After approving a host of zoning changes last month to encourage more housing in the downtown area, the Palo Alto City Council is preparing to advance on Monday additional code revisions that will pave the way for denser residential developments on California Avenue and along El Camino Real.
Among the most significant changes that the council will consider is the creation of a "Housing Incentive Program" in the California Avenue area, a program that would largely mirror the one that the council approved for the downtown area on Dec. 3. The program will allow participating developers to more than triple the density of their residential projects, with the "floor area ratio" (FAR) going up from the current level of 0.6 to 2.0.
The program is intended to be an alternative to the State Density Bonus Law and Senate Bill 35, which creates a streamlining process for project approvals. Projects that advance under this program will still be required to go through the Architectural Review Board and provide parking consistent with the zoning code.
A similar program would be instituted along El Camino Real, where the density limit for residential projects would be raised from a FAR of 0.5 and 0.6 (depending on the zone) to 1.5.
In downtown, the new program had established FAR of 3.0 for projects participating in the program.
Another change that the council is expected to adopt is the abolition the existing limit on unit density, which under the current law is 30 units per acre on California Avenue and between 15 and 30 units per acre in El Camino. Under the new rule, there will be no limit on the number of units, provided the project meets all other regulations pertaining to standards such as height, floor area and setbacks.
The code revision will also allow developers to build residential-only projects in both commercial areas, something that current law does not allow. Today, residential units are only allowed as part of mixed-use projects. And developers who pursue projects consisting entirely of affordable housing (defined as 120 percent of area median income or lower) will be able to avoid the city's requirement for ground-floor retail in most parts of the city (the requirement will remain in zoning districts specifically designated for retail shopping).
The ordinance, which the council is expected to approve, makes a case in its introduction for significantly boosting Palo Alto's housing stock, noting that the city has some of the highest housing prices and greats jobs-to-housing imbalance in the Bay Area. The housing shortage, the ordinance states," threatens the city's "prosperity, diversity, stability, environment, quality of life, and community character."
The zone changes are also intended to help the City Council get closer to reaching its goal of producing more than 300 housing units annually, consistent with the city's recently approved Comprehensive Plan that calls for between 3,545 and 4,420 new units by 2030. While the city has seen some success in encouraging accessory-dwelling units in the past year, it had only approved one multifamily project in 2018, a 57-unit development at 2755 El Camino Real targeted for area employees. Despite the sluggish production, the new council got off to a promising start in meeting its goal in 2019 when it approved earlier this month a 59-unit development for low-income residents and adults with disabilities at 3705 El Camino Real.
The council's recent discussions on zone changes and the 59-unit development known as Wilton Court suggest that the proposed changes are all but certain to win approval on Monday. Both Mayor Eric Filseth and Councilman Tom DuBois, who have been historically associated with the council's slow-growth "residentialist" wing, were part of the council majority that approved the initial set of zone changes on Dec. 3. Both had also backed the Wilton Court project, which won unanimous approval.
Filseth said the Wilton Court projects creates a great model for other projects to follow. Newly elected Councilwoman Alison Cormack called the city's decision on Wilton Court an easy one.
"It's really a great message for the city and the council going into 2019 -- a little bit of compromise to get to a good solution," Cormack said.