News

Palo Alto to explore zoning updates to encourage housing

City Council unites behind memo to encourage more residential construction near transit and jobs

Members of the Palo Alto City Council set aside their differences on the divisive topic of housing Monday night and agreed to explore more than a dozen changes to local zoning and parking regulations, all with the goal of promoting more residential construction in transit-rich areas.

In a vote that further underscored the growing urgency of what council members often refer to as a "housing crisis," the council unanimously supported a wide-ranging memo from Councilman Adrian Fine, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Cory Wolbach that lays out the various areas of the local zoning code that should be reviewed and possibly changed.

One proposed change is creating an inclusionary-zoning requirement for rental projects, thereby forcing developers of these projects to offer a percentage of the units at below market rate. Another would raise the percentage of below-market-rate units that market-rate developments have to provide from 15 percent to 20 percent. Other policies include allowing greater height and density in projects that provide "substantially more" below-market-rate units than required; and establishing "housing minimums" for new developments (as opposed to the current standard of "housing maximum," which limits projects in the RM-15 zone, for instance, to no more than 15 units per acre.

Yet another proposal would scrap the units-per-acre measurement altogether and evaluate projects based on floor area.

Fine, the lead author of the memo, said the proposals in the memo "chart a path to begin producing more housing that is more affordable, less dependent on cars and better positioned for the future." And by focusing housing in areas where transit and jobs are plentiful, the memo advocates for what Fine called "the most environmentally and socially responsible way to add new housing."

In introducing the memo, Fine said he is "looking for solutions to the city's housing issues and also the region's housing issues."

"I also want this council to respond to our community's No. 1 concern, which is housing," Fine said. "We've heard it over and over and over again in many different ways, whether it's affordable housing, transit-oriented housing or rental housing.

The discussion of the memo came just three weeks after the council splintered over a very different approach to addressing the problem of housing affordability. On Oct. 16, the council rejected the recommendations from Councilwoman Karen Holman, Councilman Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Lydia Kou to explore rent-stabilization measures, including capping annual rent increases and prohibiting no-cause evictions. After a long and tense debate, the council voted 3-6 not to move ahead with the memo, with opponents arguing that the measures would distract from the more urgent task of encouraging new housing.

Some of these tensions spilled over into this week, with DuBois and Holman both recommending that staff also explore measures for preserving existing housing. These include regulating Airbnb rentals and figuring out ways to limit "ghost houses," which are often purchased for investment purposes and sit dormant for extended periods of time.

"With the things that are left out -- such as short-term rental ordinance and addressing 'ghost houses,' it's really missing a huge aspect of what the community wants addressed and how we can make housing that's existing be used as housing," Holman said, in lobbying for these measures to be included. "If we want something that's popular and address the issues that the community cares about, I think it's really important to include these things."

The council generally agreed that these issues, while important, are best addressed in a different conversation. Kniss noted that the focus of the colleagues' memo is "creating" -- rather than retaining -- housing, with a focus on transportation hubs and on affordability.

"I really see this memo as really going after affordable housing and looking at ways that we can deal with special populations in our community, whether it's workforce or seniors or whoever they might be," said Kniss, who made creation of housing the centerpiece of her council campaign last year.

The proposal to explore housing-retention strategies fell by a 4-5 vote, with the three memo authors joining Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilman Greg Tanaka, to defeat it -- an outcome that Holman said left her "flummoxed" and "frustrated." Holman's proposal to better define "affordable market rate housing" fell by the same vote.

But the council ultimately united in supporting the housing memo, which also recommends a series of strategies to encourage development in transit-friendly areas. These include reducing parking requirements for projects that can offer significant "transportation-demand management" measures (incentives for residents to avoid cars) and expanding the "pedestrian transit-oriented development zone" -- a designation that grants density bonuses and other concessions to projects close to transit hubs.

The memo alludes to research that points to "the need for more housing at a variety of price-points as essential to solving the housing crisis."

"To prevent urban sprawl and congestion, new housing is best located near transit, jobs and services," the memo states.

With its unanimous vote, the council directed staff to return with a work plan outlining a process for studying and implementing the memo's proposals. After the council approves the work plan, the various proposals would be analyzed by staff and the Planning and Transportation Commission before returning to the council for adoption.

Related content:

Webcast: New vision for Ventura; housing proposals

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Comments

44 people like this
Posted by casey
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2017 at 10:43 am

casey is a registered user.

Isn't the obvious solution to build on the Buena Vista Mobile Home site so that the land may be better utilized with increased density and updated amenities?


