Trust but verify.
The dictum, made famous by Ronald Reagan in discussing Soviet arms control, is gradually becoming Palo Alto's unofficial stance toward "transportation-demand management," the idea that developers can reduce the traffic and parking impacts of their new projects by equipping occupants with transit passes, bicycle amenities and shuttles.
In recent discussions of proposed housing projects, whether it's the 60-unit development on the corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road or the roughly 40 units of affordable-housing that the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing hopes to build next to the California Avenue Caltrain station, traffic-reduction measures have become a critical factor. Proponents of these projects claim that thanks to "transportation demand management" (TDM) programs, new developments don't need as much parking as the zoning code requires and that they won't cause as much traffic congestion as neighbors often fear. Skeptics, of whom there are many, counter that these programs are unproven and that allowing more density and less parking is a recipe for worsening conditions on neighborhood streets.
TDM programs have become a standard part of Palo Alto's development process. The new mixed-use development at 441 Page Mill Road, which the council approved last fall, includes transit passes for all office workers and residents, as well as bike lockers.
Similarly, the mixed-use project that the council approved in May for the former Olive Garden site on El Camino Real, includes a plan that would reduce anticipated traffic levels by 20 percent. The council voted to approve it only after Vice Mayor Greg Scharff suggested raising the requirement to 30 percent, which his colleagues agreed to do. In making the case for the project (which was approved by a 5-4 vote), Scharff pointed to its "robust TDM program" as a positive feature of the new development.
Yet because these programs are new, no one really knows whether the stated goal will be achieved. There hasn't been any official verification by City Hall as to whether any of the recently approved developments had actually met their traffic-reduction goals. And for council members and candidates with slow-growth leanings, this breeds mistrust.
That, however, may soon change. On Monday night, the council will consider a new penalty for projects that fail to meet their conditions of approval. This would specifically apply to "planned community" projects like Edgewood Plaza, where residents have been crying foul for months over the developer's failure to fill a required grocery store (the store site has been vacant since Fresh Market moved out in April 2015). Under the new proposal, fines for violating "planned community" zoning conditions would be initially set at $500 per day, though they would go to $2,000 per day after six months, if the violation is still in effect.
Perhaps even more significantly, the new penalty schedule includes a similar fine for developers who fail to meet "transportation demand management" conditions. Again, the fine would start at $500 and then escalate to $2,000 "beginning the 181th day following notice of violation," according to the proposed fine schedule. While the "planned community" fine would apply exclusively to developments that already exist (the city has effectively killed the "planned community" zoning process), the new TDM fine could effect just about every new development going in front of the council.
The council will also have a say in how large the fines should be. A new report from Department of Planning and Community Environment notes that the council will "retain discretion on whether and how frequently to apply these penalties depending on the nature of the violation, the responsiveness of the party involved, and the potential for the penalties to spur compliance."
Hillary Gitelman, the city's planning director, told the Weekly that fines for TDM violations would work similarly to the fines for PC-zoning violations. The city would first work with the property owner to address the issue and come into compliance, Gitelman said in an email.
"If the property owner is uncooperative, in the first six months, we would be able to apply standard penalties for zoning violations of $500 for the first citation, increasing up to $750 and $1,000 for subsequent citations."
But if the violation persists for longer than six months without progress, the city would now have the ability to issue a citation with a $2,000-per-day penalty, increasing up to a maximum of $4,000, Gitelman said.
As with any code enforcement case, she said, the city's ultimate goal is compliance and penalties are only one tool for achieving that.
The penalty schedule isn't the only realm where TDM plans are taking on greater stature. The planning department, Gitelman said, is now working on code changes to require TDM plans for some projects. Currently, the code allows developers to use these plans if they seek parking reductions. The code changes will also allow the city to "update the required contents of TDM plans, and provide for regular monitoring and reporting."
"These code changes will assist us in assessing compliance and identifying violations," Gitelman wrote.