With debate over commercial growth in Palo Alto set to reignite on Monday night, Google has joined the growing ranks of tech titans, small businesses and architects opposing an annual cap on new office and research space.
The City Council will consider on Monday its next steps for managing commercial growth. Among the most controversial proposals on the table is a 35,000- to 50,000-square-feet annual limit on new office and research-and-development space. Residents and several council members have lauded the cap as a great tool to temporarily slow down commercial growth while the city works to solve its growing parking and traffic problems. Critics -- including Stanford University, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and the citizens group Palo Alto Forward -- have slammed the proposal as a blunt tool that does not address the core problems.
At the council's March 2 discussion, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and Councilman Eric Filseth both favored going forward with the cap, though after a long discussion the council agreed to defer a decision until March 23. While balking at taking action, several other members expressed support for restricting office growth, noting their concern that offices are pricing out and displacing long-time retailers. Mayor Karen Holman said the "council can't sit here and not act."
Other council members were less adamant about taking immediate action. Councilman Pat Burt said the council needs more time to consider what the limit should be. Council members Liz Kniss, Greg Scharff, Cory Wolbach and Marc Berman all opposed a new cap and said the city should focus on the negative consequences of development, rather than development itself.
"I don't think the cap would make any difference in these negative impacts, frankly," Scharff said on March 2. "Or such minimal impacts that you really won't notice."
Now, Google has joined firms such as HP, VMWare, Palantir and SurveyMonkey in arguing against the restriction. Speaking as a "corporate citizen of the city of Palo Alto," where it owns and leases numerous properties, the Mountain View-based search giant advised the council to "take actions to limit traffic and allow corporations to prove that they can grow while meeting the city's traffic-reduction goals."
"Setting up a proactive approach to traffic concerns that rewards innovation and effective solutions is far preferable to a blanket policy that affects everyone regardless of their location and ability to grow responsibly," wrote John Igoe, Google's real estate director.
"Without new projects, companies would not be participating in new traffic management measures or creating innovative solutions to existing parking concerns," he stated.
Furthermore, a growth cap may "hinder development in areas where development would benefit the community," such as near transit or major highways and in areas that have vacant, underutilized or out-of-date spaces. The cap may also have unintended consequences, he wrote, because restricting supply at a time of heavy demand may increase rents, "pushing existing city businesses out of the city."
Even if the council decides to explore a cap, the limit would not kick in any time soon. Rather, it would be one alternative considered as part of the ongoing update of the city's Comprehensive Plan, which guides land-use decisions and is not expected to be completed until next year.
Several residents at the March 2 meeting argued that the proposal doesn't go far enough and called for the council to adopt a moratorium on commercial growth -- an idea that didn't get much traction from the council. City staff is likewise recommending that the council only consider an annual cap in the context of the city's long-term vision and not on an interim basis, due to the complexity of adopting it.
The council will have the option of adopting other near-term measures in the interim while the Comprehensive Plan is being updated. These could include new requirements for developments to provide parking and reduce traffic. A temporary reduction in allowed office density is also an option, according to staff.