News

Palo Alto to weigh benefits of 'planned-community' zoning

City Council to consider whether, and how, to change the contentious land-use designation

The Palo Alto City Council will get its first, long-awaited crack Monday at reforming the city's contentious planned-community zoning, which the council last year put on hold following a citizen referendum that pushed back on development.

The zoning, which has been in existence since the early 1950s, allows developers to seek exceptions to land-use rules in exchange for public benefits that are negotiated on an ad hoc basis. Over the years, the public benefits have included everything from public plazas and grocery stores to sculptures and affordable housing units.

The Palo Alto Municipal Code is intentionally vague in its definition of public benefits. Leaving it open, the thinking goes, gives the council the maximum leeway in demanding whatever they deed appropriate. Now, with the planned-community (PC) zoning suspended and residents rising up against denser projects (the most recent one, a proposed housing development on Maybell Avenue, was overturned by the referendum), the council is preparing to either reform the process or abolish it altogether.

The Planning and Transportation Commission has already held two public hearings on the topic and offered a list of recommendations, including better definitions of public benefits; routine use of an independent economic analysis to review the value on PC requests; and clarification of the roles and responsibilities of local commissions.

"The general consensus of the group was that PC zoning provides a unique opportunity for flexibility to be used to facilitate community needs and, while the process may need refining in a number of areas, PC zoning or something like it should remain in the community's development tool box," a city staff report notes.

The planned-community zoning district has been in place since 1951 and has been used to approve about 100 projects, according to planning staff. The city revised the process in 1978, specifying that the zoning would be used when more traditional zoning districts don't provide sufficient flexibility to allow the proposed development; when the development will provide a benefit "not otherwise attainable"; and when the development is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, the city's land-use bible.

Both the planned College Terrace Centre at 2180 El Camino Real and the new four-story building at 101 Lytton Ave. relied on planned-community zoning to create projects with large amounts of office space.

A new report from the planning department includes a list of the changes for the council to consider in its reform effort. One is to set specific criteria for where PC projects could be allowed, either by designating geographic locations or by creating a minimum land requirement. Another idea is to create a menu of public benefits that would be allowed a reform that would add predictability at the expense of flexibility. The planning commission has extensively discussed a possible menu, which would include such things as affordable and senior housing, and most commissioners have expressed support for the idea.

Also on the list of reforms is the creation of a schedule to monitor the benefits gained through planned-community projects, though staff warns that some benefits may not be enforceable in the long run. Staff lists as one such public benefit a requirement that a specific business remain open.

The city can also rely more on development agreements -- a process that Palo Alto used in approving the massive expansion of the Stanford University Medical Center.

One alternative would create a two-tier system in which some types of projects would use development agreements and others would choose public benefits from a menu.

Though the council unanimously agreed that reforms are needed, there is currently no clear consensus on what those reforms would look like. Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who is seeking re-election, said at Tuesday's candidate forum that she would favor forming a citizens committee to vet all of the city's previous PC projects and make a recommendation on how to move ahead.

During the forum, she asked another candidate, attorney A.C. Johnston, how he would change the planned-community process. He said he would "use it very rarely."

"We have to be very clear that whenever we will grant variances from zoning, we will ensure there are real public benefits that are delivered to the community in return for getting that variance and we will make sure that we get the benefits that have been promised to us," Johnston said.

He also argued later in the forum that the city should update its Comprehensive Plan (the city's land-use bible, which is in the midst of an update) before it considers changing planned-community zoning.

Though Shepherd said she didn't believe Johnston's proposal to use PC zones rarely would give "enough security to the PC process as we know it today," the two agreed that the zoning should remain in place in some form or other.

Not everyone shares this view. Councilman Greg Scharff, who is also running for a second term, said at Tuesday's candidates forum that he believes it's time to eliminate the zoning. In a recent interview with the Weekly, he argued that the community no longer has any confidence in the process. No matter what benefits are offered, residents will be unhappy about the city allowing developers to exceed height and density regulations.

"I don't really see how we can reform it," Scharff said. "And if we can't reform it, we need to eliminate it. I'd completely support eliminating the PC process."

Right now, there is only one PC project in the city's pipeline: a proposed commercial development at 2755 El Camino Real, near the busy corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road. That project has been in limbo since the end of 2013, when the council put a moratorium on planned-community projects.

