News


Measure to limit office growth qualifies for November election

Citizens' initiative would cap new office space at 850,000 square feet between 2015 and 2030

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.

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Comments

70 people like this
Posted by Amen
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 8, 2018 at 5:23 pm

And hallelujah.


93 people like this
Posted by snark
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 8, 2018 at 5:25 pm

"The initiative will likely prove to be a tougher sell with the council majority"

Well of course it will, since they work for the developers.


57 people like this
Posted by allen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 8, 2018 at 6:07 pm

The only cap that is reasonable is zero new jobs. There should be a goal of reducing the number of jobs in Palo Alto until we are in compliance. We don't need more housing, we need fewer jobs. But this is a good first step.


34 people like this
Posted by Just a Thought
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2018 at 6:47 pm

This is good. We need to encourage office space growth where it makes sense; where there is a combination of existing multi-modal transportation (light rail, Caltrain and in the future high speed rail, BART) and capacity and desire for high density housing and retail. Downtown San Jose is ideal for this. San Jose has been having to support residential demand for far too long without the adequate corporate office space tax base.
Web Link


84 people like this
Posted by necessary
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2018 at 7:15 pm

This measure is really necessary

the comment from Wolbach that limiting office growth means cutting City services?

Does anyone add up the cost of *not* limiting office growth? Already the City and some Council members seem to work overtime for over development.

Extra time (away from serving developers) could go to prioritizing quality of life issues.





77 people like this
Posted by Another Givaway
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2018 at 8:58 pm

How much will the real-estate industry spend to defeat this measure and keep the orgy of office development rolling?


59 people like this
Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 8, 2018 at 11:09 pm

@Another Giveaway,
Nothing, if the Council adopts the measure when it is presented. It does not have to be put to vote. It can be accepted as is. Corey Wohlbach already sems to be gearing up for the bankrupt arguments in support of densification.

If you want the Council to adopt this, please come to the City Council meeting Monday, I believe. There is no exact time, but it may be read around 9:30pm I’m told. Don’t count on other people to go, or no one goes, each person needs to make a commitment to go. Showing support for the initiative can show Council the necessity of adopting it without having to put it to a costly vote.

I don’t think the public should mind if it does go to vote because it will create an intense and protracted discussion about the overdevelopment and densification consequences, but I think the public could help the Council to see that they should save the money of puttng it to election. They will not adopt it though without a good show of residents at City Hall.


61 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of University South
on Jun 9, 2018 at 7:34 am

Yes, it appears that Wolbach is clutching at straws trying to make an argument that this measure will have a big fiscal impact on the city. That claim only shows how little he understands about city finances after four years on the council.
There will not be short term impacts on the city budget. The city will lose some permit fees in the near term which are cost neutral. The city will also receive less in impact fees, but there will be fewer impacts to mitigate so this is also cost neutral. If he was really concerned he could restore the higher impact fees that he opposed last year. Lastly, the city would see a little less from its small share of commercial property tax, but that could be offset by rezoning some of the commercial land to housing, which is what Cory actually claimed he cared about when he ran for office.


58 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 9, 2018 at 9:25 am

Online Name is a registered user.

"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."


So pro-development council members like Woillbach still want to ignore residents' opinions of the decline in the quality of life they've brought about? Another poll showed the satisfaction ratings declining by 20% in a single year.


64 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 9, 2018 at 9:49 am

Online Name is a registered user.

"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."

Several problems here: 1) Why assume offices cover their costs when often they don't sell anything for the city to tax, 2) There's no headcount business tax, 3) Start by cutting the tens of millions of dollars the city spends on the traffic "calming" and road furniture since the city doesn't even collect the data to respond the residents' petitions and concerns.

Wollbach must -- or should know -- in March the city spent $400,000 on an outside consultant to see if it's "appropriate and feasible" the fix the problems it created on Ross Rd. Now it turns out that's money down the dran because the city and consultant both lack the data necessary to respond to the 1,000+ petition signers.


