After falling well short of their goal to build 300 housing units this year, Palo Alto leaders are preparing to pass on Monday night a series of revisions in the zoning code that they hope will make it easier for residential developers to get their projects approved.
The proposed zone changes would represent the City Council's most significant action on housing since members adopted it as one of their top priorities for the year. The changes would, among other things, create a "housing incentive program" that offers developers substantial density bonuses; reduces parking requirements for residential projects; eliminates the "site and design" review process that has long been in place for residential and mixed-use projects; and establishes a "minimum density" requirement for parcels zoned as high-density residential.
The zone changes are a response to both the council's increasing willingness to support housing developments and to new state laws — namely, Senate Bill 35 and the State Density Bonus Law — that offer developers streamlined approval processes (in the case of the former) and bonuses that allow denser construction (in the case of the latter).
The city's new housing incentive program, for example, would give its own density bonuses to developers who willingly forego the state's "streamlining" provisions and parking exemptions and instead submit to the city's architectural-review process.
In some cases, those bonuses would be substantial.
In the area around California Avenue, for example, the allowed floor-area-ratio (the ratio of the building's floor area to land size) would be ramped up from 0.6 to 2.0 for the residential portion of the project. In the downtown area, residential floor-area-ratio (FAR) would be increased from 1.0 to 3.0, while in commercial areas around El Camino Real, it would be raised from 0.5 and 0.6 (depending on the zone) to 1.5.
To sweeten the deal further, the city's program, unlike SB35, does not require a developer to designate half of the units as "affordable housing." The only affordable-housing requirement it would have to meet is the city's "inclusionary zoning" law, which requires 15 percent of all residential developments to be dedicated to affordable housing.
Jean Eisberg, the city's consultant who had been leading the code-revision effort, wrote that the local housing-incentive program would provide builders with a "real alternative" to state laws.
Another change would replace the existing RM-15 zone, which allows up to 15 housing units per acre, with a new RM-20 zone, which allows 20. With the city's new "minimum density" requirement, a developer would have to build at least 11 units per acre in such a zone (in RM-30 and RM-40 districts, they would have to build a minimum of 16 and 21 units per acre, respectively).
The proposed ordinance was crafted over a series of seven meetings in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission, which on Oct. 10 voted 5-1, with Doria Summa dissenting and William Riggs absent, to support the changes. Supporters of the code revisions framed it as a moral imperative at a time when so many people are facing the threat of displacement because of sky-high rents and insufficient housing supply.
Despite repeated talks about addressing the housing crisis, council members have only approved one significant housing development this year: a 57-unit development at 2755 El Camino Real that is branded as "workforce housing."
The council's only other significant action on housing this year was the creation in April of an "affordable housing" zone that grants some concessions on density and parking to developers of below-market-rate housing. The nonprofit developer Palo Alto Housing is looking to use the new zone in its pending application for a 59-unit affordable-housing project at 3705 El Camino Real, near Wilton Avenue.
Approval of the zone changes would represent a major a victory for the council's most fervent housing advocates: Adrian Fine, Cory Wolbach and Mayor Liz Kniss. A year ago, the three submitted a memo calling for the city to put together a work plan for revising the zoning code to address the housing crisis.
"While Palo Alto may never be a truly affordable place to live, the City Council has an obligation to current and future residents to explore policies that expand housing choices for people of different incomes, generations and needs," the memo stated.
The planning commission generally agreed that the city needs more housing, though its members had significant disagreements over how far the zoning changes should go. Vice Chair Susan Monk and Commissioner Michael Alcheck both pushed for the most aggressive approach. Monk argued on Oct. 11 that the city is "at risk of losing an entire generation of people if we don't take a more liberal approach to our housing-production needs."
Not all of the changes were embraced by planning commissioners. Summa, as the sole dissenter, took issue with the new parking standards. Currently, the city requires 1.25 parking spaces for each studio apartment, 1.5 spaces for a one-bedroom unit and two spaces for apartments with two or more units. The new standards require one parking space for a studio or a one-bedroom apartment and two spaces for units with two or more bedrooms.
Within half a mile of a Caltrain station, parking requirements would range from 0.5 spaces for a "microunit" to 1.6 spaces for apartments with two or more units. Housing developments for seniors, meanwhile, would be required to provide 0.75 spaces per unit, though they would see reductions of between 20 and 40 percent if they are designated for affordable housing.
Summa questioned the city's assumptions on the new parking requirements.
"My concern is that when we underpark affordable-housing complexes, we do two things: We hurt the people who live there who want to conduct their lives in pretty much the same manner as the rest of us, which unfortunately is very car-centric," Summa said at the Oct. 10 meeting. "And we also hurt the existing residences nearby, and this causes opposition to the projects."