The developer, Pollock Realty Corporation, argued in a recent letter to the city that the development should be approved even despite the ongoing timeout on planned-community zoning. The project, the letter argued, is a "modest proposal," far smaller than the office projects recently proposed by Jay Paul Co. for 395 Page Mill Road and by John Arrillaga for 27 University Ave. (the former application was later withdrawn; the latter was never formally submitted). The project has also already undergone hearings before the council, the Architectural Review Board and the planning commission.

The reviewing boards, Pollock argues, "should have indicated their unwillingness to proceed with a PC zone for 2755 ECR if anybody held such a strong discouraging view of our PC zone application."

"This feels like being told in the ninth inning of a ballgame you're winning that games are now changed to 14 innings, and some of the rules of the game are going to change," Pollock's letter states.

The council's Monday discussion is scheduled as a study session, which means no formal votes will be taken and no changes made.

Comments

4 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 3, 2014 at 9:55 am

It’s good that the City is looking at PC zoning, and it will be very interesting to review whatever documentation Staff comes up with that outlines this particular zoning type. We’ll want to be looking for the public benefits for each of the projects that have been zoned PC since the 1950s. While not every “benefit” can be evaluated in terms of dollars and cents, we all should pay keen attention to just how the City characterizes the variances granted vs the benefits supposedly enjoyed by the public in return.

What’s important to remember here is that PC is just a kind of variance to the zoning codes. Removing PC does not mean that variances will go away. What does become important is what kinds of variances will be allowed, and if there are restraints in the code that restrict the scope of variances allowed.

What’s really important is to find, and remove, all of the ambiguity in the zoning code that translates into the Planning Department, and/or the City Council, being able to say: “Trust me”. It’s pretty clear that there has been far too much freedom given to people who are not responsible for their actions—such as City Council members.

It will also be interesting to see just how much importance the review process allows for the public’s voice, relative to keeping, or terminating, PC zoning.


4 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 3, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Eliminate the PC process. It hasn't worked.


2 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 3, 2014 at 3:18 pm

The PC zoning will never go away, as long as subsidized housing is still allowed in Palo Alto. Our city council will continue to cave in to liberal guilt demands for even more subsidized housing...most recent example is how they are being pushed to buy the BV (private property) and turn it into subsidized housing by enticing the developer with PC incentives.

BTW Gennady: "Affordable housing" and "subsidized housing" are the opposite of each other...why do you continue to use the term "affordable housing"? Is there some sort of hidden agenda on your part? Truth in reporting is an important principle.


Like this comment
Posted by Kay
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 3, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Great position from Greg Scharff! Was so glad to hear his new position. We don't need to wait around and study this anymore! PC zoning has been used by Developers (profit) and good-minded low cost housing advocates(but not in their neighborhoods) to over develop and destroy much of the livability of Palo Alto. Good thing that Greg now sees the light!


4 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 3, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Either eliminate PC Zoning or require a referendum on each application of PC Zoning. The City Council have proven they can't be trusted when dealing with developers.


4 people like this
Posted by Stan
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 3, 2014 at 8:22 pm

Neither the city manger nor the city council wants to let go of the Planned Community loop hole. The PC loop hole allows the city to ignore residents because, as Scharff best put it, "The building is the benefit", and he (and the city manager) certainly know better than any pesky resident what good for Palo Alto.

The PC rules need to be scrapped, period. I can not imagine how they could be improved other than by being eliminated. The city needs a well thought out uniform building code. Something residents can count on, developers must follow, and our city govt can't ignore.


1 person likes this
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 4, 2014 at 11:39 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

Craig,

The housing is to be "affordable" to the people living in it. Your argument about terminology seems to come from your belief that the subsidies, accommodations, what-have-you, whose goal is to create or maintain housing affordability comes at excessive cost for the society at large and is therefore not "affordable."

It's not reasonable to impugn the Weekly reporter's motives for using the term in the generally accepted sense.


1 person likes this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 5, 2014 at 10:44 am

Jerry,

There is a fair amount of affordable housing in Palo Alto, if one has enough money to pay market prices (down payment + mortgage). If one cannot afford affordable housing, and Palo Alto agrees to subsidize the housing, then it becomes subsidized housing. Using the argumentum ad absurdum, if Palo Alto would simply agree to give away homes for free, to all those who not afford to buy a house, these homes would be "affordable" (to use your argument), because everyone can afford "free"...all we would have to do is to tax every PA taxpayer to afford it (along with all the monies to support our schools, public services, etc.). Limo libs would never accept that, especially if all that "affordable" housing was put in their own neighborhoods.

