Some people call it "wildcard zoning," "zoning for sale" or simply "a scam."
Others maintain that it's a valuable tool for encouraging flexibility and promoting great developments that, for one reason or another, struggle to conform to zoning restrictions.
But just about everyone agrees that Palo Alto's notorious "planned community" zoning process is flawed and needs to be fixed. On Wednesday night, the Planning and Transportation Commission began what could be a long process to do just that.
The commission's discussion took place about six months after the City Council adopted a moratorium on "planned community" zoning proposals, which allow developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for "public benefits." Because city law doesn't define "public benefits," the term has come to include everything from public plazas, sculptures and playgrounds to traffic studies, affordable-housing units and cash contributions.
The planning commission highlighted the myriad of problems with the existing "planned community" process in a March 2013 memo, which called the process "the greatest challenge to land-use in Palo Alto today." The memo, penned by former commission Chair Eduardo Martinez, current Chair Mark Michael and Commissioner Michael Alcheck, advocated clarifying what constitutes a "public benefit" and bringing more clarity to the process, which today typically resembles a series of exhausting bartering sessions between council members and developers.
The memo predicted that public benefits will become more prevalent as development applications continue to file in. This was before last November, when residents launched a referendum and overturned the latest "planned community" project, a housing development on Maybell Avenue. The vote prompted the council to adopt a "time out" on PC zones in February and to direct staff to propose reforms.
On Wednesday, planning commissioners and members of the public offered a variety of suggestions for what reform should look like. Council observer Herb Borock said the zoning process should simply be eliminated. Bob Moss, a frequent critic of "planned community" zoning, proposed that the city limit the magnitude of exemptions that could be sought and specify what parts of the city they can be pursued in.
Land-use watchdog Fred Balin said the city should specify in its ordinance that the process should make sure that the projects are consistent with the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan. Many of the PC projects recently approved, including Alma Village and College Terrace Centre, fail this test, Balin said. The Comprehensive Plan, he noted, designates Alma Village as one of the city's "neighborhood centers." Its redevelopment, which was pursued under a "planned community," made the plaza 75 percent residential, Balin said.
"No PC should come before you unless it's consistent with the Comprehensive Plan," Balin said.
Commissioner Eric Rosenblum pointed to one of the biggest sources of frustrations with PC zoning: its capacity to surprise.
"PC zoning is fundamentally out of alignment with a lot of the purpose of zoning," Rosenblum said. "If the purpose of zoning is to allow predictability in certain areas, the potential of a wildcard at any time undermines that."
Most speakers and all commissioners agreed that the planned community process, for all its flaws, does have some value. Since the designation came about in 1951, Palo Alto has approved about 100 planned-community projects, many of which were senior- and affordable-housing developments. Some of these projects were small residential proposals that needed a slight variation from zoning regulations; others accommodated the types of projects the city wanted to encourage. Phyllis Cassel, who spent 13 years on the planning commission and reviewed 26 planned-community projects, argued that the zoning mechanism is a valuable tool because it allows creativity, particularly for small projects. One PC project, she noted, is a single house. Others added much needed below-market-rate units to the city's housing stock.
"We need to continue to have a PC zone," Cassel said, adding that she doesn't want to see a PC zone that "can be bought" by developers.
"Sometimes, we just can't think ahead of time for the creative uses that are needed," she said.
Commissioner Alcheck didn't share Cassel's concern about developers buying zoning exemptions. Rather, he advocated for this option. Alcheck proposed a radically different idea for PC projects: use them as a way to address the city's unfunded needs, as identified and prioritized by the City Council.
"This argument that it's zoning for sale has no effect on me," Alcheck said. "News flash: It was always zoning for sale.
"Before, in some instances, we were selling unenforced promises that represented completely valueless sacrifices, that's all."
He referenced Cafe Riace, a plaza that was created as a "public benefit" before being appropriated by the Sheridan Avenue restaurant.
"I urge us to view this approach as one that is about achieving true public benefits," Alcheck said.
"At the same time, it allows for redevelopment and also funds preservation. We would be accommodating growth and, at the same time, this approach would stymie atrophy."
Commissioner Carl King didn't buy this argument and lobbied against a process in which developers could simply offer money for exceeding regulations. He said he doesn't see this as a process he would ever support.
Others lobbied for more modest changes. Chair Michael suggested including a definition of "public benefit" in the zoning ordinance. Commissioner Greg Tanaka argued that the city needs to focus on improving enforcement.
"We always have to have it," Tanaka said. "What we should do quickly is fix some of the basic problems: enforcement and financing of enforcement."
Vice Chair Arthur Keller and Commissioner Przemak Gardias both stressed the need for more clarity and transparency. Each said the city should set a "limit of deviation" and explicitly state where such projects would be most likely to win approval and what types of exceptions a developer can request.
The commission will continue its discussion of "planned community" reforms on Aug. 27.