News

Editorial: Chipping away at Palo Alto's proposed office cap

Divided council begins weakening temporary growth limit

The surprising consensus that emerged three months ago with a unanimous vote of the Palo Alto City Council -- creating a system for limiting the amount of commercial office development through a two-year-long annual cap -- began unraveling Monday night.

The four development-friendly council members -- Greg Scharff, Cory Wolbach, Marc Berman and Liz Kniss -- went on an offensive to weaken the measure they had helped to pass in March and which crafted a reasonable and moderate approach to slowing growth while permanent zoning decisions could be considered and implemented.

Because Councilman Tom DuBois recused himself from the discussion due to his wife's employment at Stanford, Mayor Karen Holman and Councilmembers Pat Burt, Eric Filseth and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid lacked a fifth vote to adopt the details of the measure initially passed in March.

In the end, after four hours of often-tense debate and unable to muster a majority on some key provisions, the council was left with little choice but to refer the issue to the Planning and Transportation Commission for discussion and recommendations. In sending it to the commission, which will likely inject its own ideas into the increasingly complicated measure, the council will automatically get the issue back after the summer break.

In contrast to their actions in March, Scharff, Wolbach, Berman and Kniss repeatedly sought to create exemptions from the development cap for certain types of projects. Some, such as an exemption for small office additions of up to 2,000 square feet and medical offices of under 5,000 square feet, garnered unanimous support and did not go to the heart of the intended cap.

But the council repeatedly deadlocked over whether development projects that emerged from so-called "coordinated area plans" should also be exempt from the 50,000-square-feet-per-year cap. While masked in technical terminology, this was an effort to exempt the proposed development that is expected to come out of the planning for the property surrounding and including Fry's Electronics.

Wolbach and Scharff stressed that the plan to be created through the Fry's coordinated area plan will be heavily influenced by residents of the immediate neighborhood, and therefore none of that new development should count toward the development cap. The effect would be to potentially allow much more total development than envisioned when the 50,000-square-foot-per-year cap was conceived earlier this year.

That argument runs counter to the entire purpose of the proposed growth cap. There is no reason why one potential large development should be carved out as exempt from a development cap designed to pause commercial growth in the community for the next two years.

The tension and acrimony during the discussion, particularly between Scharff and Burt, showed that achieving anything resembling consensus, which appeared surprisingly possible after the council's March discussion, is now unlikely.

The council, and especially Scharff, would be wise to not disrespect or disregard the input it has received from the community from the outcomes of two elections -- the Measure D vote on the Maybell Avenue housing project and the City Council election last November -- or it may very well find itself facing another referendum or a ballot initiative.

Scharff's attempts to weaken the growth cap and implied threats to stand in the way of its adoption unless he got the concessions he wanted were in contrast to the posture he took in the election campaign, when he expressed agreement with the need for addressing the pace of growth.

His unsuccessful proposal Monday night that the council simply put off further discussion until a "date uncertain" was a brash political move to hold the growth cap hostage for the easing of its restrictions.

Monday night's long meeting demonstrated that while council members can say they are for adopting temporary limits on office growth, the real test comes in their votes on what projects should be exempted from those limits.

So residents must crank up their obfuscation meters. Underpinning the proposed growth cap is the idea that developers will compete for the available 50,000 square feet and that the council will reward those that have the most creative projects with the least, if any, impact on traffic, parking and housing costs.

Creating exemptions from this process undermines the goal and will surely come back to bite the council as surprised and upset citizens wonder how a much-heralded cap turned into a fuzzy measure full of holes.

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Comments

44 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 19, 2015 at 12:25 am

So what did the editors of the Palo Alto Weekly expect of Scharff & Wolbach when they endorsed them for city council?

Any research of Scharff's votes over his previous term would know that his recent campaign rhetoric was just a ruse to get elected; but the editors at the Palo Alto Weekly fell for it, and deserve some responsibility for the situation they created by endorsing Scharff.

The editors of the Palo Alto Weekly let Wolbach skate by with his platitudes, and did not press him on his views of development; again the Palo Alto Weekly editors deserve some responsibility for the situation they created when they endorsed Wolbach.

The editors of the Palo Alto Weekly should at least apologize to their readers for their role in this whole matter


28 people like this
Posted by six of one
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2015 at 8:33 am

Another one-sided, biased and poorly written editorial

The weekly tries to put certain council members into a bad light (i.e. the ones that do not have the blessing of PASZ). As an example they say:
"In contrast to their actions in March, Scharff, Wolbach, Berman and Kniss repeatedly sought to create exemptions from the development cap for certain types of projects."

