Editorial: Development limits — a modest start

A cautious council finds consensus on an interim 'cap'

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.

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10 people like this
Posted by Downtown Worker
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 27, 2015 at 7:56 am

The fears of the business community over the original proposal of a 10k perpetual cap applied to the while city were not "unwarranted", and it's irresponsible for a Palo Alto paper to say so. That would have restricted job growth to 40 jobs a year! That's about one small startup.

The recent election returned three slow-growth candidates and two candidates who wanted to build more buildings. Hardly a mandate for a moratorium.

At 50k excluding the Research Park, we're in reasonable territory for a cap that allows the council to choose the best projects without choking off growth too far.

Still, the real point that the solution is zoning changes that require companies to reduce their employees' use of cars and fully park the remainder.

4 people like this
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 27, 2015 at 10:22 am

"The fears of the business community over the original proposal of a 10k perpetual cap applied to the while city were not "unwarranted", and it's irresponsible for a Palo Alto paper to say so. That would have restricted job growth to 40 jobs a year!"

That's a start. A better outcome would be a shrinkage of 400 jobs per year. We have far too many jobs in Palo Alto now.

Instead of being greedy we ought to share the bounty. How about it, Woodside? Gonna step to the plate, Atherton? Any takers up there in Portola Valley?

12 people like this
Posted by different ideas
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 27, 2015 at 11:26 am

We've had caps before. They didn't work. We need new approaches, not the same thoughtless ones over and over again. Underparked development isn't the real problem- the real problem is buildings that never had any parking requirements apply to them at all now being used more intensely. That Apple store, bursting at the seams, is a perfect example of this as is a ton of the retail on University (La Strada, Coupa Cafe, Joya, the list goes on...), and some old office buildings, too. And as we build going forward, we need to find ways to make sure people aren't getting here in their cars in the first place, not providing tons of free parking that just incentivizes people to drive here. For companies downtown, forcing them to build more parking than they actually need is pointless and expensive - we know that the companies by the train have a drive-alone rate of only 40% so what's the point of requiring more parking for THEM? It makes no sense - you go visit the SurveyMonkey building and they've got a bunch of empty parking - that's not helping the rest of us any. Instead, require unbundled parking - i.e. give them incentives to open up that parking to the public. Redwood City requires 6 parking spaces per 1000 sq ft, but if you open it to the public, only 3 spaces per 1000 sq ft. That's a much wiser approach and it actually allows new buildings to absorb some of the parking from the old buildings that don't have any. Just requiring new development to add way more parking than they need doesn't help us if they have more than enough for themselves and other buildings don't have any.

Every parking space built costs something like $60,000 and parking and space are finite; I think we'd all agree that we don't want our downtown to be littered with parking garages - at some point we just can't take more and preserve the downtown character. This is enough money to buy Caltrain GoPasses for 10 employees for 30 years. It's enough money to buy employees ride services to get them from their homes to the train. Put enough of that money together and put it towards trenching the train. There are other ways to spend that money that helps prevent more cars from coming into the city in the first place, instead of exacerbating our current situation.

You may "fix" parking, but what you'll get in return will be way more traffic.

3 people like this
Posted by Caltrain is already capacity limited
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 27, 2015 at 11:56 am

@"This is enough money to buy Caltrain GoPasses for 10 employees for 30 years."

And how many more riders and bicycles can CalTrain handle?

Just stand at the California CalTrain station at 7:30AM and observe how passengers try to squeeze through the 5foot wide choke point created by the $7Million California Ave revamp.

Or how long it takes to load and unload the long-distance carriages of the train. This is not designed as a people mover.

Maybe a Maglev over El Camino from San Jose to San Francisco would do.

11 people like this
Posted by different ideas
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 27, 2015 at 12:23 pm

That's true about Caltrain's current capacity. But we're also working to increase that by adding cars and electrification, which will allow more cars per hour. Those changes aren't that far off. My understanding is that we'll get additional car as early as the fall and the electrification plans will happen in the next five years. So relative to how quickly we build - it does take buildings years to get permits and actually go up - I don't think we're going to be that far off from the Caltrain keeping up with us. I'm not saying it'll be perfect, by any means, but the scale of difference isn't going to be crazy. The current cap means adding about 200 jobs a year - and that's between Univ Ave, Cal Ave, and El Camino. So only a portion of those jobs will be on Univ Ave. If we add more car trains by fall, that will get us close to where we need to be.

