Palo Alto's planning commissioners reaffirmed their stance in favor of more affordable housing for lower-income workers as part of their final review of an updated city land-use vision Wednesday.
The Planning and Transportation Commission, which has been vetting the updated Comprehensive Plan over the course of six public hearings, approved a list of proposed changes to the document, certified the environmental analysis and voted to forward its feedback to the City Council, which is set to adopt the updated plan in November.
Once in place, the document will guide the city's land-use policies until 2030.
Much like prior meetings, Wednesday night's discussion was a free-for-all of competing ideas, with commissioners debating everything from the best way to measure the effects of traffic to the best way to package their deliberations and conclusions for the council's review. On the issue of housing, however, they posed a unified front. After voting 7-0 on Sept. 13 to recommend a stronger emphasis on below-market-rate housing, the commission Wednesday agreed to take its pro-housing stance even further.
The big debate was over semantics. Commission Chair Michael Alcheck supported a policy calling for "dramatically increasing housing supply" in Palo Alto and argued that doing so is a "moral imperative."
It should be unacceptable for Palo Alto to be in the bottom half among Santa Clara County cities in terms of meeting its regional allocation for providing housing, he said.
"(If) any time a developer that came before us with a housing site, we'd encourage them to develop more units not less -- that's the premise here," Alcheck said, explaining his proposed policy.
Commissioners Susan Monk and Eric Rosenblum also supported going much further when it comes to building housing. Monk, the commission's sole renter, called the city's housing shortage a "true crisis" and argued that if Palo Alto doesn't do anything dramatic, middle-class residents won't be able to afford living here.
"If we don't do something aggressively in this existing plan, we won't have a problem with school enrollment because you won't have young professionals moving in here," Monk said. "You won't have families here."
Others commissioners, while sharing the sentiment, favored a less dramatic approach. The language the commission ultimately adopted by a 5-1 vote, with Vice Chair Asher Waldfogel dissenting and Commissioner Przemak Gardias abstaining, recommended having the document express "strong preference" for "affordable housing." Waldfogel's objection was that the phrasing was too vague and didn't specifically call out "below-market-rate housing."
The commission's recommendation is largely consistent with the goals of the council, which made housing a top priority earlier this year and which is undertaking several efforts to promote housing. These include easing the rules for accessory-dwelling units; entertaining a housing complex with 60 "microunits" on the corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road; and crafting a new vision for the Ventura neighborhood site around Fry's Electronics (widely viewed as ripe for redevelopment, the Portage Road site is expected to accommodate more than 200 housing units).
While the Wednesday debate over housing was largely a matter of semantics for the commission, there was a more fundamental split during its discussions of parking and traffic. Commissioner Eric Rosenblum proposed that the Comprehensive Plan consider a fundamental shift in the city's parking policy. Under the scheme he proposed, developers would provide fees instead of parking spots when they build new developments, with the idea that the city would then build centralized parking facilities.
The current policy, he said, results in too many existing parking spots being exclusively underused.
"I believe, what it's resulted in is a city that has lots and lots of buildings, with captive parking under them that are not fully utilized," Rosenblum said.
His proposal failed by a 3-4 vote, with Monk and Alcheck supporting him. Rosenblum also failed -- by the same vote -- to sway the majority when he argued that the city should stop giving "level of service" grades to measure traffic levels. He said focusing on that kind of metric limits design options and "leads to bad outcomes."
Commissioners also opted, after some debate, not to include language calling for exceptions to the city's 50-foot height limit -- a topic that the council specifically voted to exclude from the plan earlier this year. Alcheck and Rosenblum were the only commissioners who wanted to broach the subject.
Rosenblum noted that the Community Advisory Committee -- a citizens group that helped draft the updated Comprehensive Plan -- also favored by a slim majority allowing below-market-rate developments to exceed the height limit.
"I feel like the 50-foot height limit is the third rail," Rosenblum said, "I'm happy to touch the rail and say, this is something that the CAC discussed favorably."
Rosenblum had more success when he promoted at the Sept. 13 meeting a specific plan for the downtown area that would explore converting parts of University Avenue to a pedestrian-only zone. That proposal advanced by a 5-2 vote, with Commissioners Doria Summa and Przemek Gardias dissenting.
The commission also agreed that the new Comprehensive Plan should have a greater focus on creating walkable neighborhoods and preserving retail. And on the transportation side, commissioners unanimously recommended that the council adopt a policy statement on California's proposed high-speed rail system.
But it was the topic of housing -- and ways to encourage it -- that dominated much of the discussion over the past two hearings.
"It's part of the diversity that we all want," Ed Lauing said on Sept. 13. "It's very fundamental to our values in Palo Alto and I think we should raise it to the policy level, talk about eliminating the barriers ... and really, really focus on opening this type of housing up in a stronger way than it's stated (in the draft Comprehensive Plan)."