News


Council set to revive — and revise — contentious zoning tool

Palo Alto officials prepare to vote on reforms to the 'planned community' process

After more than a year of hibernation, Palo Alto's most controversial zoning process is preparing to roar back to life.

The City Council will consider on Monday proposed reforms to the city's controversial "planned community" (PC) zoning process, which allows developers to barter with the city over zoning regulations. Specifically, the designation allows developers to propose projects that exceed local zoning rules in exchange for "public benefits" -- a vague catch-all term that has encompassed everything from sculptures and plazas to supermarkets and a new police headquarters.

In February 2014, the council voted to take a "time out" on planned community projects, with Marc Berman acknowledging that the process is "broken and needs to be fixed" and Greg Scharff citing the need to "rebuild faith in the community." Since then, planning staff and the planning commission have been pondering how to make the process more transparent and predictable.

So what's new in the proposal? For one thing, the process would now involve more steps, including a pre-screening hearing in front of the council before a formal application is submitted, followed by formal hearings on the application by the Planning and Transportation Commission and the council. Applications would have to include an "enforcement and monitoring plan," along with funding for enforcement; and an economic analysis that would weigh the value of both zoning exceptions and the offered benefits.

One thing that the proposal does not include is a menu of specific benefits that the city desires, an idea that was initially considered but then discarded by planning staff. This means developers will maintain their right to propose any type of benefit in exchange for zoning exemptions.

The ordinance would now include, for the first time, a definition -- albeit broad -- of public benefits: "Specific improvements or amenities for Palo Alto by the developer in exchange for uses, densities, and/or a development configuration specific to the PC district that would be unattainable in general zoning districts or combining districts."

The proposal that will go in front of the council incorporates some, but not all, of the suggestions from the planning commission. It supports one of the commission's most controversial recommendations: to continue the practice of allowing developers to include cash as a public benefit. At its March 11 meeting, Commissioner Michael Alcheck argued that developers should have the flexibility to offer anything they want, given that the city can always turn them down.

"We want to welcome an opportunity for people to think outside the box," Alcheck said. "We know what we want and we've zoned for it, but we're also smart enough to know that we don't know everything we want. There's a world out there of things we haven't yet realized we might want and we should let somebody make a case for it."

This should include, Alcheck argued, the opportunity to contribute money to the city for things like infrastructure improvement.

The majority of the commission agreed that planned-community projects shouldn't have to be inherently beneficial (by including community services like affordable housing or senior housing, for example), as long as they provide "extrinsic" benefits. Most members also agreed that these extrinsic benefits could include cash.

Commissioner Eric Rosenblum, the lone dissenter, said he was uncomfortable with the notion of cash constituting a public benefit, which he called "the definition of zoning for sale."

"This isn't out of the box," Rosenblum said. "This is a cash payment in exchange for zoning exception. It's an old practice and we know what this is."

Though the reforms are unlikely to appease the critics of the planned-community process, a new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment argues that the proposed changes, including the new pre-screening requirement, introduce "greater transparency and predictability to the review and decision making."

"Together, changes to these chapters are intended to ameliorate uncertainty in the community about the future use of the PC and pre-screening regulations," the report states.

Comments

21 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 21, 2015 at 1:15 pm

These people need to be removed from interacting with developers or putting themselves in front of city business. We have a staff for planning. We have two new vice-mayors. Assign the prior San Jose vice-mayor to this job - he is paid by the city to make good decisions. He understands big city planning.

I think these PC people are now in a survival mode and want to make themselves relevant but the comment on developers paying cash is unethical and illegal.


