News

Palo Alto relaxes limit on office development

Split council votes to give developers more flexibility, scraps 'beauty contest'

After two years of sluggish commercial growth, the Palo Alto City Council moved Tuesday to loosen the city's cap on office development so as to give builders more flexibility.

The City Council largely agreed that the city's cap on office and research-and-development projects has been largely successful -- for some, a little too much so. Adopted in October 2015, the cap applied to three prominent commercial areas -- downtown, the California Avenue business district and along El Camino Real -- and limited new development in these areas to 50,000 square feet per year.

To date, the cap has not been tested. In 2016, the city had three projects (a research-and-development project at 2747 Park Blvd. and mixed-use projects at 2585 and 3225 El Camino Real) in the areas covered by the cap that brought 40,863 square feet of new office space, well below the threshold. There have been zero projects so far this year.

Given that the aim of the cap was to meter or "pace" the rate of growth and address the traffic and parking impacts of new office projects, some council members saw these results as vindication for the ordinance.

Even those council members who are normally amenable to growth agreed that the cap should be retained well after the current interim ordinance expires in November. Thus, the council unanimously voted to extend the temporary ordinance until June and to ultimately replace it with a permanent law that would maintain both the 50,000-square-foot limit and the existing boundaries.

There were, however, some sharp disagreements when it comes to the details of the new permanent law. One change, which the council approved by a 5-4 vote, will allow builders to "roll over" unused square footage in years where there is little growth. This means that if the city gets 25,000 square feet of new office space in one year, it could allow 75,000 square feet in the subsequent year. Similarly, a year in which Palo Alto adds no new office space in the three designated areas could be followed by one in which the city approves projects totaling 100,000 square feet.

The change, which was championed by Mayor Greg Scharff, squeaked by with a 5-4 vote, with Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilmen Adrian Fine, Greg Tanaka and Cory Wolbach all joining him. The four council members who lean toward slower-growth policies -- Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou -- all opposed the change.

Scharff argued that the roll-over provision would still allow the city to meter its growth, while also giving builders more flexibility after slow years.

"Having the flexibility on that I think is really important for people ... so that we don't have these queues that get backed up after we go through a recession where you have no office space developed," Scharff said.

He also noted that allowing the roll over would effectively give developers a two-year window to get their projects through the planning pipeline, rather than forcing them to race to meet the annual deadline.

"We can blithely sit up here and say, 'It's OK if someone's project gets delayed,' but the cost to that person and the uncertainty involved is huge dollars," Scharff said.

But Holman called the rollover proposal "counterintuitive," because it would facilitate dramatic spikes in office developments in years following little or no growth. This, she said, is exactly what the ordinance is trying to forestall.

Filseth also opposed Scharff's idea and called his argument "by and large development-centric" rather than "resident-centric." DuBois and Kou also argued against the rollover provision, which nevertheless advanced by a single vote.

By the same 5-4 vote, the council scrapped a provision in the office-cap ordinance that required development projects to compete with each other for approval in years where growth in the three designated areas exceeds 50,000 square feet. The competition, often referred to as a "beauty contest," would have given preference to those projects that score highest on factors including sustainable design, mitigation of traffic impacts and public benefits such affordable housing.

Instead, the projects will now proceed toward approval on a first-come, first-served basis.

Kniss, who made the motion to eliminate the competition, argued that it's nearly impossible for the council to decide whether a proposed development is attractive or not.

"To somebody it will be absolutely gorgeous, to someone else it will be an unattractive elephant," Kniss said.

DuBois and Filseth both disagreed, with Filseth saying that removing the contest before it's ever been tested is "premature" and DuBois pointing out that the scoring system for proposed competition goes far beyond the buildings' appearances. The scoring system that was developed for the contest, he said, is "really about job growth and impacts on the city" and the idea behind it was to incentivize the types of developments that the community wants to see.

"By removing that, we're diluting the purpose of the ordinance," DuBois said.

On other issues, the council marched in lockstep. One issue on which there was widespread agreement is that Stanford Research Park should remain exempt from the office cap. While Kou initially proposed including the sprawling park in the capped area, she ultimately voted with the rest of the council to exclude it.