50 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of University South
on Jun 9, 2018 at 10:23 am

The initiative is unlikely to get a majority of CC suppport since it was their actions to water down the office cap and to oppose considering a business tax for local transportation that helped bring on this initiative.
The backers had better be prepared though for a well funded opposition campaign led by the developers, the biggest being Stanford. They can throw massive dollars to try to defeat it.


60 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 9, 2018 at 11:57 am

jh is a registered user.

A few years ago, when asked, the city manager told council members that businesses do not cover their cost to the city.

Unless businesses makes a product for which sales tax can be charged, as far as I am aware the only revenue to the city is from the property tax on the underlying land and building. Oh, not forgetting the lunch money employees may spend if free food is not provided.


78 people like this
Posted by Wolbach?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 9, 2018 at 12:02 pm

Wolbach is such a slippery wannabe politician - intellectually dishonest, always pursuing his agenda. I would love to see him voted out - we deserve and can do better than his brand of greasiness.


2 people like this
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Jun 9, 2018 at 12:08 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

The Comp Plan fiscal study said that the proposed commercial development would net a small surplus to the city.

In addition to property and sales taxes, businesses pay utility charges, building permit fees, development impact fees, parking assessment fees and probably some that I am forgetting.

Only a careful independent analysis of the initiative can show the net fiscal and economic impacts. Otherwise we are just guessing. Sounds reasonable to me to get some facts on the table for residents to review.


53 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 9, 2018 at 12:22 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"The backers had better be prepared though for a well funded opposition campaign led by the developers, the biggest being Stanford. They can throw massive dollars to try to defeat it."

Of course they an. And will. Aided and abetted by the cc and all the commissions to which the same cc members appoint their pro-development cronies to ignore the will of the residents and voters. Lather, rinse, repeat. Our very own version of Citizen United.


@Steven Levy, care to comment on the continuing decline in resident satisfaction with the state of the city? 33% is pretty dismal. A 20% a year decline isn't too hot either.

Thoughts on why PA -- unlike Mountain View, San Jose and other cities -- won't pursue a business tax? Mountain View, for example, was only collecting a piddling $250,000 from its $30 per business license tax; now it's looking at collecting $10,000,000 which still doesn't help it recoup all the additional infrastructure and school costs from the population growth.


2 people like this
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Jun 9, 2018 at 12:40 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

The fiscal impact study is correct that commercial development pays its way

and the citizen survey is correct that residents here and across the region are grumpy about housing costs and traffic.

You stated in my blog that you are not interested in putting skin in the game for a housing bond to help some of the housing grumpy people so I do not see you responding to the city's number one priority.

As far as additional taxes on businesses I think that can be considered as in Mt View but asking them to contribute more seems like it will not be well received if at the same time you are trying to restrict their development.

I note that the cities you mention are favoring and supporting development from the companies they are asking to contribute as opposed to your perspective.


44 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 9, 2018 at 1:03 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Who conducted the fiscal impact study?

$250.000 vs $10,000,000 is business paying its way? There was another article re Mountain View comparing the estimated $300 residents will pay for more schools vs the pennies paid by corporations. Someone above mentioned the company-provided meals companies like Google are known for; let's not forget all the articles about MV businesses begging Google et al to consider using their serviced since the restaurants are suffering from the company cafeterias.

"You stated in my blog that you are not interested in putting skin in the game for a housing bond to help some of the housing grumpy people so I do not see you responding to the city's number one priority."

Why should I invest more money in the city when it wastes our time -- 5 hours for each council meeting -- only to be ignored by a City Council that's already decided in favor of the developers?

When the city wastes not only our time but also our money on dangerous things like traffic furniture that causes ridiculous delays when the city can't keep decent numbers on traffic safety to respond to citizens complaints? I'm already getting soaked by our Utilities Dept. that keeps raising our rates to subsidize the General Fund.

When the city stops feeding the jobs imbalance that adds more commuters to clog our roads AND impedes traffic flow, I'll think about supporting a housing bond. You can't keep shoving 10 lbs into 5 lbs bags (roads) and then think shoving 15 lbs into 3-lb bags (roads) makes sense.


