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Palo Alto looks to revise key policies for growth, park use

City Council to consider overall limit for development as part of Comprehensive Plan update

With new developments spurring new demand for Palo Alto's recreational facilities, as well as for ways to improve traffic congestion, city officials are preparing to review and possibly revise several long-standing policies that have been guiding the city on matters of land use and recreation for nearly two decades.

The City Council will consider on Monday night possible revisions to the Land Use and Community Design chapter in the city's Comprehensive Plan, a voluminous document that will lay out the foundation for local laws and policies until 2030. While much of the discussion will surely revolve around broad vision statements and vague goals, the council will also have to grapple with one particular policy with potentially transformational ramifications.

Known as Policy L-8 in the current Comprehensive Plan, the policy imposes a limit of just over 3.25 million square feet on all non-residential development in the nine planning areas that the city evaluated in a 1989 study. These areas are: Stanford Shopping Center; University Avenue/South of Forest Area (SOFA); Town & Country Village; the area around East Bayshore; the area around California Avenue and Ventura; Stanford Research Park; the San Antonio Road/Bayshore corridor; and two segments of El Camino Real in the southern half of the city.

As of the end of last year, about 1.5 million square feet had been added, with the counter beginning in 1989, when the study was adopted, according to planning staff.

Policy L-8 also has a subsection, known as Program L-8, that applies specifically downtown and that limits new non-residential development in that area to a total of 350,000 square feet and requires the city to reevaluate this number once the level of growth reaches 235,000 square feet. The city hit the latter threshold in 2012 and is now in the process of completing what is known as a Downtown Cap study to address this program.

From city staff's perspective, the existing policy has some flaws and limitations. For one, it confines itself to just the nine areas studied in 1989. Thus, it doesn't consider major projects such as the colossal expansion of the Stanford University Medical Center, which is now in progress and which will ultimately bring 1.2 million of new development to the city. The new report notes that because of the limitation, the data collected under Policy L-8 "doesn't present a full picture of non-residential development in the city."

In addition, the data collected under the existing policy doesn't differentiate between different types of non-residential development and treats retail (which, in principle, the council greatly supports) and office (which the council is trying to limit) as equal. An alternative proposed by staff is to rely on data that the city provides to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority as part of the agency's Congestion Management Plan. This data offers citywide data and differentiates between different types of land uses.

The council's discussion of the critical Comprehensive Plan chapter comes at a time when the idea of limiting growth is becoming increasingly popular. On Sept. 15, the council adopted an annual limit of 50,000 square feet of office and research-and-development growth in downtown, around California Avenue and along El Camino Real. That cap, however, is set to expire in either two years or when the Comprehensive Plan is adopted (whichever happens first).

As the council considers new policies for the Land Use chapter on Monday, it will have the option of making the annual cap permanent or expanding it to areas beyond the three currently covered.

The latter idea already has many supporters. In recent discussions of the office cap, several land-use watchdogs and members of the Planning and Transportation Commission made a case for why the cap should not be limited to just those three districts. On Sept. 21, long-time watchdog Bob Moss and College Terrace resident Doria Summa both urged the council to make the cap apply citywide. Restricting it to just a few areas, the argument goes, will merely bring more development to other parts of the city, which may be ill-suited for growth.

"I think there's a sense of fairness when you do things citywide," Summa said. "And you'll avoid the problem of the unintended consequence of squishing the toothpaste to some place else."

Planning commissioner Mark Michael, a critic of the office cap, made a similar case on Aug. 12, when the commission took up the topic. After extensive debate and extreme reluctance, the commission ultimately approved the cap after two separate hearings.

"If you have set of concerns that are citywide in nature relative to development growth and housing, parking, traffic and whatnot, to the extent that you squeeze the balloon in one place -- downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real -- there may be unintended consequences of developments being displaced into areas that are not included with the boundaries ... which I contend is a bad idea," Michael said.

In addition to the Land Use chapter, the council is also set to consider the Community Service & Facilities chapter, which governs local goals and policies for parks, community centers and other recreational amenities. One key policy that staff has singled out for possible reconsideration is Policy C-28, which sets guidelines for locating and developing new parks and specifically states that a neighborhood park should be provided within walking distance of all residences and employment areas. "Walking distance" is defined as half a mile.

The park policy also commits the city to using standards from the National Recreation and Park Association for park development. According to these standards, neighborhood parks have to be at least 2 acres in size, and 2 acres of neighborhood parkland have to be provided for every 1,000 people.

Another guideline specifies that district parks should be at least 5 acres in size, with a maximum service area radius of 1 mile. Like with neighborhood parks, the national standards call for 2 acres of these parks to be provided for each 1,000 people.

This policy, much like the L-8, has been facing increased scrutiny during the hot growth climate of recent years. The city's Parks and Recreation Commission last year unanimously adopted a memo co-written by members Jennifer Hetterly and Ed Lauing that basically acknowledged that when it comes to building and maintaining parks, the city has fallen behind.

It noted that the city's senior population has grown by 20 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the population of school-age children spiked by 22 percent. Some residents, it noted, lack parks within the prescribed 1/2-mile radius. Furthermore, recent growth in housing in South Palo Alto and in commercial development downtown has created "uneven burdens on parks in those areas."

The commission also cited the growing demand for park space and recreational amenities, including playing fields and dog parks, and the "wear of increased usage" at existing parks.

During its discussion of the memo, commissioners agreed that the city should be collecting more money in development fees to accommodate the increased park usage and spending more to maintain existing facilities.

City planners, meanwhile, have put forward another suggestion: reconsidering or revising Policy C-28. The report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment describes the guidelines in the policy as "1990s-era quantitative standards" and asks whether it would be better to reassess the policy as part of the city's ongoing master plan for local parks.

"Part of the reason for this is that parks planning is a somewhat specialized discipline, and the staff, consultants, and Parks & Recreation Commission, who are working on the Parks, Trails and Open Space Master Plan are likely to be better equipped to evaluate the currency of these types of quantitative standards and today's best practices," the report states.

It does not indicate what other metrics could be used for ensuring sufficient parkland in the city, however, suggesting only that the council initiate such a consideration.

The council's discussion of the Comprehensive Plan is part of an updated process that began in 2006 and that this year was adopted as on of the council's top priorities. Once the council adopts its goals and policies for Land Use, a specially appointed citizens committee will review them and come up with programs that would achieve these goals.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2015 at 9:50 pm

I am very pleased that some of these pocket handkerchief green areas developers like to call "parks" are now being proved to be nothing of the sort.

But looking at the description of what a park must be it is going to be almost impossible to get more City Parks around town. Parks, or more correctly, nature reserves such as Foothills and Baylands, are the types of parks we may see increased.

Now to get down to Baylands, what is going to happen there? I heard that a meeting was supposed to take place about the Interpretive Center and Boardwalk. Are these going to be fixed?

Can we have some better signs and perhaps some maps. Can we have some restrooms that are open from dawn to dusk? This park, unlike Foothills, is open to everyone and as a result visitors are much more likely to be unfamiliar with it. Maps and signs abound in Foothill which is only open to Palo Alto residents who are probably more likely to be familiar with it, but the Baylands which is likely to be visited by those who are unfamiliar, are unable to find their way.

Please update us on any progress and improve the facilities here before any playgrounds or similar anywhere else are updated.


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