Palo Alto City Council focuses on more housing for land-use plan | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto City Council focuses on more housing for land-use plan

Hotels, height limits figure into concerns

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.


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11 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 29, 2016 at 11:12 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

What about the famous property known as 27 University? Housing could be better than another massive office complex adjacent to massive developments nearby on Menlo Park's El Camino Real.

12 people like this
Posted by Linnea
a resident of Monroe Park
on Nov 29, 2016 at 11:13 am

As a 45-year resident of Palo Alto and the parent of a young adult with special needs, I commend the City Council for finally looking at ways to provide affordable housing for people with special needs. I hope that Staff, the P&TC, and the Council will help prevent displacement of existing residents (seniors such as myself and people with special needs such as my son) by implementing practical changes to the City's ordinances, in the spirit of the new state regulations and the changes made possible as shown by other Bay Area Cities.

4 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 29, 2016 at 12:24 pm

Sounds like a good start. I have been in support of raising the height limit in certain areas for some time. But, I have my own set of criteria for increased housing and if it doesn't meet it then don't do it. My ideal scenario is that increased housing would serve primarily those people who now commute here every day to work, thus causing traffic and parking problems. Hopefully, they will remain employed here and not get another job someplace else and thus have to commute from here. Yes, it should also serve to avoid displacement of existing residents and provide housing to the vulnerable ones, seniors and people with special needs.

But, let's not get euphoric over the idea that we are now accepting the idea of building more housing without studying and analyzing impacts on traffic, parking, and infrastructure. That would be a big mistake, and one that has been made in the past and that is still so often overlooked or downplayed.

Affordability: A very mysterious, poorly defined, and little understood concept, at least by me. It starts in the first paragraph of this article.

Then, "The advisory committee's recommendations include zeroing in on building residences at the lower end of market-rate housing that go beyond deed-restricted Below Market Rate "affordable housing,"

I have no idea what all those words mean and how it translates to in terms of rental rates. Would someone that is knowledgeable please explain? Could those existing residents, seniors, and those with special needs even afford to live in the new units?

11 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 29, 2016 at 2:18 pm

Housing has been Palo Alto's ostensible land use priority for decades. Note the word "ostensible". Sprinkling the word "housing" throughout land-use planning (gag) documents makes for warm fuzzy reading. Some people actually believe it.

But what developers propose, and what city hall dutifully approves using the PC spot zone as required, is commercial.

So it goes.

4 people like this
Posted by Ventura-91
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 29, 2016 at 2:26 pm

Ventura-91 is a registered user.

Not sure that I understand the non-residential development cap.
If the cap is 3.26 mSF and 1.7 mSF remains, then we've had 1.56 mSF of development since 1989?

Why do we want to allow another 1.7 mSF of new development, which is a 109% increase?

We should limit all new office/R&D development that results in more traffic while we focus on encouraging more affordable housing.

I am supportive of increasing the height above 50 feet as long as the entire project is affordable housing, and that the neighboring parcels do not lose access to daylight.

8 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 29, 2016 at 3:01 pm

Well, it will be interesting to see how City Hall intends to incentivize developers to build affordable housing.

In the past, they've extracted a few units here or there by rewarding developers with dense, under-parked, highly profitable office buildings. If that is truly off the table, I wonder what kind of giveaways they have in mind.

Also, I am very curious what they mean by residences at the lower end of market rate housing.

The modest, no frills condominiums in my building are certainly at Palo Alto's lower end. Even so, they sell for over a million and rent for $4-5K per month. Mine is a 2/1, 850 sq. ft., with one parking spot.

13 people like this
Posted by We never learn
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2016 at 10:31 pm

We will get greater density, lower quality of life and (Wait for it...) no increase in housing affordability.

Snookered once again.

2 people like this
Posted by DB Cooper
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 30, 2016 at 1:35 pm

Why do we even bother doing a Comp Plan? When a developer proposes a big project and hands the city some money, council approves it regardless of whether it fits the Comp Plan. Council will just do an "amendment" to the Comp Plan after they approve the project to clean everything up. This exercise of agonizing over every little detail in the Comp Plan is a joke because in practice it won't matter a bit. Council will ignore it. What a waste of time. The main guidance council members get when it comes to development are campaign contributions -- both the pro-growthers and the anti-growthers are guilty of that.

2 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 30, 2016 at 10:03 pm

jh is a registered user.

"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."

During the council discussion council members Kniss and Greg Scharff were both emphatic that council should not put any restrictions on the pace of commercial development.

Greg Scharff eloquently urged his fellow council members not to put any brakes on the pace of commercial development, because this would be a huge mistake for Palo Alto. Prior to his bid for re-election two years ago there had been few if any developments he didn’t support, despite what he said during the campaign. Not surprising since a large part of his previous professional experience has been specializing in commercial real estate.

Liz Kniss spoke eloquently and emphatically about the the wisdom of sticking with the 1989 council’s decision to allow an additional 3,257,900 square feet of commercial development. Arguing strongly for building out the remaining 1.7 million square feet without any restrictions because the 1989 council were in a better position to judge how much additional commercial square feet of development Palo Alto could accommodate before needing to set new goals. The implication seemed to be that current council members were less qualified to make judgements about the rate and pace of Palo Alto's commercial developments than the 1989 council members.

In addition, Liz Kniss has often brought up that during the last 10-15 years annual new commercial development has only averaged 50,000 square feet. So it is clear the market self-regulates and council should not interfere. Making the assumption, of course, that the past is a predictor of the future.

For decades previous councils have been dominated by development friendly majorities, including the 1989 council members who decided 3,257,900 square feet of new commercial development was Palo Alto’s goal.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 2, 2016 at 1:27 am

The problem with our city (and by extension our state and nation), is this obsession with development. That's why we are in this mess: greed to cash in on Silicon Valley concentrated in one area. The even larger challenge is how most of us (well-educated professionals who are multiple home owners) are duped to support development for increased property values as the largest part of one's retirement nest egg. Meanwhile, the forces behind all development (developers and banks) increase the disparity of wealth between fewer and fewer hands - and the rest of us.

Solution: recognize wealth is not development, it is sustainability. Moreover, quality of life is more important than being the talented workforce for a power elite who define what most will do for a living. In a public policy form: do not allow any new businesses space in Palo Alto. Second, do not allow any additional dense housing projects - especially mixed use one's. Granny Units can help struggling homeowners (misnomer - they do not own the home, they are renting toward hopeful ownership - it's just a good marketing term used by lenders) supplement their mortgage payments. Remember - if you had to take a loan for a home (that's most of us), then you will pay the price of the home plus interest almost 75% of the original cost of the home, over a thirty-year repayment plan, too. Now that is a level of greed we should all want to regulate! Who's with me!

Push the "development," not necessarily the success- of Silicon Valley to other areas in the state in need of tax revenue and to other parts of the nation.

Sadly, the recent election of many pro-development city council members represents the pull to always want to gather more chips in a economic system with few safety nets and one that glorifies wealth accumulation over balance, harmony, and character.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 2, 2016 at 8:45 pm

I would like to see a map of the city with the areas called out that are owned by the city, county, or state. Then the land owned by the transit authorities and RR. We need to see where that land is. We really don't know how much land is available by category of ownership. I am sure that land owned by the city qualifies for low income housing. And land owned by the transit authorities could satisfy for ABAG type qualification. The question on the table for land use is who owns what properties that qualify for development. Maybe the Weekly can help out here.

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