Palo Alto marked a major milestone Wednesday when its planning commissioners unanimously approved a new vision for housing, one that includes incentives for affordable housing and encourages higher density near transit.
The Planning and Transportation Commission swiftly gave its stamp of approval to the city's new Housing Element, the only chapter of the Comprehensive Plan that is required by state law.
The chapter identifies property around the city that can potentially accommodate new housing. It also lays out a menu of programs and policies that the city plans to use to encourage housing development.
If implemented, it would allow for 1,988 more housing units -- a number that was assigned to Palo Alto by the Association of Bay Area Governments through a controversial process known as the Regional Housing Need Allocation.
State law requires the city to demonstrate that its zoning policies could accommodate these units, though it doesn't actually require the city to construct them. Cities that don't submit a Housing Element risk getting sued, losing out on grant funds and getting switched to a stricter schedule for updating the document -- a four-year cycle rather than an eight-year one.
Once adopted by the City Council, the Housing Element will theoretically guide the city's decisions on housing between 2015 and 2023. Its passage comes at a time when the community is deeply divided on the topic of growth, a debate that was at the heart of last year's Measure D campaign and that features prominently in the current election season.
This iteration of the housing document includes a new policy that gives incentives to property owners to consolidate small lots, said Tim Wong, senior planner who is leading the Housing Element effort. Consolidation could lead to more opportunities to build affordable housing.
Wong called the incentive one of the "significant" new programs in the revised Housing Element.
Otherwise, the new document is relatively conservative in that it proposes no specific zone changes or development proposals. It does, however, commit the city to consider amending the zoning code to allow "high-density residential" in mixed-use projects in commercial areas within half a mile of the two Caltrain stations.
It also allows the city to consider "limited exceptions" to the city's 50-foot height limit on buildings for property within one-quarter mile of the train stations, to encourage development of housing near transit.
Another new policy would enable more affordable housing by changing the city's rule that developments with five or more residential units include affordable housing. The new rule would make the below-market-rate program applicable to developments with three or more units.
Also in the new Housing Element is a policy that would amend the zoning code to provide additional incentives to developers who provide "extremely-low income" housing units, including reduced requirements for parking spaces, landscaping and fees.
Another policy allows for a new form of commerical-and-residential development on land that is too small to accommodate the multi-story dense development typically associated with mixed-use construction. The policy would allow a property owner with two adjacent sites to devote one site exclusively to housing and the other strictly to non-residential use.
The commission had already reviewed and commented extensively on the new document over a series of meetings earlier this year. On Wednesday, commissioners kept their comments brief, quickly approving the motion by Chair Mark Michael.
Michael lauded the document as one that, thanks to the hard work of the commission, the staff, the specially appointed Community Housing Panel and the City Council, has "passed scrutiny with the state." (In early September, Palo Alto was notified by the state Department of Housing and Community Development that its draft version "with revisions, meets the statutory requirements of state housing element law.")
Vice Chair Arthur Keller also supported the new document, though he lamented the fact that the city didn't advantage of the opportunity to evaluate the impact of new housing on local schools.
"This is one time we can consider (school impacts) and failing to do so is I think a problem," Keller said. "I wish we had spent more time thinking about school impacts, thinking about how much more crowding there would be in schools and how this would affect the quality of life for Palo Alto residents."
Others were generally pleased with the document, which the council is scheduled to consider in November. Commissioner Przemek Gardias recommended having the commission revisit the document every six months or so to see which policies have been effective and which housing sites actually ended up with housing.
Commissioner Eric Rosenblum noted that even with the vote, the city's conversation about housing policies is far from over.
"I know this is not the end, but the beginning of a lot of the real work," Rosenblum said.