If you are convinced that subsidized housing is all that popular in PA, Jerry, then would you support a referendum to that effect?

Bottom line: The proper term is subsidized housing, because that's what it is. A quality reporter would report it that way.


1 person likes this
Posted by History Buff
a resident of another community
on Oct 5, 2014 at 10:50 am

Let's not forget that the California Density Bonus Law allows developers to override zoning regulations if they build below market rate (BMR) housing. Incentives and concessions -- reduced parking requirements, greater height limits, reduced setback and minimum square foot requirements -- provide economic benefits to the developer.


Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2014 at 11:20 am

It's time for the so-called "Residentialists" to identify all of the laws that have been passed during the past twenty years or so that have removed much of the power to control local land use.

Gettting a petition started during this election, addressed to all of the local city councils, and the State Legislature, requestiong that this "density bonus" law be rescinded would be a good start for these folks. All change must work through the political, and legislative, process. This means getting people organized, coherent views established, and published, and then lobbying at every point in the decision tree.


Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2014 at 11:22 am

> A quality reporter would report it that way.

Well .. at least a knowledgeable reporter would ..


Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 5, 2014 at 1:03 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Joe

"Well .. at least a knowledgeable reporter would .."

So tell us again how the Maybell controversy wasn't about rejecting affordable housing. Craig has been straight forward. He doesn't like and doesn't want affordable housing to be built. The Maybell Action Group argued that it was for affordable housing done right. But not at that location, with that financing, with so few amenities etc. Your echoing Craig's position suggests that you reject any use of the public purse to create or sustain affordable housing. Are you against all subsidization of affordable housing, and more importantly is the PASZ slate against it?


Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 5, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Craig

"If you are convinced that subsidized housing is all that popular in PA, Jerry, then would you support a referendum to that effect?"

I'm not at all convinced. I think the ground has shifted on this and a number of other issues over time as libertarian values gradually displace the liberal values of previous decades

This election could prove to be some sort of referendum on subsidized housing. I'm listening to hear if candidates embrace affordable housing as a public policy goal and are seeking ways to make it happen, with the support of residents, not over their heads or behind their backs.

Depending on the vote next month, we could end up with policies that make it almost impossible to get new affordable housing built even if we satisfy state requirements by showing that we're not formally prohibiting its construction.


Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 5, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Jerry,

I have always felt that Measure D was, at least partially, about rejecting subsidized housing...even though the organized supporters (opposers, actually) said otherwise. The one way to get at the truth is to have another referendum on the issue, limited to subsidized housing, per se. Allow the vote to be city-wide, then by neighborhood (same vote, though). If it passes city-wide, then the subsidized housing would go into the neighborhoods that supported the most. Would you support the referendum, Jerry?


Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2014 at 1:26 pm

> Are you against all subsidization of affordable housing

Not a big fan of the idea. When the government takes over the role of providing housing, food, and money in the bank for people who don't want to work .. then it's not long before that government is ruling a failed society.

> and more importantly is the PASZ slate against it?

Why aren't you asking the PASZ candidates, themselves?


Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2014 at 1:31 pm

@Jerry--

A couple of questions for you:

1) Why are you such a fan of government subsidized housing?
2) What level of subsidy would you support as the minimum the government (ie-the taxpayers) should be legally obligated to fund such housing?
3) How many subsidized housing units do you think a town like Palo Alto can afford--if the subsidies are coming from the General Fund? (a percentage of the total Census identify dwelling units would be a good answer.)
4) Should subsidized housing units be exempt from property tax?

Looking for your answers..

Thanks.


Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 5, 2014 at 4:22 pm

Jerry,

I thought I would take a moment to praise you, even if I don't agree with you on many things:

1. You are a stand up guy, and use your own name on this blog.

2. You are willing to acknowledge a shifting landscape in PA, even if you disagree with it.

I wish there were more like you on this site.

Regards,

Craig


Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2014 at 9:39 pm

@ Craig,
Jerry Underdal is not all he claims to be. He's also a big reason some of us don't use our names.


Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2014 at 9:41 pm

The Maybell apartments were never intended for people who transfer their 7-figure assets to relatives so they could live in the neighborhood in subsidized housing.


Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm

The density bonus rule has ended up leading to BMR housing stock that isn't necessarily truly affordable and in some cases, ends up empty for absurdly long periods of time. it certainly does nothing for the people being displaced by high-density gentrification.

Underdal seems to have an agenda, and it's not affordable housing, or he'd be concerned about the actual goal in whatever form it took.

I was really surprised to find we had an element in this town willing to disengage their brains if they heard the word "affordable housing" no matter how inapplicable. jerry Underdal seems to have some reason to try to keep old wounds open and shill for developers.


Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 5, 2014 at 10:08 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Craig

Thanks.

@Joe

I start from the premise that there is a positive good that comes from having a wide range of economic diversity in a community. When the marketplace can't produce that result, as is certainly the case in Palo Alto, I believe it's a valid function of government to put its thumb on the scales, so to speak, to make it possible for a wide range of people to live here.

In your earlier post you portrayed subsidized housing as being a benefit for people who do not want to work. You and I part ways on that fundamental question. There are so many other circumstances that can lead to a person or family's inability to find or hold housing in this area that not wanting to work doesn't register as a serious consideration.

Palo Alto has been renowned for its affordable housing program. Until recently it has not been particularly controversial, just one of those many aspects of Palo Alto that made it special. We're in a different era. How different will be known when the votes are counted.

Your other questions are good ones for specialists, like yourself. But not for me or, I suspect, for most voters. It comes down to values. If you believe in the value of affordable housing you look for candidates who are eager to make it happen despite the political difficulties. If you reject the concept you look for candidates who are antagonistic or neutral. It'll be interesting to see what candidates fall in which category.

I'd listen carefully to a discussion of questions 2,3 and 4, but will leave it to others to carry it on. Thanks for raising them.


1 person likes this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 6, 2014 at 12:46 pm

@Jerry ..

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts about the questions put to you.

> I start from the premise that there is a positive good
> that comes from having a wide range of economic
> diversity in a community.

And just what “positive good” might that be—particularly since “economic diversity” ultimately requires public subsidy?

> When the marketplace can't produce that result,
> as is certainly the case in Palo Alto, I believe it's
> a valid function of government to put its thumb on the scales,

And where does one find a list of these “valid functions of government”? If we look in the Palo Alto City Charter—will we find any language, or even any ideas, that suggest that redistribution of wealth is a function of government that has been endorsed by the voters?

Will save you a look-see—you won’t find that language in the Charter, or the State Constitution, or the US Constitution.

Now—if your answer is that government is “what I want it to be” .. then I suppose it’s not that hard to see your position.

> You and I part ways on that fundamental question.

Given the large amount of subsidized housing in this country, would you happen to have any idea how many occupants of this housing are: unemployed, on food stamps, welfare, and any other public support programs? It would not be surprising to find that most of the people living in these projects are more-or-less in what has become a permanent underclass that not only doesn’t work, but is, at the moment, unemployable for any but the least skilled jobs in America.

> Until recently it has not been particularly controversial

Perhaps that true. But what is also true is that this program has been going on in more-or-less a stealth mode, and most people have no idea how large this program has become. Would you happen to have any idea how many subsidized housing units there are in Palo Alto?

> If you believe in the value of affordable housing

Affordable housing is not necessarily the same as subsidized housing. You do understand that, don’t you? What exactly is "affordable housing" to you?


Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 6, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Joe

I'll try to be brief. I liked the Palo Alto that had tradespeople living in most neighborhoods. Where working class families raised their kids with access to excellent schools. There was a sense, when you had economic and racial/ethnic diversity within the same city, that we were all in this together and policies should reflect that.

Decades ago, that diversity came naturally from the interplay of market forces (let's not consider here the racial restrictive covenants that distorted the market). Not so today. To pay today’s market price for housing, rental or purchase, you have to be well-off. A renter or homeowner who moves or dies is replaced by someone better off. Natural result: an exclusive community of people who, though racially diverse, are economically homogeneous.

Subsidies from federal, state, and local governments to promote economic diversity are as legitimate as subsidies to farmers and oil drillers, and yes, I agree that you won’t find direct mention of any of these in the Constitution. I’m not a “strict constructionist” so that’s not a sticking point for me. I do believe that “Government is what <we> want it to be.” One of those fundamental splits in our approach to government.

Subsidized housing tends to be concentrated in pockets of poverty around the country. That has been a problem in cities where projects are badly designed, poorly run, and spottily monitored.