14 people like this
Posted by @casey
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2017 at 11:03 am

So long as the current BV residents got first dibs on "upgraded units", this would be great, because it would allow their units to be brought up to code while providing space for others to live. Win-win


22 people like this
Posted by Lensey
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 8, 2017 at 11:08 am

Really glad the council is finally trying to figure out housing problems! about time!


31 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2017 at 11:46 am

Amazing how the answer to everything is always "build more stuff"


17 people like this
Posted by Linnea
a resident of Monroe Park
on Nov 8, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Good News! HURRAH for a unanimous City Council vote on moving forward on innovation in support of new housing options!


7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2017 at 12:44 pm

The headline is very misleading. It should be to encourage building more apartments! I can't see that any houses will be built.

It is like the game of monopoly, a house is a small building. A hotel is a big red building. Perhaps monopoly big read buildings should be called apartment blocks too.


66 people like this
Posted by No to housing
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 8, 2017 at 1:22 pm

We do not have a "housing crisis" we have too many people. Building massive numbers of new houses will make life worse for everyone here. Our local, county and state representatives have utterly failed in their job to plan for what is a sustainable number of people who can have a good quality of life here. By allowing too much development and being paid off by mega corporations and tech companies they have flooded this area with too many jobs and that is driving up hosing costs and pushing out the balance of workers that we need to have good cities and counties.

Sheer greed continues to drive the "house them all in little tiny apartments" group. Locally our city council continues to allow more office space to be built and then tells new people coming her to pay thousands of dollars for tinny little studio apartments. They show no concern for these newcomers, or for the residents they are suppose to represent. They plan to overcrowd the road and infrastructure even more, they plan to destroy the schools by turning them into such crowded entities that no one will recognize or care about the students, they don't plan for pools, parks, entertainment venues or community spaces for people to gather and work at hobbies.

This drive to house everyone who wants to come here will just turn this area into an ever more polluted, crowded and overpriced area. The solution is to stop building and start to down zone areas with too many jobs so that the area will balance out again. We need to take care of the people who live here and the environment and stop with this crazy and unsupportable growth that will bury us all.

Further - have you noticed that while all these "cram them into little tiny apartment" types preach about this being how people should live - all of the city council and planning and transportation members all live in single family homes. Guess it is just good for those "other " people.


11 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 8, 2017 at 1:43 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

It's significant that the final vote was unanimous, even after points were raised...and some felt very strongly about them...regarding other things that should be considered and included. And it shouldn't be thought of as a 'win' for the Fine/Kniss/Wolbach team and a 'loss' for the Dubois/Holman/Kou team. The goal of more affordable housing is common, and new affordable housing is the main thrust of this new colleague's memo. Let it move forward and get further review by committees and staff. Right now it's a 'no harm, no foul' situation.

Other thoughts:

Yes, on raising height limits and relaxing density regulations, but in very specific zones, and where adjacent R-1 neighborhoods wouldn't be adversely affected. It's clear that the young, well educated, singles, and primarily tech workers, are the targeted audience. There is very little or anything offered for families in the proposal, and PA is, and always has been about families in R-1 neighborhoods, after they get their start in apartments and before marriage and having kids. I lived in a dorm room with a mate. I can't imagine living in that same space now. Micro units...yikes! Let's not fool ourselves...there are no experts on this. It will just be a grand experiment, and our city is the laboratory. Be patient and understanding of our CC members, even those who think they are so right on this subject, when time might prove them to be so wrong.

On Parking: As much as some of our CC members seem to think they are great predictors of human habits and nature, and that cars will be a thing of the past for most of PA's inhabitants, I think caution is needed. I think there is an answer out there if a good survey was made to determine how many of the potential buyers/renters that want to live in PA would give up their cars. And before changing the regulations carte blanche for any and all new developments, select a few as test cases and monitor them very closely to see what happens. Cap rental units to the parking spaces. The hope is that many renters will sign on the dotted line (lease agreement) that they don't own a car and don't plan to do so for the duration of the lease. DMV records can bear that out. This is a critical and necessary measure/step to take. Don't get lazy and lax on this one. Get the facts. I'm still waiting for the quarterly report facts on the ADU issue.

Back to 'affordable': That is such a worn out adjective. Please, would any of the memo's signators share with us what they think 'affordable' means, for whom, and what they define the BMR level to be here in PA?

Transit availability: TMA's, PPPR's notwithstanding...the parking side of the issue...there is a limit to the number of commuting workers who can get to PA by train. The rest get here in big buses, or driving, some in carpools, but many as solo drivers. It's an undeniable fact. So, I'd like to hear from the memo's author and signators on what they have to offer to mitigate/ameliorate this problem.


