Seeking to add some transparency to the city's development process, Palo Alto officials on Monday unanimously instituted a new rule that requires developers seeking zone changes to participate in special "pre-screening" hearings in front of the City Council.
The rule change aims to give developers a chance to solicit early feedback from the council and the community before significant expenses are invested in the project. The pre-screening hearings, also known as preliminary reviews, entail no votes and are meant to focus on broad concepts, rather than architectural details.
Mayor Karen Holman said that quite often, when projects get to the council for a formal review, they are so far advanced that "very little changes about a project unless the council really dislikes the project." The preliminary review would give the developer an opportunity for an early check-in.
To make sure that point doesn't get lost, Holman proposed additional text for the new ordinance, specifying that the preliminary review is "intended to focus on purpose, scope, conceptual design and other similar matters and is not intended to involve review of complete drawings and documentation." The council accepted the change.
Councilman Cory Wolbach called the new requirement "very important" because it addresses one persistent concern from critics of Palo Alto's process the idea that by the time project plans are submitted to the city for a formal review, they are too advanced and too difficult to change.
"I can think of some cases in not-so-distance past, where if we had a pre-screening, it would have avoided a lot of concerns and consternation by the community about the projects," Wolbach said.
For developers, preliminary reviews aren't new. The developer Jay Paul went through a preliminary review for a proposed commercial development at 395 Page Mill Road in 2013 before deciding to scuttle the proposal in the face of political opposition.
More recently, the Pollock Group presented to the council its plan to build a four-story development at 2755 El Camino Real, on the busy corner of Page Mill and El Camino. Because the site, which is currently a parking lot, is zoned for "public facility," the project would require the council to change the zoning to "community commercial (CC2)."
At the Sept. 15 review of the project, the council indicated that it does not support the zone change. Several members urged the applicant to consider building housing, rather than offices, at the site.
"I wouldn't spend another dime on moving toward a CC2 zoning," Councilman Greg Scharff said at that meeting.
What's new is the fact that rather than voluntary, these reviews will now be mandatory. The rule would apply to all development projects that include "planned-community" zoning, development agreements, Comprehensive Plan amendments and zoning text amendments.
A report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment states that "the types of development projects that would require a mandatory pre-screening under this ordinance can have a substantial change on the land-use in an area and should be elevated in their scrutiny."
The ordinance will not preclude developers who seek early council feedback for less dramatic proposal (such as those that don't require zoning changes) to request preliminary hearings on a voluntary basis.