Palo Altans should take careful note of what City Council members say and how they vote Monday night as they decide once again how much future office development should be allowed each year in three major commercial areas of the city.
With a City Council election approaching in November, Monday's vote will take on additional significance, especially for the three council members eligible for re-election to a second term: Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Cory Wolbach.
Last September, when the same issue came before the council, a 50,000-square-foot annual cap on commercial office development in downtown Palo Alto, California Avenue and along El Camino Real — originally adopted as a temporary measure in 2015 — was extended through this June while city staff prepared a permanent ordinance.
But on a pair of 5-4 votes, the council also narrowly approved two changes: the addition of a rollover provision that added to the next year any unused allotment from the previous year and the replacement of a competitive review process for selecting from among development proposals with a first-come, first-approved approach.
These votes allowed every council member to take credit for voting for continuing the 50,000-square-feet per year office cap, even as five (Wolbach, Tanaka, Scharff, Kniss and Fine) were voting to dilute the effectiveness of the ordinance. By their vote, the five undid provisions that a previous council had approved and that had not yet even been tested in practice.
The issue now returns to the council as a permanent ordinance containing the two weakening provisions.
Based on recent experience with how some members of the council have chosen to operate, there is no telling what new surprise efforts may be made Monday night to weaken or modify the cap. Significant and sometimes half-baked proposals or amendments have increasingly been offered by council members after public comments have been completed, leaving residents with no opportunity to express their views on them.
It's a legislative tactic that can appear manipulative and lead to sloppy and unexpected outcomes and that more often than not are inherently divisive. We hope council members with significant proposed amendments to staff recommendations start announcing them in advance so at least the public has an opportunity to comment.
Given that the switch of a single vote would change the outcome on the office cap, we also hope that the council revisits the two changes it made last fall. The arguments for those changes are as weak today as they were back then.
There is no constituency other than commercial development interests supporting new office development in Palo Alto, and every square foot of new office development approved in the city makes our housing shortage and road congestion worse.
With the city's current focus on expanding the number of housing units for low-income individuals, families and seniors, there is no rationale for loosening the 50,000-square-foot office cap, rolling over unused allocations to the next year or eliminating the competitive review process.
Since it took effect in 2016, applications for office development projects in the three commercial areas haven't once exceeded the aggregate 50,000-square-foot cap, so the competitive review concept has never even been given a chance.
As conceived, the competitive process was to occur in March and evaluate all submitted proposals based on factors including sustainable design, mitigation of traffic impacts and the inclusion of public benefits such as affordable housing. It was an untested concept that was intended to create an incentive for a developer to propose a high-quality project.
Wolbach and then-Vice Mayor Liz Kniss argued last fall that evaluating and ranking proposals would be nearly impossible since everyone's taste in design is different, to which Councilmen DuBois and Filseth responded that there are many qualities besides design that would cause a proposed building to be scored higher than another.
No one in the community is clamoring for more new office buildings. The city is not suffering in any way from having established the 50,000-square-foot annual cap and not a single developer has come before the council to argue it is having adverse impacts on the market.
The current office cap is working just as intended in the affected three commercial districts and should be approved by the City Council Monday night as a permanent ordinance.