52 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of University South
on Jun 9, 2018 at 1:12 pm

@Steve Levy
It is important to distinguish the fiscal impacts of different types of commercial development. Some (hotels, retail and B2B sales tax generators) likely have positive net revenue for cities. Big tech companies probably do not.
Your characterizations of taxes as “contributions” is interesting, as well as your implication that these companies will only be willing to contribute if they are getting even greater development rights in return. Taxes are determined by the electorate and are not donations. The challenge for the electorate is to have taxes that meet the common needs while being as fair and equitable as possible. The question around increasing business taxes is whether business supported sales taxes, bridge tolls, etc are fair and adequate to meet our worsening transportation and housing needs.
I believe that big, extremely profitable tech firms have created great affluence for many in our region while negatively impacting the majority who are critical for sustainable social and economic balance.


20 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 9, 2018 at 8:45 pm

jh is a registered user.

@ stephen Levy

"Building permit fees" Aren't those fees to cover the costs to the city?

"Development impact fees" Do those fees cover the long term impact on housing, infrastructure, etc.?

"Parking assessment fees" Do those parking assessment fees cover the cost to the city of building garages for these under parked developments?


20 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 10, 2018 at 6:07 pm

This initiative will be discussed by city council at the June 11 meeting. The council has the option to adopt the measure as written.

If you would like to express your support but are unable to attend in-person, please send email to city.council@cityofpaloalto.org

For the initiative details, see Web Link


54 people like this
Posted by council watcher
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2018 at 6:59 pm

The Council can adopt the initiative as written.This is a citizen's initiative and THOUSANDS of us have signed it.

Councilman Scharff's custom is to wait until everyone is tired
then suggest an amendment that weakens or destroys the item. He did it last week on the 2755 El Camino project, lowering the number of affordable units.

City Council, please don't let him do it again. It's dishonest.


7 people like this
Posted by Another watcher
a resident of Stanford
on Jun 10, 2018 at 7:16 pm

How can we prevent or work against that predictable “enemy of the city but protect my funders” amendment?


31 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 10, 2018 at 9:00 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

If I understand correctly, Council can't amend the initiative. However, they can choose to put another measure on the ballot that alters or replaces the initiative.

The initiative has provisions to deal with this possibility. If one proposal passes and the other doesn't, then the one that passes takes effect. If both proposals pass, then the one with the most votes takes effect.

So the focus of the effort Monday should be to convince Council not to create a competing ballot measure.


38 people like this
Posted by Greenacres
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 11, 2018 at 10:46 am

I think the great thing about this initiative is that it begins to address a huge problem in a non-controversial way, closing the loopholes in the office cap the Overdevelopment Five gave us.

If the Council passes it, residents win. If they put it to vote, the residents win, too, because it lets the residents bring the overdevelopment issues into the public arena for an election season and debate the problems openly over a pretty uncontroversial proposal. If the Council tries to put forward a dishonest alternative, we can discuss overdevelopment and the dishonesty.

One strong suggestion to Greg Schmid if they do put it to vote: The High Street and Maybell referenda showed how the City can engage in potentially illegal election advocacy, and that can possibly affect outcomes in such an election (High Street). We must change our election system to be more balanced, i.e., the City Attorney who usually engages in advocacy with staff should not be able to write the ballot - we should adapt the SF system, which has been working for 30 years, to our own. San Francisco is a charter city too and creates their ballots in a much more balanced impartial way. We must do the same. If the Council puts this initiative to vote, we must add a similar election fairmess initiative or the City Attorney will write ballot and “impartial” analysis to advocate for the side staff wants to win. Do you remember the analysis of the Maybell ballot? It will be harder to overcome bias in a contest over office caps. We must fix the bias problem in our elections once and for all. City Council members have to know that they won’t be able to bias elections and therefore may be less likely to put things to expensive votes when the handwriting us on the wall.

That said, I think whether Council accepts this or not, residents win. Nevertheless, it would be good not to have to spend the funds on an election.


9 people like this
Posted by necessary
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 11, 2018 at 1:58 pm

[Post removed due to deletion of referenced comment.]


