As Palo Alto moves along with a cap on new office growth, several key details continue to bedevil and divide city officials.
Chief among them is the question of where the new cap should apply to parts of the city that are already guided community-crafted vision documents, known as "coordinated-area plans," or that will adopt such plans in the future. And if new office developments are allowed in these area plans, should they count against the cap or not?
After the City Council failed to reach a consensus on this crucial detail in June, it will be the Planning and Transportation Commission's turn to consider on Wednesday night.
The commission plans to tackle the proposed interim ordinance that would set a 50,000-square-foot annual cap on new office and research-and-development growth. The cap would only apply to the areas around downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real. The goal is to stem the rapid growth that has taken place in these areas in recent years and to get a better handle on the effects of this growth chiefly, parking and traffic problems.
In March, the council agreed on the broad parameters of the new ordinance, which would be in place for two years or until the city adopts its Comprehensive Plan. But on June 15, with Tom DuBois recusing himself from the discussion, the council split 4-4 on the issue of whether coordinated-area plans should be exempt.
Councilman Cory Wolbach argued that such plans "enable the community, the council, the Architectural Review Board, staff and residents to really be in the driver's seat" in designing the community.
Limiting commercial growth in these areas would unnecessarily hamper this process, Wolbach argued. Three of his colleagues Marc Berman Liz Kniss and Greg Scharff agreed, with Scharff calling the cap "a blunt instrument" and arguing that specific area plans are a better alternative.
The slow-growth "residentialist" wing of the council came to a different conclusion. Councilmen Eric Filseth and Pat Burt said carving out area plans as exempt from the cap would create a giant loophole and essentially "raise the cap."
Mayor Karen Holman and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid agreed and joined them in rejecting the area-plan exemption. After reaching the deadlock, the council agreed to send the issue to the planning commission.
If Palo Alto proceeds with the ordinance, it will join a group of cities that include Walnut Creek and San Francisco, both of which already have annual development caps. For Palo Alto officials, timing is critical. The area around California Avenue alone has a list of projects in the planning pipeline that total more than 100,000-square-foot between them. These include two projects on Park Boulevard at 2747 and 3045 Park that would collectively add nearly 60,000 square feet of new office development.
According to a new report from Planning Director Hillary Gitelman, the applications for the two projects have already been deemed complete and the developer is in the process of preparing an environmental analysis.
Only two of the 12 developments currently in the pipeline would be exempt from the cap, according to the new planning report. One would be 429 University Ave., a commercial project that the city approved last year. The project is now being revised after the council upheld a citizen appeal challenging its design.
Another is a development at 3877 El Camino, which includes 4,020 square feet of office space. The rest would be subject to the cap, though projects such as the two on Park Boulevard could get preference over other applications because of how far along they are in the planing process.
While the commercial climate around California Avenue is sizzling, things are far less busy in downtown and around El Camino, where projects in the pipeline constitute 26,706 square feet and 4,020 square feet of new office growth, respectively, according to the new report. In other parts of the city, new projects are slated to add 43,907 square feet of commercial development.
The new report from the planning department notes that the proposed interim ordinance "would seek to moderate the pace of development without changing the zoning regulations that affect land use and densities." After the planning commission discusses it, the proposed ordinance would return to the council in mid-September and could take effect in November, according to the report.
The report notes that setting an annual cap on development, even on an interim basis, "is a complex endeavor that has the potential to substantially affect property owners who have already invested in pending applications."
"For these reasons, staff anticipates significant interest and input from property owners and applicants, as well as interest groups and stakeholders on all sides of the issue," the report states.
The planning commission will meet at 6 p.m. on Wednesday in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.