Palo Alto's 50-foot ceiling for new developments may start showing cracks next week, when the City Council considers new strategies for accommodating growth and addressing its impacts on the community.
The height limit, which has been in effect since the early 1970s, is one of more divisive topics that will be on the table on Monday night, when the council wades into the Land Use and Community Design Element of the city's guiding document, the Comprehensive Plan. The discussion is the first of several planned around the critical chapter, which will ultimately lay out the city's vision for growth between now and 2030.
The list of critical questions the council will wrestle with as it moves ahead with approving the Land Use Element includes: Should the city maintain its annual cap on new office development? How aggressive should the city be in encouraging the construction of housing? What parts of the city should be subject to "specific area plans" -- community-driven documents that establish growth plans for particular neighborhoods?
And inevitably, there will be a debate about the height limit, a restriction that in some ways serves as a proxy for Palo Alto's community debate about growth.
For those espousing a philosophy of slow city growth, the 50-foot height limit is a critical measure for preserving the city's aesthetic character and for protecting existing quality of life from the impacts of rapid urbanization. For housing advocates and proponents of more density, the height limit is a needless and arbitrary limitation that handcuffs local architects and exacerbates the city's housing crisis.
The Citizens Advisory Committee, a stakeholder group that has been painstakingly revising the Land Use chapter and proposing new programs, perfectly reflected the community split, with seven committee members voting to retain the 50-foot limit and seven favoring a 65-foot threshold for developments that offer housing units near transit hubs.
The alternative that received the most votes (10) allows for buildings taller than 50 feet in certain circumstances but does not specify the height limit (the committee's voting rules allowed members to support multiple options). According to the draft Land Use Element, exceeding 50 feet "may be considered for areas well-served by transit, services and retail as a way to facilitate a mix of multi-family housing, including affordable units, units targeted to seniors and other special needs populations, and microunits designed to accommodate younger members of the workforce."
The council has flirted with the idea of relaxing the height rule in the past, though the prospect for easing the restrictions dimmed two years ago, when the City Council election ushered in a slow-growth majority. But with several candidates from the more pro-growth camp winning council seats earlier this month, the likelihood of cracking the 50-foot ceiling seems greater.
Planning Commissioner Adrian Fine, who will begin his council term in January, has in the past called the ceiling "arbitrary," though he stopped short during the campaign season of calling for its abolition. Greg Tanaka, another planning commissioner who was elected to the council, hasn't taken any strong positions either for or against the height limit but has indicated a strong support for building more microunits and senior apartments.
The two departing commissioners, along with Vice Mayor Greg Scharff, member Cory Wolbach and the freshly re-elected Liz Kniss, are poised to tilt the council balance against the slow-growth residentialist wing, which has generally opposed abolishing the height limit. It will be the new council that will ultimately be deciding on what to do about it.
One option that could win support is relaxing the height cap to enable higher ceilings for ground-floor retail. Mayor Pat Burt voiced support for the idea during a recent council discussion. And according to planning staff, some citizen committee members think that heights of 55 to 65 feet would "allow ground-floor retail spaces to have 15- or 20-foot ceilings, which is increasingly desirable for competitive, attractive retail spaces."
The 50-foot policy isn't the only major regulation that is now being re-evaluated as part of the Comprehensive Plan Update, a process that has proceeded in fits and starts for nearly a decade and that the city now hopes to complete by fall 2017. The council will also consider whether to retain existing restrictions on new development, particularly office space.
One restriction, which was set in 1989, applies to nine areas throughout the city and caps non-residential development at 3.25 million square feet. The restriction, which is encoded in the current Comprehensive Plan, can be revised so that it would apply only to office developments and hotels while excluding retail and other uses that the council wants to encourage.
So far, the city has built about about 1.4 million square feet of new development since the cap was instituted, which means it has more than 1.7 million square feet available. The Citizens Advisory Committee couldn't agree on the specifics of the overall cap but agreed to add a policy calling for the overall cap to be re-evaluated when the city reaches 67 percent of the remaining allowed square footage.
Another development restriction that the council will debate as part of the update process is the recently adopted annual cap on office development. That temporary ordinance, which took effect last year, limits new office space on El Camino Real, in downtown and around California Avenue to 50,000 square feet per year. One proposal that has generated debate is including Stanford Research Park in the program or, at the very least, requiring the Research Park to meet aggressive traffic-reduction targets to retain its exemption from the office cap.
While restrictions on commercial development are a major theme of the updated Comprehensive Plan, the document also considers ways to encourage more housing, particularly for low-income residents and longtime renters who can no longer afford market-rate housing. One proposed policy calls for an evaluation of tools for helping residents stay put. Another calls for creation of units for "middle-to-lower income level earners, such as city and school district employees, as feasible."
Other new policies would call for preventing housing from turning into office space or short-term rentals and for supporting housing that's "more affordable," including studios, co-housing, cottages, clustered housing and secondary dwelling units.