Tiffany Griego, the park's managing director, lobbied for the continued exemption and touted the park's recent efforts to reduce traffic through a host of "transportation-demand management" programs, including carpool incentives and shuttles.

"SRP employers are concerned because their business needs can evolve quickly, and when they do, companies must be able to grow within a clear, predictable and consistent set of parameters," Griego and Stanford Associate Vice President Jean McCown wrote in a letter. "Companies come to Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto because they believe the City will permit them to improve and expand their aging facilities (up to the maximum square footage allowed under zoning) in order to remain competitive in their respective industries."

While Griego asked the council Tuesday to keep the existing boundaries, Chamber of Commerce CEO Judy Kleinberg went further and argued that the office cap should be eliminated entirely. The building boom that the office cap was intended to temper is simply not there, she said.

"Office development did not reach the 50,000 number in either of the cap's two years of existence," Kleinberg said. "It's unclear if it was effective."

DuBois saw things differently. The whole point of the ordinance was to guard against "massive spikes of construction," he said.

"The fact that it hasn't been triggered isn't a knock against the ordinance," DuBois said. "I think it was part of the point of the ordinance."

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Comments

109 people like this
Posted by Developers Win; Residents Lose
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 6, 2017 at 3:58 am

Need any further proof that all that developer money, including campaign contributions to Kniss and Tanaka that weren't disclosed properly, made a difference?

The new first-come-first-serve and annual rollover policies remove all effective obstacles from unbridled office growth. So more cars will clog our roads. And our housing imbalance will just get worse.

But hey, developers no longer need worry about any real office construction restrictions while the five council members they put in office can still claim to have voted for "limits."

Disgusting.


91 people like this
Posted by Cheeseguy
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 6, 2017 at 7:14 am

Here's what you get for all those stealth $499 campaign donations during the last days of the campaign.


71 people like this
Posted by Kniss
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 6, 2017 at 7:50 am

Why has the state sat on the Kniss / Tanaka campaign finance investigation - the money trail and fact pattern should make it a pretty easy investigation.

I imagine Kniss would be calling in every favor she can from her decades as a government official to suppress the result, but it seems wrong that she is able to cast pro-development votes, when the same development dollars are at the heart of potentially incriminating campaign finance allegations.

People who commit the crimes are not allowed to profit from them by law. They seem to be banking on the fact that nobody is watching.


32 people like this
Posted by Why bother?
a resident of University South
on Sep 6, 2017 at 8:41 am

Why are we arguing about an ordinance that didn't stop a single commercial development? During the worst housing crisis Palo Alto has ever seen, Council wasted an entire year arguing over a completely pointless ordinance that helped no one - not the residents facing rising rents, not the residents concerned about commercial impacts. Now Council is preoccupied with making minor changes to a law that was solving a problem that didn't exist.

How about doing something for residents, like letting people build affordable housing?


27 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2017 at 8:44 am

There seems to have been little worth discussing in all this.

I wish we would get the CC to start doing something to improve infrastructure and keep the few quality of life businesses and issues a priority.


71 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 6, 2017 at 9:11 am

Anyone surprised that the current council voted yet again against quality of life and in favor of their developer backers?

Remember this will get even worse when the council is reduced by 2 seats and Kniss is appointed mayor, moving up from her appointment as vice mayor by the pro-growth majority.


66 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 6, 2017 at 9:31 am

The so called "pro Housing' City Council members including Cory Wolbach, who ran on "housing", turned their back on supporters by helping their developer buddies make even more money by building yet more office ....despite campaign promises!
Despite the huge jobs housing imbalance that is growing and turning our community into an overpriced office park with overcrowded schools and diminishing services for the residents who, by the way foot the bill to keep the machine that is Palo Alto running!

Don't make the same mistake don't vote for Wolbach in the next election if he runs!


55 people like this
Posted by So much sleaze
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 6, 2017 at 9:57 am

On a more personal note, Kniss did her standard call out to a development supporter in the audience. This time she asked a question of the CEO of the development centered Chamber of Commerce.
Kniss is well versed in tricky tricks and mentoring development supporters, (like Wohlbach and Tanaka) she uses them all the time.