25 people like this
Posted by What we do not want
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 21, 2015 at 8:50 pm

Maybe Mr. Alcheck would also like these examples of public benefits accepted by the former City Manager and former Councils:

Public Art at the Westin Hotel

Small metal cars embedded around the doorway of 390 Lytton Ave

Sculpture on wall on Channing side of 901 Alma, also a public "plaza"

"Display Pad" compliance at three auto dealerships (Honda,Audi,Toyota)

Statue of a woman holding up a washing machine, at Cafe Riaci


36 people like this
Posted by Alan
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 22, 2015 at 10:16 am

This idea of "exceeding zoning laws" in exchange for "public benefits" needs to be scrapped. It really us just a softcore form of corruption and allows developers to interact with city staff in an unhealthy way that public citizens of Palo Alto cannot.

As an analogy. Can I exceed the occupancy requirements for my house in exchange for putting a nice statue on my front lawn? Can I turn my driveway into a rental unit in exchange for having my kids run a lemonade stand every Saturday (i.e. grocery store) which they will do until about 6 months after my rebuild is finished then promptly shut down.

The zoning laws should be just that. Palo Alto doesn't have any lack of people that want to live here so there is no reason to give anything away to developers in zoning. They can follow the same rules as the rest of us.


5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 22, 2015 at 1:04 pm

"Planned" community spot zoning is a reliable resume builder tool for ambitious city planning staff. It adds bigger projects to their experience lists, which helps when applying for a higher paying job in a bigger city where large-project experience is a salary-boosting asset.

Small wonder that our loyal city staffers are loath to give up their highway to bigger money.


11 people like this
Posted by Merry
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Aug 22, 2015 at 1:10 pm

Rules should be rules.


3 people like this
Posted by paresident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2015 at 3:09 pm

@Alan -- about your comment: "As an analogy. Can I exceed the occupancy requirements for my house in exchange for putting a nice statue on my front lawn?" And you would think there are zoning limitations. Wrong! In Palo Alto, if you would like 50 people in your house or whatever, go right ahead!

I kid you not. We have a neighbor who keeps adding more and more tenants to his "boarding house". It's a single family home in a R-1 zone, and all those people have cars which of course park in front of other neighbors' houses. He has something like 20 cars belonging to his house.

Neighbors have complained to code enforcement, but we were told there are no limitations to how many people you can rent out to in your home. This doesn't make sense and would seem to violate fire and safety codes. There is a provision that a neighbor's business should not be so large as to cause problems for neighbors. Code enforcement will restrict some businesses in R-1 zones, such as child care, but renting out rooms to as many people as you can, including putting them on cots, bunk beds, couches, whatever, is not considered a business in a R-1 zone.

Makes no sense since hotels/motels/theaters you name it have to have ample parking and safety features. Also, this larger type of boarding house should be in a mixed zone.

There are definite problems with the city enforcing zoning codes. They pick and choose which ones they want to enforce.


26 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 22, 2015 at 3:50 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

"Exceeding zoning laws in exchange for public benefits"is a clever euphemism for bribe. When exceptions to rules are created, the rules end up getting bent and eventually abandoned. Nobody is more adept at this than developers. Zoning laws should be strictly observed. One of the main reasons why there are such cozy relationships between city staff, council members and developers is the PC process.


50 people like this
Posted by Ben
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 22, 2015 at 4:23 pm

The only revision to the Planned Community process, is eliminating it. It's been abused by developers with an abundance of help by complicit city staff and city council members more concerned about filling developers bank accounts than residents quality of life.


28 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 22, 2015 at 5:38 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

When the history of Palo Alto in the 21st century is written someday by a future generation, I believe that the PC process and the corruption it has caused will be cited as one of the main factors in the transformation of one of the greatest towns in the nation into a noisy, polluted, overcrowded, overpriced office park. The least we can do for future generations is to eliminate this corrupt process entirely and put an end to the cozy relationship between council and staff and developers.


