Planning commission unanimously recommends office-cap extension

With two-year development ordinance set to expire this fall, proposed extension moves to City Council for discussion

The Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission supported the city staff's recommendation to extend the 50,000 square foot office-cap ordinance on Wednesday. Despite concerns about its long-term effects, all five commissioners present passed the motion with little debate.

The cap -- which limits annual office development in downtown Palo Alto around University Avenue, along California Avenue, and along El Camino Real -- became law in September 2015. If the extension is approved by the City Council, the restriction will continue until June 30, 2018, giving time for city staff to draft a permanent ordinance.

Palo Alto community members and neighborhood groups, such as Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, urged the council to adopt the cap in 2015 to curb heavy city growth, citing the jobs-housing imbalance and the increasing traffic congestion that it fostered.

The unanimous vote — which excluded Chair Michael Alcheck and Commissioner Ed Lauing, who were absent — marked a change in the commission's view on the office cap. In August 2015, the commission slammed the ordinance because of its alleged unfairness to developers and slow impact.

Since the ordinance's enactment, developers have not submitted projects totaling more than 50,000 square feet each year. Planning Director Hillary Gitelman wrote in a staff report in late March that the cap seems to have had the effect of slowing growth.

At Wednesday's meeting, she said: "Our feeling is that this has been successful at what it originally intended to do, which is to slow the pace of office development in these three areas. I don't know that there are other unintended consequences."

She added that there have already been several building proposals this fiscal year, but none from major corporations.

The commission heard comments from two public speakers: Citizens Advisory Committee member Hamilton Hitchings and Palo Alto community member Bob Moss, who both advocated for expanding the office cap to apply citywide.

Moss also said the cap on square footage should be reduced from 50,000 to 40,000, adding that the number of employees "crammed into an office has increased significantly." More employees per square foot results in more traffic and greater demand for parking — issues the ordinance was intended to address.

Commissioner Doria Summa agreed with the speakers' proposals and said she would be "very interested" in potentially reducing the annual limit.

Later in the meeting, Commissioner Eric Rosenblum made a request for the staff to collect data on employee density and the percentage of employees using cars in Palo Alto.

The motion to extend the ordinance raised some concerns, despite the commission's support for the staff's recommendation. Rosenblum was adamant about his disagreement with what he called a "poor ordinance."

"In using this tool, you put a chilling effect on development of offices," he said. "What we want to work on is reduce the number of people who have to travel by car to their offices."

According to Rosenblum, at the Our Palo Alto 2030 Summit held in May 2015, citizens overwhelmingly chose a hard office cap as the worst out of three options in response to a question that asked, "How do you want to account for the jobs-housing imbalance?" More than 350 Palo Altans weighed in.

"I think by going after this blunt instrument, we've taken our eye off the ball, and that's the most important ball," he said.

Rosenblum added that he supported an interim ordinance, as city staff looks into permanent recommendations.

The ordinance extension will now move to the City Council for action in September, when the council will also give feedback for modifications on the current ordinance for use in a permanent cap. Early next spring, city staff will return to the planning commission with the proposed permanent ordinance. Upon the planning commissions' recommendation, the permanent proposal will return to the council in June.

Also approved at the meeting was a recommendation to the council to approve a conditional use permit for a medical office in "The Hamlet," a mixed-use development of commercial and residential condominiums at 4157 El Camino Way. A community member filed a request for a hearing by the council after expressing concerns that the building complex did not fulfill usage codes, among other issues. Commissioners said they are concerned about noncompliance issues stemming from a lack of clear documentation on The Hamlet's space allocation — the intended ratio of medical to retail offices was not maintained over the years, creating confusion — but the motion passed 4-1 with Summa opposed.


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65 people like this
Posted by Palantir Continues to Try to Take Over Palo Alto
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 27, 2017 at 10:06 am

Planning Commissioner Eric Rosenblum, who is cited above as worrying about a chilling effect on new offices, works for Palantir. He should have recused himself on this matter. Palantir is already the largest tenant Downtown and apparently wants to grow further as it's complained to the city about office caps before. So clearly it has a big interest in office caps. Why then should a paid employee of it get to vote on office caps?

We already have councilmembers under investigation for illegally trying to hide developer campaign contributions. Now this! Let's demand our city start acting ethically instead of pandering to corporate interests.

11 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 27, 2017 at 10:34 am

Resident is a registered user.

It is important to note that Rosenblum did not work for Palantir when he was appointed to the Planning Commission. The hired him soon after his appointment.

51 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 27, 2017 at 11:00 am

mauricio is a registered user.