And what do they use as examples--issues that the entire council agrees with!!!:
"Some, such as an exemption for small office additions of up to 2,000 square feet and medical offices of under 5,000 square feet, garnered unanimous support and did not go to the heart of the intended cap."

Sounds to me that rather than editorializing the weekly is doing some early electioneering. Not surprising considering the weekly's attempts to influence elections in the city to satisfy the agenda of small vocal minorities they are championing and their own financial gain


37 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 19, 2015 at 10:57 am

" Councilman Tom DuBois recused himself from the discussion due to his wife's employment at Stanford,"

Greg Scharff owns property just outside the boundry of the cap at 616 University why didn't he have to recuse himself??

seems like a more direct conflict than Dubois's especially since the research park and 27 University were not included


21 people like this
Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on Jun 19, 2015 at 11:18 am

These moratorium debates are just wasting time that should be devoted to solving parking, transportation, and housing.

The amount of commercial development that Palo Alto can support depends more on these 3 issues than any debate on commercial in a vacuum.


67 people like this
Posted by Filled with Regret
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 19, 2015 at 11:49 am

I knew better than to vote for Scharff, but I am
Guilty of voting for Wolbach, which I now regret wholeheartedly.

I simply should have surmised that anyone who had worked for Jerey Hill would not be good for Palo Alto. Unfortunately, like many tricky politicians, he is a smooth talker. [Portion removed.]


52 people like this
Posted by Skilled actors
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 19, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Scharff is a skilled lawyer and actor and he fooled a lot of so-called residentialists who should have known better.

Wolbach, ditto, but he is an even better actor, he fooled the rubes by advocating politeness, his major position. [Portion removed.]


4 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jun 19, 2015 at 12:51 pm

[Post removed due to deletion of referenced comment.]


28 people like this
Posted by Skilled actors
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 19, 2015 at 1:59 pm

[Portion removed.]
Yes, here is a PARTIAL list of [portion removed] contributors to Wolbach's campaign, excerpted from a public city document [portion removed.]
Michael Alcheck -real estate atty [portion removed]
Mehdi Alhassan, PA Forward [portion removed]
Lucy, Marc, and Robert Berman [portion removed]
John Barton, Architect [portion removed]
Bern Beecham [portion removed]
Calf.Apartment Association PAC
Kate Downing, [portion removed]
Pat Emslie
Liz Kniss
Jerry Hill
Steve Levy [portion removed]
Lee Lippert, Architect,ARB [portion removed]
Victor Ojakian
Gail Price, professional architects advocate [portion removed]
Pearl Renaker, architect
Eric Rosenblum, [portion removed]
Diane & Joe Rolphe
Sandra Slater [portion removed]
Barbara Spreng
Elaine Uang, architect [portion removed]
Helene Wheeler [portion removed]


19 people like this
Posted by Mystified
a resident of University South
on Jun 19, 2015 at 2:20 pm

This reasoning is flawed. The cap is designed to mitigate the impacts of development. Area Plans are a different way of mitigating the impacts of development projects. It makes sense that you don't need one if you have the other.

I doubt Wolbach and Scharff intended this exemption as some kind of stalking horse for Fry's. (Do the editors have any evidence of this to offer?) The area plan that is constantly referred to is the SOFA area plan that helped create Heritage Park.

The community voice at the Summit was mostly against a cap and mostly for mitigating impacts - or at least that's what the Weekly article about the event said. It fits. I've heard from many residents who feel like the current council is going too far. Some were shocked out of complacency when Palo Alto rejected homes for poor senior citizens - the initial achievement of the residentialist candidates. Others voted for some residentialists, but have changed their mind since when watching the city councilmembers inveigh against jobs and companies in Palo Alto.

I would advise all council members to be wary of public opinion... a shifting and fickle thing.


15 people like this
Posted by impacts
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 19, 2015 at 2:39 pm

The point of the cap as I understand it is not to create a "pause" in development of commercial projects. As I understood it, the point was to give us an opportunity to face some of the impacts of those projects and let programs like the RPPP and TMA get kicked off as well as give us more time to make infrastructure and transit improvements before we're too overwhelmed to handle them properly.

An Area Plan is developed by the very people who live in or next to the area. They decide how to zone every parcel in that area based on what they want to see there. By its very definition, because the process is holistic, the plan already accounts for the impacts. The plan already has the right proportion of housing to retail to commercial to parks to parking to schools built in. That's the whole point. So if a community comes up with something it's happy with and decides that it has done what it needs to with the impacts, why are they still subject to a cap? This makes no sense.

