From young professionals looking for homes near their jobs to native sons and daughters who have discovered they can no longer afford to live in their hometown, calls for Palo Alto officials to address the city's affordable-housing crisis continue to getting louder.
More than 1,030 residents, including former mayors, planning commissioners, housing advocates, seniors and Stanford post-doctoral students, have signed a petition by the citizens group Palo Alto Forward asking the council to "fix Palo Alto's housing crisis." In many cases, signatures were accompanied by stories of displacement, frustration and mind-numbing commutes.
Rafael Solari wrote that he grew up in Palo Alto in the 1990s and 2000s and has since been priced out. The Bay Area, he wrote, "isn't building enough housing for my generation to stay here." Alex Lee said most of his colleagues at Stanford University -- postdocs, scientists and research associates -- who would otherwise appreciate the convenience of biking to work are "being pushed out further into different cities." Stephanie Accorinti said she commutes up to three hours per day to Palo Alto.
Marcello Golfieri offered a brief, and far from atypical, narrative.
"Had to move out because ALL my friends in PA had to relocate. ... Saddest feeling," Golfieri wrote.
Robert Blount said he moved from Palo Alto to a place where rents are cheaper: New York City.
The City Council recognized that insufficient housing is a major problem last month, when it agreed to add housing to its list of annual priorities (as part of a broader "built environment" priority). On March 21 the council will have a chance to act on this issue when it considers new policies to encourage housing and new sites that could accommodate these units.
The conversation will take place in the context of the council's on-going update of the city's Comprehensive Plan, a broad policy document that lays out the city's land-use vision between now and 2030. The discussion will focus on possible revisions to the document's Land Use and Community Design Element, which will outline the council's land-use goals along with policies and programs that would further these goals.
Politically, housing construction has been a tough sell in Palo Alto in past several years, with voters overturning in 2013 a proposed development that would have included 60 apartments for low-income seniors and 12 market-rate homes. The following year, a City Council election brought a slow-growth "residentialist" majority to the dais.
But the new grassroots effort led by Palo Alto Forward suggests that the conversation is shifting. Last November, after hearing from a large group of speakers urging more housing, the council signaled its intent to consider pro-housing policies as part of the Comprehensive Plan update. A new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment indicates that these policies could include a new type of zoning district for affordable housing; a new threshold for "minimum housing units" on sites where developments are proposed; incentives for property owners to consolidate small lots so that they can accommodate larger projects (ideas include density bonuses and height exemptions); and the removal of parking requirements for housing developments built for residents who do not own cars.
The list of suggestions also includes requiring that commercial developments be less dense and that housing developments be denser. Also on the table is encouragement of micro-units (apartments that can be as small as 200 square feet) and co-housing, in which private homes are clustered around a "common house" with shared amenities.
The goals of the housing policies are both to address community concerns and to meet the city's regional obligations, as dictated by the Association of Bay Area Governments. Based on that group's projections (known as the Regional Housing Needs Allocation), Palo Alto is required to zone for 1,988 new housing units between 2014 and 2022. Of these, 1,123 must be allocated for low-, very-low and extremely-low income residents.
The city's Housing Element, which the council approved in 2014, concentrates most of the housing sites around the city's two main transit areas: downtown and California Avenue. It also, however, allocates about 250 units to south Palo Alto, along El Camino Real and on San Antonio Road, where there are fewer public-transit stops and shopping opportunities. Now, with Mountain View approving dense new developments on its side of San Antonio and traffic becoming more problematic in the area, Palo Alto officials are reconsidering this housing allocation, according to the new staff report.
Among the proposals that the council will consider on Monday night is a scenario in which these sites would be removed from the Housing Element and replaced with policies that would encourage more dense construction in areas well-served by public transit. One example of such policies is expanding the "pedestrian and transit-oriented development" districts near both University and California avenues, thus allowing more developments with dense housing, according to city planners.
This zone change along could result in about 900 new housing units in the two commercial areas, projections from planning staff show. For example, if 15 out of the 46.5 acres zoned as "downtown commercial" were redeveloped as mixed office/retail/housing projects with 30 dwelling units per acre, the change would accommodate 450 new homes downtown. Similarly, if the pedestrian-oriented district around California Avenue was extended to the sprawling Fry's Electronics property, that site would be able to accommodate 450 units (229 more than is assumed in the existing Housing Element).
Another site that could, with a zone change, help Palo Alto address its housing crunch is the Palo Alto Square campus at corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road. If the city were to rezone the 15-acre property to RM-40 (high-density multi-family residential), the area could accommodate 450 housing units on the 5.5 acres along El Camino Real.
Further north, another 420 units could be added along El Camino Real at Stanford Shopping Center. These two proposals, which collectively could accommodate 870 new housing units, are both being explored by city planners and consultants as part of the environmental assessment for the Comprehensive Plan update.
The petition from Palo Alto Forward -- which was signed by eight former mayors (including recent mayors Nancy Shepherd, Sid Espinosa and Peter Drekmeier), dozens of former commissioners (including former Architectural Review Board Chairs David Solnick and Lee Lippert), housing advocates (including former Planning and Transportation Commissioner Bonnie Packer and former Palo Alto Housing Corporation Executive Director Marlene Prendergast), and civic volunteers (including Neilson Buchanan and the League of Women Voters President Ellen Forbes) -- urges the council to explore construction of new studio apartments, senior-housing developments and mixed-use projects with apartments and condominiums over ground-floor retail.
At least a few council members have shown similar inclinations. In recent discussions, councilmen Marc Berman and Cory Wolbach have been particularly adamant about the need to build more housing, both to prevent displacement of long-time residents and to preserve the city's diversity. During the council's Feb. 22 meeting about the Comprehensive Plan, Berman observed that the city is losing its diversity and suggested the council has been "too preventative" in considering ambitious proposals for new housing developments.
"When we talk about how, 'Oh it's impossible to have additional housing' or 'We can't have that much more housing,' if we can do it in a way that mitigates the impact of it, that's something we should be open to," Berman said.
Wolbach proposed during the Feb. 22 discussion that the council evaluate in its environmental analysis a scenario with greater housing growth, through the council ultimately rejected the proposal.
"There is a housing crisis destroying our community and Silicon Valley. ... The closer you get to Palo Alto and San Francisco, the worse it gets," Wolbach said. "We really are one of the epicenters of this problem and it does result from decades of adding jobs and being addicted to job growth, but not having the housing growth to go with it.
"The question is now: Do we want to turn around? Do we want to reverse course on the trend of the last few decades? Do we want to fulfill our legal, but also our regional and our moral responsibility to allow housing to be built?"