The biggest issue in this year's City Council race is deciding how Palo Alto should grow. This year's council election is particularly important because the newly elected council will vote on adopting Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan Update. This document defines the city's policies toward growth for the next 15 years and will be the basis for the city's zoning.
I am a member of the Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) for the Comprehensive Plan Update and its Land Use Subcommittee, although I am not speaking on behalf of them.
I love the fact that Palo Alto is a family-oriented town with great schools, an active community, tree-lined streets and many parks, environmental leadership, innovative startups and great city services.
Because the CAC is an advisory committee, the controversial issues will be decided by the next City Council. Specifically, two of the most controversial issues that will be voted on are whether to continue the annual office cap and whether to remove the 50-foot height limit. How will votes on these issues affect housing, parking and traffic?
One of the reasons so little new housing has been built in Palo Alto in the last decade is because office space is more profitable to build and thus has been the vast majority of new development. New office space increases traffic and parking demand.
Palo Alto, with 66,000 residents, has a 3-to-1 jobs-to-working-resident ratio -- one of the highest in the nation -- with more than 95,000 workers. Most of those workers are from out of town. When we build more office, that increases the number of out-of-town workers commuting into Palo Alto.
To enable more new housing to be built we need to restrict office development through an annual office cap and convert some office zoning to residential. Ironically, the limiting factor for tech growth in the region is actually lack of housing for its employees and not office space availability.
Raising the height limit above 50 feet is not necessary anywhere in the city to meet even the most aggressive growth scenario being considered: 6,000 new housing units over the next 15 years. There is general consensus that new apartment buildings in downtown should include a large percentage of studio and one-bedroom apartments to meet the needs of elderly and young workers. However, even new studio and one-bedroom apartments can rent for $3,000 to $6,000 per month, as demonstrated by the new Carmel Village development in San Antonio Shopping Center, so new small units will still be relatively expensive.
Coincidentally, that's the same monthly price you can rent a modest single-family house for in Palo Alto today. Instead, many of us who are residentialists think that increasing the set-aside requirement for below-market-rate housing from 15 percent to 25 percent when approving multi-unit residential buildings, like San Francisco already has, will improve affordability for those who need it most. One of the arguments against requiring below-market-rate housing is that it will increase the price of housing for the nonsubsidized units. However, demand is setting the market rate of housing far above the cost, including the cost of additional units.
Many of the key traffic intersections are at maximum capacity or approaching maximum capacity during rush hour. Most of the major thoroughfares cannot be widened, so we do not have very much more capacity for more car trips during rush hour.
Given the parking shortage downtown and at California Avenue, how do we absorb this additional parking caused by new development? Parking shortages have resulted in thousands of daytime employees parking in residential neighborhoods. This is the result of new office buildings with inadequate parking and increased employment densities. Solutions such as car-light apartment buildings offer promise but, given the current neighborhood parking shortages, should be approached with extreme caution and a recognition that some occupants will find ways to skirt the rules.
This problem did not exist when I moved here and was created by lenient parking building requirements and enforcement. Without setting and enforcing strict parking requirements, this problem will only get worse. We need City Council members who are truly committed to ensuring that there is sufficient on-site parking for new developments and new single-occupant car trips are minimized and can be absorbed by our roads.
In the last year, a number of developments have come before the City Council on appeal because they were incompatible in size and scale with their surrounding neighborhoods. As a last line of defense the council has either voted down or improved these projects because of a slim residentialist majority now occupying the council.
The new City Council will determine the degree to which new developments will be compatible with their neighbors and within the size and scale that provides reasonable transitions.
The newly elected City Council will vote on adopting the Comprehensive Plan Update and determine which way we should proceed with the controversial land use issues. These issues include whether we continue the office cap, keep the height limit, increase the percentage of below-market-rate housing and how we address our parking and traffic challenges. Thus the council will play a crucial role in deciding Palo Alto's future growth for the next 15 years.