Further, this notion about Fry's is downright misinformation. EVERYONE on Council has said that that site should be used predominantly for housing and it even says so in black and white in the Housing Element that the state has already certified. PA Weekly, you are electioneering and scaremongering. Please stop with the pretense that you're even remotely unbiased journalists.


11 people like this
Posted by @skilledactor
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 19, 2015 at 2:55 pm

@skilledactor - yeah, it's a lot like those self-interested scientists who keep telling us that climate change is real just so they can still get paid being for being climate scientists. I'm so glad that Republicans have made it clear that we shouldn't actually listen to them because they're clearly biased and self-interested. We should only listen to non-scientists on such issues from now on. Web Link

Same here, how dare we listen to architects, planners and builders! We should only be taking opinions from people who know nothing about such matters! Don't know the difference between a FAR and a setback? We've got a planning commission spot for you!


14 people like this
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Jun 19, 2015 at 4:23 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Here is what I remember from that meeting.

There were two unanimous votes as you mention to exempt small office space increases and those under 5,000 square feet for medical offices. These may end up being the largest exemptions except of course for all the areas of the city that the council also unanimously excluded from the cap.

Then there was the vote on self mitigating projects, another of council member Wolbach's ideas. I remember that vote as 6-2 with Burt and Filseth joining Wolbach, Berman, Scharff and Kniss.

So far we hardly have a divided council.

Then there was the discussion of area plans, which in the end was referred to the PTC.

I really do not understand your point here.

First, in terms of calendar any Fry's area plan will not come to council during the temporary cap as the initial study period alone is 18 months so any result will almost surely come to the next council and given how long theses processes take, any other area plans will be outside the temporary cap time limit.

And the reference to the Maybell project is even more puzzling to me. I understand that people can attribute all sorts of motives to that vote but it was after all a vote on a subsidized housing project and the complaint I remember is that the residents were not sufficiently involved.

Yet that is precisely what area plans do--involve the area residents in shaping their neighborhoods. And Cory made that point repeatedly during the discussion.

I thought the Maybell vote was asking for more neighborhood participation. Now we have such a suggestion and you argue Maybell in this case against neighborhood involvement in land use planning.

I thought we agreed that it is the impacts of growth that concern residents. That is my understanding of the intent of Cory's suggestions--to get our attention back on impacts.

Whether the cap that already allows growth in addition to the growth we already have is a little more or less restrictive will make no significant difference in addressing impacts.

Now that we are entering the Comp Plan update period, I hope we can all agree that focusing on the impacts such as getting the RPP right and looking at other neighborhoods and providing options and incentives to get all people to drive less is more important that tinkering around the edges of a temporary office cap that is supposed to be replaced by good Comp Plan planning.


3 people like this
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Jun 19, 2015 at 5:07 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

The 6th vote for exempting self mitigating projects was council member Holman not Filseth.


19 people like this
Posted by Skilled actors
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 19, 2015 at 5:13 pm

Why did the Weekly censor the description of Helene (Lanie) Wheeler as a member of the Chamber of Commerce? She is and has been for many years the chamber board's Vice Chair of Finance.

Also, Weekly, why did you censor the fact that so many contributers on the list are members of Palo Alto Forward, for example Eric Rosenblum, Kate Downing, Sandra Slater, Elaine Uang and Stephen Levy.
These people are very public about their affiliation, what is the problem? Cory Wohlbach is also publicly a member of that group.
Nothing underhanded, why did you censor it?


3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 19, 2015 at 5:31 pm

Never minddetails, just cap the damn thing.


6 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 19, 2015 at 5:52 pm

Having watched the entire council meeting on television (as usual) Greg Scharff appeared to have undergone a sudden about face regarding his previous statements and vote on the office cap. He dug his feet in and absolutely refused to budge.

When the issue of development along Park Boulevard was discussed at a previous council meeting, Greg Scharff appeared to be speaking on behalf of one particular development without actually saying so. When pressed he finally admitted that there was a particular development on Park Boulevard that he knew a lot about. But not why he did. So I'm wondering if this is a friend's proposed development, or has he been involved with this development in his professional capacity as a commercial land use attorney?


10 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 19, 2015 at 5:57 pm

Good points from so many: Chris, and others. What were all those 'portion removed's all about in 'Skilled actors' post?

And what am I, chopped liver? I contributed to Cory's campaign but I wasn't mentioned. Please update and acknowledge me and my contribution as well. You might be surprised at the amount. Oh, I know, I'm no one important enough and with enough influence to warrant mention/acknowledgement, but just a good friend, so I don't count. Got it. Believe me friends count. If you think you got duped by Cory then you were the dope. If you knew he was a PAF member and you knew what they stood for, then why are you so surprised about how he's voting.