We should also be working productively to finding money to trench the train once and for all. Right now, the city's stance is that they don't want to pay for ANY of it in any way. That's a pretty selfish and entitled attitude. Every city pays for the infrastructure they benefit from, more or less, so it's not clear to me why Palo Alto thinks it's special and someone should be showering it with money. No one is going to offer us matching grants with that attitude. So think of how to do that. Does it mean funding the train and selling the rights to build on top? That would be pretty successful and help to bridge the literal divide between the city. Maybe it means raising money in conjunction with other cities and other governmental organizations. Maybe it means throwing our support behind ballot initiates for funding of Caltrain improvements. Again, lots of things we can do that no one around here is talking about.

I also think this community needs an attitude shift. What I hear a lot of is that we're willing to throw smart and sustainable plans for growth out the window because x is inadequate. But shouldn't the attitude be, this is what's good for our community and we'll make sure that we throw our weight into fixing x? Yeah, it's a lot of ducks to get in a row in order to build a beautiful, wonderful city. It's NOT easy. But we're definitely not going to get there if we keep throwing our hands up in the air every time we find another duck we need to get in a row. No one said it was going to be easy, but that doesn't mean it's not worth doing. Most things that are worth doing are hard.

There ARE cities out there that are just as, if not more, beautiful than Palo Alto that have already solved these traffic and parking problems. They DO exist and it IS possible to do this, but not with that attitude.

Like this comment
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 27, 2015 at 1:23 pm

@ different ideas

Sounds like you've down your homework on this. I appreciate some of your novel ideas. I've often wondered what the threshold of pain was for those employees to finally switch from driving their cars to using CalTrain. Were company incentives offered?

I would like to know more about those cities you referred to who have solved their traffic and parking problems. Names please, and did their situations closely match ours, I.e., population, limited undeveloped space, etc? How did they solve the problems?

7 people like this
Posted by Midtowner
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2015 at 1:46 pm

Trenching the train is a non starter. As a Palo Alto resident I refuse to pay for such an unnecessary and expensive solution. Fence it off and/or elevate it, with underpasses for cars, bikes and pedestrians. No trench. Thank you. Speak of thinking of oneself as so special: this is the attitude required to advocate trenching!

12 people like this
Posted by Parking is a good properly decided by the market
a resident of University South
on Mar 27, 2015 at 1:58 pm

What this editorial supports is the perpetuation of taxpayer-subsidized parking. Transportation modes other than driving and parking one's own automobile exist, yet this paper describes the situation as if it were the only possible mode. Restore the free market in parking in Palo Alto and remove the taxation citizens endure whether they drive or not.

Parking minimums needlessly hamper Palo Alto.

8 people like this
Posted by Elizabeth L.
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 27, 2015 at 2:02 pm

@Gale Johnson

Since our local housing shortage has pushed commuters all the way out to places like East Bay and Gilroy, I doubt anything could get those people on the CalTrain.

If we really want to reduce reliance on cars, we only have two options: improve regional public transit, and/or allow more housing to be built within walking distance of the public transit that we already have.

Anything else is just environmentalist lip service.

2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 27, 2015 at 3:18 pm

@ Elizabeth L.

I've posted several times on the housing situation. I totally agree that more housing (to buy of rent) in the downtown area would be a big help. And I would be okay with exceeding the 50 ft height limit for that to happen. I am assuming most of the skilled tech employees are highly paid and could afford living in PA. I could be wrong. Why aren't developers clamoring to build more housing rather than offices? Hazard to guess?

Traffic and parking? I think several things are in the works to help mitigate these problems, TMA, and better coordination of all our existing bus services. And a Google bus approach should work. I don't know how many people a Google bus holds but it would be much better to see a few big buses than hundreds of cars. I hope some of the local tech companies are considering that. Their employees certainly must not enjoy driving themselves to work everyday.