It was also amusing to watch Wolbach pretend he doesn't know the differences among non-profit corporations depending on which part of the IRS code they are incorporated. like, the Chamber of Commerce is a non-profit. Billion dollar Stanford is a non-profit. Lawyer Scharff could have enlightened him, but that would have been telling the truth, not his strong suit.


58 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2017 at 9:57 am

How the three council members up for reelection next year voted:


Kou proposal to limit new office development to 40,000 square feet per year, instead of 50,000:

Yes: DuBois, Filseth
No: Wolbach


Allow developers to roll over unused square footage from one year to the next:

Yes: Wolbach
No: DuBois, Filseth


Eliminate requirement that office projects compete on quality (the “beauty contest”):

Yes: Wolbach
No: DuBois, Filseth


38 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 6, 2017 at 10:34 am

Annette is a registered user.

If you watched CC from your home last night, send CC an e-mail to let them know that. I have been told that attendance at meetings is one measure used to gauge public opinion. There are scores of good reasons why people cannot attend in person so if you watch, let them know. You might also note which issues are of interest to you.

I watched and what I didn't hear (may have just missed it) was how many SF were already in the pipeline before the temporary ordinance was enacted that are now being completed. Just looking around it is hard to believe that what's being built is less than 100k sf.

I appreciate the efforts of the 4 who at least tried to have CC vote favorable to the best interests of residents rather than in favor of development that we so obviously cannot absorb or sustain.


Like this comment
Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on Sep 6, 2017 at 10:38 am

[Post removed.]


61 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 6, 2017 at 10:43 am

mauricio is a registered user.

I've been saying it for a long time: Palo Alto is run by pro land development stooges, by Stanford Land stooges and by Palantir stooges. It its run for them, and absolutely not for residents. It has become not much more than a very expensive office park. [Portion removed.]


43 people like this
Posted by Kniss and her boys
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2017 at 10:43 am

[Post removed.]



9 people like this
Posted by Scotty the Boot
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 6, 2017 at 10:45 am

[Post removed.]


64 people like this
Posted by Fair?
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 6, 2017 at 11:00 am

The Mayor said it was fair --

Is it fair that residents have to pay for parking in front of their own homes in a neighborhood they invested into?

Is it fair that residents can't get around town without having to deal with traffic congestion?

Is it fair that moderate income people cannot rent here because rents are pushed up by tech workers who earn more?

Is it fair to residents to have to drive to other cities to buy art supplies, party supplies or entertainment?

Is it fair to residents viable sustainable forms of public transportation are only available readily where businesses are and the residents are an after thought?

Is it fair for people with disabilities to have to pay more for public transportation to get to doctor appointments and therapy?

Is it fair Stanford University is buying up houses in Palo Alto and taking city housing stock and driving up prices?

Kniss, Fine, Tanaka and Wolbach obviously believes it is fair too.


43 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2017 at 11:43 am

Look everybody, our pro-development CC members are basically honest. They return good value on the investments of those that bought and paid for them. If we want resident-oriented government we gotta pony up our money in this next election and outbid the developers.


29 people like this
Posted by Who will start the recall?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2017 at 12:16 pm

Lots of insightful comments, but where are the recall campaigns based on the deceptive election dusclosure paractices? A recall campaign would be a way to discourage such anti-democratic practices. It is especially important given how these same forces got a smaller City Council vote through.

Someone needs to organize their neighbors and get the ball rolling.


27 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 6, 2017 at 2:01 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Curmudgeon is exactly right. We're getting what was paid for and political egos being what they are, this is now our reality unless a thriving grass roots movement gathers momentum and sustains resident-focused candidates in the next election. As you sit in traffic, spend time driving to other cities for services that are no longer available here, and deal with other densification-related problems, keep in mind the names of those who affirmatively voted to impose this on the community. And then DON'T vote for those people (OR ANYONE THEY ENDORSE) ever again, regardless of what office is being sought. That's the only realistic way to stop the tide.


22 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 6, 2017 at 2:54 pm

Disgusting beyond belief! Get me out of this place. The CC is shameful, with pockets full. There is no room for resident in this city. Makes me sick!


4 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 6, 2017 at 3:27 pm

Altho I don't want to tip my hat as to whom I'll vote for, or against, next year, but I remember a few unsuccessful candidates from the last election that I really liked. I hope they give it another shot.

