Candidates for the the Palo Alto City Council vowed on Thursday to do more to protect retail in the city's two main commercial strips, with a ban on chain stores and requirements for ground-floor retail leading the charge as the most popular ideas.
At the same time, they expressed a range of ideas for limiting office growth, which everyone blamed for exacerbating the city's traffic and parking problems.
At a candidates forum sponsored by Palo Alto Neighborhoods, the 12 candidates shared their ideas for mitigating the impacts of recent office developments and for protecting the eclectic nature of the local retail scene. Incumbents Greg Scharff, Nancy Shepherd and Karen Holman made a case for why they should be re-elected to the nine-member council. They were joined at the City Hall dais by the nine challengers: Wayne Douglass, Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, John Fredrich, A.C. Johnston, Lydia Kou, Seelam Reddy, Mark Weiss, Cory Wolbach.
Moderated by former Mayor Sid Espinosa, the forum focused largely on issues of land use and development, with protection of retail as one of the major themes. When asked about the topic, Scharff said the city needs to extend ground-floor retail protection downtown and get retail that "doesn't break the block." He gave as an example of a block-breaking building the Wells Fargo building on University Avenue.
Holman noted that as a council member she helped lead the effort to extend the requirement for ground-floor retail beyond downtown's commercial core. Further expansions will be needed, she said. She also cited a petition that is going around California Avenue, calling for a limitation on chain stores.
"I support that effort and will be working toward that," Holman said.
Wolbach, legislative aide to state Sen. Jerry Hill, likewise said he would support a limitation on chain stores. He also said it's important that the city makes sure it puts housing close to retail.
Douglass, a Ventura resident who is primarily concerned about the issue of homelessness, also voiced support for controlling chain stores.
"I do like the idea controlling chain stores in Palo Alto, even though I hang out a lot at Starbucks," Douglass said.
Eric Filseth, one of three candidates affiliated with the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (along with DuBois and Kou), criticized the council for looking at projects on an individual basis without consideration of their cumulative impacts when it comes to things like traffic, parking and school enrollment.
"We're not really looking at the big picture of how it all works together," Filseth said.
Kou and DuBois agreed and both said more data is needed to gauge the impacts of new developments. DuBois also noted that many of the parking and traffic impacts the neighborhoods are seeing these days were caused by commercial developments. That is why, he said, he supports the city's current effort to raise the hotel tax rate by 2 percentage points.
"I think it's only fair that we use the taxes on hotels to help mitigate some of the impacts," DuBois said."
Seelam Reddy, a retired engineer, is the only candidate who has come out strongly against the hotel tax. He agreed with others, however, that the city needs to do more to "manage growth" and taking "a balanced approach to development."
Scharff, meanwhile, reiterated his support for eliminating the "planned community" zoning process, which enables developers to request zoning exceptions in exchange for public benefits. The council agreed last year to adopt a moratorium on planned communities while considering reform. Scharff also supported having a cap on office development downtown and being very selective about what projects get approved.
"We won't be able to say you can have no office development in Palo Alto," Scharff said. "I'd strongly support making sure that we mitigate all of the impacts through some sort of 'beauty contest' to make sure our office development doesn't impact the city."
One topic on which there was genuine disagreement was the city's 50-foot height limit for new developments. Shepherd said it's time to have a discussion about breaking the city's 50-foot height limit. Candidates Mark Weiss, a concert producer, and John Fredrich, a retired teacher, both said they support leaving the restriction in place.
"I believe in a 50-foot limit without exception no gazebos, no rocket launch pads," Fredrich said. "Fifty feet is 50 feet."
Johnston, a partner at the law firm Morrison & Foerster, was less strident in his opposition. There could be circumstances, he said, that warrant going higher than 50 feet.
"I think it would be a rare exception, but there may be an exception," Johnston said.
Shepherd said she would be willing to consider going above the limit, noting that some of the most popular local buildings (including the University Art building across the street from City Hall) are far taller than 50 feet.
"If people are interested in looking outside the boxy designs, we as a community should talk about it," Shepherd said. "I'm not prepared to go there yet, but I am prepared to have that conversation."
Wolbach said there's an "awful lot we can do within 50 feet" and said he doesn't see an upswell of demand from the community for breaking the 50-foot barrier.
"If we're going to do that, I think it should be a referendum," Wolbach. "We should put it to the public."