News

Palo Alto weighs new limits on office growth

Menu of options proposed for capping development

With office developments blooming in Palo Alto and downtown's traffic problems increasingly driving the City Hall agenda, city officials will evaluate on Monday a suite of options for slowing down commercial growth.

The immediate question that the council will consider is whether to unveil new slow-growth policies as part of the ongoing overhaul of the city's Comprehensive Plan or whether to proceed with more urgency and adopt an interim ordinance that would immediately restrict growth.

But at the heart of the matter looms the larger question of whether an annual growth cap is indeed the best panacea for solving downtown's traffic issues. On that, there is no clear community consensus.

Several council members, most notably Mayor Karen Holman and Councilman Pat Burt, have been vocal about the need to consider reining in office growth. In December, Burt proposed scheduling a discussion to consider "parameters of an annual office/R&D growth management program." He noted that during the development-rich years of the dot-com boom, the council had instituted a moratorium on retail buildings being used for offices.

"We're now at the same crisis level as we were at that time," Burt said on Dec. 8.

The city's existing policy, adopted in 1986, sets a cap on overall commercial development of 350,000 square feet in the downtown area and directs the city to re-evaluate that cap when it reaches 235,000 square feet. The city passed the latter threshold in 2012, triggering a two-phase study.

Citywide, Palo Alto added 1.2 million square feet of nonresidential development over the past 15 years, which amounts to about 83,539 square feet per year, according to city data. And this does not count the roughly 1.3 million square feet that will soon be added as part of the current massive expansion of Stanford University Medical Center.

The growth among different types of nonresidential development is far from even. Retail space, for instance, actually shrank by 37,463 square feet over the past 15 years, the only category that has experienced a decrease. Office space, by contrast, went up by 517,045 square feet in the same period, or about 34,370 square feet per year.

One option on the council's menu is an annual limit in the range of 35,000 to 50,000 square feet and a competitive process for evaluating projects that exceed this limit. Another option, according to a city staff report, is to impose a "more robust impact fee program," which ostensibly would slow down the pace of office and research-and-development projects.

Also under consideration is an interim ordinance that would temporarily reduce the amount of office development allowed or set new conditions on projects, such as providing on-site parking or funding for traffic-management program.

Not everyone is convinced that capping annual growth is the way to go. David Kleiman, who recently won approvals for mixed-use buildings at 636 Waverley St. and 240 Hamilton Ave., noted in a letter to the council that the idea of creating an annual cap arose in response to the city's traffic problems and pointed out that the recently approved residential-parking permit program has yet to kick in.

"The council should allow these measures time to work while it begins the process of considering various approaches to combat the traffic problem," Kleiman wrote.

Steve Pierce of the real estate firm Zane MacGregor made a similar point in a letter that argued that the proposal weighed by the council is "a solution with a vaguest connection to a problem." And Russell Hancock, president and CEO of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley, noted in his letter that 34,000 square feet of annual development is a "minuscule amount of growth against Palo Alto's 17.6 million square feet." The Joint Venture board of directors, he wrote, is interested in promoting the "continuing growth and expansion of the regional economy, the creation of quality jobs, and a balanced approach to housing and commercial development."

"Funding for Palo Alto's infrastructure is contingent upon businesses being able to grow," he wrote. "An annual office cap, particularly one that doesn't accumulate during recessionary periods, will create uncertainty and send business out of the city during the downturn," Hancock wrote.

Comments

19 people like this
Posted by Carey
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 5, 2015 at 9:52 pm

The new city council is doing the right thing. Don't listen to Zane MacGregor or Joint Venture Silicon Valley because their view is self serving and not in the interest of Palo Alto residents quality of life. Sure would love to see some retail come back to downtown.


13 people like this
Posted by Good
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 5, 2015 at 9:55 pm

The election should provide a clear indication of community consensus.

And pretty much none of the pro-growth points are compelling.

"Funding for Palo Alto's infrastructure is contingent upon businesses being able to grow," he wrote. "An annual office cap, particularly one that doesn't accumulate during recessionary periods, will create uncertainty and send business out of the city during the downturn," Hancock wrote."

Not true Mr. Hancock - You forget the costs and burden that growth place on infrastructure. Building for recessions?

and

" 34,000 square feet of annual development is a "minuscule amount of growth against Palo Alto's 17.6 million square feet."

Seriously? You would expect to use 17.6 million as the base?

and

"balanced approach to housing and commercial development."

Balance would speak to a correction, to cap office growth right about immediately.


