When Palo Alto officials agreed last year to institute an annual limit on office development, the goal was to slow down the pace of growth in the city's most congested commercial areas and to ramp up the quality of new developments by subjecting them to "beauty contests."
Now, as the city is preparing to apply the cap for the first time, neither the council's fears about rampant growth nor its vision for a spirited competition are materializing. Instead, the city's stack of applications has gotten smaller since last fall, with Jay Paul Company last month withdrawing its proposal for a two-story research-and-development building at 3045 Park Blvd. And the applications in the pipeline today add up to just over 50,000 square feet -- the amount at which new commercial growth was capped.
According to planning staff, today's list of pending projects includes five developments, three of which have been in the pipeline since the first half of last year and, as a result, have automatic priority over other projects. These three priority projects -- located at 2747 Park Blvd., 3225 El Camino Real, and 411 Lytton Ave. -- collectively total 37,603 square feet. Barring unexpected hiccups in their respective review processes, each will be approved without needing to compete for cap space.
This leaves only two development proposals for the beauty contest. One is a three-story, mixed-use project proposed for 2585 El Camino Real, current site of Olive Garden. The 39,858-square-foot-project would include 9,835 square feet of office space (along with 13 housing units and about 10,000 square feet of retail), which would count against the cap. The other is a 20,288-square-foot development at 901 High St., which would have 5,000 square feet of office space.
Together, these two developments (when added to the three "priority projects") would push the total office space to 52,438 square feet in the three zones where the office cap is in effect: downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real. This means only one of these two will be potentially approved this year.
The winner of this development duel will be declared by the City Council, after reviews by the planning director and the chairs of the Architectural Review Board and the Planning and Transportation Commission. Like figure skaters and gymnasts, these developments will now be graded based on criteria that would be largely objective (inclusion of housing units and sufficient parking) but with hints of subjectivity (quality of design and excellent compatibility). The criteria will be listed on a scorecard, which the council edited and approved by a unanimous vote Monday night.
In discussing the scorecard for the beauty contest, council members agreed that the project's traffic and parking impacts should be the top priority. While staff had proposed allocating 10 points on the score sheet to the traffic and parking category (out of a total of 100), council members agreed that the subject warrants 20.
The change reflects the recent elevation of excessive traffic, as well as insufficient housing, on the council's priority list. Earlier this month, the council agreed to emphasize "mobility" and housing on its 2016 list of official priorities. Councilman Greg Schmid alluded to a recent National Citizens Survey that showed a growing number of residents expressing frustration on issues relating to traffic.
"It seems to me that in establishing criteria, we ought to reflect that community concern and give that item twice the number of points," Schmid said.
His colleagues agreed and voted to elevate traffic, as well as housing, over the other categories on the list: design, environmental quality and provision of public benefits.
Mayor Pat Burt called traffic and parking "probably our highest concern." He also said the city should consider giving bonuses for projects with "exceptional design" and "exceptional compatibility."
In revising the scorecard, council members generally agreed that the office-cap program is still a work in progress. The council, Burt said, should "anticipate that there are some imperfections in this."
Yet council members generally lauded on Monday the latest proposals for the new office-cap program, which faced heated opposition last year from the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and from companies such as Google, Palantir, HP and VMWare (the opposition largely dissolved after the council agreed to limit the cap to the three commercial areas outside Stanford Research Park).
Councilman Cory Wolbach, who was initially skeptical about the office cap, said he is "increasingly happy" with the city's direction on this.
"I think we're kind of on the right track here," Wolbach said.
Council members also recognized that the once controversial effort now appears to be a relatively low-stakes game. The office cap was instituted for two years (or until the completion of the Comprehensive Plan update) and the current list of projects suggests that it will have a relatively minimal role in the first year.
Councilman Eric Filseth observed that the competition only involves two projects.
"Let's give it a shot and see what happens," Filseth said.