News


Palo Alto council signals a push away from commercial development

 

Indicating what could be a major shift to limit future development in Palo Alto, some City Council members indicated Monday night that they might support sweeping changes to city policy on commercial growth.

As part of the city's ongoing work to revise its Comprehensive Plan -- the foundational document that guides planning and growth -- the City Council on Monday night directed staff and the Citizens Advisory Committee to consider new definitions of uses within zoning areas and what types and scale of commercial operations would be suitable for the downtown and the California Avenue retail districts.

At issue was a policy in the Comprehensive Plan's Land Use and Community Design Element, Policy L-8, crafted in 1989 to limit nonresidential development in specific areas, mainly in the city's retail locations.

The policy established nine areas to be monitored for growth where a cap of a total 3.2 million square feet of new development would be enforced: University Avenue/Downtown/South of Forest Avenue, Stanford Shopping Center, Stanford Research Park, Town & Country Village, California Avenue/Cal-Ventura, the South El Camino Real corridor, San Antonio Road/Bayshore Corridor, East Bayshore and Midtown Shopping Center.

As of December 2014, some 1.5 million square feet had been built.

But some members, particularly Councilman Eric Filseth and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, advocated for reinterpreting Policy L-8 such that it would cover developments already built that slipped through the count because they were not covered under the definitions of Policy L-8. The City Council expressly exempted Stanford Medical Center's expansion from the total count in 2011, for example.

But if developments outside of the capped areas were counted, the total would exceed the remaining 1.7 million square feet; the city would have already reached its growth cap, essentially giving the council a clean slate with no carryover from the past when considering further growth caps in the Comp Plan.

Filseth and Schmid seemed the most piqued at what they viewed as a shell game that allowed large nonresidential development outside of the zones designated in Policy L-8, developments that have contributed to the city's burdensome traffic, parking and housing problems.

"We're becoming a commuter city. We're No. 4 in the country. Policy L-8 is our best chance to define our community over the next 15 years. We have added 1.5 million square feet; there's also one million square feet of nonmonitored (development) that's not mentioned anywhere in the Comp Plan. We have voted 1.3 million square feet at Stanford Research Park. Added together, we've got 3.8 million. Look around us. Do we have traffic issues? L-8 is the most effective way for the council to make a clear statement," Schmid said.

The distinction of "monitored" versus "nonmonitored" areas was developed 20 years ago and seemingly has little relevance considering the overall intention at that time -- and now -- to rein in growth, Filseth said.

"If you look at the intent of the people who did this, I think we're at that cap," he said, which puts the council "in uncharted territory."

Councilman Pat Burt, although supportive of finding a solution to the jobs/homes imbalance, did not support reinterpreting the existing policy to count square footage outside of the monitored areas toward the cap, which he thought an unfair change of the rules.

Councilman Greg Scharff supported keeping the L-8 policy and applying what's left of the cap to count over the whole city.

The council ultimately deferred directing the CAC to examine revisions to the L-8 policy for now, pending the outcome of a Draft Environmental Impact Report done in advance of the Comp Plan's completion that will come before the council in January.

But they directed the CAC to look at "pacing" or mitigation mechanisms for office, medical office and research-and-development construction and their impact on jobs/housing balance. That pacing could limit how many square feet of nonresidential development would be built in a year. The motion passed 6-2 with Councilman Tom Dubois and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid voting no and Councilwoman Liz Kniss absent.

Councilman Tom Dubois introduced a motion, seconded by Burt, that included directing staff and the CAC to evaluate how the city defines its commercial zoning districts. The definitions might need to reflect changes in the tech sector and social networking businesses, the types and scale of commercial operations and development, and occupant densities.

The changes could be necessary to keep Palo Alto's downtown from becoming a one-company town dominated by one or two very large businesses that might then pull out when they grow too large for the spaces, he said.

The council as a whole was deeply concerned about the city's failure to provide adequate housing for anyone but the wealthy, a sentiment repeated over and over by the more than two dozen residents who spoke before the council. Councilman Cory Wolbach noted that the council should shift to focusing on "slowing down office development while we get our housing up to speed."

