Palo Alto's frustrating eight-year climb toward adopting a new land-use vision is now heading for a summit -- a community meeting in May where residents and council members will go over reams of recently collected data about growth and try to hash out where the city should go from here.
The City Council approved on Monday night a series of actions aimed at both updating the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, by early 2016 and achieving near-term zone changes to address the most pressing priorities. These include new requirements for ground-floor retail on downtown's peripheral streets, restrictions on chain stores and a revision of parking requirements for new developments.
Staff will also consider setting a limit on the number of downtown restaurants and restaurants on California Avenue; eliminating parking exemptions for mixed-use development; and adjusting the list of land-uses allowed through the conditional-use-permit process (which typically doesn't involve council approval) in the downtown area. The lattermost action is intended to prevent non-retail uses on the ground floor of downtown buildings.
The broad and multi-pronged approach seeks two different but related goals: Crafting a new vision for the city's long-term future, and making immediate changes to the zoning code to mitigate the impacts of recent growth. After a lengthy discussion and some minor modifications, the council unanimously went along with the staff proposal to proceed with both efforts simultaneously. Planners will also consider next year broader zone changes, including possible reductions in the density allowed in commercial areas.
The new proposal for the Comprehensive Plan update is the latest twist in a tortuous slog that launched in 2006 and that has seemingly swerved into new direction almost every year.
The effort, which initially was intended to make minor revision of the existing Comprehensive Plan (which has a planning horizon between 1998 and 2010) and to create two focused "area plans" for California Avenue and East Meadow Circle, morphed into a much broader effort in which the Planning and Transportation Commission painstakingly edited every chapter of the plan, which at least in theory guides all land-use decisions.
The shifting of gears continued this year. In August, the council rejected a menu of growth scenarios that city planners proposed to analyze as part of an Environmental Impact Report that the city is preparing as part of the Comprehensive Plan update and directed staff to consider a simpler array of options. These will be unveiled to the public at the May summit along with troves of data and projections relating to recent and future growth. The approach to the Comprehensive Plan has seen so many shifts over the past few years that Mark Michael, chair of the planning commission, recently described it as "ready, fire, aim."
Even though the council unanimously signed off this week on the latest new approach, several members offered concerns and suggestions about further changes to the perpetually modified process.
Councilman Pat Burt lobbied hard for having a two-day summit, with the first one focusing on a broad vision for Palo Alto and the second one focused on data and what the city has learned from all the recent analysis.
"I think this continues to short-circuit the process in a way we're going to regret," Burt said.
After planning staff expressed deep reservations about the increasing workload that a two-day summit would require, the council voted 5-4 (with Karen Holman, Greg Scharff and Marc Berman joining Burt) to reject Burt's amendment to add a second day to the summit.
Councilman Larry Klein called the proposal "an unnecessary micromanagement of staff's work."
Councilwoman Gail Price, whose term concludes this month and who opted not to seek a second term, argued that the city isn't paying attention to the financial impacts of its growth policies. She cited a "conspicuous absence of discussion about economic vitality and fiscal impacts" of the proposed policies and zone changes.
Holman wondered whether it's possible to move even faster with implementing zone changes that would protect retail, possibly by adopting an interim ordinance.
"We're looking at five to six months and a lot can happen in five or six months, before we get back here," Holman said.
Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said that staff is "moving so quickly that adopting an interim ordinance would not be necessary."
The summit would be convened by the mayor and would seek to finally get the update toward completion, Gitelman added.
"This would be a big deal," she said. "It would try to energize the community about the effort to complete the Comprehensive Plan update."