A state bill that would increase zoning densities, relax parking requirements and curb cities' abilities to limit building heights in transit-rich areas is proving to be a tough sell in Palo Alto, where city officials on Tuesday took a firm stance against the proposed legislation.
Authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, Senate Bill 827 would provide zoning concessions and exemptions from local regulations for "transit-rich housing projects," which are defined in the bill as residential developments within a half-mile radius of a major transit stop or within a quarter-mile radius of a high-quality transit corridor. Qualifying projects would not be subject to limits on the maximum number of units, minimum parking requirements or maximum height limitations.
Wiener's new bill comes at a time when the Palo Alto City Council is trying to roughly triple its housing production, in part by revising the local zoning code to give developers incentives for building housing. But despite the Palo Alto's recent push on housing, officials are raising concerns that the Wiener bill would actually hinder the city's efforts.
On Tuesday, the city signaled its official opposition to the bill in a letter to Wiener's office. Signed by Mayor Liz Kniss, the letter alludes to the city's effort to amend its zoning regulations to encourage residential projects with higher densities near transit areas. That effort received a boost Monday night, when the council approved a Housing Work Plan that include a list of zoning revisions staff will be working on in the coming months.
"SB 827 in its current form could diminish local acceptance of residential development and undermine our local efforts," the letter states.
The letter also alludes to the package of 15 housing bills that the Legislature passed last year (including Wiener's Senate Bill 35, which created a streamlined approval process for qualifying housing developments). It remains to be seen, the letter states, whether the voters will approve the most significant of the funding measures passed last year -- a $4-billion bond that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.
"We ask that you give us all time to assess and adjust to changes from 2017," the city's letter states. "However, we must join with The League of California Cities and others to oppose SB 827."
City Manager James Keene declared the city's opposition to the bill at the Monday night meeting, shortly before members kicked off their discussion on best ways to encourage housing.
The council's opposition is not, however, unanimous. Councilman Adrian Fine, author of the memo spurred the creation of the Housing Work Plan, said that he disagrees with the dissent. He also said he is disappointed in the process that led to the drafting of the letter, with he said caught him by surprise (the council had not had any extensive discussions about the Wiener bill before the letter was drafted and sent out).
Fine said he supports SB 827 and intends to write letters to Wiener's office and to the League of California Cities, signaling his support. He told the Weekly that he sees housing as an "environmental, equity and economical" issue and that he supports the bill's goal of building housing near transit.
"If we aren't going (to) support housing here, then where?" Fine said.
It's clear, he said, that many cities -- including Palo Alto -- are not effectively using their zoning codes and regulations to achieve housing goals.
"We should be flexible and entertaining new ideas," Fine said.