21 people like this
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 22, 2015 at 9:26 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

"This is a cash payment in exchange for zoning exception. It's an old practice and we know what this is."--Commissioner Eric Rosenblum

Thank you, Commissioner Rosenblum, for standing apart from the rest of the commission and clearly raising this point. I hope that when the council takes this up it will figure prominently in the discussion. Why were the other commissioners against a requirement that Planned Community benefits be inherently beneficial? Between the negotiated abuses of the PC process in the past, where community benefits were trivial or nonexistent, and a total withdrawal of zoning flexibility to encourage development that brings a community benefit is there a mid-point, e.g. PC zoning accommodations only for affordable housing or senior housing projects, that could get community support?

If not, is there another mechanism for making sure that these needs are addressed? The market won't do it on its own.


16 people like this
Posted by taking a pounding
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2015 at 10:18 pm

It is obvious that Palo Alto is taking a drastic hit in its character,
balance,qualities and even livability. The impacts of new construction Downtown and the Stanford Hospital are not even felt yet. This is in addition to impacts from development all along the corridor from San Francisco to San Jose which also affect Palo Alto. There is no infrastructure to to handle the massive development. So qualitatively and quantitatively from within and from without, Palo Alto is taking a pounding. It would take a strong policy stance to stand up to these market forces and protect the unique qualities of Palo Alto. We have done the opposite and instead of regulating the market as a government function we subsidized it with bonuses,exceptions,PC zoning. As a unique City we had the most to lose and that is what we have done. Now where is the anger and sense of urgency in the new Council to try to deal with the situation we are in?





2 people like this
Posted by Thanks Weekly!
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 23, 2015 at 8:10 am

I guess the non-profit senior housing on Maybell was indeed killed for nothing since now it will be business as usual for the for-profit developers, who never cared about Maybell anyway. Thanks Weekly for misunderstanding the issue, and allowing the non-profit PAHC to be tarred in order to prove a point that never got proved anyway.

On behalf of all the elderly people who could have really used that housing, Thanks.


10 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2015 at 11:42 am

Suggesting the Palo Alto is becoming an office park is as ridiculous as suggesting that downtown Palo Alto is crime ridden. There is an area of Palo Alto that is an office park however the vast majority of land in Palo Alto is dedicated to homes, parks and open space . Also Palo Alto is not a town , it has never been a town , it is a city.


17 people like this
Posted by paresident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2015 at 12:38 pm

I think the main problem is that city leaders/staff are very much in favor of big development and higher density. That's why code enforcement doesn't want to cap how many people can be in a single family home. I wonder if the city leaders are looking to changing zoning codes in order to accommodate higher densities all throughout Palo Alto.


6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 23, 2015 at 1:23 pm

Here's what they need, as a minimum:

Definite guides of what constitutes public benefits (and no buying of upzoning for cash as at Lytton Plaza)

Ironclad benefits enforcement with real teeth (require posting multimillion dollar bond, deny/revoke occupancy permit, etc.). This could well shut down the entire farce.

VERY IMPORTANT: Publish the campaign contributions from affected developers and their associates to the sitting councilmembers for the prior two elections, and the two succeeding elections.


32 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 23, 2015 at 1:55 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

Palo Alto was a town and should've remained a town. It has the infrastructure, character, livibility and tradition of a leafy suburban college town. Corrupt processes like PC zoning have turned it into a dense small city, against its nature and character. It didn't have to happen, it happened because of short sighted, hubristic [portion removed] council members and city employees. The argument that this was inevitable and should just be accepted as a force of nature is ridiculous and undemocratic. More and more residents are starting to wake up to this travesty. Planter employees and others like them will probably continue to have contrived tantrums at council meetings, but I think that by now residents will be prepared and not asleep and unaware like they used to be.


23 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2015 at 2:17 pm

[Portion removed.]
Palo Alto has always been a city. A small one, but a city nontheless. As I previously stated only a small fraction of the city has offices. The vast majority of the city is not dense at all. The vast majority of the city is residences, parks and open space.
When did Palantir employees have temper tantrums at the council meetings? We should try to stick to the facts, though for some people, who are against change and progress, it is impossible.


