A year and a half after putting a temporary halt to any further negotiated development projects that exceed the existing zoning, proposed revisions to be considered Monday by the Palo Alto City Council do virtually nothing to prevent the abuses and controversies that led to the moratorium in the first place.
The proposed changes, developed by the city planning staff with input from the Planning & Transportation Commission, are so disconnected from the angst expressed by the community about the use of PC zones that it is hard to believe they were developed by people in touch with mainstream political thinking in Palo Alto.
It's as if the city staff figured the issue had faded enough to resurrect a deeply flawed system with only marginal improvements. Developers should be delighted by the proposal and by the prospect of being able to resume negotiations with city staff over new PC projects. We are not.
For years, citizens have complained about Palo Alto's practice of allowing developers to exceed zoning limits by offering "public benefits" that often don't live up to promises and about the lack of transparency and enforcement.
Last February, with a council election approaching and under intense political pressure, the City Council voted not to accept or approve any new planned-community proposals until it could figure out how to reform the system or dump it entirely.
This "time out" for any new PC projects was particularly well-timed for the re-election bid of Councilman Greg Scharff, who used the campaign to speak out for reforms and even suggested the elimination of PCs or a requirement that all proposed PCs to go to the voters for approval.
With an election that shifted the council majority toward more constrained growth, Monday's meeting should be the most significant test yet of where this new council stands on the development policies and practices that have most irked the community.
The staff's proposed changes to the PC process nibble at the problem by making changes to the process of how planned-community proposals are reviewed by the city, requiring more formal public benefit agreements, establishing monitoring and enforcement policies and requiring an independent economic analysis.
But the proposal does nothing to address the biggest problems with the PC process, including the private negotiations that take place between a developer and the city staff, leading to an agreement on the outlines of a plan for public benefits and zoning exceptions before either the public or the council is involved, and the lack of clear guidelines and limits on what constitutes a public benefit.
Nothing in the proposal fixes the underlying problem of every project being subject to individual negotiations -- and with every conceivable public benefit, including outright cash payments, being on the table for horse-trading.
The newly proposed requirement that an independent economic analysis be done was already implemented by City Manager Jim Keene and was a miserable failure in its first major use for the now-withdrawn Jay Paul Company project on Park Boulevard. It will take more than ordinance language to fix that.
The original concept behind the creation of the planned-community zone was to provide the opportunity for a developer to propose a project that was so beneficial to the community that it was deemed worthy of exceeding the zoning limits. By creating flexibility for these occasional special developments, we might enable some exceptional projects that would otherwise never happen.
While a few good examples of this exist, such as the Opportunity Center, the vast majority of PC projects have not provided the hoped-for benefits or the benefits weren't at all commensurate with what the developer received. It has been a failed program.
The staff proposal tilts toward fewer restrictions at every opportunity. It would allow monetary payments as public benefits. It would not restrict the public benefits to those intrinsic to the development itself. It sets no limits on how much additional development a PC project might get.
In short, adoption of this new PC ordinance would put us right back to where we were prior to the temporary halt early last year.
We hope the council rejects the "new" PC policy and directs the staff to take a fresh approach. We'd like to see, for example, consideration of a process that invites property owners interested in redeveloping property to approach the city without a plan and, through a public process, explore what development the community wants in exchange for granting exceptions to the zoning. But the days of developers guessing what "benefits" might get them extra square footage should be permanently put behind us.