Who knows what the future will bring? Were developers just holding off until the rollover idea was approved?

I think Dubois and Filseth are right about the "beauty contest" Liz seems to think it's about architectural design. She is so experienced and should be able to add so much to council decisions, but she seems to fall back on her liberal idealistic ideas. One more term as mayor and then she'll be out of here trying for a job in Sacramento. Marc Berman beat her there.


24 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 6, 2017 at 3:56 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

Kniss [portion removed] is not a liberal and certainly not an idealist. The people she is beholden to are not liberal or idealistic, they are very wealthy and greedy developers who use the gang of 5 to get even wealthier in return for generous campaign contribution. They don't mind desroying Palo Alto because they don't live in PA, and the rewards are just too great. [Portion removed.]


33 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2017 at 4:12 pm

There should be no remaining doubt about for whom Fine, Kniss, Scharff, Tanaka, and Wolbach work. I'll give you a hint. It isn't me and it isn't you.

They have just voted to worsen some of the city's most intractable problems including jobs/housing imbalance, traffic, parking, etc.


12 people like this
Posted by Recall again?
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 6, 2017 at 5:09 pm

I should be surprised that the weekly allows allison the name calling against certain council members. However given the weekly these days it is line with current policy.
And again with the recall. Why hasn't anything ben done yet? Because there is no real push for a recall except for a few posters on this forum.
But I support recalling holman filséth and dubois.


5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2017 at 5:32 pm

[Post removed.]


4 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 6, 2017 at 5:47 pm

[Post removed.]


23 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 6, 2017 at 5:50 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

This was just the Gang of 5 paying back what they owed to their developer benefectors. It is nauseating, but it was inevitable. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Palo Alto doesn't exist anymore, the only thing that remains is the name, although I wouldn't be surprised if even the name is changed at some point to something like Palantir City.


10 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 6, 2017 at 6:12 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

[Post removed. Please make your criticisms respectfully and they won't be deleted.]


10 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 6, 2017 at 6:31 pm

@Mauricio and @Curmudgeon, did either or both of you ever get my requests to connect with you? I sent at least 2.

Re the recall, it will never happen because we don't have the big money sponsorship that other organized groups and NGO's do.


37 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 6, 2017 at 8:37 pm

I was very upset by the City Council meeting on Tuesday, September 5. I have never seen such a consistent example of partisan voting. The effort was led inappropriately by Mayor Scharf who uses his position as moderator not to elicit views and develop consensus, but to offer his perspective first.This behavior often serves as a guide to the position Council members Tanaka, Kniss, Fine and Wolbach will espouse. For someone who ran on the mantra "housing, housing, housing" Council member Kniss' behavior is surprising. I have only seen her vote for office development and the construction of a hotel. I appreciated Council member Filseth's comment that "we (CC members) work for the residents." That has not been reflected in the voting practices of Scharf, Kniss, Tanaka, Wolbach and Fine. They were elected with developer money and their voting pattern suggests they continue to feel beholden to them.


17 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 7, 2017 at 7:21 am

Annette is a registered user.

There's nothing surprising about the Tuesday night voting or the comments. I don't much see the reason for comments by the majority b/c they are for the most part predictable and disingenuous. Example: Kniss' comments about the so-called beauty contest in which she focused on what it wasn't about (appearance) and completely overlooked what it was about: qualities such as sustainability and parking mitigations.

I don't fault the developers. They are just doing what developers do. The wrongdoing is squarely on the part of the CC majority who, once again, opened the door widely. It is contrary to the resolution of the jobs:housing imbalance to make it easier to build more commercial development that worsens the jobs side of that equation. Doing so also encourages more resistance to housing development b/c our built environment is fully saturated and our infrastructure is dangerously lacking. And this is a smart community??


11 people like this
Posted by tragic loss
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2017 at 7:52 am

It is tragic to see a unique, historic city like Palo Alto be transformed,its qualities and character destroyed by a City Council and staff
which just see it not in its proper context, just throw that out,and treat it as their own private sandbox to be exploited for their own personal agendas. But Palo Alto is not just losing its character and balance, its qualities. It is actually on the verge of imploding onto itself
in complete dysfunction on this reckless path it is on. Also keep in mind a State audit of the County Registrar of Voters was ordered and is presumably
underway. Some of the vote counts by precinct
in the Council elections here in 2014 and 2016
were surprising to many as reported and continue
to hang over this Council.