Residents, ranging from the city's teachers and psychologists to seniors, parents of developmentally disabled adult children and a prominent attorney, implored the council to do something about the city's failure to create diversified and affordable housing, turning Palo Alto from "paradise" to "paradise lost," as some residents said.

The city has been an enabler of many jobs, but it has pushed affordable housing onto other communities for too long, resident Edie Keating said. "I want to live in an ethical and moral city. Please favor housing over offices," she added.

A number of Citizens Advisory Commission members who spoke outside of their advisory roles also urged the council to direct them to consider limiting office space.

"Land use is not just about housing," CAC Co-chair Arthur Keller said, urging the council to consider limiting office space and the population growth that is coming without consideration of other impacts.

"We can build two-story schools but not two-story playing fields," he said.

The council approved, for the Land Use and Community Design Element, to:

A. Direct staff to update the existing vision statement with minor staff-initiated revisions for city council review.

B. Use the existing goals and organization with minor updates to include incorporation of climate protection, climate adaptation and sea level rise, two Concept Area plans (California Avenue and East Meadow), the Palo Alto Municipal Airport, Baylands Master Plan, and mixed-use guidelines.

C. Evaluate modern use definitions for commercial zoning districts. Suggest approaches council can use to specify what types and scale commercial operations, development, manufacturing, etc., are suitable for downtown or California Avenue.

D. Direct staff and CAC to evaluate policies and programs that control the occupant density of existing commercial uses.

E. Request staff to provide the CAC comparative impacts of restaurants versus other retail on traffic and parking.

F. Direct the CAC to develop language providing for Coordinated Area Plans to become a more frequently used city planning tool.

G. Direct staff and the CAC to explore policies and programs to support more housing for seniors, particularly units in walkable communities that allow easy access to services.

H. Develop policies and programs that provide greater incentives for mixed-use retail and small residential units with particular emphasis on University and California avenues.

I. Direct staff and CAC to maintain and strengthen existing language supporting housing supplies for diverse populations and families.

The council approved the motion unanimously with Kniss absent.

Comments

7 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 3, 2015 at 11:31 am

Does anyone know why council member Kniss absented herself part way through the discussion? It appeared the council was instructed to keep the discussion broad enough not raise conflict of interest issues. Although I don't always watch council meetings on tv and only infrequently attend council meetings, I do so often enough to wonder if this is just a coincidence.


11 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 3, 2015 at 11:34 am

The last sentence should read "Although I don't always watch council meetings on tv and only infrequently attend council meetings, I do so often enough to wonder why Kniss is so often absent, or if this is just a coincidence."


6 people like this
Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 3, 2015 at 11:45 am

[Post removed.]


26 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 3, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Uh-oh. The PAF blitz backfired.


53 people like this
Posted by Mystified
a resident of University South
on Nov 3, 2015 at 12:22 pm

I saw dozens of residents go to Council to implore the city to do something about housing. Instead, we got hours of discussion about office growth by the usual suspects and a few short motions on housing by Berman and Wolbach.

Sweeping bans on commercial development will do little to increase the housing supply in any timely fashion. The residentialist council members used the desire of the residents to see more housing as a fig leaf to justify their pre-existing goal of stopping all job growth.

Every single resident spoke in favor of housing while only a couple spoke about stopping office growth. That the piece portrays the support for housing as support for the residentialists' stance on the office cap is the result of naive reporting or cynical editing from this newspaper.


3 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Nov 3, 2015 at 12:23 pm

Who knew that managing a planned economy would be so much work, though at least people are getting their desired outcome...


36 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 3, 2015 at 12:39 pm

Two choices - increase residential housing density and height limits (50' is killing this effort) in non-single family home areas and getting people to live closer to where they work OR leave things the way they are, pave over the central valley and beyond and get the traffic that will be guaranteed. Without a LOT more housing in the bay area, including our beloved Palo Alto, housing will continue to be less and less affordable and traffic will get worse and worse. The population is going to grow a great deal in the next couple of decades and if we pretend it won't we be too far behind to ever catch up. The current city council as well as past city councils have never faced up to these facts and must or it will be unbearable gridlock throughout the bay area. The problem is obvious and the solution, while not simple to enact, is right in front of us.


