Palo Alto looks to revise zoning code

City Council to consider near-term responses to city's recent growth spurt

The long-awaited overhaul of Palo Alto's land-use bible is expected to stretch until the end of next year, but city officials might not wait that long to start revising local zoning rules in response to recent growth.

The City Council is scheduled to consider on Monday night near-term zone changes in response to widespread community concerns about the parking and traffic impacts of new developments. These changes would be made at the same time the city is moving ahead with an update of its Comprehensive Plan, a broad "vision" document that, in theory at least, provides the foundation for the zoning code.

Though zoning laws typically stem from the Comprehensive Plan, several council members argued last month that the city shouldn't wait until the broad document is updated before pursuing zoning changes, including a possible reduction in allowed density on commercial properties along El Camino Real. The overhaul of the Comprehensive Plan began in 2006 and stagnated in planning purgatory for about seven years before officials agreed to "reset" the process and get the community more involved. Last year, the city launched an outreach campaign called "Our Palo Alto" that officials hope will encourage public engagement and enable the city to complete the update by late 2015.

At the council's Aug. 6 discussion of the Comprehensive Plan, Councilman Pat Burt cited the impacts of development on local schools, parks and public facilities and made a case for changes to the zoning code "that can be done in a matter of months rather than years."

"I don't think we can wait that long," Burt said.

Councilman Greg Scharff argued that waiting two years to adopt the new Comprehensive Plan and then another few years to actually adjust the zoning code "is simply unacceptable." Councilwoman Karen Holman made a similar case and, referring to years of complaints about too much traffic and not enough parking, proclaimed, "Rome is burning!"

"We have a lot to be addressed here," Holman said. "I want us to take proactive action."

But even the near-term changes could take some time to implement. Burt himself acknowledged on Aug. 6 that "if it was simple to simply do the zoning changes to give solutions, we would've done them already."

The city's recent experiences suggest that even modest near-term actions could face significant resistance from property owners in impacted zones. Last year, city planners ran into a wall of resistance from El Camino Real property owners who protested a package of reforms that included new sidewalk requirements and a reduction in allowed density on El Camino's commercial zones.

The zone-change proposal was sparked by a state law that allows providers of affordable housing to build up to 20 units per acre, which is more than is normally permitted under city law. In response, the council asked staff to consider reducing the allowed density. Burt, who proposed the change, argued that while developers may be entitled by state law to build more units, the city can at least make sure that these units are small through new density restrictions. The proposal, which would have applied to about 32 sites, fizzled in June along with a broader package of proposed El Camino reforms.

Though the council will not be implementing any changes on Monday, members will consider changes that could be explored at a later date. In a new report, city planners argue that even modest proposed changes could take a while to implement.

"Those familiar with Palo Alto's planning process will realize that even relatively simple initiatives can be controversial and time consuming," the planning report states.

Along with discussing possible zoning changes, the council is also scheduled to consider on Monday the extensive menu of studies that staff is currently pursuing to address local anxieties about growth, traffic and parking. The menu includes more than 20 different initiatives, with topics including "planned community" zoning reform; a downtown "development cap" study; exploration of new parking garages; and the formation of a Transportation Management Association that would provide incentives for solitary drivers to switch to other modes of transportation.

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1 person likes this
Posted by wrong target
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 8, 2014 at 12:11 am

I understand the concerns about traffic and parking, but what I don't understand is why El Camino is the target of this suggested down-zoning. It sits close to two Cal Train stations and buses go up and down it all day long and the Stanford shuttle also traverses it. If ever there was a place in this city where larger housing and commercial developments made sense, it's El Camino because it's one of the places where it's easiest to lure car-less residents and because, though I hate to say this, it could really use some brightening up.

When I take visitors up and down El Camino they often ask "this is Silicon Valley?" and I say, "no, wait for it, we'll be at University Ave soon." It has a lot of buildings on it that look like they've seen better days, with very little architectural theme across it. It also looks sort of like a hodge podge- some buildings are right about against the street, some are set back pretty far with parking lots surrounding them, trees line some parts but not others, some are falling apart, some are brand's not an impressive thoroughfare. Very little of it is walkable as well if you don't live right by University Ave or California Avenue. I don't see anyone with a strong desire to stroll El Camino. Retail seems centered in retail plazas rather than up and down El Camino and restaurants are kind of sparse- tucked between gas stations, car washes, autobody shops, etc. If parking and traffic are our real concerns, adding both more retail and more housing in places where it's easier to avoid driving makes more sense than adding development elsewhere.

Palo Alto is required by law to add more housing and if we say "no" to it in one of the places that will be least negatively affected by it (and I obviously think it would be a positive on El Camino), then where will we end up saying "yes"? Somewhere far less optimal, I fear, where your neighbor is more likely to be a single family home than a gas station.

1 person likes this
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2014 at 11:06 am

Or we do systems amalysis and get to the point where we say, enough is enough.

Go take a drive from the Great Mall all the way up Tasman. All that ugliness in building may be a shame, but remember what it was like to have some open space? And it will remind you that there is still lots of space for housing, on transit, at far more affordable places. There is no way to provide for all that housing anymore here. We can finally evaluate things like evacuation in emergencies, traffic circulation, impacts to school routes, giving the residents the 25 acres of parks and open space we are DUE in our city code as a result of all the development. El Camino is not a black box that will take whatever we can put there.

How about just dropping the zoning back to what we had before this Council got their little urbanization sellout of Palo Alto underway? Then let a smarter and more honest Council that we will hopefully get in November figure this out?

How does this story jive with the fact that our City submitted our Housing Element to the state for approval over 60 days ago?

1 person likes this
Posted by Fitzroy
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 8, 2014 at 6:43 pm

How does the council get away with changing and revising zoning without voter approval? Somehow this seems unethical, if not illegal, although it smacks of impropriety.

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

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