In a highly unusual move, three members of Palo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission have authored a memo urging the City Council to reject the full commission's recommendation and approve a new zoning district to encourage affordable housing.
The memo, which commissioners Michael Alcheck, Vice Chair Sue Monk and William Riggs submitted to the council Thursday afternoon, makes a case for creating a new affordable-housing overlay district, a zoning tool that would grant concessions on height and parking requirements to developments with 100 percent affordable housing.
The council is scheduled to consider the new overlay district on April 9.
The proposed zoning district is one component of the city's Housing Work Plan, which lays out dozens of new policies that Palo Alto plans to consider in the next two years to meet the council's housing goals. Earlier this year, the council set at its target the creation of 300 housing units every year between now and 2030. That's roughly three times as many units as the city has produced in recent years.
This particular policy was sparked in part by a proposal by the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing top build a four-story development on El Camino Real, near Wilton Avenue. The project would include about 60 housing units for residents who make 60 percent of the area median income or less. Though the nonprofit has not yet submitted a formal application, officials have indicated that some waivers and concessions would be required to make the project economically feasible.
At its meetings on Feb. 14 and March 14, members of the planning commission generally agreed that they would like to see the project constructed. But they split sharply over whether to create the new zoning district and ultimately voted 4-3, not to issue a recommendation on the affordable housing overlay district. Instead, Chair Ed Lauing and commissioners Przemek Gardias, Doria Summa and Asher Waldfogel suggested that the council approve the Wilton project under a "planned community" zone and take more time to refine the new zoning district.
The new memo from the three dissenting commissioners urges the council to reject this recommendation from their colleagues and to approve the new zoning district.
"It is the most promising tool our body has considered to address the enormous shortage of affordable housing in our City," the memo states. "Such zoning overlay ordinances are 'simple' policies that do not obfuscate existing zoning, but rather provide yet another tool in the toolbox for non-for-profit developers to use when attempting to bring forward the rarely proposed 100 percent affordable housing project."
The three commissioners note that the zone would not automatically grant housing developers permission to build in the new overlay district. They would still have to take the plans to the planning commission and the City Council for approval.
The three commissioners also urge the council in the memo to make Stanford Research Park and the city's General Manufacturing districts eligible for the new overlay zone (under the current proposal, it could only be applied to commercial zones). They also recommend that the new ordinance grant the city the right to waive its "ground-floor retail" requirement for qualifying projects; to provide "flexibility" when considering a project's distance from transit corridors; and allow height and density increases where appropriate.
"While our hope is that Council will accept our minority recommendation, we recognize that it will not solve all of our city's housing supply issues," the memo states. "That said, we believe that we must begin taking actions to address housing now, and we believe this recommendation is an important first step."