A proposal by City of Palo Alto staff to raise money for the renovation and expansion of the city-owned building that houses Avenidas in downtown Palo Alto by auctioning off to developers the ability to exceed zoning limits on future projects got the reception it deserved Monday night.
The council defeated on a 4-4 vote an attempt to use TDRs (transferable development rights) to raise at least $2 million of the $5 million of the city support granted to Avenidas for a project that will cost almost $20 million. Avenidas is raising the balance through fundraising.
As the four dissenting councilmembers (DuBois, Filseth, Kniss and Schmid) pointed out, this funding mechanism would make the impacts of Avenidas' expansion even greater by allowing developers who purchase the development rights to build elsewhere downtown larger buildings than otherwise allowed under the zoning.
Filseth correctly argued that if the city wants to support Avenidas with funding for the project, which all agreed it did, then it should do so directly, not through a scheme to sell density bonus credits.
Proponents (Berman, Holman, Scharff and Wolbach) argued that the TDRs are available to owners of other buildings that need costly seismic upgrades, so why shouldn't the city take advantage of the same rule in financing the seismic work on the city-owned Avenidas building?
By that convoluted reasoning, the city takes an incentive intended for private property owners, uses it for its own financial benefit, and grants development rights elsewhere downtown that violate our zoning limits and impose additional impacts. How does that possibly advance any public purpose?
The Avenidas expansion, if ultimately approved by the City Council (the funding request has preceded the approval of the actual project, itself a messy little problem), already comes with significant parking impacts that can't be solved. Since there is no ability to create parking on the site, Avenidas must aggressively look to expand transportation alternatives to minimize the added parking burdens on an already bad situation downtown.
While Avenidas' plans will face more public scrutiny and debate in the months ahead, few question the important senior services it provides or the need for renovation and expansion. The city gets a bargain by having a thriving, well-managed and largely self-sufficient nonprofit senior center while most cities operate them at great cost. The $5 million is appropriate but using TDRs is not.