On the narrowest of votes, a divided Palo Alto City Council Monday night upended a plan to have new development proposals compete with each other for a portion of the available 50,000 square feet under a growth limit for new commercial buildings, opting on a 5-4 vote to instead put four already-submitted projects above all others.
The last-minute amendment to the temporary cap on development, proposed by Councilman Greg Scharff and supported by colleagues Marc Berman, Eric Filseth, Liz Kniss and Cory Wolbach, torpedoed the original concept that current projects would given preference in an approval process that would also include new projects submitted between now and March.
The difference may seem subtle, but it is fundamental to the entire concept of projects competing for approval based on their design and other factors. Filseth found himself as the deciding swing vote, disappointing those who assumed he would align with his colleagues who voted against the weakening of the plan.
The action means that four projects already in the pipeline totaling 67,000 square feet will now more than wipe out the first year's allotment of 50,000 new square feet of development, rendering the concept of a competition moot until the second year.
Scharff and the majority said it would be unfair to force developers who have already spent large amounts of money on development plans to possibly get beaten out by new submittals that are found by a majority of the council to be more appealing or beneficial to the community.
Filseth, a slow-growth proponent whose victory last November helped swing the council majority, called it a reasonable compromise that rewards those developers who are further along and have invested the most in their projects.
How to treat so-called pipeline projects that were deemed "submitted" before the council's first approved the outlines of the development cap in June was expected to be a delicate and controversial decision, but Filseth's vote left his natural allies on the council and some of his own supporters baffled.
It is but another sign of the challenges a divided council faces in reading community sentiment and determining how aggressive to be in seizing some control over new commercial development. At least for this first year, no consideration will be given to a project's use, traffic impacts or design. If it is one of the four projects whose application has been deemed complete, after Monday's vote it's almost guaranteed to be approved.
The four projects include two by Jay Paul Company on Park Boulevard just south of California Avenue, both of which were discussed as possible sites for a public safety building. One, at 3045 Park, was the site where the developer offered to build a public safety building for free if the council allowed it to build a large office building across the street that had already been completely built out to the limits of the zoning. The other, at 2747 Park, was the land to which the city held an option until it gave it up during the Great Recession. Each of the pending projects will be approximately 30,000 square foot office buildings. The other projects that also now go to the front of the line are a building replacing the Foot Locker on El Camino and one at the corner of Lytton and Kipling in downtown. All are offices, though some include small numbers of residential units.
Imposing a 50,000 square foot aggregate annual growth cap in downtown, along El Camino and in the California Ave. district was a blunt instrument from the start and drew predictable opposition from development interests, the Chamber of Commerce and some local companies warning it could harm their growth plans.
It was adopted as an alternative to either a moratorium or a tightening of specific zoning regulations that would constrict development. After much debate, the council opted instead for an untested beauty-contest approach to evaluating proposals as a way to dole out the available 50,000 square feet of development rights.
The council has been wrestling with the issue for months, culminating in Monday's vote.
Lest anyone think there will be a noticeable change in building activity in the three affected districts, there are many projects under construction or already approved that will add substantial new commercial square footage and that aren't affected by the newly approved cap.
While four projects yet to receive permits came out winners this week, the losers are projects at an earlier phase in the process that now have no chance of being approved, no matter their quality or benefits, until the second year of the program.
The council majority's abandonment of the competitive process for the first year is a mistake and fundamentally changes the decision-making scheme in the name of fairness to a few developers. That's not our idea of a fair system for the community.