24 people like this
Posted by Larry
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 8, 2017 at 2:28 pm

What success have we had with encouraging residents near transit to give up their cars? I believe we haven't had much success but would like to see evidence that they are. We can provide incentives for residents to give up their cars but do they really do without a car and if they do keep one, where do they park it?


30 people like this
Posted by MikeCrescentPark
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 8, 2017 at 3:11 pm

Perhaps the best model for how this kind of housing is done is the favelas of Rio de Janiero. Most of the ideas being considered from this meeting suggest how the favelas came to be.

As an earlier poster said- it’s not a problem of too little housing, it’s too many people.


52 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 8, 2017 at 3:33 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

Palo Alto never had a housing problem, the problem is that too many people want to live in what is essentially a small, and totally built out small town, based on existing infrastructure and the small town is unable to accommodate them without losing any semblance of acceptable quality of life and suburban life style. Palo Alto is already massively overcrowded, bearing in mind that its population triples or quadruples during the day due to Stanford and downtown and other parts which have become an office parks. It is insane to build more housing for what is basically a vanity project:I must have a Palo Alto address or bust.

The city council should represent only current residents by doing everything in their power to increase their quality of life. It should not represent Palo Alto or Bust aspiring residents, nor developers. One of the best ways to increase the quality of life of current residents is to figure out how to DECREASE the population, not increase it.


24 people like this
Posted by @No to housing
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 8, 2017 at 4:11 pm

No to housing
Mauricio

Agree completely ...

Absolutely no to nonsense. "near transit and jobs" - yeah, right. Are they going to ban thousands of future palo altans from driving anywhere but job and Caltrain station?

No new development until they show us the design of two level roads, flying cars, or at least network of local trains that will help alleviate the current traffic nightmare.

The council is opening the flood gates. Just watch it now.


4 people like this
Posted by Chad Edwards
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 8, 2017 at 5:16 pm

Never going to happen. Palo Alto will zone appropriately for growth when it is mandated by the State or Federal government.

In the meantime we will continue to have an inelastic supply of housing and wildly fluctuating prices...


1 person likes this
Posted by No to nimbys
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2017 at 7:41 pm

[Post removed.]


4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 8, 2017 at 9:23 pm

Three easy solutions:

1. Raise permitting fees on commercial developments to just above the threshold of financial infeasibility, then double them;

2. Abolish development fees for conversion of office space to housing;

3. Incentivize lot combining for multifamily housing projects in R-1 and R-2 zones.


7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2017 at 9:32 pm

Ah yes, if you don't agree with me, you must be a Nimby.

Hope you understand I'm only calling you names in order to show how more thoughtful and convincing my ideas are.


9 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 9, 2017 at 7:16 am

There is a big difference between residential r-1 housing and apartment buildings. Houses are owned by people who presumably live in the houses and have children in the school system. Or they rent or lease. These houses tend to turn over on a periodic basis which changes the tax base of the property. Apartment buildings are owned by major local companies which function in a different tax basis for the property. If a company owns a building and never sells it then the property tax basis will have minimal change. If the city wants to convert an area from houses to apartments then they have to buy out the individual owners who are looking at about $2M +/- per property. That is harder to do. As to parking there are now 4 techies living in a house who have to move their cars all over. They said that the city approved the rental to the techies through the owner - so we have house owners who are sabotaging the R-1 status of the area the houses are in. That means all kinds of cars being moved for trash day and street cleaning day. Did you all forget street cleaning? East PA has signage throughout the city for street cleaning - they understand their vulnerability of flooding due to low maintenance of the sewer system. We don't seem to get this issue. If you are looking at the tax base for the city then houses produce more change and increase the tax base. Apartments reduce the tax base for the city. Please consider the tax base in the calculations since the school system budget is driven by the tax base that supports it.


13 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2017 at 7:37 am

Remember that “below market rate housing” is just a politically correct name for “subsidized housing”, which in the end is a hidden TAX. It is paid for by ever higher market rate housing prices.


13 people like this
Posted by paresident
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 9, 2017 at 8:28 am

@ Resident -- your quote is all too true unfortunately: "They said that the city approved the rental to the techies through the owner - so we have house owners who are sabotaging the R-1 status of the area the houses are in." The city is allowing the sabotaging of R-1 status -- we have a neighbor who is packing tenants in every which way possible, with multiple beds in a room and that includes cots and sofas. There are over 20 cars linked to this house. Code enforcement says there are no restrictions on this use but it de facto changes our zoning to a higher density zoning. Code enforcement needs to enforce R-1 zoning regulations.


