More zone changes eyed to encourage housing

Latest revisions in Palo Alto pertain mostly to California Avenue and El Camino Real

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.


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26 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 27, 2019 at 7:44 am

Of course there are other mixed use projects approved and in the pipeline recently including housing. Among them are:
59 rental units at the former Mikes bikes project, Another 8 at the former foot locker site on El Camino real, about 13 at the former Olive Garden site on El Camino real, about 17 at the project on the former Compadres site and the project on Page Mill across from the VTA lot which is under construction.

These were all approved in the last several years, are in the pipeline and adding a significant number of rental units All Under the existing zoning.

60 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 27, 2019 at 8:42 am

When are we going to read about improvements to infrastructure as a result of the new housing?

We need more public transportation, more park space, more recreation, more space for grocery shelf space (e.g. larger grocery stores), more upgrades for our power supply, water and sewers, and places for the visitors to these underparked units (cleaners, deliveries, maintenance, social visitors) to park.

Midtown Safeway is out of basics like the popular milk, bread, and some produce and deli items, by 5 pm on a regular basis. When I have complained to them about this I am told that they don't have space when the deliveries are made earlier in the day for storing items to put on the shelves later in the day. They know they are providing poor service to their early evening customers and there is nothing they can do about it because their store and facilities are too small.

Some of our parks get very busy, particularly places for large groups like birthday parties or church groups, as well as the areas for children's play. The parks need some toddler only space and some space for older children where the toddlers are not allowed. Bigger children should have some more challenging areas. There should also be more space for pick up ball games at weekends instead of all the space being used by organized activities.

Short term parking at busy areas should include 30 minute spots not just 2 hour spots. It can be frustrating trying to run errands at lunch time when trying to do more than one errand over a mile apart and there is nowhere to park at either place for a 5 minute drop off/pick up.

Palo Alto needs to think through all this new housing and start improving the infrastructure ahead of the increase in population. To live means more than working and sleeping. It is necessary to have something more than work space and sleep/shower space. It needs to be a place to live, not a place to just exist.

58 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Now Looks Like Crap
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2019 at 1:14 pm

Amazing. Having left Palo Alto during the late 1980s we were surprised to see how 'paved-over' the city has become. The area along San Antonio Road was especially shocking.

How and why do you people put up with all of this 'over development'. Palo Alto now has the overall appearance of Campbell with a 'touch of Santana Row' to add some spice.

Palo Alto is an incredibly tacky-looking city now and from the accounts we have read in the PA Weekly, crime is also on the upswing as well.

Is this what the PACC and Planning Department envisioned for its residents?
If so, glad to be an expatriate...

37 people like this
Posted by Don't be EVIL companies
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2019 at 12:35 am

The reason PA looks like crap is that certain councilmembers think the infrastructure is an infinite bucket they can expand endlessly by adding signage, they don't care what they do to the quality of life, views, environmental quality, time, fresh air, health, etc, of anyone else who doesn't live in their posh neighborhood or work for one of the companies trying to turn downtown into their own private office park (mostly succeeded).

Zone changes will not create affordability. They will accelerate displacement of existing residents to create a few lottery spots that aren't even actually low income.

What the City should be doing for the same amount of money is buying up all the retail areas - evicting any companies illegally using occupying them as their office parks - to stabilize the cost of the land. The buildings can be sold or leased, the way Stanford does, with the City able to leverage (in exchange for much lower prices than market rates) the businesses to all pay their workers a competitive wage.

The businesses win, because they can afford to attract good people for traditionally low-paid work, because their costs stabilize, too. Workers win because they can actually live on the pay they get, and can participate in the housing market on a more equal footing with everyone else (rather than being shuffled permanently into an underclass they can never escape). Residents win because they get retail again (instead of gyms for day workers), and the value of the investment will only increase over time at no extra cost.

Midtown shopping center sold recently for $15 million. Buying CA Ave and University areas over time is eminently feasible, in a community that has closing in on a Billion dollars in school facilities bonds (and very little to show for it, I might add). The City should own the major retail areas for the same reasons it should retain ownership of school sites. In an in-demand area, things are always going to be expensive. The majority of people in Palo Alto can't afford their own homes within months of buying them, this has been the case for many decades in this area. The reason you buy, through huge sacrifice and working up to it, is to create that stability.

Renting is the worst thing financially for anyone who wants to put down roots here, and traditionally low-wage workers deserve as much chance as anyone else. I think this emphasis on creating micro-units is horribly misplaced, and density will only accelerate the quest of developers to displace existing residents to put them in. We should instead be looking at ending the laissez-faire attitude to office workers and companies crowding into Palo Alto without anything but negative accruing to the community.

If the City is really sincere about fixing the jobs housing imbalance, it needs to realize that the demand size of the equation is not static. Building more housing, absent anything else, will only make things worse. We must:
1) buy the retail areas and use that to leverage better wages for traditionally low-wage earners
2) get proactive about REDUCING job concentration in Palo Alto
3) pass a tax on the largest companies, use it to start restoring quality of life
4) focus housing growth on the very low-income end of the spectrum, the disabled, and others for whom the housing really is essential, not ruining the place to further enrich developers, displace existing low-income residents, and enable larger transient entry level workforces for companies that really should be moving and creating new job centers where there is plenty of affordable housing.