I really don't think these opposing groups, PASZ and PAF, serve our town very well. They ahould disband and get down to the business of helping our community with no agendas.


1 person likes this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 19, 2015 at 10:59 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Skilled actors
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 20, 2015 at 11:27 am

[Post removed.]


11 people like this
Posted by Enid Pearson
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 20, 2015 at 11:58 am

It's time for residentialist (you know who you are), to crank up the campaign for new council members at the
next city election. It is time to put a cap on the campaign money for city council elections. Maybe it is time for
an initiative by residentialists to place a real cap on development, whether office or commercial over the whole
of Palo Alto. Palo Alto, as we would like it to be or remain, is being destroyed little by little with bigger and bigger developments.


8 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 20, 2015 at 10:27 pm

The Weekly is welcome to disagree and delete my postings unto eternity, but I will nevertheless urge citizens to read the campaign financial disclosures at the city clerk office when they decide who to vote for city offices. [Portion removed.]


5 people like this
Posted by Curious
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 21, 2015 at 9:01 am

Anon claims that Scharff owns commercial property on University. What type of commercial property? On Monday he successfully modified the Office Cap to exclude medical offices under 5000 square feet. Is his property medical office?


4 people like this
Posted by seeing thru it
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 21, 2015 at 9:02 am

Mystified is very obviously the local realtors organization.


10 people like this
Posted by Skilled actors
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 21, 2015 at 9:10 am

When a councilman uncompromisingly advocates for an exemption from regulations that will apply to medical offices, it is in the public interest to know that he has substantial investments in such properties.
He owns the medical office at 616 University Ave and his wife owns a medical office in a nearby town.
These are not vague rumors, they are easily verifiable facts and the public should not be prevented from knowing them.


8 people like this
Posted by You got it
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 21, 2015 at 9:11 am

Curious asked if Scharff's property downtown is medical space - the answer is Yes, it's being used as medical space. Good catch


6 people like this
Posted by Mystified
a resident of University South
on Jun 21, 2015 at 11:01 am

Seeing thru it - shockingly, I am not the local realtor association.

Making out everyone who wants to see more buildings as a spokesman for developers who want to make more money is no more appropriate than making out everyone who doesn't as a spokesman of the landlords who want to make more money from lack of competition.

Many people in this town advocate for what they believe is in the best interests of the city as a whole - even for the world as a whole. There is, I hope, a recognition that reasonable people may disagree without simply speaking on behalf of their pocketbooks.


9 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 21, 2015 at 11:27 pm

"There is, I hope, a recognition that reasonable people may disagree without simply speaking on behalf of their pocketbooks."

It might conceivably happen, but veterans of the Palo Alto process are justifiably very skeptical.


1 person likes this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 21, 2015 at 11:53 pm

[Post removed.]


12 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 22, 2015 at 10:41 am

Something is seriously amiss when Mr. DuBois recuses himself simply because his wife works at Stanford* and Mr. Scharff participates when he actually owns a commercial property on University.

* I'm assuming Mr. DuBois' wife does not work in a real estate related capacity. If she does, of course he should recuse himself.


7 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 22, 2015 at 11:14 am

Here is the guide to the State statues on Conflict of Interest:

Web Link?

It has specific criteria for determining when the Conflict of Interest rules apply, and outlines the penalties (civil & criminal) when the rules are violated.


11 people like this
Posted by Skilled actors
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 22, 2015 at 11:37 am

Scharff should recuse himself from any discussion of zoning for downtown office space, instead of advocating for special exceptions. His ownership of 616 University is pretty clear reason to suggest bias.

His own office property in the 2200 block of Park Blvd. very near California Avenue so he should not participate in discussions of that area either.

Time for an ethics refresher, in addition to the law.


8 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 22, 2015 at 12:23 pm

"When a councilman uncompromisingly advocates for an exemption from regulations that will apply to medical offices, it is in the public interest to know that he has substantial investments in such properties.
He owns the medical office at 616 University Ave and his wife owns a medical office in a nearby town."

Pretty brazen. Likewise calling himself a residentialist for a couple months before election day.

Time for a council censure hearing.


7 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 22, 2015 at 12:43 pm

Regarding commercial land use lawyer and commercial property investor council member Greg Scharff, someone wrote earlier that his downtown holding(s) are just outside the overlay for the temporary downtown office cap. But having a part ownership in a medical office building and then insisting medical offices must be excluded if they expand by 2,000 sq. ft. is such a precise number I wonder if this medical office has prior plans to do just that. John Barton once refused to excuse himself from a vote regarding a development proposal even though he had a professional relationship with the architect who used his services sometimes. (Barton was the deciding vote.)EBH


14 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 22, 2015 at 12:53 pm

I knew not to vote for Mr. Scharff having read enough about his track record.

