Virtually every Palo Alto politician and community activist has been talking for months about the Bay Area's housing crisis and the need for the city to develop strategies to encourage development of more "affordable" housing.
It was a major issue in the recent City Council campaign, as all 11 candidates positioned themselves as housing advocates wanting to pursue innovative ways to create more housing, particularly for low-income service workers. And it's been the subject of hours of discussion in connection with the pending update to the city's Comprehensive Plan.
So given this clear need, why is no one focusing on the most important resource the city has to encourage development of this type of housing: publicly owned surface parking lots in commercial districts close to public transportation?
Why aren't city planners, elected officials and housing advocates advancing proposals to develop these precious but underutilized parking lots into combinations of an underground parking garage and multi-floor apartments, perhaps even exceeding the city's 50-foot height limit to achieve greater numbers of units?
As we learned all too well during the 2013 debate over Measure D and the failed senior housing proposal on Maybell Avenue, the biggest obstacle to any affordable housing project is that the sky-high cost of land in Palo Alto, combined with zoning constraints, make it practically impossible to build an affordable-housing development without massive public subsidies.
In the case of the Maybell proposal, the Palo Alto Housing Corporation (now called Palo Alto Housing) tried something it had never attempted: generating maximum profit from selling adjacent land to a private housing developer (after securing upzoning from the City Council) and then using those profits to subsidize the cost of an apartment building.
In essence, the already congested neighborhood was being asked to accept the traffic and other impacts of the single-family homes and increased density in order to achieve the broader benefit of creating lower-income senior housing.
It was a bad miscalculation and resulted in the City Council's plan approval being overturned by the voters in the 2013 referendum. Bad feelings on both sides unfortunately persist to this day.
But unlike with Maybell, city parking lots are owned by the public already, eliminating the land costs that are otherwise major obstacles to developing affordable housing. They are also located in commercial districts more conducive to higher density development.
On Monday night, the City Council is being asked to approve contracts for the design and environmental review phase of two new parking garages -- one downtown at Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street and the other at Birch and Sherman avenues (behind Antonio's Nut House and Starbucks) in the California Ave. district -- as well as for the design of the new public-safety building to be constructed on the existing parking lot behind Kinko's and across the street from the county courthouse.
The contracts are on the council's consent calendar and will likely be passed without discussion, quietly moving along these projects that will forever pre-empt the opportunity to more ambitiously utilize these valuable public resources to achieve both parking and housing.
The locations for the two new parking garages are ideal for creative, mixed-use housing development projects because they are near public transportation and are surrounded by existing commercial enterprises that could easily share the parking -- resident parking at night and employee and customer parking during the day.
And given that the affordable-housing projects would be city-sponsored and on publicly owned land, city leaders should also be able to persuade the community of the value of allowing exceptions to the 50-foot height limit so that, for example, four or five stories of apartments could be on top of one or two levels of above-ground parking and two levels of underground parking.
If community leaders and Palo Alto Housing are serious about creating more affordable housing for low-paid service workers and seniors and retaining some modicum of diversity in Palo Alto, it will require persuasive advocacy and leadership and a lot more creative thinking than has so far been demonstrated.
Our housing challenges will not be addressed by requiring a few units of below-market rate housing here and there as a condition for approval of a housing development that only wealthy professionals and high-tech engineers can afford.
Publicly owned land in high-priced Palo Alto is golden -- a resource from which we need to get maximum long-term community benefit. Since we need both more parking and more housing, why not achieve both when we have the chance and remain open to going above 50-feet for these public projects?