In a bid to rein in commercial growth in Palo Alto, a group of residents is preparing to place a measure on the November ballot that would more tightly limit new office space in the city.
The effort, which is being spearheaded by former Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, seeks to modify Palo Alto's existing citywide cap of 1.7 million square feet for office and research-and-development (this total exempts the ongoing expansion of the Stanford University Medical Center). If the measure were to succeed, the cap would be reduced to 850,000 square feet and would apply to the whole city.
Schmid, who served on the council between 2007 and 2016, said the initiative does not seek to slow down commercial growth so much as keep it on par with the city's historic levels. According to an analysis that the city conducted before adopting its updated Comprehensive Plan last year, Palo Alto's average annual rate of growth for non-residential areas was 58,013 square feet per year between 1989 and 2014.
The new Comprehensive Plan includes a policy to "maintain a citywide cap of 1.7 million new square feet of office/R&D development." The limit was derived from the prior Comprehensive Plan, which had a cap of 3.25 million square feet, also based on the growth that the city had experienced since the earlier Comprehensive Plan was adopted.
The new Comprehensive Plan also requires the city to conduct "annual monitoring to assess the effectiveness of development requirements and determine whether the cap and the development should be adjusted."
Schmid and Joe Hirsch, who are both members of the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning steering committee, are now finalizing the ballot initiative, which Schmid characterized as "very simple and straightforward": basically, changing one number. Schmid noted that keeping the cap at 1.7 million square feet between now and 2030, as the Comprehensive Plan dictates, would theoretically allow about 140,000 square feet of new office development a year -- a figure he believes is much too high.
"What we're proposing is very simple: Why don't we keep our historic growth rate?" Schmid said.
But if approved, the simple change could have dramatic consequences, roughly halving the commercial development expected per year to about 70,000 square feet citywide. It would also prohibit rapid fluctuations in commercial growth, as happened between 2008 and 2014, when the average growth rate was 112,467 square feet annually.
Commercial growth has exacerbated the city's already gaping jobs-to-housing imbalance, which is estimated at about 3-to-1. It also prompted the City Council to adopt in 2015 an annual office cap of 50,000 square feet for three prominent commercial areas: downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real.
Since the cap made its debut, commercial development has dwindled significantly in the areas covered by the limit. In 2015, the total office development in the three areas was 40,862 square feet, according to a recent report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment. In March 2017, when the cap was up for renewal, there were no qualifying office projects. As of this March, the city has received applications from three projects in the restricted areas, totaling 16,790 square feet.
Despite the cap's success in limiting commercial growth, Schmid noted that the tool only applies to the three specific portions of the city, leaving some areas -- such as Stanford Research Park and the Stanford Medical Center -- with no growth limits.
Furthermore, it's a temporary cap and is not mentioned in the Comprehensive Plan. The current annual limit is set to expire at the end of June. The council was scheduled to adopt a permanent office cap, with some adjustments, at its April 16 meeting but opted to defer the decision to a future date.
By contrast, the initiative pushed by Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning would pertain to the entire city, including Stanford Research Park. It would amend the Comprehensive Plan to modify the citywide limit. It would also amend the city's Municipal Code to reflect this change, said Hirsch, one of the founders of the citizens group.
The group is scheduled to have a meeting this Thursday to discuss the proposed initiative and to enlist volunteers for pursuing it, Hirsch told the Weekly.
"We're very optimistic that this will make sense to the residents of Palo Alto," Hirsch said. "We've always felt that if we can get this on the ballot, it will be well-received."
Schmid said he was inspired to pursue the initiative to limit office growth by recent surveys showing citizen discontent about traffic, parking and public transportation. The most recent National Citizens Survey, which was released in January, showed scores in all three areas plummeting, with only 33 percent of the respondents giving the city positive reviews on "traffic flow on major streets" and 32 percent doing so when asked about "ease of public parking."
The numbers, Schmid said, reaffirm that the city is doing a poor job in managing commercial growth and that residents are taking notice.
"Not only are we not doing a good job with the current growth rate, but people are become more and more aware," Schmid said. "That's why it seems to be an appropriate time."