The only "chilling effect" here is the presence of Eric Rosenblum on the PTC. He is working diligently to further the interests of Palantir, not Palo Alto. Palo Alto, or at least downtown, is rapidly becoming a one company town.

41 people like this
Posted by Rosenblum & Palantir
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 27, 2017 at 11:22 am

It has been written by others, but it bears repeating, Rosenblum seems oblivious to conflicts of interest.
He so clearly represents the views of his billion dollar employer, and also developers. He clearly said he doesn't want to limit office growth.

45 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 27, 2017 at 11:41 am

Resident is a registered user.

Also, prior to her appointment to the Planning Commission Kate Downing did not disclose to the council that her husband also worked for Palantir and that she shared significant Palantir stock holdings as does Rosenblum.

19 people like this
Posted by Anke
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 27, 2017 at 11:51 am

"It is important to note that Rosenblum did not work for Palantir when he was appointed to the Planning Commission. The hired him soon after his appointment. "

And they were hoping people wouldn't notice? Talk about chilling!

14 people like this
Posted by Wrong focus
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 27, 2017 at 12:03 pm

What we want is to focus on the primary issue - the imbalance of office workers to housing. It's not about cars, that's a red herring in this case. It's about not continuing to drive up the demand for housing by building more and more office. Thank you PTC for supporting an annual growth limit (this is not a hard cap). 50,000 sq ft is well above what we build each year but this ordinance allows the city to prioritize high quality projects if multiple projects are submitted. Similar to what mountain view and other nearby cities are doing.

11 people like this
Posted by Just a Thought
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 27, 2017 at 6:02 pm

This is great news. We would be very hypocritical if we allowed Palo Alto office space to grow but didn't allow housing to grow along with it.

We should be encouraging Palantir to relocate to Downtown Redwood City, Facebook's old office in Stanford Research Park. Or better yet encouraging them to join Google near Didiron Station and enabling the re-invention of Downtown San Jose. Downtown Palo Alto needs a diversity of smaller tenants and startups whose employees add to the downtown customer base by dining at local restaurants and shopping at local retail stores instead of hiding in Palantir provided cafeterias and services.

37 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 27, 2017 at 6:33 pm

Fine, but why is the cap set at 50,000? Why not zero? Or at any rate a much smaller amount? Palo Alto does not need a single new office. The office-to-housing ratio is already higher than just about anywhere else.

30 people like this
Posted by unethical
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 27, 2017 at 6:43 pm

It is unethical of Rosenblum to be on this committee. He should resign immediately. He is ruining his reputation and maybe he should care about that. Palantir should move somewhere else and let small startups utilize downtown restaurants and retail.

38 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 27, 2017 at 7:58 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@Norman Beamer is absolutely right. Why not set the cap at zero? We don't need another office building. We don't need to worsen the jobs/housing imbalance. We don't need more commuters for the Palantir-chaired commissions to make US compensate for their commuting expenses. Let the COMPANIES pay for their employees to commute. not the residents.

26 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 27, 2017 at 8:11 pm

Resident is a registered user.

Also, Mila Zelkha was hired by Palantir after she was appointed to the Public Arts Commission and right after she was appointed to the Important Comp Plan Citizens Advisory Committee. Fortunately, the city manager removed her from the CAC.

16 people like this
Posted by Eric Filseth
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 27, 2017 at 8:51 pm

The cars-vs-jobs issue seems to me to involve at least a couple of things – traffic, obviously, but also the regional view.

On the Palo Alto traffic issue, I think you need to distinguish between the number of cars per job, and the actual number of cars. More jobs plus better transit may reduce the cars-per-job ratio, but will still likely increase the absolute car count. It’s the growth of the second one that matters when you consider Palo Alto traffic, since the capacity of our streets stays fixed. Different people may value the pros and cons differently, but it’s still more cars.

I just spent a week in Manhattan. Now, Palo Alto is not Manhattan, but Manhattan represents an interesting point on the urbanism curve. The borough’s jobs-to-employed resident ratio of about 2.8 to 1 (2013) is similar to ours, and it has one of the world’s better mass transit systems. Yet its traffic is still wretched, and its housing prices are as high as ours if not higher (example: $2000+ for my kid’s studio on the upper west side). That’s not to say we shouldn’t invest in better transit, just there’s a difference between cars and cars-per-job, and also the whole traffic issue isn’t easily fixed.

The cars-per-job number is more of a Regional consideration, because by definition you’re now talking about a broader focus than just how many cars on Palo Alto streets. Cars-per-job is more about minimizing the total vehicle miles traveled by people going to work across the region. Yet once you start looking at that, you want to start considering where in the region is actually best for job expansion. It’s not all the same; for example, San Jose’s geometry, transit infrastructure and available nearby workforce are quite a bit different from the Mid-Peninsula’s, and all these things affect commuting patterns. Again, not in itself an argument to legislate office growth to any particular place, but we ought to recognize that if there is office growth, then the social costs of that growth will vary considerably across the region, and that different people will value those costs differently. And that somebody will have to pay them.

