Editorial: A lost opportunity

Prime city-owned parking lots should have been candidates for housing

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?


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7 people like this
Posted by Weekly Was Right; Now is Wrong
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2016 at 7:45 am

Just two years ago, the Weekly recommended we vote for the increased hotel tax to fund, among other things, new garages in neighborhoods highly impacted by parking. See Web Link

We should build two stories of underground and five stories of above-ground parking garages. Any floors occupied by housing on those sites will forever diminish the parking opportunities. The garage sites are central to where jobs already are - the city can never get more land like that. Then, rezone other locations in the city for low-cost housing, like the former VTA lot at El Camino and Page Mill Road and anywhere developers want to build more offices. That will probably vastly more housing than the tiny number of units that could go on garage sites.

109 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2016 at 10:15 am

Dumbest idea ever. The Weekly shows it true colors.

Can you imagine living on top of a parking garage with car alarms, horns, and loud noxious exhaust 24/7? Let's build "housing" on top of the sewage treatment plant too. And on top of the 101 freeway, and over the Caltrain/HSR tracks as well. You can't get any closer to transportation than that.

Why is public money being used to build a parking structure for the new Visa building (on Sherman), and the other oversized/under-parked office buildings that caused the parking problems in the first place?

This isn't about housing. It is about using public funds to keep the mad orgy of very lucrative real-estate development going in Palo Alto at the expense of residents, and camouflaging the whole thing by pretending to help poor working people by selling them $1,000,000 micro-units in soon to be blighted areas next to the railroad tracks.

All of Palo Alto has become nothing more than an elaborate real-estate scam.

4 people like this
Posted by Patrick Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 9, 2016 at 10:27 am

Patrick Burt is a registered user.

The concept of utilizing some surface parking lots for shared use projects combined public parking structures and affordable housing is a good one which I endorse for the future. However, the two projects in the pipeline are designed to address two objectives that were committed to the voters when we passed the hotel tax increase two years ago, a tax that the Weekly supported. We committed to providing an increase in off street parking to help relieve impacts on neighborhoods in conjunction with our Residential Permit Parking Program (RPP). The second commitment was for a badly needed new Public Safety Building.
A policy change to integrate public parking with affordable housing should be part of our Comprehensive Plan update. Implementing that program will need to align with our current programs to reduce each year the number of employee permits sold for parking in the neighborhoods. A fraction of those workers will be able to park in the new garages and the balance will need to be part of trip reduction programs. The missing piece to this puzzle is the need for full funding of the local transportation programs that have already been identified to get the needed portion of downtown workers and shoppers out of single occupancy vehicles, but this will require funding from a Business License Tax or other source.
I hope that when these actual affordable housing projects come forward the Weekly will support them, contrary to their miss guided opposition to the Maybell affordable senior housing project three years ago.

3 people like this
Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 9, 2016 at 10:37 am

Yeah for you Weekly! Hoiusing for All is my motto too. Yet more parking for what, shoppers and transient low-wage workers? I love, love this idea. It's unbelievable that this city is placing parking as more important than housing people. Are we surprised though?

28 people like this
Posted by NoToDensity
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2016 at 10:40 am

No to raising the 50 foot height limit. Plenty of densification is occurring already because one story buildings are always replaced by the maximum structure the lot will allow, for both residential, commercial and office space structures. We don't want the canyon effect. The Weekly should recuse itself from editorializing on this issue because it makes so much money on real estate ads.

4 people like this
Posted by Chris Gaither
a resident of Mayfield
on Dec 9, 2016 at 10:58 am

To Ahem,

The new VISA building at 385 Sherman Avenue has underground parking already as part of the 385 site. There is enough parking there to accommodate their employees (already hired and have been employees for many years). In addition, VISA supplies transportation options, like company buses to transport some of its employees from the East Bay to Palo Alto. The City of Palo Alto is not building any parking structure to accommodate our new VISA neighbors. They already have an underground parking structure.

15 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2016 at 11:09 am

Affordable housing needs to be spread out among ALL neighborhoods, so that everyone can benefit from the diversity that have neighbors of differing social-economic status.

Affordable housing units aren't available in Old Palo Alto and the Crescent Park neighborhoods, and one can see how the residents in those neighborhoods have suffered.

The Editors should push for swapping ownership between parcels in Old Palo Alto and Crescent park and those parcels slated for parking structures; rezone those swapped parcels for high density housing, with greater than 50 foot height limits, and hundreds of affordable housing units could be built. Senior citizens in those neighborhoods, can then move into some of the units and stay in their same neighborhood, freeing up more housing opportunities.

4 people like this
Posted by AmieA
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 9, 2016 at 11:11 am

Nix the parking and build housing to reduce VMT, air pollution, and noise. Housing housing housing!

Come on PA, have some vision before our downtown withers before our eyes.

Like this comment
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 9, 2016 at 11:16 am

Too bad this tall new structure would be "non-compatible" per our super subjective city council. Hopefully the new council will be more apt to follow the rules and perhaps increase the absurd and, yes, arbitrary 50' height limit.

2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 9, 2016 at 1:08 pm

Go check the parking structure coming up on California and San Antonio. Is it what we want? I don't think so. The land on Sherman should be used for housing with parking under it. That is hoe we can create city environment that politicians fondly call urban village. They talk about it but do opposite. I think we need to revolt Maybell style.

