The simmering community debate over how much office space Palo Alto should accommodate is set to flare up again Wednesday night, when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission will consider abolishing a policy that limits new non-residential development in downtown.
The proposal to scrap the cap was prompted by the City Council's 5-4 vote in January 2017 to amend the city's policies for office growth as part of the city's Comprehensive Plan update, which was completed in November of that year. At the time, the five council members who are more amenable to growth -- Liz Kniss, Greg Scharff, Adrian Fine, Greg Tanaka and Cory Wolbach -- all voted to abolish the 350,000-square-foot limit on downtown non-residential development, arguing that the policy is no longer necessary given the other restrictions on commercial growth that are already in place.
Palo Alto already has a citywide limit of 1.7 million new square feet of office and research-and-development growth. A citizen initiative to reduce that limit to 850,000 square feet will be on the November ballot.
The council has also recently adopted the annual 50,000-square-foot cap on office development in downtown, around California Avenue and along El Camino Real, which intends to meter the pace of growth.
Even so, the proposal to remove the downtown cap proved deeply polarizing at the January 2017 meeting. Wolbach and Scharff led the charge on removing the policy, with each arguing that downtown's transit options make it more suitable for commercial growth than other parts of the city.
"If we're going have further office development or research-and-development in the future, downtown is probably still one of the smartest places to put it," Wolbach said at that meeting.
The four members who are more cautious about growth -- Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou -- all supported keeping the policy and argued that scrapping it would be irresponsible, given community concerns about parking, traffic and a growing sense that the city is going in the wrong direction.
"I think the downtown area is about as vibrant as it needs to be," Filseth said. "I think it's in a good space right now. I don't think it needs to be much denser and more vibrant."
"I think it's pretty radical to just blow away the cap and say we're not going to have any cap when we recognize all the issues we've been dealing with downtown," DuBois said.
With the majority prevailing by a single vote in 2017, the council scrapped the downtown cap from the updated Comprehensive Plan, a broad policy document that lays the foundation for the city's zoning laws and other policies.
The policy also required the city to study growth impacts when downtown hits about 235,000 square feet (Palo Alto reached that threshold in 2013).
Now, the city is moving ahead with actually implementing that policy change by removing the downtown cap from the zoning code.
Not everyone is happy about the shift. Members of the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, which favors slow-growth policies, issued an email blast Tuesday making the case for not repealing the policy, which the group argues is an "important protection for Downtown residents whose buildings might otherwise be converted to commercial space" (they give as an example the proposed conversion of President Hotel from an apartment building to a hotel).
Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning also argued that the main reasons for the downtown cap -- namely, traffic and parking impacts -- remain relevant today as they were in 1998, when the cap was included in the newly adopted Comprehensive Plan.
"Rush hour traffic is creating enormous problems for nearby neighborhoods," the group's email stated. "Parking has become a nightmare, thanks to numerous exemptions from parking laws granted to developers and to more workers being packed into existing buildings."
These problems, the group argued, are far worse than they were in 1986 (the baseline year that was used to establish the downtown cap). Furthermore, allowing more office space downtown will take away opportunity for housing, the email stated. Rather than eliminate the cap, the city should make it permanent, which would "benefit housing enormously by prioritizing residential development," the group stated.