The last time Palo Alto adopted a new housing vision for the city, the feeling around City Hall was more relief than satisfaction.
Years overdue and highly controversial, the Housing Element that the city adopted in 2013 laid out the city's strategies for encouraging more housing and identified sites that could accommodate 2,860 housing units between 2007 and 2014. The council adopted the document after much debate and heavy criticism from the community about the city's decision (later reversed) to include a proposed housing project on Maybell Avenue on the housing inventory. And as soon as the city adopted the new document, planners commenced work on updating it.
Now, as the city is putting together the next edition of the Housing Element, things couldn't be any more different. In recent months, planners have been working with a stakeholder group of housing developments, advocates and neighborhood leaders on revising the updated version, which would cover the period of 2015 to 2023. And while official adoption is still about three months away, the new document has already received the tentative endorsement of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, the state agency charged with certifying the document.
On Wednesday night, the document also received words of general praise from the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, which reviewed but did not vote on the latest changes. The commission is set to make a formal recommendation on the Housing Element on Oct. 1.
Though the document is officially part of the Comprehensive Plan, its update is proceeding on a separate track than the revision of broader land-use bible. The timing for the Housing Element is more urgent than for the rest of the document, with a due date early next year. Cities that fail to complete the document risk lawsuits and may lose opportunity to receive state grants for housing programs, said Tim Wong, senior planner who is spearheading the new update. They can also be required to undertake the revisions of a four- rather than eight-year cycle.
The document mandates that the city zone for (though not actually build) 1,988 housing units between 2015 and 2023. To do this, the city is relying largely on existing sites that aren't developed to their zoning capacity.
The Housing and Community Development letter, which was issued on Sept. 5, states that the city's "draft element, with revisions, meets the statutory requirements of State housing element law." It notes, however, that the requirement hinges upon a new policy that would create incentives for property owners to consolidate small lots. The policy, which was recently added to the draft element, would create larger lots capable of accommodating the type of density needed to build affordable housing.
Though the document doesn't include any rezoning proposals, it includes a few new policies, including one that would encourage the type of consolidation Housing and Community Development requested. Wong said the policy is being added to address the Housing and Community Development concern that many of the city's parcels are too small to accommodate affordable housing.
The program aims to "provide incentives to provide larger lots for affordable-housing developments," Wong said. Another new program says the city will consider creating a Pedestrian and Transit-Oriented Development overlay for University Avenue and California Avenue, which would promote "higher density multi-family housing development in the area." Another new policy would assess the potential of removing maximum residential density (a limit on the number of dwelling units per acres) in mixed-use zones, which would also encourage smaller units.
In providing sites for new housing, the document targets commercial sites and steers clear of single-family residential neighborhoods (what's known as R-1 zones). For some critics, the new Housing Element's policies don't go nearly far enough in promoting affordable housing. Public Interest Law Firm, which represents residents of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, argued in a letter to the Housing and Community Development that Palo Alto's new housing vision doesn't sufficiently address the plight of Buena Vista, which is subject to closure. Palo Alto should include in the document "additional affirmative steps that the city will take to prevent the Park's closure." This could include engaging a nonprofit developer to preserve the park or using city funds for this purpose.
"By failing to take meaningful action to preserve Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, the city has neither performed the programs nor achieved the goals set out in its 2007-14 Housing Element, and the draft Housing Element for the upcoming planning period must acknowledge that failure."
Another law firm, Sacramento-based Public Advocates, Inc., criticized the city for relying too much on commercial sites for new housing. Citing Palo Alto's "extremely high land costs," the firm argued that the city "has absolutely no track record of affordable housing on sites under one-half acre." Its letter points out that most sites in the city's Housing Inventory currently have non-residential uses and that the city hasn't done enough to assess the "realistic development capacity" of these commercial sites.
In listing the sites, the city merely multiplied their acreage by the maximum allowed density allowed in the zoning code. In some cases, however, maximum density may not be achievable, Public Advocates argued.
"There has been no accounting for other zoning or development constraints that are likely to lower the realistic capacity below this theoretical maximum," the firm's staff attorney Sam Tepperman-Gelfant wrote in the letter.
The planning commission also had some mixed feelings about the new document. Though commissioners lauded staff for its significant progress on it, some expressed reservations about particular policies. Vice Chair Arthur Keller said he was skeptical about transit-oriented policies in Palo Alto (which encourage construction of housing near transit centers), noting that more workers who live in Palo Alto bike to work than take all forms of public transit combined. Commissioner Michael Alcheck, meanwhile, suggested that the document isn't aggressive enough in encouraging housing development.
"As proud of the work product as I am, I feel like the climate in Palo Alto is not supportive of making room for affordable housing," Alcheck said.
Chair Mark Michael also suggested that the city be more assertive about encouraging affordable housing, even if it means relaxing the rigid zoning restrictions in R-1 neighborhoods. Saying that these zones are "sacrosanct" is "a knife in the heart of affordable housing," Michael said.