Like this comment
Posted by Barbara
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 9, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Forget the affordable housing and stop the continuing building of parking structures, live-in garage conversions, etc. RIDICULOUS waste of money!

10 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 9, 2016 at 2:15 pm

"Affordable housing needs to be spread out among ALL neighborhoods, so that everyone can benefit from the diversity that have neighbors of differing social-economic status."

Double Amen. Neither affordable housing nor its inhabitants should be feared. It mixes very well with single family housing near Downtown, and it can do as well in the R1 districts where land usage is notably inefficient. Especially on the huge lots in Crescent Park and Old Palo Alto whose space is vastly underutilized.

Maybe the Jobs family would step up and start the pattern...?

Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Dec 9, 2016 at 3:51 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Thanks for an interesting idea and thanks Mayor Burt for what you wrote.

I did support the parking garages while on the infrastructure commission and do support adding housing in Palo Alto.

If the TMA came up with a large program to reduce auto commuting I can see the need for parking garages to decrease over time.

I do support looking at these issues in the Comp Plan update and do hope the city ca come up with a triple play--more housing, reduced auto use and additional garages as needed until auto use is firmly reduced.

And the public safety building.

10 people like this
Posted by NoToDensity
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2016 at 4:39 pm

A common refrain equates the building of more housing in Palo Alto with the reduction of traffic and parking problems. I don't buy it. Can anyone explain to me how building more housing will not make our traffic and parking problems worse? I maintain that increasing housing and housing density will just mean that traffic is bad ALL OF THE TIME, including on weekends instead of just during commute hours when our 3 to 1 jobs to residents ratio is worst. Last year the city's main priority was traffic and parking. This year it is housing. Are traffic and parking no longer priorities? T&P have both gotten worse, not better and I see no programs in place that have mitigated them in any noticeable way.

19 people like this
Posted by huh whut?
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2016 at 5:31 pm

Thought this editorial was comedy. Disappointed to see it wasn't.

15 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 9, 2016 at 6:51 pm

@Patrick Burt, you wrote: "However, the two projects in the pipeline are designed to address two objectives that were committed to the voters when we passed the hotel tax increase two years ago, a tax that the Weekly supported."

Let's get your facts straight in you attack of another public figure in Palo Alto - specifically the Weekly's publisher. The language for Palo Alto's Measure B in 2014 said: "To provide funding that cannot be taken away by the State for general fund infrastructure and City services such as earthquake safe fire stations; pedestrian and bike improvements including safe routes to school, streets, sidewalks, paths, and bridges; and maintaining parks and recreation facilities, shall the City increase the hotel/motel tax by two percent and update language to confirm equal treatment of traditional and online bookings?"

The fact is, neither Measure B nor the arguments in favor of it included with the voter guide said anything about building two parking structures. (see: Web Link)

The fact is, Measure B was not a bond, but rather a vehicle for funding used in financing Certificates of Participation (COP) secured with the City's General Fund. NOT ONE OF THE PROJECTS SUGGESTED IN THE CITY"S INFRASTRUCTURE PLAN FOR MEASURE B CARRIES ANY OBLIGATION OR COMMITMENT. The City could, in fact, spend the Measure B money however it wishes including affordable housing.

The urgency in building the Birch Street garage is primarily related to the construction of the City's new public safety building. It's a horrible idea to build a large public garage less than 50 yards from the new Public Safety facility. But, City Council's poor management of parking in the California business district makes it imperative that this garage gets built before the adjacent surface lot gets consumed by the new Public Safety facility.

Mr. Burt, your temperament and unwillingness to engage in civil, constructive conversation reflect poorly on Palo Alto. Although you're not the worst mayor we've had in a generation, you're certainly the most divisive.

2 people like this
Posted by Housing for All
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 9, 2016 at 8:24 pm

Looking at Palo Alto development blue prints automobile parking takes up way more space than multi story/use housing. Check it out. Any chance Molly Stones could sell its overflow parking across the street from its store on Birch Street for future affordable housing ? The World Wide Web/Internet mail order shopping is picking up speed and becoming much more of a reality than in-store shopping. If more parking garages are approved, make sure to leave enough room for RV’s and transient low wageworker auto spaces. Many, many individuals and families are living out or their vehicles. For example, a young mother pan-handling outside of the Birch Street Post Office just a week ago. Or another mother in one arm holding her infant baby and in her other hand a cardboard sign “please help”.

2 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2016 at 2:47 am

Affordable housing crisis. Decimation of low-income families. Reduction of middle-class presence.

The problem is not space. meaning a parcel of land.

The problem is regulation - zoning, height restriction (ie. Palo Alto's 50' restriction), legislators and so on. The Bay Area needs to accept the fact that it is not comprised of orchards any more. Population growth over the past 30-50 years has far exceeded growth in living spaces, affordable or not. At the same time entry level and "non-skilled" wages have remained for stagnant over the past 25-30 years (ie. nominal wages are not increasing while real living costs have). That last point while important is not actually that relevant to this bit. The point IS - allow residential developers to build bigger buildings! Yes we want to protect our history, our communities, our skylines, etc., but we also have to change - its inevitable. We need to build upwards - more apartment buildings, small towers and the like. Silicon Valley is supposed to have been the center of the modern world - time to build that center.

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 10, 2016 at 12:40 pm

"... but we also have to change - its inevitable."

And we all have to die - it's inevitable. I just don't want to rush things.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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