As Palo Alto prepares to debate this week four different visions for the city's long-term growth, one common theme stands out among the different scenarios: a growing opposition to impacts of new development.
The climate of skepticism toward new development is reflected in the alternatives that the City Council will consider in its first two meetings after a monthlong break. The meetings, scheduled for Monday and Wednesday nights, will focus on an environmental analysis that will be conducted as part of the city's update of its Comprehensive Plan, a project that has been in the works since 2006 and that officials hope to conclude in late 2015.
The effort promises to be a tug of war between competing values and pressures. On the one hand, the city is facing a state mandate to accommodate more housing, a healthy job climate and an economic environment in which developers are eager to build to the limit of the city's density requirements (and occasionally, beyond the limit). Council members have talked in recent years about encouraging more housing units near transit sites, relaxing the 50-foot height limit for new developments near Caltrain stations and accommodating more senior housing, a commodity in short supply in Palo Alto.
On the other hand, the public pressure has been tilting heavily in recent years against bigger buildings and zoning exemptions, a trend that climaxed last November when voters shot down Measure D, thereby overturning the council's approval of a housing development on Maybell Avenue.
The four alternatives that are slated to be considered in the Environmental Impact Report were created after several months of community meetings that stretched from late May to late June. Though there is significant variation, each underscores the rising prevalence of the "slow growth" or "residentialist" camp in the citywide discussion over growth and development. While each of the four presents a slightly different vision for Palo Alto, they have one thing in common: All favor preservation and protection of existing neighborhoods over growth and development. The main difference is in degree.
The menu of options includes a "do nothing" (or "business as usual") alternative in which all current policies remain in place. This scenario projects a growth of about 167 housing units per year. Downtown would retain its predominantly commercial character while California Avenue would "continue to experience strong development pressure" and take on a more "mixed-use character," consistent with existing zoning.
In addition to the "do nothing" alternative, the environmental report proposed by staff and its consultants would study two "slow-growth" scenarios. In one of these scenarios, existing land-use designations would remain the same, but the city's policy would be changed to slow the pace of non-residential growth. This would include placing an annual limit on nonresidential square footage to control the pace of growth, according to a new document titled, "Our Palo Alto 2030: Draft Alternative Future Scenarios." The city's policies toward residential growth would also be relatively cautious, with an emphasis on meeting state requirements and building smaller units. A major goal would be to protect single-family neighborhoods and adopt policies "to encourage the preservation of neighborhood-serving retail and services where they currently exist throughout the city."
A third scenario also calls for "slow growth," though it would adjust land-use designations to encourage housing near transit centers, primarily in downtown and along certain sections of El Camino Real. This could mean increasing the height limit for new downtown buildings from 50 feet to 55 or 60 feet as long as additional height is used for residential units, according to the draft plan. Downtown's surface parking lots could be redeveloped and the site at 27 University Ave., near the downtown Caltrain station, would be developed to include some housing.
California Avenue would retain its "eclectic" feel, though the city would try to add housing to the sprawling Fry's site and discourage "formula retail and restaurant uses" in favor of independently owned establishments.
The fourth and most radical scenario would be the "Net-Zero" concept, which would include the most job and residential growth of the various alternatives. This growth, however, would have to satisfy "net-zero" performance standards such as "net zero energy for new non-residential construction, net zero greenhouse gas emissions, net zero new automobile trips or vehicle miles traveled, net zero potable water use, and/or no new natural gas hookups," according to the draft report.
Under this scenario, the plan notes, Palo Alto would "lead the State and the country in pioneering 'net zero' concepts," with some policies applying citywide and others focusing on specific areas.
The four scenarios have already been vetted by the Planning and Transportation Commission, which offered on July 9 an array of opinions about what should be included in the environmental study. Several commissioners Michael Alcheck, Eric Rosenblum and Chair Mark Michael made a pitch for more aggressive growth policies, including a relaxing of the city's height limit. Others, Vice-Chair Arthur Keller and Carl King, were more cautious and advocated protecting the city from the impacts on new developments.
At the July 9 meeting, Rosenblum suggested that the city can accommodate more growth, noting that "no growth" or "slow growth" scenarios make it virtually impossible for young people to move to Palo Alto. This makes it more difficult to support local retailers, he said.
"We're getting older and wealthier, and a lot of people can't afford to live here anymore," Rosenblum said.
Michael also made a pitch for accommodating, rather than resisting, change.
"I may be a residentialist, but I sincerely disagree with the implications of the militant anti-growth rhetoric," Michael said.
He added that he believes it's a mistake for the city to "not touch" single-family neighborhoods during its discussion of zoning policies. Others commissioners, including King and Greg Tanaka, reiterated their support for preserving the residential neighborhoods. Several residents made a similar plea in recent letters to the City Council. Richard Placone, a resident of Chimalus Drive, asked the city not to change R-1 zoning in the city.
"This is rapidly becoming the last refuge of those of us residents who seek a little peace and quiet in our lives," Placone wrote.