12 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 12, 2018 at 11:48 am

Annette is a registered user.

Those who wish to defeat the initiative seek to frame it as something it is not: an anti-business measure that cuts office development in half, as though it would affirmatively reduce office development. If only!

The single biggest contributor to the jobs: housing imbalance (and all the traffic congestion from commuters) is office development. More offices = more people = more demand for housing = a worsening of the jobs:housing imbalance and more traffic = Palo Alto near the top of a bad list = Palo Alto in the crosshairs of housing advocates. The initiative acknowledges this and proposes that instead of allowing 17k sf of new Office/R&D over the next 12 years we add *only* half that, an amount which is in fact what the average add has been for several years now anyway. So, not a takeaway at all; just not as big an add. That’s a good thing as it holds the potential of some relief from current pressures.

It’s no surprise that Kniss and Scharff are opposed to this; their alignment with developers and office space growth is clear as day. It is disturbing that they want to keep us near the top of a bad list. Go figure.

What is surprising is that housing advocates like Fine and Wolbach aren’t falling all over themselves in support of this initiative. That they are not draws me to the conclusion that the pro-housing positions they espouse are more for political gain than true housing advocacy.

And where’s PAF in all this? That we are not seeing their support for this initiative suggests to me that their version of *forward* means we embrace a future of a worsening jobs:housing imbalance and all that that entails including being near the top of a bad list.


2 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 12, 2018 at 12:16 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Apologies; I meant to post the above comment in response to the June 12 article about the June 11 City Council debate about the initiative.


2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 26, 2018 at 12:41 pm

Here's my sense of how many CC members think...the most progressive ones. We have issues here in PA. Everyone knows that and what they are because we hear and read about them all the time, and we experience many of them personally on a daily basis. And some of us even bother to watch CC meetings on Channel 26, (until we doze off at around 11:00) so we get another dose of them.

Some CC members come up with, in their own minds, what they feel are the best solutions to our problems without previously getting input from their constituents/residents or pollsters/consultants. If the solutions are their ideas they become personally attached to them. Often there is a political flavor to their ideas and they are well aware of where their campaign money comes from. Sometimes they borrow from similar solutions, ones that have been tried in equally liberal/progressive minded communities, but communities that are much different from PA in many ways, including location and ethnic/economic makeup.

It tells me that they don't really consider impacts on residents, neighborhoods, etc, or the costs involved in implementing their plans to be important. Parking, car lite apartment developments, high density housing, ADU's, bike boulevards, homelessness, very low income housing, traffic...and the list goes on and on. Oh, yes, the perfunctory neighborhood meetings are held to get input (wink wink) but, in fact, it's an opportunity for those CC members who had the original idea, followed by a colleague’s memo, to bring it to the fore, to sell their ideas to their audience...residents and registered voters. Whatever feedback/input they get from attendees is generally ignored, and so they vote the way they would have anyway without the sham of the meetings.

The CC meetings bring out the best (and sometimes the worst) of both sides of an issue. The limited time public speakers get, as short as one minute, is a farce. You can hardly say your name and thank the mayor and CC members for allowing you to speak in that amount of time. The ones I remember as classic are the Buena Vista and ADU meetings.

The ADU supporters trotted out grannies and children of grannies and parents with children with disabilities, to speak in favor. It worked, but I would be happy to know if all those in support, who pleaded their case, actually applied for a permit, got it approved, and had the ADU construction done…for their advertised purpose. If it was for income to help pay off the mortgage, or to rent out like Airbnb’s, then ‘boo’ ‘boo’ ‘boo’ on you and the CC members who initiated this idea in the first place. We should all know that there would never be any enforcement on this. I’ve read the ADU quarterly reports and from the numbers of BP’s it looks like a huge success, but, in the total scheme things, of making a dent in our housing problems it is minuscule. And I would like to know how it affected neighborhoods where they were built. I know, it’s all part of the public record and if I want to get to the bottom of it I can spend hours doing it. Anyone want to volunteer to help me do it?


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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