With protecting retail now a pressing priority in Palo Alto, members of the City Council wrestled on Monday with the questions of what exactly constitutes "retail" and how exactly to preserve it.
The discussion took place during the council's consideration of its update to the Comprehensive Plan, the broad land-use document that establishes the city's goals and policies for future development. Though typically the Comprehensive Plan (commonly known in other communities as the General Plan) serves as the basis for new zoning changes, Palo Alto's update has taken so long that officials are now thinking of changing some zoning rules in advance of the update.
On Monday, in the first of two meetings on the subject, council members considered what these near-terms changes should be. Though there was no clear consensus, and no votes were taken, much of the discussion centered on retail, particularly in the city's two primary commercial districts: downtown and California Avenue. Planning Director Hillary Gitelman had identified retail preservation and the elimination of remaining parking exemptions as two areas where changes can be made in advance of the Comprehensive Plan update, which the council first agreed to undertake in 2006 and is now scheduled to be completed in early 2016.
Much of the heavy lifting on the new document will begin in January, when planning staff kicks off a series of public meetings on the complex and politically touchy subjects of growth and development. These meetings will help the city formulate a land-use vision that will be in place until 2030 and guide Palo Alto's policy on issues like parking, traffic and new development. In addition to exploring various growth scenarios, Gitelman recommended using this time to consider the city's policies on major infrastructure projects such as Santa Clara County's plan to expand expressway capacity and the possible trenching of the Caltrain tracks.
But as Monday's conversation indicated, even the low-hanging fruit of retail preservation and parking exemptions won't be all that easy to pluck. While Council members Karen Holman and Greg Scharff continued to advocate for new policies to encourage retail, Councilman Larry Klein wasn't as convinced.
"I don't see the evidence yet that there is a problem," Klein said. "Maybe there is, maybe there isn't."
Klein also sought more clarity on the word "retail." Does it include, he asked, establishments like restaurants and banks?
"What are we really talking about when we talk about retail preservation?" Klein asked.
The answer to the question of what is "retail" came from council watchdog Herb Borock, who read to the council a section of the zoning code that explicitly describes the types of establishments that fall into that category (the long list, as defined, includes food, apparel, jewelry and many other consumer items). Borock also noted that one of the problems that the city's land-use critics are concerned about isn't that the city's Comprehensive Plan is outdated but that it's not being followed by the City Council.
"It doesn't make much sense for the council that's going to be elected tomorrow to go to a lot of trouble in creating a new Comprehensive Plan if it's going to ignore it," said Borock, speaking one day before the council Election.
Holman argued that the city should zone for what it wants, which means more retail. She cited a number of businesses on California Avenue that have recently left after being priced out by high rents. In addition, several downtown restaurants have recently closed and converted to office use, which fetches higher rents (Zibibbo and Rudy's Pub are two such examples). Scharff continued to advocate for more ground-floor-retail requirements downtown and for amortization of buildings that don't have retail use, including the Wells Fargo building.
"We should figure out not just how to protect existing retail but how to expand retail downtown and have more choices," Scharff said.
One proposal that staff will be exploring is a new restriction on chain stores on California Avenue, a proposal that has become popular in recent months. A petition by area merchants to create a limit (though not a complete ban) on chain stores has gathered more than 100 signatures and has won the support of Mayor Nancy Shepherd and most of the candidates in the Tuesday council election.
While most council members talked about retail policy and reducing density in commercial areas, Councilman Greg Schmid suggested focusing the city's energy on the big issue of growth and determining how much development the city should allow.
"If seems to me we ought to deal with the base issue," Schmid said. "The base issue that is on everybody's mind in the city is growth. We should start with the guidelines for growth."
That topic will come up in January, when the council holds a special work session to consider the city's growth management program for commercial development. The broader public conversation about the Comprehensive Plan will stretch throughout spring and will consider future housing sites, new goals and policies to be included in the document and a series of planning "scenarios," some of which include trenching Caltrain and having greater expressway capacity.
Klein argued against studying the trench alternative, noting that the price tag of this design would be between $500 million and $1 billion and that the city isn't likely to get this kind of funding any time soon. Pat Burt and Gail Price strongly rejected this logic, with Burt noting that some of the funding could come from a tax increase that Santa Clara County's business leaders are contemplating to fund a broad range of transportation improvements. Price also said the option should be studied.
"If we were not to do it, we'd be limiting our options and we'd not be doing the city and the community members a favor or the businesses a favor, because it is in fact our responsibility to look at these scenarios," Price said.
The Monday discussion was the latest step in a Comprehensive Plan update that has taken multiple twists in recent years. Originally intended as a modest revision of the current plan, the process morphed into a far broader overhaul in the past two years, with planning commissioners editing the plan's list of goals, policies and programs and planning staff proposing four different growth scenarios for exploration in the update process. In a September discussion, several council members rejected the list of scenarios and suggested less significant revisions to the land-use document.
Though the process of updating the Comprehensive Plan attained some momentum earlier this year, when the city hosted a series of community meetings as part of an outreach initiative called Our Palo Alto, Monday's discussion was a subdued affair. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said she found it "disappointing" that so few people are engaged in the process, as witnessed by the sparse attendance at Monday meeting.
"We're talking about no dramatic changes, but we are talking about some," Kniss said. "I just find it puzzling that there isn't a group that's here, and for far lesser reasons we'd fill the Chambers."