14 people like this
Posted by crisis situation
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 6, 2015 at 9:40 am

All you have to do is drive by the project unfolding at 611 Cowper at
Hamilton (where the sign says "Curious about this Project?"), 28000 sf commercial space topped by a fourth floor 6500 sf penthouse,50 spaces underparked adjacent to Crescent Park, squeezed in there with access off
10 ft wide Lane 39, to realize we need to do better than a 1960's approach to land use and development control in some kind of time warp. A crisis situation demands an emergency response and an office development cap is a good starting point in a complete overhaul of this City's approach to land use and development control,commercial and residential. A new Council majority is what we desperately needed and that is what we got - they need to act.







5 people like this
Posted by PA Forward believer
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 6, 2015 at 11:33 am

Take a look at this great letter from Palo Alto Forward members about this - The City Council is going about this the wrong way...

Web Link


6 people like this
Posted by hightail
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 6, 2015 at 11:56 am

To be fair, if the city is going to limit or eliminate office growth, they should change some commercial zoning to residential and increase the density and FAR. A condo or apartment building would cause far less traffic than office. However, additional FAR would be meaningless unless the 50' height limit, which greatly limits architectural creativity, is lifted. For the record, I think the project at 611 Cowper is beautiful and, per the zoning code, which allows TDRs as much as it limits height and demands parking, is fully parked!


13 people like this
Posted by Palo Altan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 6, 2015 at 12:36 pm

Developers are now renting out church parking lots for their under parked commercial developments. They are using church parking lots for their tenants to park their cars during the day. The Presbyterian Church parking lot at Cowper and Lincoln is no longer for the use of church events. A company will be using the parking lot starting in a few weeks That will be such a disruption to the neighbors. Cars will be parking in front of their homes during church events. Ignore the developers. They only care about their own personal monetary gain. Unscrupulous developers are destroying the livability of Palo Alto.


Like this comment
Posted by dinnerplate
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 6, 2015 at 12:45 pm

Palo Altan,
That seems wrong but isn't that the church's fault?


5 people like this
Posted by Palo Altan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 6, 2015 at 2:07 pm

I wonder if churches that rent out their parking lots to a business need to alert the neighborhood residents of the impending change. Is the city aware of this practice and do you need city approval before renting out church parking lots? Do you need a city permit? Just wondering.


10 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 6, 2015 at 2:11 pm

I wonder if churches renting out their parking lots should keep their tax exemptions.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 6, 2015 at 2:15 pm

The idea of church "renting" out parking lots for businesses is an interesting one.

On the one hand, there are unused parking spots left idle during the week while there are parking problems on the streets outside.

For a church to do this and probably get some revenue it should be done sensibly. Doing it sensibly would be enabling an office to rent a portion of the empty space on weekdays. However, it should not necessarily be the whole parking lot as if they have weekday staff and meetings that require parking it should not mean that the church parking should spill onto the streets. If the church needs x number of spaces for weekday activities and perhaps more for evening meetings, there should be this number of spaces left for church use and all lots should be cleared of business parking by 6.00 pm (or whatever time).

I imagine that there are other churches that are watching to see how this will work before renting out some of their own parking lot for weekday parking.

I imagine also that if it does work well, there will be homes that decide to rent out their driveway space too.

This could be a win/win situation.


4 people like this
Posted by renting parking
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 6, 2015 at 2:24 pm


I live in Ventura and we definitely have spill-over parking. I've actually really considered putting up a sign while I'm at work that people can park in my driveway. No harm to me if they're out by the time I get home and would make a lot of nearby neighbors happy to not have space in front of their home taken up. Would also make my home less of a burglary target.


3 people like this
Posted by Been here long enough
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 6, 2015 at 4:48 pm

In the late 70's, the Presbyterian Church was quite active in offering the parking and Westminster house facilities to organizations. After a series of meetings at the request of the City Council, the neighbors expressed their concerns about the impact on the residential neighborhood. Thus a Use Permit was established. That permit needs to be reviewed as I assume it still applies. And there has been no notification to the neighborhood about this recent development.
Although it is to our benefit to have a vital city, which we have, we cannot sacrifice our residential neighborhoods to become Office Parks for Commercial development.


Like this comment
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 6, 2015 at 4:58 pm

So many problems in my town, lived here since 1961. But, actually, there have been many before this.

I've offered my thoughts on this subject before. Council needs to address all of them in some way and set priorities on which ones to tackle first. More office space development should be put on hold, the last to consider, before the already existing problems of parking and traffic are addressed and solved. The new street parking plan is an experiment...hopefully it works. And when was the last time you saw a developer include full parking in their project proposal? Now the church community wants to get involved and be complicit in trying to solve the parkng problem. Bad idea.