30 people like this
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Nov 3, 2015 at 1:26 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

I was at the meeting, listened to all the speakers and spoke myself.

Nearly all the speakers told their stories about why housing should be a priority for the council.

I asked the council to include housing in their direction to the CAC so the committee could address how land use and housing are related--location, type of housing and who we want to live in PA in 2030.

The council, while they did spend most of the time on commercial development, DID hear and respond to the speakers and DID ask staff and the CAC to engage on the concerns of residents about housing in Palo Alto.

Read the motion and decide for yourself if council heard the more than 20 residents speak passionately about housing

G. Direct staff and the CAC to explore policies and programs to support more housing for seniors, particularly units in walkable communities that allow easy access to services.

H. Develop policies and programs that provide greater incentives for mixed-use retail and small residential units with particular emphasis on University and California avenues.

I. Direct staff and CAC to maintain and strengthen existing language supporting housing supplies for diverse populations and families.

Thanks to all the residents who came to share stories with the council and thanks to council for, at the end of a long night, hearing the concerns of residents and including points G, H and I in the directions to staff and the CAC.


96 people like this
Posted by My Bad
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 3, 2015 at 2:44 pm

While I have never voted for Mr Berman, and never will, every time I go to a council meeting or read about one I give myself a great, big kick for being so stupid as to vote for Cory Wolbach. I should have known better than to vote for anyone who had worked for Sen Jerry Hill, but Wolbach was too smooth a talker--born politician.

[Portion removed.]


9 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 3, 2015 at 3:25 pm

I think that the discussion last night was very good. A lot of discussion on the historical reasons business is where it is at in the past and now - and what needs to be done to adjust where the city is going. Best is not to depend on any one business dominating the core downtown area. Historically the businesses have left because they outgrew the downtown PA area.

Stanford Research Park was set up for a very specific reason and has proved successful. Many companies have a working relationship with SU so a large benefit for all of those involved.

One individual provided statistics on the amount of growth in the city which is very substantial - so thank you for that. There is a lot of growth that has occurred.

Maintaining the Comprehensive Plan as is the best result. The city can achieve all of its goals within the existing plan with some minor updates.

Bottom line is the paid city staff and PACC are the approvers of the forward actions. Delegation of authority downward is not providing best results.


84 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 3, 2015 at 3:43 pm

@ My Bad...I couldn't agree with you more. Wolbach is a smooth talking progressive liberal. When I e-mailed him about his position on an issue 3 weeks prior to the last election, he waited to respond until the day before the ballots were cast. His response danced around the question in a way that led me to believe he was supportive of the issue I questioned him about. [Portion removed.]


82 people like this
Posted by Forthepeople
a resident of Atherton
on Nov 3, 2015 at 4:14 pm

I've seen Pali Alto grow from peaceful to congested and often wonder why the residents allow it. I understand why developers and companies want more office space. But is the average citizen really better off?


43 people like this
Posted by WTF
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 3, 2015 at 7:11 pm

Did anyone see Berman make a motion to allow density housing in more geographic areas of the city? Mentioned open space and R1 taking up most of the city. Is he nuts?! Thankfully no one seconded his motion.


95 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 3, 2015 at 7:29 pm

A few important issues to consider:

1. Building more housing, high rises, more density will NEVER make living in Palo Alto more affordable. Are Tokyo, Manhattan or San Francisco affordable? Destroying the city by adding tens of thousands more people will just make this an ugly, dense, disgusting place to live - not a cheaper one.

2. Funny how Council member Burt gets all upset when member Schmidt points out that the building cap has been exceeded if you add back in the medical center footage.
This is because Burt was supportive of the removal in 2011. The medical center expansion was one of the worst disasters that the pro-growth city council of the time foisted off on Palo Alto. The size of this monstrosity is greater than UCLA's or UCSF's, both of which are located in dense urban environments. Smart people can extrapolate and imagine the kind of Palo Alto that those who backed this hospital and massive growth envision.

