After a series of three long and exhausting meetings, an ambivalent Palo Alto City Council Monday night mustered an unexpected unanimous vote in support of a modest temporary development limit on new office development downtown, in the California Avenue business district and along El Camino Real.
When the staff returns with the outline of a formal ordinance in May, unless changed, the cap will limit new commercial development to an aggregate of 50,000 square feet per year. The cap would remain in effect until the adoption of an updated Comprehensive Plan, expected to occur in late 2016 or early 2017, which will then guide future growth.
It was a less bold action than many in the community were hoping for, considering that last November's election shifted the balance of power on the council to those who have advocated strong steps to address the effects of recent commercial development and the problems of under-parked buildings and traffic congestion.
In some respects, it was a fool's errand. While imposing development caps seems like a simple way to rein in the pace of new building, it's a blunt instrument and primarily a way to buy time. The real answers lie in detailed zoning-policy changes that make the approval of new development contingent on the provision of adequate parking and improvements to our transportation infrastructure, and a vision on the appropriate pace and degree of such development.
Short of an outright moratorium on new development approvals, which would have sharply divided the council and community, the council's action achieves a couple of important purposes. It communicates the intent to proceed with the hard work of crafting the rules and zoning regulations necessary to more directly address development pressures, and it serves to demonstrate the new council majority has decided it is better to proceed cautiously as it implements its agenda.
Hopefully, this will calm some of the unwarranted fears expressed by some in the business and development community, who have attempted to paint any development cap as a dangerous risk to the local economy.
The council, led by Pat Burt, managed to find a moderate path, on which all could agree, toward its ultimate objective of curtailing development that creates worsening traffic and parking conditions in the city. It's a good start.
By deciding not to apply the temporary cap to the Stanford Research Park, it avoided (or put off) a possible battle with some of the city's largest companies that are located away from vulnerable shopping districts, and by setting a cap of 50,000 square feet it left some room for interim development in the three business districts. (The average annual growth in office or research and development space has been about 67,000 square feet since 2008.) Much will depend on the yet-to-be-worked-out details of how projects in the pipeline will be counted toward the cap and the mechanisms the city will establish for choosing among proposed developments.
With many other initiatives underway, including an expanded ground-floor-retail ordinance, the downtown residential-parking-permit program, a transportation-demand-management program to reduce commute traffic, the use of technology to manage downtown parking spaces, expansion of the shuttle system and data collection from the new business registry, there is much important progress.
The greatest danger, in fact, is in trying to accomplish so many different things at once that it exceeds the staff's capacity to do them well.
The city planning staff has been scrambling to respond to the council's shifting desires ever since the defeat of Measure D sent a strong message that residents wanted tougher development controls. The needs and wants of three new council members and a shift in the political majority have created additional challenges and burdens.
In this unsettled environment and to its credit, the planning staff has done an outstanding job at developing much-needed data and analysis for those with the interest and patience to study it, while it pushes forward to implement already-approved initiatives.
Frustrating as it may feel to both "residentialists" and those who fear stagnation if development is overly restricted, the council's unavoidable messy process is moving us closer to where we think the majority of residents want to be.