It's time for Palo Alto to make affordable housing a cornerstone of its land-use plan, City Council members said on Monday night. The mixed-use offices-and-retail mindset that has dominated new-development approvals should be changed to mixed-use housing and retail, they agreed.
The council made those remarks during a review of the Draft Land Use and Community Design Element of the Comprehensive Plan Update, which was recommended by the Citizens Advisory Committee. The element, which maps out policy regarding zoning, subdivision and public works decisions, will be the blueprint for how Palo Alto will look for the next 15 years.
The advisory committee's recommendations include zeroing in on building residences at the lower end of market-rate housing; identifying ways to prevent displacement of existing residents; increasing housing supply for vulnerable populations such as seniors and people with special needs; and managing the growth of office, research and development uses and conversions from one use to another, factors that have modified the city's retail and residential core.
New housing, which has been a contentious topic in recent years, might potentially be achieved by adding it to small retail centers and even on Stanford University land, or the city could grow more densely by increasing the city's 50-foot-height limit to as high as 65 feet, the draft element noted.
Some advisory committee members strongly supported protecting local retail and existing surface parking in shopping centers, while others considered these spaces as potential locations for new housing.
Council members did not seem to think that using spaces such as Town & Country Shopping Center for housing would be appropriate, although some felt that limited housing at the back of the shopping center might make sense, given its proximity to Palo Alto Medical Foundation and mass transit, but others posited that perhaps Stanford University would work with the city to provide additional housing near Stanford Shopping Center.
Council members agreed that plans for two areas, the Fry's site and South El Camino Real, should be developed soon. Those sites have the best potential for new or mixed-use housing. The city has not had any precise plans for developments since the South of Forest Area (SOFA 1 and 2) in the early 2000s, they noted.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss said the most probable site for a precise plan would be Fry's. "This would be the time to do it," she said.
Whether to raise the ceiling on building heights, which could create incentives for mixed-use residential construction, was another focus of the council's discussion. The Advisory Committee proposed possible height options. In one, the height would remain at 50 feet; in another, it could be raised as high as 65 feet if housing was added to a development. Council members were split, but mainly favored retaining the existing height limit.
"The 50-foot height limit has been extremely helpful to Palo Alto ... It would be harmful to the city to break that limit without good reason," Councilman Greg Schmid said.
Councilman Eric Filseth said any height increases would bear watching.
"I think we need to keep an eye on the slippery slope. The cap should stay. If we change the cap every time we get close, (then) we don't have a cap anymore," he said.
A 55-foot height would allow for a modern retail space with four floors of housing on top, staff told the council.
"I'm open to that," Mayor Pat Burt said.
Council member Marc Berman said that a steadfast 50-foot height limit may be contributing to the lack of affordable housing. The city says it wants to do something about housing for lower-income and middle-income residents, but never does.
"We've lost our socio-economic diversity in this town and we've lost the ability to develop affordable housing in this town," he said.
Organizations such as MidPen Housing are building affordable units in other cities but not in Palo Alto. Mountain View is building hundreds of units and built affordable housing with a 57-foot height limit. A change in the comprehensive plan would create "a real opportunity to gently exceed the 50 feet in certain areas and in certain circumstances" if the city is serious about building affordable housing, he said.
Council member Tom DuBois said he would also consider a higher height limit for senior housing, but not in most other cases, while Council member Cory Wolbach said he supports an idea by DuBois that residents should vote on the matter.
The council also looked at caps on square footage for non-residential space. The city’s current cumulative cap had a limit of 3,257,900 square feet since 1989 for nine planning areas and downtown. Currently, 1.7 million square feet remains to be built.
The Citizens Advisory Committee generally supported carrying the 1.7 million cap forward into the new comprehensive plan, but instead of having the cap within the nine areas, the limit would be spread throughout the entire city, according to the draft plan. The cap would apply to office/research and development or office/research and development plus hotel, rather than all non-residential uses.
The narrower focus would mean other non-residential uses, such as warehouses and retail, would no longer count toward the cap, but it would also mean that existing building space converted from one of these uses to office/R&D would count, city staff noted.
Whether the cap would apply to hotels is another matter. If new hotel development is also subject to the 1.7 million square feet, the advisory committee suggested that one option would set a total cumulative cap of 1.7 million square feet of office and research and development and 500,000 square feet of hotel development.
"That figure is based on the past 15 years of development history and would accommodate two current active hotel proposals plus one more full-service hotel within the city," the city noted in a staff report.
The council agreed that hotels are generally good for the city and provide attractive revenue sources. But Schmid added a caveat to adding too many:
"They make your center city a place for pass-throughs and we should not go in the direction of undermining the character if the community," he said.
The council also considered restrictions on recent retail conversions to offices in the city's business districts, and what office uses might be allowed. The city should place restrictions on the conversion of commercial basements into office space, which have been ways to get around requirements for additional parking, council members said.
Burt noted that existing zoning in downtown does not list the kinds of uses that have converted much of the retail district into offices for tech companies -- uses better suited to Stanford Research Park. But although they are not listed uses, Burt said that doesn't mean the city shouldn't allow those functions. He was more concerned about large tech companies dominating the office space rather than retail.
The city should allow startups for small businesses and business support. But those elements, which have been one of the defining characteristics of Palo Alto's downtown, have been lost.
"As a de facto incubator district, we are hollowed out. Ten to 20 years ago we had them. But there has been a significant transformation," he said.
Instead, large swaths of downtown retail have been taken over by large firms.
"When one of those pulls up stakes, the bigger they are they more potential there is for disruption," he said.
Burt would consider placing caps on the size of businesses using the area in non-permitted ways, but he would also grandfather in those currently in downtown.
The council did not leave Stanford University out of the discussion. Council member Cory Wolbach supported serious discussion with Stanford regarding housing and a hotel with less office development, which would also reduce the amount of traffic.
How Stanford University's plans might fit into the city's annual square-foot cap and limits on office development or housing expansion was also a long topic of discussion. The annual 50,000-square-foot limit regulates the city's pace of development.
The council adopted the interim ordinance in 2015 establishing the 50,000-square-foot annual limit per fiscal year of new office and research and development construction in three commercial districts: Downtown, California Avenue, and El Camino Real south of Park Boulevard. Stanford University Medical Center and Stanford Research Park developments are not included in the current annual limit. The council seemed to support continuing to exempt the research park from the annual limit, but with a traffic-reductions plan if the research park is exempted from annual growth limits.
Vice Mayor Greg Scharff also said that Stanford Research Park should not be in the square-foot growth cap, and the city should maintain flexibility regarding its office and research uses.
"We want to encourage innovation and we done want to change the research park's essential character," he said.
DuBois recused himself from the Stanford discussions because his former wife received money from Stanford.
Councilmember Karen Holman praised the Advisory Committee's hard work, but she felt the scope was perhaps too far reaching.
"They gutted too much of the neighborhood character and design elements in the plan," she said.
The council did not vote on the draft element . Staff will return with a revised document for further discussion and direction together with a revised draft Transportation Element in early 2017.