A citizens' initiative that would roughly halve the amount of new office space that Palo Alto would allow to be built between now and 2030 has officially garnered enough signatures to land on the November ballot.
The petition, which is being spearheaded by former Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and the residents' group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, would amend the city's recently adopted Comprehensive Plan to reduce the citywide cap on new office and research-and-development construction from the current level of 1.7 million square feet to 850,000 square feet between June 2015 and 2030.
Earlier this week, the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters confirmed that the petition has at least 2,430 valid signatures, surpassing the 2,407 needed. The City Council is scheduled to discuss the initiative Monday and consider two options: adopt the measure as an ordinance or send it to the voters.
Proponents of the initiative have argued that the city's existing limit of 1.7 million needs to be reduced to prevent excessive growth. The initiative cites recent citizen surveys that have showed increasing concerns about traffic congestion and parking. In the most recent National Citizen Survey, which the council reviewed in January, only 32 percent of the respondents gave the city positive reviews when asked about "traffic flow on major streets," while 33 percent did so when asked about "ease of public parking."
The initiative argues that Palo Alto, which already has an estimated three jobs for every employed resident, cannot tolerate any more traffic. Palo Alto, the initiative states, has "one of the highest commuter ratios in the nation for cities with populations of more than 50,000."
"Excessive new office/R&D development in Palo Alto -- as the recently adopted 2030 Comprehensive Plan allows -- will lead to even more jobs, and thus exacerbate traffic congestion and parking shortages in the City," the initiative states.
In introducing the measure, Schmid stressed that the initiative doesn't seek to stop office growth but merely to impose a limit in line with the recent historical average of growth of about 57,000 square feet per year.
"Not only are we not doing a good job with the current growth rate, but people are become more and more aware," Schmid told the Weekly in April.
The citizens' initiative is the latest twist in Palo Alto's ongoing and ever-shifting debate about commercial development. The topic was central during the council's adoption last November of the new Comprehensive Plan, with some council members arguing for stronger restrictions on commercial development.
The argument also came up during the council's April 30 debate over the annual office cap, which limits development in downtown, around California Avenue and along El Camino Real to 50,000 square feet per year. Last month, the council changed the cap to allow developers to "roll over" unused square footage during slow years into the next year -- a move that was opposed by the council members who favor slower city growth.
Now, some of these members are lending their support the residents' petition. Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, who favored adopting the annual office cap but who opposed the "roll over" provision (his motion to eliminate this provision fell by a 4-5 vote), said he supports Schmid's proposal.
"In my opinion, the council erred in weakening the office cap, and voters will have a chance to step in on their own," Filseth said in an email.
Councilman Tom DuBois, who also opposed relaxing the annual cap, similarly supports Schmid's proposal, for which he had helped gather signatures and which he called "well-considered." Both DuBois and Filseth are up for re-election this year, though only DuBois has declared his intention to seek a fresh term.
"It's not no-growth, but it's a reasonable amount of growth based on the historic average of the city," DuBois said.
The initiative will likely prove to be a tougher sell with the council majority, which has been more reluctant to adopt new limits on growth. As such, the council is far more likely to send the issue to the voters than to adopt it as written.
Councilman Cory Wolbach, who is also seeking a re-election to a second term in November, was less enthusiastic than DuBois and Filseth about the proposal, which he said would be "a major change to our Comprehensive Plan, which we just approved last fall."
"I am eager to hear the thoughts of my colleagues and staff when we discuss the item Monday," Wolbach told the Weekly. "We need clarity about what city services would be cut to compensate for potential shortfalls this new proposal might create."
Even if the voters adopt the measure, it's unclear how much of an impact it will have, according to city staff. Between 2001 and 2017, the city's total office and research-and-development construction exceeded 57,000 only six times (most recently in 2015, when there was 67,093 square feet of new construction).
Yet there have also been significant anomalies, including 2012, when the city picked up 210,319 square feet of new office and research-and-development space (about 139,000 square feet was in Stanford Research Park).
In 2016 and 2017, the city saw 41,380 square feet and 25,352 square feet built, respectively.