7 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 9, 2017 at 8:34 am

There is plenty of room in Palo Alto for more people. As long as they don't have cars. Can we make that a legal condition for living in the new apartments? Because, there is already too much traffic and not enough parking in most neighborhoods as it is.


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 9, 2017 at 9:25 am

"Code enforcement needs to enforce R-1 zoning regulations."

Gave you checked the city code? Maybe there's no code to enforce in this case.

The problem would go away if the city just abolished R-1. That would, among other things, get rid of false expectations.


40 people like this
Posted by Safety and Environment, remember them?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 9, 2017 at 9:48 am

"The proposal to explore housing-retention strategies fell by a 4-5 vote, with the three memo authors joining Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilman Greg Tanaka, to defeat it -- an outcome that Holman said left her "flummoxed" and "frustrated." Holman's proposal to better define "affordable market rate housing" fell by the same vote."

I.e., they are saying existing contributing low-income and average-income citizens deserve no help or protection, the Council (at least the majority who ran on deceptive ads and misled in their funding disclosures) exists to serve the wants of developers and companies like Palantir to create high density short-term housing for their workers, and even get some of it subsidized by the public through BMR, BMR in a new building isn't the same as low income, it's just a lottery cheaper spot for some highly paid tech workers making more than half the people paying to make than spot cheaper. Affordable housing should be for people who are objectively low income.

The fact that the Overdevelopment Five would not study the issue of housing retention, which is where the concerns of existing, struggling residents is, makes the veneer of the pretense if caring for affordability in order to spur overdevelopment even thinner.

There is no reasonable scenario in this area where building more will produce affordability. There is no reasonable scenario under which building near transit will magically reduce cars. Just ask Hong Kong, with the densest population on the planet, and the best transit system in the world. They are building 4X6 spaces now, called coffins, for people to live in - and yes, they are miserable - still on the belief that denser housing will be affordable AND IT NEVER IS in a job center like that. That ship has long sailed in this area. This area is not an island like Hong Kong, though, we are a vast nation with underdeveloped areas. The companies just don't want to move because they all want the public to make all the investments that they piggyvpback on. Well San Jose hasn't maxed out yet, they want the growth. Palo Alto could far better provide for actual inclusionary housing (including the disabled) if it stopped catering to developers and companies who want this as their private company town.

The only rational approach is to get growing companies to move on to areas with the infrastructure to support their growth, and perhaps create stronger ethics laws to keep special interests and developers from stacking our Council as they just did. (Citizens beware what will happen when the number of Councilmembers is reduced if you don't recall the ones that misled in their donation disclosures from developers in this last election.)

When a car breaks down, the entire area comes to a halt for a day. This is not healthy for commerce, safety, health, or sanity, and will not be solved by more dense housing near transit. Just ask Hong Kong. Studies of Hong Kong show that commute times are high even in that small, dense place, twice as long as Los Angeles, because that's the nature of higher density and transit. And guess what? Despite the best transit system in the world and high high density housing, it's not affordable and people often don't live near their jobs. We simply cannot get ahead of a laissez faire attitude toward corporate growth. There is no scenario on the continuum between here and Hong Kong in which housing becomes affordable by making it denser or on transit. This is just about whether Palantir and other companies wanting to take over what the public built can entrench and get their company-town housing next to their downtown takeover and developers can continue to have their way.

This after a season of major natural disasters in Texas and the North Bay in which the dangers caused by unfettered development came down on the thousands of ordinary people whose lives were put in the path of destruction because developers care about nothing but their own profits. It's time to demand that we come up with a reasonable plan to reduce large-corporations taking over, and prevents it from happening again. Have people forgotten that this overgrowth not only causes problems in boom times, but also worse in down times? Stanford will be a perpetual source of innovators and they were here before these company-town conpanies growing too large for the space. This is no longer like the eighties when we coukd fix a traffic backup on 101 with another lane. The infrastructure is at a limit all over. We simply must have policies that encourage the growing companies to move on. It's necessary in a place with limited infrastructure, and better for our nation economically and politically. The Overdevelopment Five carry on like Hong Kong's the limit.