22 people like this
Posted by What we do not want
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 23, 2015 at 2:35 pm

The problem with Palantir is that they are systematically infiltrating so many parts of the Palo Alto government:
The Planning Commission (2 people),
CAC (Comprehensive Advisory Committee),
Human Relations Commission,
RPP committee,
and indirectly through the PA Forward organization.
That's a lot, cannot be accidental.


12 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Infiltrating?? such a negative connotation. Why do you say they are " infiltrating"? One could also say the PASZ is infiltrating the same bodies that you mention. Are they doing anything illegal? If so, please tell us what it is


1 person likes this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 23, 2015 at 2:57 pm

Let's not waste too many brain cycles on this one. Let everyone vote on each "PC" project paid for by the developer. If the benefit is up to snuff it will pass. No more BS.


5 people like this
Posted by What we do not want
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 23, 2015 at 3:35 pm

wow, Agenda, I didn't realize those neighborhood people in PASZ also have a BILLION DOLLAR corporation supporting their efforts, like Palantir's development pushers.

Your logic is impeccable.


12 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2015 at 3:43 pm

What do we want-- I am sorry my opinion upsets you so. Why don't you provide us with some facts about what development Palantir is pushing and what they are doing is illegal.
Just claiming that Palantir is " infiltrating" our cities organizations is just an opinion-- not backed up by any proof. Why don't you provide us with the names of these Palantir people you claim are on the planning commission, for example.
Of and just to get the facts straight, I consider PASZ to be the biggest threat the future our city faces.


1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 23, 2015 at 4:48 pm

I thought our biggest threat was climate change. What did I miss?


13 people like this
Posted by Samuel
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 24, 2015 at 10:21 am

Palo Alto Forward has more people than cited on our Commissions - one on art commission and 3 on Planning Comm. it is assumed they are there to advance PA Forwards mandate and some will use current positions as a springboard to city council in the next election.

Survey Monkey and Palantir particularly have employees lining up to lobby city council and yes, some are on our commissions.

PA Forward is now entering a consortium, Peninsula Forward, with cities in SM and SC counties on the peninsula. A multi city and county united front, blessed of not financially supported by Silicon Valley Corporations and their lobbyists - including Palantir - one of palo altos biggest employers.

Palantir is in the business of data mining, with contracts with the CIA, NSA, military, etc. - to indiscriminately spy on you, me and everyone else. Palantir is what Edward Snowden warned us about. It is about to take over the University Art building in addition to its other locations - it is expanding fast in our town. Yet the young techies there who are moving on to our branches of city government seemed unfazed by the mission of it's employer.

Illegal? No. Insidious? Yes. Because they bring with them unified agendas most of the public is unaware of. That is never healthy for a towns democratic governance. And they seem to lack much knowledge of the world around them that would enable deeper critical thought and less zeal.


2 people like this
Posted by moo
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 24, 2015 at 11:05 am

no no no no no no no no no no no.
no.
no no no no no no no no no no.


8 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 24, 2015 at 11:21 am

Marie is a registered user.

I urge everyone to share their opinions directly with the City Council. I just emailed the following:

Please repeal PC zoning. The suggested changes from the Planning Commission make the zoning even worse. It is outrageous that they suggest zoning should be for sale.

If repealing PC zoning is not an option, please appoint a citizen committee including a broad representation of the city's residents to review and recommend changes. The Planning commission has become a spokesman for developers whose only goal is to maximize their own profits and care nothing for the quality of life of those who live and work in Palo Alto.

For more specific suggestions, please reread the letter from PAN, which includes concrete changes to the ordinance, and the PA Weekly editorial of Aug. 21.

PA Resident, homeowner and landlord


4 people like this
Posted by Carol Giilbert
a resident of University South
on Aug 24, 2015 at 11:26 am

I think the community at large would like to see these arrangements repealed rather than "tweaked". The trust level of these arrangements is low.