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Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 27, 2015 at 4:16 pm

Well paid software developers obviously want to live in San Francisco, where the cultural activities, night life, restaurants and quality of life is much, much better than Palo Alto. Palo Alto was a nice town 40 years ago, but time has passed it by and it is an endless place of too many people, daily 5 hhour traffic jams and with a crime ridden downtown.

2 people like this
Posted by Stop the Trolls
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 27, 2015 at 4:55 pm

Haven't been to SF lately, have you, jerry99? Because if you had, you would know that you are WAY off base.

7 people like this
Posted by Stop tumor like growth
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 27, 2015 at 11:33 pm

This so called cap is real just maintaining the status quo. It is the same development that we have been having the last decade (minus of course the million square feet of oversized Stanford Hospital). Palo Alto is already a mess and this does nothing to fix our problems. We need a development moratorium and a long term plan to make this town sustainable, starting will no more office space, rezoning for resident serving retail, a return to the floor area ratio that used to give us two story rather than 4 story buildings and a coherent plan with stated maximum size for the city. If we continue to grow where will the new schools, parks, pools and open space go? Or are we just going to do with less, like with water. The more we add, the worse quality of life gets for everyone here. Individuals and societies need to know their limits. Palo Alto is full. Let the jobs and houses go to areas that need them more.

6 people like this
Posted by water
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2015 at 2:27 am

I think the Bay Area should take stock and proceed cautiously because of the drought. I take issue with anymore water rationing while all this development is going on.

The Peninsula is probably from a planning standpoint, an ill-advised place to populate any more densely.

4 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 28, 2015 at 10:14 am

A friends daughter in Chicago is working eighty hours a week as an IT person trying to get a permanent job - just like the movie "The Intern".
If any one is believing that this is the only place where young people are working eighty hours a week, eating inside their jobs who bring the food in - they are very wrong.

The PAF people were surprised that these people did not know much about Palo Alto - guess what - they do not have time or energy to worry about what is going on outside their jobs.

The major cities across America are all working the same issues - New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Those are major cities with sophisticated transit systems. They are also major cities which have a large area to develop housing.

Palo alto is twenty-six square miles, is built out, and is on a peninsula which does not lend itself to further development. We have a bay and ocean in the way as well as mountains.

The constant droning is to add more housing is spite of the lack of water, mounting pressure to re-strategize where trash goes, and how to move the people that are already here - transportation.

You have another issue looming - the HSR actually has a line item on the City of Palo Alto home page. At this time there is no HSR. And the HSR is powered by electricity which is currently driven by hydro-power. Once that becomes undoable then the electricity will be powered by gas.
Oh - did you forget that the city has agreed to divest itself of fossil fuel stock?

The city is being driven by disparate political energies which collectively are working against each other. Hopefully the PACC can sit back and come up with a plan that does not include all of the divergent parties touting their various agendas.

At some point you do have to stop and let all of the surrounding issues correct themselves - or move to some type resolution. Adding more buildings and housing is just a complication to the existing issues. It is also a stress on the school system who is already maxed out as to facilities available to add more schools.

Hopefully the current PACC can sort through the disparate agendas so the whole picture can work in an efficient manner.

1 person likes this
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Mar 28, 2015 at 11:14 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

Kudos to the council and to Pat Burt for approaching the evaluation of development pace in a cautious and careful way. Although I still think a cap is a blunt instrument not really effective at addressing growth challenges, I am happy to wait and see the results of a careful evaluation.

As I understand what council member Burt is proposing for study, it is more of a metering or pacing idea than an absolute limit as it appears to me to address not having a lot of new development going on at one time.

I think it will be interesting to see this idea fleshed out as the impacts of multiple developments at once would seen to depend also on whether they are all in the same place in Palo Alto.

Thanks to Gale Johnson for his posts. Although he and I may not agree on everything, I appreciate his thoughtful tone. And we certainly do agree about adding more housing in areas near shopping, dining, services and transit.

In answer to his question of why developers do not propose more housing in PA, I think part of the answer is in regulations that make housing more expensive and part Gale can understand by reading the posts on Town Square that seem opposed to anything new in Palo Alto.

