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.