@Annette. Of course you have to fault the developers as well. Especially locally based
developers.This is a three-legged stool with the
City Council and staff.


4 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 7, 2017 at 8:13 am

Another election cycle coming up next year. Too early for me to say yet, but I remember a few unsuccessful candidates from the last election that I really liked and voted for. I hope they give it another shot.

Who knows what the future will bring? Were the developers just waiting for the rollover idea to be approved?

Filseth and Dubois are right about the 'beauty contest'. It isn't just about architectural design.


8 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 7, 2017 at 8:37 am

Annette is a registered user.

@tragic loss: I see your point but they can do only what they are permitted to do and that is in CC's control. Show me the fox, who, if let into the hen house, won't eat every last hen.


20 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 7, 2017 at 1:19 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

It doesn't get any more hypocritical and grotesque for the hyper development majority in the CC to keep pushing for more commercial development and then shed crocodile tears about the job to housing imbalance.

It's as absurd as a sailor punching holes in his boat and then screaming that the boat is sinking.


16 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 7, 2017 at 1:26 pm

I have previously written to the entire city council, as well as posted on Town Square, asking everyone to stop referring to the evaluation with the demeaning title of "beauty contest" and instead refer to it, more accurately, as a "design competition".

Guess it doesn't matter anymore, but in my opinion, although untested, it was a great idea in principle.

Scharff, Kniss, and their buddies have been completely dishonest in calling the concept a failure and branding it to be only about aesthetics. The Palo Alto Weekly is also at fault for using the misleading name.


9 people like this
Posted by Sanctimonious City
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2017 at 11:46 pm

I don't know why people are complaining about the lack of investment in affordable housing. The city just provided $15M (out of the $55M) for Buena Vista.

Of course that was just a down payment and the costs to bring it up to code or make it usable by other residents will almost certainly go another $15M+ higher.

Maybe we can start a waiting list for PA residents before the Housing Authority decides it is a good place to put Syrian refugees or get the mentally ill off the street from around the county. Since the majority of the funds came from other levels of government, I am sure it will be a popular resource for relocation.


3 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of another community
on Sep 8, 2017 at 12:48 pm

With a city council in control of continued building, blocking our roadways, overcrowiding our schools, how long will it take to klil the golden goose------everyone wants to be in Palo Alto, howevermost can't afford it. At some point either only the fabulous excessively weathy will live here - but this is bound to affect house prices. At this pace it going to affect our school and those that work and save to live here will not be able to even dream about moving here. Oh,.............. IT will be an enclave of people that think nothing of sending their children to private school.

To the city councl members that ran a campaign on building affordable housing, slower office development, safe roads, quallity of life matters and actually vote that way on Council - THANK YOU


3 people like this
Posted by Sadly realistic
a resident of another community
on Sep 8, 2017 at 12:54 pm

With a city council in control of continued building, blocking our roadways, overcrowiding our schools, how long will it take to klil the golden goose------everyone wants to be in Palo Alto, however most can't afford it. At some point either only the fabulous excessively weathy will live here - but this is bound to affect house prices. At this pace it going to affect our school and those that work and save to live here will not be able to even dream about moving here. Oh,.............. IT will be an enclave of people that think nothing of sending their children to private school.

To the city councl members that ran a campaign on building affordable housing, slower office development, safe roads, quallity of life matters and actually vote that way on Council - THANK YOU


10 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 8, 2017 at 5:59 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

"With a city council in control of continued building, blocking our roadways, overcrowding our schools"
Yes, when a CC is a tool of real estate developers, as the Gang of 5 in the Palo Alto CC is, this is what happens. It's also known as profound and blatant corruption.


3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 8, 2017 at 10:08 pm

This makes less sense than pouring the pint of water that was in a quart jug into a gallon jug, expecting that will get you more water.

Or maybe Scharff, Kniss, and the Liz Kids are working a big backroom deal with their developer campaign donors.


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Stanford

on Sep 26, 2017 at 11:18 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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