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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 28, 2015 at 12:45 pm

Palo Alto leadership should argue that we are an elite community, ever more so, and that that is a good thing. After all, we are a product of Stanford University. The future will be abundant in exponential technologies, and we are in a perfect position to accommodate the future, if only we would choose to do so. We need to get over the notion of liberal guilt that insists that PA should be about 'social justice', however that is defined.

My ideal would be that PA is the home of the brains that makes this city expensive. I want my property value to increase in my residential neighborhood. Residential neighborhoods should be sacrosanct, protected from densification. Non-residential zoning should be allowed for more growth that will be expensive, thus only top end financial will be able to do business forces will force this.

Imagine Palo Alto looking to the abundance of the future, with the forward-looking brains to get the job done. We are not there, but we could be.

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Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Mar 28, 2015 at 1:44 pm

I agree with slowing growth down until transportation and housing needs can be addressed and planned correctly. This would be a big undertaking and would have to start now. Not later when the next couple of tech fads have happened. I told some planners when Apple was the next big thing and computers were getting smaller.

Capping jobs won't and not a good idea. Why would any one want to start up a business only to be told there is a limit. The marketplace doesn't have limits unless you have a bad product.

Most of the people here are dependent on tech, good or bad it is here. The only problem I see it is dependent because other businesses find this place to expensive. Traffic is strangling other non tech businesses or lost time on the clock.

3 people like this
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 28, 2015 at 6:23 pm

The cap is a gross violation of property rights.

Also, basic principles insure the following:
1. Existing comercial real estate prices will increase--law of supply and demand. Disruptions will occur.
2. Cronyism will decide who gets the the allotted development. Power corrupts.
3. Bureaucrats never make the right decisions. Free market conditions are violated and economic inefficiencies will result.

2 people like this
Posted by Get Real
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2015 at 8:01 pm

How can any intelligent person advocate for *any* growth in jobs or housing in Palo Alto? We are already over-built! How nice to figure out clever ways to get more high tech workers into and out of Palo Alto without cars, but what about those of us who live here and would like to go downtown for a couple of hours? Of course, the way things are going there will be no reason for residents to go downtown because it is turning into nothing but office space.

Assuming people will always work in the same town in which they live is just stupid in this tech industry. People change jobs every few years, and they don't move every time they change jobs.

Why are we not helping East Palo Alto grow by sharing the wealth of companies and housing? Why not invest in EPA's existing population, focus on educating the youth, and let them be a part of the growth?

2 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 28, 2015 at 8:09 pm

ABAG is used as the excuse for much of what goes on in the housing / commercial market.

The problem with ABAG is that it is single focused - it only directs its attention to specific agendas without any regard to the other agendas which have to complete the picture. In this case available schools, available land, available water, power, and resolution of waste products.

ABAG served a purpose at one time but now it's time is over. We need to reduce the inflow of people for lack of water, available schools, and a full out transportation system. We paid taxes into making that happen. We paid to have BART build around the bay.

I hope that he Comprehensive Plan does not hinge on ABAG - we need to have our elected officials remove that organization from dictating us into a situation that we cannot coordinate effectively.

3 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2015 at 8:33 pm

"I want my property value to increase in my residential neighborhood. Residential neighborhoods should be sacrosanct, protected from densification. Non-residential zoning should be allowed for more growth that will be expensive, thus only top end financial will be able to do business forces will force this."

Craig Laughton, you are harsh and selfish. My husband says that you simply express what most people in Palo Alto, and beyond, really think, but won't admit it. I would prefer to think that we are better than this. At least you are honest about it.

2 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 30, 2015 at 8:49 am

Sorry, but your husband is right.

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 30, 2015 at 3:24 pm

Sally, I don't mean to instill a rift between you and your husband. I just like honesty in arguments. If you deeply examine your interior motives, as well as your own willingness to truly sacrifice, you may come to his point of view...maybe not, but it is probably worth the effort.

NIMBYS are good because they are honest, and willing to protect their own neighborhoods. I am a NIMBY, proudly so. Are you a NIMBY, deep down, too, Sally?

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

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