As a private property owner, Stanford has done a great job promoting alternative transportation, and I commend them for it, but what they have done with transportation cannot be replicated by this city or any city. Further, congestion is not the only important impact of growth that requires mitigation.

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Posted by Green Washing
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 1, 2014 at 2:17 pm

The saddest part of all is that the city has lost our trust. They have skewed everything to help developers clean up at the expense of our livable city.
That they wrap up a plan in fancy concepts like 'net zero' just means it's more complicated, thus full of loopholes that developer's lawyers will exploit.
It's called Green Washing.

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Posted by Yeah that's right I'm angry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2014 at 12:24 am

I'm reading this and thinking it should be called the "free lunch" plan. It calls to mind Gail Price going on and on about how PC zoning was such a great thing because it is so "flexible". Now that we're onto them about PC zoning, they want to pull a bait and switch that will be PC zoning on steroids. Keep residents permanently off kilter by making rules so unfathomable, the Council will be able to make them up, and residents can do nothing about it. Sort of like the way we are promised open space in our City code for a given amount of development, but in practice, it never really happens because there's no clear way to calculate or demand it.

No, the Comprehensive plan we have should remain, be improved, and we should be first discussing things like traffic circulation and safety that have changed a lot because of all the development and are STATE MANDATED to be there.

Residents : they are wasting your money trying to develop a plan you won't be able to do anything about. How to challenge the approved plan? (Is it referendable, or do we sue in court?) EIR, yeah right, kind of like that ridiculous cover up they called a traffic study that finds no impacts no matter what they develop.

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Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 2, 2014 at 8:38 am

Here's an interesting concept.


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Posted by martha
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 2, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Thank you Weekly editors for pointing out the danger in selecting a mitigation measure as the driver of the new Palo Alto general/Comprehensive Plan. What a folly!

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Posted by Zoning not for sale
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2014 at 10:08 pm

So, here we are

How do you convince a town with people who already have everything they could ever need, to sell their zoning, and for how much.

I guess the plan is to appeal to their sense of social justice or to their "green" conscience. Tesla sells because showing you're rich is ok, but saying you re rich and care about the environment is even better. Add the tag "innovation" and voila, it's Palo Alto.

Let's say the appeal works, sounds like the problem may be price. At what price does Palo Alto decide to sell zoning in exchange for the "opportunity" to buy this green experiment for the world. Not to be paranoid or anything, but this sounds like a PC with the benefit cloaked in what sounds like acceptable currency, people's values.

My inclination would be to do other things that are green, that don't cost as much. A Prius maybe.

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Posted by Zoning not for sale
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2014 at 10:17 pm

Couldn't we just require net zero for all buildings in exchange for nothing?

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Posted by Zoning not for sale
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 3, 2014 at 2:33 pm

Apparently, Net Zero construction will be law in 2020 in California. Technologies for this have been in development for years. Some are simple and inexpensive. These should all be law in Palo Alto now and not a favor or "benefit" from developers.

All the other stuff, I agree is impossible to control (commuting patterns, water usage, people's personal recycling habits) and that is not for a developer to get credit for anyway. If every home does this, could we all build above 50 feet?

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 3, 2014 at 6:52 pm

The example cited in the editorial, Stanford, doesn't tell the whole story. Sure traffic to the campus may be "net zero", but the surrounding neighborhoods are not - that's part of the reason why there is a parking permit system in College Terrace, and you'll see people parking in the Evergreen Neighborhood and walking/biking in.

And why would we want to give more discretion to city staff, when it's been very clear that they have a bias for development.

I think we should go in the opposite direction, and have residents vote on any major project.

Like this comment
Posted by Contrarian
a resident of University South
on Aug 4, 2014 at 5:15 pm

Stanford cleverly pushed its parking overflow onto the Palo Alto streets near its shuttle stops.

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Posted by Contrarian
a resident of University South
on Aug 4, 2014 at 5:24 pm

Oops. I forgot to mention that net zero is a typo for not zero.

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

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