That’s not the case in Palo Alto. As you’ve said, there’s a large subsidized housing program in Palo Alto providing housing affordable to perhaps thousands of residents who are our neighbors, friends, co-workers, co-religionists and we don’t even realize it’s there, operating in “stealth mode.” And making this a better community in my opinion.

“What exactly is "affordable housing" to you?”

It’s housing that occupants can pay for without dangerously straining their finances.
Our modest single family home would cost several thousand dollars a month to rent, yet our home is affordable because we bought it decades ago. It will only be affordable to the next occupants if they are well-to-do. That applies to every housing unit in the city that isn’t covered by some sort of affordable housing provision or subsidy of some sort.


Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 6, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Jerry,

The most direct way to get the economic diversity that you dream of is to have the city buy out (eminent domain)some properties in our elite neighborhoods, then build some mixed market-based homes + a lot of high density units. Which neighborhoods would you suggest?


Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 6, 2014 at 3:52 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Craig

It was reported recently that the City of Menlo Park was purchasing two properties with the intent of building affordable housing there. It wasn't by eminent domain, just a regular purchase, I believe. The city's been getting a lot of pressure for insufficient action on affordable/subsidized housing. They won't be able to put a lot of units on it, but at least it'll demonstrate that they're making an effort.

With the resistance to increased density of any sort, Palo Alto may really be stuck if it is compelled a few years up the road to demonstrate to the state that actual units of affordable/subsidized housing are being built, not merely being allowed the possibility of being built.

Eminent domain is not going to happen for this purpose. It'll be buy what the city has money for, build what it can. It would be good to see something go up in neighborhoods like Professorville, Crescent Park and College Terrace, but Barron Park and Green Acres would be good too.


Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 6, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Neighbor

"The density bonus rule has ended up leading to BMR housing stock that isn't necessarily truly affordable and in some cases, ends up empty for absurdly long periods of time."

Are you speaking of the Moldaw Residences, whose construction was subsidized? If I'm not mistaken, the units that went unclaimed required several hundred thousand dollars to move into and people who qualified to put up that much money didn't bite because they felt they could get a better deal elsewhere.

Or are there other cases where affordable/subsidized housing has lain unclaimed?


1 person likes this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 6, 2014 at 6:36 pm

Jerry,

Surely, you can agree that each neighborhood should be allowed to vote on such a big issue as subsidized projects in their 'hood...right? It would be a hoot to see what the vote would be in the elite limo-lib neighborhoods!


Like this comment
Posted by 2 cents
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 6, 2014 at 7:40 pm

"Affordable Housing" in Palo Alto, as opposed to housing for which residents are subsidized by their employers or the government, in reality means low quality housing. It's less space in less desirable areas with less desirable features and a less desirable environment.

Higher quality housing is available outside Palo Alto at the same and at lower rates as those considered affordable in Palo Alto, and as development proceeds in Palo Alto this problem will continue to get worse.

Trying to force this lower quality housing in Palo Alto increases the density of housing and development and continues to ensure that housing quality will be lower and lower in Palo Alto at the rates targeted by affordable housing advocates.

Further, it is common sense and well supported statistically that lower income families and individuals do better when they are not in affordable housing projects, but rather distributed and integrated into the cultures of the city in which they live.

PAHC leaders understand all this. But they have decided that PAHC is more important than any of the people who need lower cost housing and also more important than those who already live in Palo Alto, whether they have high incomes or low incomes. PAHC has outlived its usefulness, and has taken on a life of its own and wants itself to thrive. It's thrown its own original goals under the bus.

Some advocates continue to rest on the high moral ground that initiated PAHC, but that ground is no longer there.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 6, 2014 at 8:42 pm

No live webcast?


Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2014 at 9:21 pm

In some ways, those who decide to purchase a BMR unit are only hurting themselves financially in the future. BMR units, are deed restricted for what they can resell for (typically some percent of the rate of inflation).

A buyer could have bought near the San Jose Train station in 2009 for a median price of $400,000 (there were places selling for as little as $200,000) in 2009. Today, the median price is $650,000, (with the least expensive place having sold for $350,000).

A buyer of a BMR unit in Palo Alto would have about $25,000 in equity versus the San Jose buyer of at least $150,000, and perhaps $250,000. The San Jose buyer would need to take the train to Palo Alto - but many employers provide programs to defray the cost of using public transit.

So which would you choose?


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

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