With all the talk among Palo Alto elected officials and civic leaders about the need for more housing for lower-income individuals, families and seniors, we were stunned by the City Council's misguided decision Monday night to not even consider the possibility of building such housing above city parking lots.
It was the only one of dozens of strategies identified in a housing plan prepared by the city staff that the council opted not to pursue, and the decision was made as if it was an insignificant minor tweak to the plan. Instead, it jettisoned what may be the best hope of building the type of rental housing most needed in Palo Alto.
The motion to remove a study of this idea from the plan was made by Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, seconded by Councilman Greg Scharff and ultimately agreed to on a 6-3 vote (with Greg Tanaka, Lydia Kou, Karen Holman and Tom DuBois joining them). Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilmen Adrian Fine and Cory Wolbach voted to keep the study in the plan.
The decision was as irrational as the unusual alignment of votes.
Filseth initially stated his strong preference, shared by most of his colleagues, that the city's housing efforts focus more on low-income affordable housing rather than market-rate housing. We totally agree, as do, in our opinion, most Palo Altans. But without a clear explanation, Filseth then casually proposed eliminating from consideration any use of the air space above city-owned parking lots, the one housing strategy that has a land cost of zero.
"I don't think we should give away public land," Filseth said, even though the concept being proposed wouldn't replace parking, wouldn't give away any public land and would merely consider the potential for developing housing above one or more city parking lots.
Scharff, who has previously expressed interest in such an idea, seemed equally disconnected from the unique opportunity presented by publicly owned parking lots and argued Monday night that he would rather turn parking lots into parks than housing if the lots were no longer needed for parking at some time in the future.
Did the council not just agree that housing creation is the city's top priority?
It was as if these six council members had either failed to understand the staff proposal or suddenly lost sight of the enormous financial challenges of creating housing that is affordable for lower-income service workers and others. Or perhaps they are less committed to such housing than they say.
Where is the innovation and creative thinking that we like to associate with Palo Alto?
The single greatest obstacle to creating additional housing in Palo Alto for anyone other than highly paid professionals is the high cost of land, and any opportunity to leverage land already owned by the city to develop housing means that public, non-profit or private housing developers can build housing at a substantially reduced cost, resulting in the most number of affordable units.
Recognizing this, the city staff proposed only that it "explore the opportunity to put housing over parking." As Wolbach said, "I can't think of a better use of a parking lot than to build housing above it." Kniss was equally incredulous at the council's vote to nix the study.
Developing housing above parking lots is not a radical or nutty idea. In 1984, Palo Alto was an early pioneer in the concept when it granted air rights above a small city parking lot on High Street between Lytton and University to developer Chuck Kinney so a 44-unit condominium development called Abitare could be built above the public parking.
That project had 40 market-rate condominium units and four below-market-rate units, and therefore isn't a good example of how to maximize the public land subsidy to create affordable rental units. But it showed the potential for retaining public parking while building housing above. Imagine an apartment building with small units being developed by a nonprofit housing organization like Palo Alto Housing for rentals, using available housing funds, to serve low-income service workers or seniors. Without any land cost, housing dollars can be stretched much further and rents can be substantially lower.
If we are to be successful in developing significant amounts of more affordable housing, we can't depend on requirements or incentives so that private developers will include a few more units of subsidized housing as they build market-rate housing. Because of high land costs, the number of truly affordable units will continue to be small through that approach.
No one dreamed that the council might remove the study of housing above city-owned parking lots from the plan, and we hope housing advocates push back strongly on the decision and ask that it be reconsidered. There is no good rationale for taking the option that is potentially the most capable of providing low-income housing units off the table.