And I didn't mention the affordable housing effort. Makes me dizzy thinking about all the solutions offered and possibilities. The traffic and parking problems are all induced by businesses drawing professionals to come here...and the many domestic/service workers who come to serve us every day, but can't afford to live here. Most of them drive. I think one good housing idea is to build more housing, studio or one or two bedroom apartments/condos, so professionals can live here and not have to drive long distances every day. That should help alleviate the parking/traffic problem. I think those others....domestic/service workers will still drive. Am I making any sense or am I just rambling?


4 people like this
Posted by Steve Pierce
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 6, 2015 at 5:42 pm

Carey you state,

"Don't listen to Zane MacGregor or Joint Venture Silicon Valley because their view is self serving and not in the interest of Palo Alto residents quality of life."

This online forum greatly benefits from a discourse of ideas, but not from attacks on the bearers of those ideas.

For the record, I have resided in Downtown North for over 30 years and like you am most concerned about our quality of life, the impact of cars, and the ways we can improve our gem of a downtown.

PA online has presented only snippets of comments. If you truly wish to understand the considered thoughts of Joint Venture Silcon Valley, PA Forward, and others, including myself, please read the letters appended to the staff report on the topic. Web Link

With all respect.


13 people like this
Posted by Jon
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 6, 2015 at 6:30 pm

Palo Alto Forward doesn't seem to understand that people are not going to just give up their cars. That's a fantasy.


5 people like this
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Feb 6, 2015 at 7:44 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

@ Jon and Carey,

Om the contrary the people I know in Palo Alto Forward absolutely know that cars are convenient for residents and that we have to work really hard to provide alternatives that make sense to people.

I am a member but cannot speak for the organization but am aware of what members are doing.

Personally I support the RPP and the various programs that Jessica Sullivan is working to try and implement when successful.

I am hopeful the Comp Plan update and infrastructure programs can develop alternatives that minimize driving and parking demand especially at peak hours.

I know Russ Hancock from Joint Venture Silicon Valley and recommend readers to take a look at his letter to city council. He is a resident here and has strong environmental convictions.

I agree with Steve Pierce. Let's tone down the rhetoric and work through these issues together.


Like this comment
Posted by Unscrupulous Developers
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 6, 2015 at 8:13 pm

[Post removed.]


12 people like this
Posted by crisis situation
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2015 at 11:20 am

The City of Palo Alto regressed into a 60's style anti-planning development mode the last 15 years or so which became more apparent with greater consequences as market forces strengthened and played out. The City lost respect for itself - its unique character and identity as it turned its back on its fundamental regulatory role in favor of a supportive role of local developers as the goals and ambitions of each coalesced and impacts,
growth constraints, infrastructure limits, holding capacity, were ignored. We need to try to address the serious traffic and parking problems which resulted, impacts which are not close to being fully felt yet from projects already approved in the pipeline, which justifies an immediate moratorium on all commercial projects and a mandate to the staff that the Single Family Individual Review Guidelines be enforced in our residential areas while a review of all zoning regulations is undertaken. TDM's and other steps are mitigation measures not justification for more of the disastrous policies which have done so much damage to this City.


12 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 7, 2015 at 11:42 am

1. Downtown is not a "gem". It hasn't been one for a couple of decades at least. It's now tacky and dangerous at night and is full of ridiculously overpriced boutique stores.

2. Office development puts too much pressure on our infrastructure, which more than negated the revenues generated.

3. Palo Alto's unique geography and character make any attempt to over urbanize and densify it both a terribly bad idea and an impractical one.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 8, 2015 at 9:14 pm

Of COURSE office space growth should be limited (it should be reversed!) as should commercial space. It is precisely # of jobs located within palo alto boundaries that is a primary driver of of the ABAG mandate for housing growth, both of which are the drivers of the mess we have now: traffic overcrowding, parking overcrowding, and general overcrowding of all city resources (like overcrowded shopping, overcrowded schools, overcrowded fields, overcrowded city of palo alto recreational services, etc). Its time for citizens of palo alto to take back control. Let the jobs go elsewhere for heavens sake! The people can work from home, or commute, or move. Take back Palo Alto!

I've lived in Palo Alto for my whole life - here's a little example, I worked for HP/Agilent for 20+ years, on 6 different sites between Palo Alto and San Jose, (should I have been MOVING my house every time my company moved my location????) and only worked in Palo Alto for 2 of those years! And now I work for another corporation, HQ'd on the east coast, and I work full time in Palo Alto! So the company locating in Palo Alto means NOTHING about whether the person living in Palo Alto has a commute. The law behind ABAG is nothing but a massive scam - developer/union driven disguise/excuse to cash in on forced development of prime real estate.


Like this comment
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 8, 2015 at 9:56 pm

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 9, 2015 at 12:13 pm

[Post removed.]


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

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