In the latest effort to combat Palo Alto's housing crisis, three council members are proposing significant revisions to the city's parking regulations, including eliminating parking requirements altogether for "car-light" developments that offer transit amenities to their tenants.
The recommendation to reduce parking requirements for housing is one of more than a dozen in a memo from Councilman Adrian Fine, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Cory Wolbach, the council's most vehement advocates for increasing the housing supply. While all three had alluded to the memo in recent weeks, the actual document wasn't released until the end of last week.
The proposals in the memo target a wide range of disparate regulations -- including ones relating to floor area ratio (FAR), building heights and expanded "pedestrian transit-oriented development" zones, which give developers near transit nodes more flexibility on density and parking. One recommendation would establish "housing minimums" for new developments in residential zones so that a project would be required to provide at least 80 percent of the units that its land use designation can accommodate.
This would be a marked departure from the existing policy of "housing maximums," which mandates that a development in an RM-15 zone, for example, not have more than 15 units per acre. Another proposal in the memo suggests getting away from limits on the number of housing units altogether and to use the floor area ratio (a measure of how much is actually built) as the standard where possible.
Any one of these proposals would require extensive analysis and inevitably involve lengthy debates -- none more so that than the proposed changes on parking, a subject that ranks just under housing on the list of local laments (both topics are perennial entries on the councils list of annual priorities).
The memo proposes that the city consider allowing residential projects to consolidate their parking and transportation-demand-management (TDM) efforts (incentives to avoid driving) with those of the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, a new nonprofit charged with reducing downtown's solo-driver rate. The memo also recommends that the city explore bringing "underutilized parking spaces into a public market," though it does not explain how the city would go about doing so.
The three council members also recommend that the city "explore car-light housing with reduced or eliminated off-street parking requirements," a strategy that the city is already considering as part of its deliberation on a development proposed for the corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, which would feature 60 small apartments and which would offer transit passes, bike amenities and other TDM carrots to its occupants
While they target disparate areas of the city's zoning code, the various proposals all have the same goal: addressing a housing shortage that the memo calls "a threat to our city's prosperity, diversity, stability, environment and community character." The memo alludes to a recent survey that the city had sponsored to gauge resident interest in a transportation measure. The survey showed 76 percent of the respondents ranking housing as an "extremely serious" or "very serious" problem.
The housing crisis, the memo states "has many symptoms including displacement, separated families, long commutes, lack of diversity, environmental impacts, etc." It argues that creating more housing "for a range of ages and incomes is the most equitable and environmentally sustainable path for Palo Alto."
"Palo Alto's housing production has lagged behind our commitments, while several neighboring communities have pursued new housing development near jobs, transit, and services," the memo states. "Palo Alto can do its part to address the housing shortage by increasing housing density in a responsible manner."
The memo argues that some of the city's existing regulations "skew development away from reasonably priced housing" by incentivizing commercial development over housing, large units over small ones and pricier housing over the more affordable variety.
"Of particular concern are our consistently low limits on numbers of units per-acre, low-FAR allowances for housing (including in mixed-use projects), requirements for more parking than is used, and requirements for on-site (rather than adjacent or nearby) parking," the memo states.
While the idea that the city needs to do more to encourage more housing is by now well accepted, the council remains split over a preferred approach. On the slower-growth wing of the council are members who believe the city's approach should focus on affordable housing and protecting existing tenants from spikes in rents. That is the approach championed by Councilman Tom DuBois, Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilwoman Lydia Kou, whose recent memo to consider renter-protections (including a cap on annual rent increases) sparked a lengthy debate but ultimately failed to win the support of the council majority.
The authors of the memo, by contrast, believe the city should encourage all types of housing: both affordable and market-rate. In speaking against the renter-protections memo, Kniss argued on Oct. 16 that the recommendations in the memo offered by her side will "get us to the affordable housing point faster than we were able to get to so far."
In subsequent interviews, Wolbach and Fine similarly made a case for encouraging a variety of housing types. Wolbach told the Weekly that the goal of the memo is to consider how Palo Alto can do "more of its share to address the regional housing crisis," while remaining in line with the new Comprehensive Plan and sensitive to community concerns. The memo recognizes, he said, that "one size does not fit all across Palo Alto."
The zoning changes that the city makes, Wolbach said should be "reasonable and measured and should be thoughtful about the locations" to which they would apply.
"Our memo tweaks the zoning code to facilitate more housing, especially of the types, sizes and price ranges which Palo Alto needs more of," Wolbach said.
He noted that the memo does not propose to raise the citywide 50-foot height limit -- a topic of ongoing debate -- though it does recommend allowing height and density bonuses for projects that provide more below-market-rate units (provided they do not exceed the citywide limit).
Though the memo aligns with a prevalent view that the city needs more affordable housing, its proposals on parking are likely to spark some opposition. The latest National Citizens Survey, which was released in January, showed only 6 percent of the respondents giving the city high marks when asked about "affordable, quality housing," The same survey, however, also revealed resident anxieties about traffic and parking. Only 33 percent ranked the city "good" or "excellent" and asked about ease of public parking.
One of the challenges that staff and the council will face in implementing the proposals in the memo is treating the former problem without exacerbating the latter.
Fine, the lead author of the memo, said the main objective of the memo is to more closely analyze the various tools that the city has at its disposal for encouraging housing. The memo proposes that planning and legal staff return to the council with a "work plan" for evaluating the various proposals in the memo.
"We might look and see that parking is a big lever or density or transit -- we don't know that information yet," Fine said. "I'd like to see more information about what levers we have and which we should pull."