4 people like this
Posted by six of one
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 24, 2015 at 11:33 am

"Survey Monkey and Palantir particularly have employees lining up to lobby city council and yes, some are on our commissions. "
Okay, Samuel, which Survey Monkey and Palantir employees are on our city commissions. You state that they are, so please provide the names of said members.


7 people like this
Posted by Not Surprised
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 24, 2015 at 11:51 am

Telling handle "Agenda." What exactly is the "agenda" behind your comments? How long have you lived in PA and who do you work for? Anyone who has lived in PA any length of time knows it was once indeed a town. A family friendly, intellectual, community oriented town. We all know and expect change, but many of us on this thread have lived here long enough to watch as the politics of development have been overtaken and cleverly moved forward by a hidden "agenda" based ultimately, I believe, on Stanford's long-term self-serving interests. It isn't hard to see who benefits most from more hi-tech office space, downtown high-density housing developments, and a city center that functions more like a cafeteria than a vibrant community resource center. Palo Alto is well on it's way to becoming primarily a Stanford campus adjunct and induatrial complex. Is that the "agenda" you support?


8 people like this
Posted by Uglification
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2015 at 12:21 pm

In ten years Palo Alto will be nothing more than an ugly office park with overpriced residential housing owned by foreign investors.


13 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 24, 2015 at 1:22 pm

We live in the center of the technology universe with an economy that is on fire. What do you expect? PA is still a great place AND it is changing. All the whining in the world will not change that. To all those calling all the change terrible, wishing for apple orchards once again, please simmer down and move. Thanks


5 people like this
Posted by Jim Colton
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 24, 2015 at 2:08 pm

PC zoning has clearly been abused in the past. Developers have paid for zoning exceptions, none of which I can think of are in the residents' interests. The benefits have also not generally provided real benefits to the residents. Why would we want to bring PC zoning back especially with the provision that the benefit not be geographically near the zoning exception. It could easily allow a zoning exception in the South with the benefit in the North. Let's close the books on PC for good.


Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 24, 2015 at 4:02 pm

@ commonsense: The major concern is the PC exceptions. We have a comp plan in place. We have zoning in place. It would be nice if PACC would just permanently stop with all of the exceptions and just follow the plan, zoning and code.

And if you lived here long enough, you'd know PA was never an orchard (except for the pining of one Maybell neighbor about a small formerly private property - never was a commercial orchard). Most of the orchards were south of PA...and the north county orchards were mostly apricots, then plums and then cherries further south.


4 people like this
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 24, 2015 at 5:05 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Jim Colton

"The benefits have also not generally provided real benefits to the residents"

I agree with you in large measure, but I'm listening hard to detect whether people calling for total abolition of Planned Community exemptions acknowledge that affordable housing is a real public benefit that must be provided for, if not by Planned Community zoning exemptions then by some other tool, such as site specific plans. I'm not hearing that on this thread, and that worries me.


5 people like this
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 24, 2015 at 5:18 pm

What is it about a simple two letter word that CityCouncil and Planners do not understand? The word is, no. It means precisely that, no. No exceptions to exceed zoning for your development.
Possibly acceptable exceptions would be if a project agreed to separate a Caltrain crossing by a road. Another possible exception would be if the developer agreed to build a three floor parking garage with solar roof. Minuscule park-lets that are more concrete than park and adorned by bad art are not benefits.
There should be at least 8 feet of green space around any new building--on all sides.
There was a time that by 10 pm the few (at that time) traffic lights switched to blinking only.

No more PC zoning.


5 people like this
Posted by No One
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 25, 2015 at 8:21 am

The average resident of Palo Alto or anywhere else is not exempt from the law; neither is anyone else, regardless of wealth and influence. Why are developers and companies getting away with it?


Like this comment
Posted by imby
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 26, 2015 at 8:13 am

TRAFFIC!!!!!!!!!


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

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