27 people like this
Posted by Safety and Environment, remember them?
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 9, 2017 at 10:31 am

I read your entire post, believe it or not. All true.
Anyone who is not financially vested in development and willing to take a step back will agree: this cannot go on. We are already choking on transportation and parking. Pollution is not as obvious but it will be killing us in the long run by giving us cancers, lung disease, asthma.
Is this a feature of modern day politics on various levels: masses are following the greed obsessed leaders blindly into the abyss?
The saddest part is that it can be done to everyone's liking if there is a minimum amount thoughtfulness on all sides and willing to compromise just a little.
Not here, I guess...


4 people like this
Posted by Meant to be @Safety and Environment, remember them?
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 9, 2017 at 10:33 am

Sorry, did not mean to impersonate Safety and Environment, remember them?
@Safety and Environment, remember them?


14 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 9, 2017 at 5:21 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Sometimes I think that one of our biggest problems is that our decision makers (and those who support those decision makers who are elected)are so financially comfortable that they make decisions as though everyone who lives and/or works in Palo Alto is, too. This city is becoming less diverse and more one-dimensional. We really don't need and cannot support any more commercial development. That may change someday, but for now we are saturated. We also cannot possibly house all the people who want to live here. We should acknowledge that and tell ABAG as much.

But we can and should do what we can to add as much BMR/affordable housing as we can w/o fatally eroding quality of life for current residents. This will be a very hard balance to achieve, but I think that is what we must do if we are going to save what diversity we have left and have a community that is home to all sorts of people, including those with community-serving jobs. If we don't, we risk losing our soul and becoming a sterile, dense place that is anything but a community.


9 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 10, 2017 at 5:34 am

Annette is a registered user.

@Safety and Environment, remember them?

Excellent post. Reveal yourself and run for Council. Please. We badly need people who understand that we are not dealing with a blank canvas.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 10, 2017 at 3:39 pm

"But we can and should do what we can to add as much BMR/affordable housing as we can w/o fatally eroding quality of life for current residents. This will be a very hard balance to achieve, but I think that is what we must do if we are going to save what diversity we have left and have a community that is home to all sorts of people, including those with community-serving jobs."

This also ties back to the RV and mobile home park issue. I would love to see BMR housing that benefits long-time residents. What I don't know is how that works so that it favors long-term residents. I don't like to see old-timers forced out of town, but, eventually, people move on one way or the other, and, over time, diversity suffers.


6 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 11, 2017 at 6:43 am

mauricio is a registered user.

@Safery and environment, remember them?

Since your comments are so true and irrefutable, rest assured that the Mega Development Five in the CC will completely ignore them.


5 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 11, 2017 at 3:20 pm

We seem to have a group in the CC/city that thinks we need to be all things to all people. Or we need to set an example of leadership to the rest of the peninsula. If you have not noticed the rest of the peninsula is building in an organized manner and including profit making companies. If you have not noticed they pay taxes. That is something that non-profits do not do. There is continual blather that there is a profit making company in the down town they need to be eliminated. The other cities are upgrading and getting RV's out of the city centers. We all talk a lot but are falling behind. Creating chaos in the residential planning is not the answer. Discombobulating the zoning requirements is not the answer. Take a deep breath and let the existing projects that have been approved get built then sort out where we are. And quit stacking bodies in houses that are built for families that use our school systems. That is who we are - families with children who are in the school system. If there are younger unmarried people on the CC they should assume that they will eventually have a family and children by what ever choices available. Quit ruining it for everyone else. It is like herding cats - or chickens running around and squawking.


12 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 11, 2017 at 5:00 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

We have a group in the CC than believes that living in Palo Alto is a divine right, and that every person who wants to live in PA, and this applies mostly to highly paid tech workers, should be helped by current residents through subsidies and/or willingness to give up their lifestyle and quality off life. They also believe that residents should subsidize companies that refuse to move on to more affordable areas that desperately need economic boost by subsidizing and allowing huge increase in density, not even demanding that these companies help a necessary multi billion upgrade in the infrastructure if such densification is carried out. Socialism for tech firms, developers and well compensated employees, capitalism for the rest.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident since the 50's
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 12, 2017 at 10:30 pm

Am I the only person wondering and caring about where water is going to come from for any future housing and development?
Developers don't seem to care, and the companies and people moving here from out of state, and from overseas seem oblivious to our drought problems.

Take a Look at what's happening in Los Angeles right now!
These people can't import all their water from us here in the North, while we are trying to meet the needs of our own regions development.
Web Link

I would like to mandate "toilet to the tap" hookup for any new housing developments.
Newcomers should pay for their own special sewage to tap treatment facility with a "Newbie" bond.
Perhaps drinking treated pee and poop will help deter some newcomers.


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