12 people like this
Posted by Anke
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 27, 2017 at 9:16 pm

Really good points, @Eric Filseth. I fear, though, that it won't take much additional growth in San Jose before it's just as suffocated as the peninsula. This web link is specifically about Mountain View, but it applies to the entire Bay Area.

Web Link

8 people like this
Posted by Baloney
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 27, 2017 at 10:31 pm

This blatant attack on Rosenblum is nonsense. When nimbys don't agree with someone they go after them anyway they can. Rosenblum's is IMHO the most informed and effective commissioner. He is incredibly analytical and always approaches his work in a level headed manner. The fact that he works for a corporation based in Palo Alto is an asset not a flaw. Recusal would be an issue if Palantir brought forward an application. But otherwise it's a baloney claim. I'm disappointed that Filseth didn't take the opportunity to clarify that. This isn't a gray area. There are very strict rules about recusal and anyone that doubts the city attorneys dedication to enforcement of those rules should go introduce themselves to the members of the city attorneys office. Sometimes getting to know your local staff goes a long way towards eliminating assumptions that are based on blatant lack of knowledge or intentional dissemination of misinformation.

11 people like this
Posted by Just a thought
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 27, 2017 at 11:20 pm

@Anke - I think @Eric Filseth is right. The current San Jose is much more equipped to handle future growth. From an intercity perspective, it has an existing VTA Light Rail, urban zoning which is setup for high rises and plans for up to 10,000 more residential units. It is also has more room to grow south to Morgan Hill, Gilroy and east to Milpitas for millennials who want to own a single family home. From an intra-city transit perspective, future San Jose is much, much better setup than the Peninsula. Instead of a single Caltrain transit line like on the Peninsula, it will have Caltrain AND BART Silicon Valley, ACE, Capitol Corridor Amtrak and High Speed Rail.

Definitely checkout these SPUR slides on San Jose Didiron:
Web Link
Web Link

This California HSR San Jose to Merced video is also fun. Imagine going from Gilroy to San Jose Downtown in 15 minutes.
Web Link
Web Link

15 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 28, 2017 at 8:38 am


You could be wrong about Mr. Rosenblum. Planter has spoken at city council hearings in favor of not limiting office growth downtown. Would an employee of Palantir who was also a planning commissioner feel free to oppose his employees official position? That is the question

9 people like this
Posted by Anke
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 28, 2017 at 9:06 am

@Just a thought, thanks for that information. I guess I didn't make my point very well.

"I think @Eric Filseth is right. The current San Jose is much more equipped to handle future growth."

I do agree with that, most certainly. But the point I was trying to make is that on the current trajectory, even San Jose will quickly become overwhelmed by the exploding tech growth. Milpitas, Fremont and other cities in that region are already home to moderate-income people with Peninsula jobs (as is San Jose). If the expansion takes over Morgan Hill and Gilroy, we'll end up with a massive region of uninterrupted urban sprawl as far as the eye can see, with traffic congestion, overcrowded trains, enormous strain on water and other resources. An example of this is the Greater Toronto Area (mitigated somewhat by being overcrowded with friendly Canadians, a benefit not available here).

To be beneficial instead of harmful, Big Tech needs to do its growing in some of the states and cities that they're pulling people from, instead of bringing everyone here to California. (And, on another topic, we need to provide better education and training opportunities for our own young people so that new jobs added can go to locals instead of to outsiders.)

16 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 28, 2017 at 9:08 am

Resident is a registered user.

The Post reported today that at the PTC meeting Rosenblum publicly questioned the motivations of those supporting the office Cap. It's not clear whether he was referring to his colleagues, members of the public who spoke at the meeting, or both.

17 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 28, 2017 at 11:40 am

Online Name is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

9 people like this
Posted by No More Offices
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 29, 2017 at 10:22 am

[Post removed.]

6 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 29, 2017 at 2:45 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

9 people like this
Posted by Support It
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 31, 2017 at 8:41 am

This kind of growth throttle is highly needed in Palo Alto and I hope people will make their support clear. Allowing 50,000 sq ft in these limited areas and largely unlimited growth elsewhere is barely a speed bump. But it IS needed. If we continue to allow more office development than anything else we are doomed to low quality of life and loss of our residential nature

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Fairmeadow School

on Sep 26, 2017 at 7:45 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

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

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