3. For all of the talk of wanting to be "green", many in Palo Alto don't seem to understand that living in a natural world requires paying attention to limits. We shouldn't add one more square foot of building to this city until we have a systematic approach for how the ecosystem of this city fits together. How many cars can the roads handle? How much park space per resident? How many kids per school site? Where will new schools go when Stanford builds hundreds more housing units for grad students? Why are we asked to conserve water and kill our lawns and trees when the city has not stopped massive development nor denied water hookups to new comers?

Many people want residents to agree to destroy their quality of life with unsubstantiated declarations that building more will make life better. When has that ever worked out? What city, state or nation is better off with massive overpopulation and gridlock? Palo Alto can choose to be a leader in sensible, long range, environmentally sustainable living. Say no to the get rich quick development crowd.


9 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Nov 3, 2015 at 9:09 pm

@cm

The perils of global overpopulation: too much traffic and not enough water for our lawns.


11 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 3, 2015 at 9:11 pm

"Did anyone see Berman make a motion to allow density housing in more geographic areas of the city? Mentioned open space and R1 taking up most of the city. Is he nuts?!"

Berman finally got something right. Those are indeed the most developable areas of the city. PAF should acknowledge that and advocate honestly: major new housing augmentations must necessarily intrude on these sacred grounds. Blandishments to the contrary fool only the unseeing and the willingly gullible.

I hope Joe Hirsch will recap his highly informed comments from last night on this thread.


19 people like this
Posted by Right On
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 3, 2015 at 11:38 pm

I applaud our city council for taking a bold stand against commercial development. It isn't easy for some people to admit, but the fact of the matter is we need to stop the jobs. We have too many of them! It's a good problem to have, granted, but not every business has to operate in Palo Alto.

I find Mr. Wolbach's comments about "slowing down office development while we get our housing up to speed" interesting. He makes a good point. If we lessen office development, there will be less of a demand for housing--and that could help many of the folks who already live here. It certainly would lessen traffic on El Camino, at least.


14 people like this
Posted by Midtown resident
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 4, 2015 at 9:28 am

The existing and new office space will contribute to the traffic problem. I don't think anyone disputes that. But it's not the buildings causing the problems - it's the people WORKING in them.

Even if we elect 9 anti-office council members, there is nothing they can do to tear down the existing office space or the millions of square feet of office going up in Menlo Park, Redwood City, Mountain View, Cupertino, and Sunnyvale. Those workers can't live here because there's no housing, so their going to commute here, and that will make your life and my life miserable because the traffic will be awful.

So, I support stopping office growth completely. But I also support building housing, because if the workers don't live here, their going to drive down my street to get to their work.

It's not Palo Alto residents causing the problem - it's the people driving here from San Jose and the Easy Bay because they have no alternative. That's why I support housing in Palo Alto.


42 people like this
Posted by Carole
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 4, 2015 at 9:29 am

If you build new housing how do you know that the residents of this new housing will actually work here? There is no guarantee, thus we will just be adding to the gridlock we are already in. PAF assumes that new housing will be for only people that want to live and work here. Also, there will never be enough housing to satisfy the mass of people that want to live in Palo Alto. We simply don't have the infrastructure to support it.


32 people like this
Posted by Carole
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 4, 2015 at 9:47 am

No matter how much housing is built, the residents of that new housing WILL drive. There is no getting around a need in ones life to drive for various reasons, so thinking that adding new housing would not have an impact on our already crowded roads is not realistic thinking.


31 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 4, 2015 at 12:01 pm

"But I also support building housing, because if the workers don't live here, their going to drive down my street to get to their work."

And if Apple or Facebook or Google or ... employees do live here, they will drive down your street to get to work. Currently, over half of working Palo Altans commute to work outside Palo Alto. There is no reason to expect that to change no matter how much housing gets built.

More housing = more gridlock. It's that simple.


