When Vice Mayor Liz Kniss was campaigning for re-election last fall, one issue towered above all others among residents with whom she spoke.
"It was housing, housing and more housing," Kniss said during the City Council's March 20 meeting, as the council was deciding how many new housing units to plan for between now and 2030.
Public calls for more housing remained high after November, with hundreds of residents flocking to council hearings, signing petitions and penning emails urging the City Council to "go big" on housing. John Kelley, who is part of the growing crowd, told the council that if the city doesn't do anything "dramatic" about housing, families and friendships in Palo Alto will be torn apart.
"Are we simply going to be a community of the most wealthy of the world, or are we going to be a community that respects continuity of families, continuity of friendships and continuity of people living here?" Kelly asked on Jan. 30.
Some on the council share his view. Adrian Fine, who made housing the centerpiece of his council campaign, called it the community's "No. 1 concern." The city, he said, has not pulled its weight on housing for decades. The fact that between 2007 and 2013 the city only constructed 13 percent of the housing units that it was asked to plan for under its regional housing allocation only underscores that fact.
"I just don't think moderation is the way to go on this. ... I'd like to see Palo Alto be a leader on this," Fine said.
Councilman Cory Wolbach agreed and called the Comprehensive Plan a chance for the council to "right our wrongs" and "clean up our mess."
But as the council wrestled with the question of how much new housing to add, moderation was exactly what it settled for. Faced with six potential city-growth scenarios — ranging from 2,720 (in the scenario that continues all existing planning policies) to 6,000 housing units (the most aggressive growth scenario, added at the urging of the pro-housing crowd), the council's two wings agreed to meet somewhere the middle.
At the urging of Mayor Greg Scharff, the council chose a scenario that would produce between 3,545 and 4,442 units by 2030 — far short of the 10,000 that Kelley urged, the 8,000 that Wolbach had advocated for and the 10,225 that the City of Mountain View is including in its precise plan for the North Bayshore area.
Scharff and Councilman Eric Filseth both said that taking the middle path on housing is a "balanced" approach to growth. The city, Filseth said, has done a good job maintaining its balance between being "a purely residential suburb like Saratoga and Woodside versus a crowded urban city like downtown San Francisco.
"A lot of cities would like to be where we are," Filseth said. "Would everybody in Palo Alto like to have this and also have no traffic, easy parking everywhere, all the dog parks and playing fields you can possibly imagine and housing that everybody can afford who wants to live here? Of course. But it's not going to happen."
"I think what most people want is for us to keep this balance. I think most people don't want to be Atherton, and they don't want to be the Mission District either."
After Wolbach's bid to raise the number of housing units faltered by a 4-5 vote (with Kniss, Fine and Greg Tanaka joining him), the full council voted 8-1 to accept Scharff's more moderate proposal. Yet the council also approved by a 5-4 vote — with all four residentialist-leaning members dissenting — to add to the plan a program exploring more dense multifamily complexes in areas well-served by public transit.
There was far more consensus on the topic of new housing sites. In addition to reaffirming its often-stated preference for small housing units in transit-rich locations, the council unanimously agreed to explore multi-family housing along El Camino Real at Stanford Shopping Center, near the Stanford University Medical Center and at Stanford Research Park. (The only major disagreement came over whether housing should also be considered at Town & Country Village; the council voted 5-4 not to include it as a potential residential site.)
Tiffany Griego, manager of Stanford Research Park, indicated on March 20 that the idea of adding housing is one the park has also been considering.
"Stanford and the council have a shared vision in encouraging a mix of uses in Stanford Research Park," Griego said. "Where we see great opportunity is encouragement of housing in Stanford Research Park and in close proximity to jobs and transit."
• This article is part of a cover story on the Comprehensive Plan coming into focus. Find out what else the council is looking to change in the areas of development, building height limit, transportation and business.