Palo Alto's aggressive push to get the public more involved in updating the city's official land-use vision appeared to finally pay off Monday night, with dozens of residents and downtown employees packing into City Hall and serving up an unusually wide spectrum of opinions about growth and development.
The council's first meeting in more than a month focused on the various alternatives for growth that will be studied in an environmental analysis the city is undertaking as part of the long-stalled update of its Comprehensive Plan.
The revision kicked off in 2006, when the City Council first directed staff to bring the city's land-use bible up to date and to pay particular attention to the rapidly changing areas around California Avenue and East Meadow Circle in south Palo Alto. After years of incremental progress and tireless wordsmithing by the Planning and Transportation Commission inside a virtually deserted Council Chambers, the council and planning staff decided last year to hit the reset button and get more people involved in the process.
Monday's meeting indicated the city has made some progress in that regard. The discussion ended without the council weighing in on, much less voting on, the four different alternatives on the table. Rather, after hearing nearly three hours of comments from the public, council members agreed to save their thoughts for a special meeting on Wednesday.
If Monday's meeting is any indication, the council will have much to debate. Unlike at past meetings, which typically featured a handful of familiar speakers lamenting the impacts of new developments, Monday's audience was roughly split between downtown employees, many from the tech giant Palantir, urging the city to accommodate growth and work toward a "great" Palo Alto and neighborhood residents asking the council to protect the greatness that already exists by keeping new development at a minimum.
The four alternatives on the table suggest that so far, the latter camp has had the upper hand. All four propose to protect residential single-family-home neighborhoods from growth and to limit new developments to areas with public transit stops. The first alternative, known as "do nothing" or "business as usual" would leave all existing land-use policies and zoning designations in place.
The second alternative would also leave preserve existing zoning designations but would include some policy changes to cap non-residential development and to restrict residential development to the bare minimum needed to meet state requirements. It would also encourage policies that enhance and preserve neighborhood retail space and increase the distance of buildings along El Camino from the road, to create a more pedestrian-friendly experience.
The third alternative would go a step further toward development and, while maintaining "slow growth" restrictions, make some allowances for housing near transit hubs. In downtown, the height limit on buildings would be raised from 50 feet to 55 or 60 feet to accommodate more residential units, while on El Camino, housing would be encouraged near future stops of the new Bus Rapid Transit system and prohibited in areas where transit services are scant.
The fourth alternative, known as "net zero," is radically different from the other three in that it would seek to turn Palo Alto into a state pioneer in various sustainability concepts. Projects would be approved based on their ability to meet "net zero" performance standards, which could apply to things like greenhouse-gas emissions, vehicle miles traveled and potable water use. According to a report describing the concept, this scenario "would concentrate growth into key areas of the city in order to create complete centers with a rich array of housing, job and cultural opportunities in proximity to transit."
Most of the roughly 30 speakers at Monday's meeting didn't get too deep into these specific alternatives but rather focused on the broad and hotly contested topics of growth and development. In the latest sign of Palo Alto's exorbitant property values, it wasn't teachers, firefighters or police officers but high-tech workers from Palantir who offered stories about being priced out of the city.
One employee, Andrew Ash, said he wishes he could live in downtown Palo Alto but that the lack of available housing makes it impossible, which forces him to drive to work.
"The message I have for you on the council is that growth is coming; it's inevitable," Ash said. "The question is, how do you react to it? Do you want to back up into something that ends up being bad for the community or get construction started so Palo Alto can remain the place that people want to move into in the next several decades?"
Others argued that policies such as the 50-foot height limit are a relic from a different era. Robert McGrew was among them. It's sad, he said, that "the Palo Alto skyline has two ugly buildings," including the one in which he was speaking.
"Let's have one or two more tall buildings downtown, but let's have them be tasteful and have them dedicated to housing, which is what Palo Alto desperately needs," McGrew said.
Kate Downing, also urging more housing, suggested that the city do more to address the needs of its less affluent residents. She lamented the transformation of Palo Alto into a city exclusively for millionaires.
"If we don't allow for growth, Silicon Valley as we know it today will cease to exist," Downing said. "We will have priced out all the young workers and all the new companies."
Their voices were countered by speakers who maintained that the city should focus on solving the existing problems of too much traffic, inadequate parking and a faulty planning process before talking about future growth. That was the dominant sentiment during a series of public meetings that the city sponsored on the subject between late May and July. That also remains the general view of local "residentialists" who oppose the upzoning of sites (allowing for denser building) and who led the referendum last November that overturned a council-approved housing development on Maybell Avenue.
Tom DuBois, who was part of that effort and who is now seeking a seat on the council, expressed skepticism about the process that the city is now following on the Comprehensive Plan update. He suggested that rather than doing a full environmental analysis on the four different alternatives, the city should just "clean up" the existing Comprehensive Plan by removing policies that are outdated or that have already achieved their goals. Once that's done, the city can work with the community to consider a preferred growth scenario and revise the various chapters, also known as "elements," of the Comprehensive Plan.
DuBois also said that the scenarios under consideration "seem to be focused on mitigations and assumed growth."
"How about a scenario that improves quality of life for residents and has plans to make things better?" DuBois asked rhetorically.
College Terrace resident Doria Summa also said she believes the city's new approach to updating the Comprehensive Plan is flawed and suggested a less dramatic revision to the existing document, which has a planning horizon of 1998 to 2010.
"I don't believe the scenarios fully represent what the residents of Palo Alto want," Summa said. "I worry that moving forward with the Environmental Impact Report and wasting resources when scenarios are vague and not a lot of data is provided is, I think, premature."
The council will discuss the scenarios and the city's next steps in updating the Comprehensive Plan starting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 6. The document, which will cover the time period between 2015 and 2030, is currently on pace to be completed at the end of 2015.