12 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 5, 2015 at 9:09 am

Midtown resident - don't get your logic. If the surrounding cities are building vast amounts of business and residential property then the workers in those businesses will opt to live in the cities where the vast amount of building is going on- therefor reducing the amount of traffic in PA - except for those people who are now commuting to those businesses in the other cities.

If anyone is driving down 101 south or onto 237 they will see a huge amount of development. That is where the majority of growth is occurring. Also RWC and San Mateo.

The southern section of Santa Clara Valley has the open space on flat land to accommodate the growth. Palo Alto is build out.

Palo Alto has to change up the way they are recording growth in the city. It has to be all inclusive so we are dealing with actual facts. It sound like at present they are squirreling the numbers to accommodate some goal. But we don't have time or money for any other than the straight facts as to the amount and type of growth for the entire city.


7 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 5, 2015 at 5:59 pm

On ABC news tonight they said that San Jose is the richest city in America followed by San Francisco, Two east coast cites were mentioned.
It appeared that the criteria was based on salary. This was the news portion from New York. I find this hard to believe but there it is.


7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2015 at 9:45 pm

I was reminded of a chance conversation I had with someone I met on a train while in the UK a few years ago. When I mentioned that I was from California he told me he was going to California on business in a few days. I asked him exactly where and he told me it was a place near San Francisco called Palo Alto. I told him that was where I lived. He then informed me that his company's global headquarters were in a shopping mall on Embarcadero Road. I asked if he meant Town & Country Village to which he replied that it was and apologetically admitted it was a tiny office containing a few desks and a part time office manager. The prestige of this British company having a global HQ in Palo Alto so close to Stanford University to impress clients/customers was obviously a draw that was invaluable.

I obviously have no idea how many other store front global headquarters are situated in Palo Alto, but it was certainly an eye opener to me.


4 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 6, 2015 at 1:15 pm

IAW the SFC Business Report 11/06/15 - "Council plan's devil is in the details". There is a Bay Area Council that wants to create super agencies to provide regional direction for growth. There is also a push for the transit agencies to coordinate their efforts.

Now we also have the Metropolitan Transportation Committee (MTC) who is attempting to coordinate housing and transit along with the old ABAG group.

Lot's of committees trying to be in charge of the growth of the region.
There is still the same problems:

1. The taxpayers years ago approved a sales tax to add BART to Santa Clara county and circle the bay. It makes perfect sense to do that but it has not happened. Higher levels do not listen to the taxpayers who approve the funds to go ahead on a project.

2. There is a rail bridge next to the Dumbarton Bridge which would connect Fremont to East Palo Alto / Menlo Park / RWC. The bridge needs to be updated but there is an existing tight of way which is gold in today's market. MTC does not want to spend the money for the update. It could even be made into a bicycle road for crossing.

3. There are many buildings in PA that are always changing hands and are for lease. We have people/corporations that sit on land and do nothing with it so that it is productive to the community. Why is that allowed?

So despite the committees which want to be in charge the don't listen to the taxpayers and tackle the obvious problems.

Side note on HSR - saw ted Kopple at the Commonwealth Club - his book "Turn Out the Lights". The point is that there are three major electrical grids in the US. Terrorist could take out any one of the major grids. The turbines that drive the production of electricity are not made in the US and take about three years to build. My sense is that making everything dependent on electricity is the wrong way to go - we need flexibility. And no the Government does not have "A Plan" to fix this.


2 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 11, 2015 at 12:24 pm

In the SJM 11/12/15 - front page, Michelle Quinn - "Tech giants, regional planners need to make room for Bay Area to grow". This article is probably written by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) since it follows the script. Everything you have heard before.

Meantime in another SJM article by the Bay Area Transportation Working Group - Gerald Cauthen - "MTC paying little attention to critical needs" - this is highly critical of the MTC which has 200 staff members which focus on process vs results. What have they accomplished? "Eviscerating ABAG" - not my words.

So there are a lot of agencies competing for grant funding to take over and be in charge. Does this all sound familiar?


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

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