I had high hopes for Corey and even requested a yard sign for him which I took down after he had plenty of time to call and ask me to campaign for him but never had time to answer my specific questions about his positions, especially on ABAG. I also asked him whether he could help lobby his employer Mr. Hill about the problem with airplane noise.

At a certain point, all the generalities about civility combined with refusal to answer specific questions turned me off.


3 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 22, 2015 at 3:29 pm

Looks like once again scharf has become the target for unwarranted attacks because of his stances. For those complaining about the exemption for medical offices-- remember that passed the council unanomously.
Anyway the council members that needed to be watched like a hawk are Holman, filseth and Dubois.


1 person likes this
Posted by Kazu
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 22, 2015 at 5:55 pm

@Gale Johnson wrote:

"I really don't think these opposing groups, PASZ and PAF, serve our town very well. They ahould disband and get down to the business of helping our community with no agendas."

Folks, if you want to revive what made Palo Alto such a special place in times past, those are words to heed. It wasn't battling special interest groups so much as the whole community banding together for the common good. People really did care about one another back in the day.


8 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 22, 2015 at 5:56 pm

Anon you are concerned that ….
"Looks like once again scharf has become the target for unwarranted attacks because of his stances"

Not so, the concern is through some mechanism, wether Scharffs fault or the city Attorney's, he should recused himself because he owns real property within ( fewer than) 500 feet of the Cap area under discussion.


4 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 22, 2015 at 5:59 pm

sorry last post should be addressed to "Agenda" not "Anon"


2 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 22, 2015 at 6:18 pm

Anon-- if the perceived conflict of interest by scharf is such an issue, then a complaint should be filed. Of course, we need to look at all the property holdings of all the council members. I am especially interested in potential conflicts of interest by Holman, filseth and Dubois. Given her history, Holman has been known to be especially cozy with real estate people.


11 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 22, 2015 at 7:45 pm

Let’s not lose track of the key issue. ONLY DuBois was advised to recuse himself despite the fact that Scharff owns office property within 500 feet of the area designated for the office cap.

The state law actually requires people to recuse themselves whenever a government decision:

“would cause a reasonably prudent person, using due care and consideration under the circumstances, to believe that the governmental decision was of such a nature that its reasonably foreseeable effect would influence the market value of the official’s property.“

Scharff will likely benefit from more restrictions on office construction near him because many companies downtown constantly seek room to grow. That means a cap makes any office space downtown more valuable, whether it’s in the cap zone or adjacent. Scharff will be able to charge higher rents, and thus make more income, plus it makes his building go up in value. The law above clearly applies to his situation and he should have recused himself.

If the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) and the City Attorney weren’t aware of this, that raises even more serious concerns as to whether they’re working with the right facts.

By the way, Scharff is termed-out so he no longer has to answer to the voters anymore. The only protection we have is the FPPC, and if it’s given wrong information, that needs to be fixed.


7 people like this
Posted by Skilled actors
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 23, 2015 at 2:28 pm

At last night's council meeting 6/22 Burt asked the city attorney and staff for more specificity about the concept of "materiality" in evaluating conflict of interest -- DuBois' wife's work and department has no connection to university finances or development.

Greg Scharff got all exercised about the procedure for reporting this information, he wanted the process to be complex and roundabout. But his plan for a back and forth procedure did not gain acceptance.
Interesting in view of the discussion above.


5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 23, 2015 at 3:47 pm

"By the way, Scharff is termed-out so he no longer has to answer to the voters anymore."

Yes he does. We can recall him, and ought to.

It would both jettison a current malefactor and warn future wannabes. (RU listening, Berman?)


2 people like this
Posted by What Happened?
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 25, 2015 at 10:03 pm

I was away on vacation - what changed? Seemed like there was unanimous support for a cap and now the city is adding exceptions to an already watered down cap? 50,000 sq ft in 3 areas of the city isn't much of a cap at all compared to construction over the years - I think this cap would have only kicked in a few times over the years. We need help!


2 people like this
Posted by History Repeats
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 23, 2016 at 10:03 pm

Worth revisiting as we head into the election. Note particularly:

Scharff's attempts to weaken the growth cap and implied threats to stand in the way of its adoption unless he got the concessions he wanted were in contrast to the posture he took in the election campaign, when he expressed agreement with the need for addressing the pace of growth.

And, look at whom Kniss, Scharff, and Wolbach have endorsed.


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

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