News

Palo Alto to require 'pre-screening' hearings for major developments

Council approves mandatory process for projects seeking zone changes

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.

Comments

9 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 27, 2015 at 4:14 pm

""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. "

@Cory,
I hope you're not thinking of Maybell. That was a steam roller. Some neighbors tried very hard behind the scenes to get things scaled back early on so the project would fly (I know, I was one of them). No one in the City thought they had to care, because they didn't think neighbors could mount a land use referendum, and if they did, they didn't think they could win. An early review would not have changed anything one iota, the steam roller would have kept on going. It's a cautionary tale about power imbalance. In a democracy, there have to be checks and balances with teeth.

It's only because of that referendum that this pre-review has any hope of getting through to developers who ask for the moon (without adequate parking).


7 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 27, 2015 at 4:46 pm

This is another effect of having a Planning & Transportation Commission which is out of control. The council wants to give their input because they have no confidence that the PTC will represent their intent.


2 people like this
Posted by Council watcher
a resident of University South
on Oct 27, 2015 at 8:33 pm

@resident - that's clearly not the case. This change passed unanimously, while only three councilmembers criticized the PTC members while others defended them. This is about nipping bad projects in the bud.

The PTC doesn't matter anyway - it's just an advisory body. The Council can get its way and has all year whenever a majority has disagreed with PTC recommendations. So far this year, they've disagreed on policy, not on projects. In past years, the PTC would reject projects that council later approved.

So this is about making sure Council gets to see projects that would require changes early, and neither developers or PTC are trying to guess what Council thinks.


4 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 28, 2015 at 3:07 pm

The previous council's fall PT&C appointments meant a majority pro-development commission, who have tended to ignore direction from the council. They have a vision for Palo Alto and have the bit between the teeth.

It was interesting to learn that despite instruction from the council to only review certain sections of the Comprehensive Plan that needed updating, staff and the commision took it upon themselves to review and change large chunks of the text, if not all of it. In the commission's case it would appear to reflect their own agenda.


Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2015 at 5:37 pm

I think this is a great idea. We have some other streams on the transportation issues for ECR buses, conversion of Caltrain to eletrical 4 track system, all of which have an impact on the surrounding commercial and residential growth of the city.

There are huge impacts related to those actions which means any new development has to conform to the end use of the area as planned out by state agencies in the future.

We also have streams on the type of buildings that are appropriate for a high transportation street versus a low transportation street. Buildings which have deteriorated and need replacement to a better use.

So many issues which drive form, fit, and function to obtain a successful result. All should be subject to review up front.


Like this comment
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 28, 2015 at 10:03 pm

Now if we can only get the city council to stop rolling over, changing the zoning and giving developers too much power to over build.


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

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