29 people like this
Posted by Mama
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 28, 2019 at 11:39 am

Mama is a registered user.

And where are all these new residents going to park??

16 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 28, 2019 at 12:29 pm

Annette is a registered user.

One definition of myopia is shortsightedness in thinking or planning.

@Resident's opening question should be answered before any zone changes are approved. We cannot afford to be myopic about housing. Yes, we need it but it is important that the pressure to focus on housing not cause us to create new problems. Housing cannot be approached as a singular, stand-alone issue and changing zoning to make densification easier should be done with caution and built-in safeguards, including a sunset clause for any new zoning. I am particularly curious about the CalTrain corridor as that area is targeted for growth. But portions of that same area will be impacted by the grade separation decision and whatever is (or is not) done will have ripple effects throughout the city, particularly with regard to traffic and circulation. Also, the future of HSR may also lay claim to portions of that same corridor. How many ways can that pie be sliced? And who is responsible for looking at the big picture and coordinated growth?

Whoever is in charge may want to look at today's Financial Times and read the article titled "Another tech bubble is about to burst" on page 9. I think a little caution is order.

5 people like this
Posted by Rick
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 28, 2019 at 3:57 pm

@Mama, they are all going to ride bicycles, silly.

11 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 28, 2019 at 4:55 pm

Annette is a registered user.

@Palo AltoNowLooksLikeCrap - I agree. It is visually jarring to bike from the Stanford campus into the downtown area. University Avenue and the immediately surrounding area is a jumble of an architectural mess. I thought there was an ARB standard that required new buildings to blend at least somewhat with the existing area, but I guess that was abandoned.

But I don't think this is the result of something that the PACC and the Planning Department envisioned. Worse, I think there's a collective failure to envision. Instead, decisions are made AD HOC in response to whatever development proposal is on the table or whatever burning issue is demanding a response. Cumulative impact, architectural compatibility, city functionality, and coordination of plans have all been relegated to a low level of importance. Instead, all sorts of concessions were made to spur development and what we've got now is a hot mess: a uniquely unattractive downtown, a jobs:housing imbalance that leads the nation in a bad way, traffic and circulation issues that we apparently can neither improve or solve, and the San Antonio corridor.

Thank goodness Stanford is a beautiful campus and most of the Palo Alto neighborhoods are still lovely. BUT, we have one Council Member who may yet put his imprimatur on those given his singular focus on housing and support for SB50, so things could well look worse next time you visit. Unless enough people stand up and say BASTA.

12 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 28, 2019 at 6:25 pm

There is a terrible imbalance here in the types of employment & businesses in Palo Alto today. In the 1950s & '60s, our block on Hamilton Ave had homes occupied by a couple of electrical engineers, a geologist, a middle-school teacher, a pharmaceutical sales rep, an MD, the owner of a retail store downtown, an IRS employee, & a pilot.
It was a great mixture of neighbors who all got along & kept benevolent eyes on all the kids playing together.

The overabundance now of high-tech, pharma & biotech, branches of multi-national corporations, financial services including wealth mgmt & venture cap skews the composition of the residents & the over-development of high density housing downtown & near train stations which is erroneously touted as a remedy to overcrowded streets. No, most of those occupants won't bike/walk/bus/train to work. They'll walk to downtown shops & restaurants after work & drive to supermarkets, Costco, recreational events, schools & Kaiser Permanente which is a common coverage offered by local employers.

How about stopping the tax benefits used to entice companies to "settle" here? Workers will go where the jobs are & we don't need more here. There's lots of space for office parks in the Central Valley, Imperial Valley, AZ, NV, OR, etc. How many more schools will we need to accommodate the incoming occupants of new, dense housing? Stop letting developers pay to underpark their projects. Where do we propose ro widen roads? Maybe ban street parking everywhere on University & El Camino to add traffic lanes? PA needs a large supermarket so we don't have to drive to Menlo Park or Mountain View. Increased building height negatively affects daylight planes. Is Manhattanization coming?

It's long past time to stop increasing density for the sake of municipal greed.

3 people like this
Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 28, 2019 at 10:57 pm

eileen is a registered user.

If we are providing dense housing for people who commute into Palo Alto for work why does that housing need to be near a train station or bus stop? Are these residents going to take the train one or two stops to their job at Stanford Hospital, Facebook, Google, Stanford Research Park, Downtown or anywhere else in Palo Alto? Can someone PLEASE explain why all this dense housing for PALO ALTO WORKERS needs to be located in certain areas like California Avenue and El Camino? Or are we providing housing for people that work in San Jose, San Francisco, Sunnyvale, San Mateo etc. so they can ride the train to work and live in Palo Alto? Why can't we spread all this new dense housing around the entire city?

3 people like this
Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 29, 2019 at 9:52 am

eileen is a registered user.

Now that the city council has agreed to dense housing and zone changes, expect more boring, ugly, and cheap housing like 195 Page Mill Road near Park Boulevard. Why can't this new housing be modern and beautiful? Form and function? The Palo Alto ARB needs to do their job!

14 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2019 at 1:37 pm

Since the jobs/housing imbalance is supposedly the most important planning element, why can't we freeze office development until jobs and housing are in balance?

4 people like this
Posted by @eileen
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2019 at 4:47 pm

Building densely near mass transit makes sense for long term planning. Even if building housing anywhere in Palo Alto is helpful towards mitigating the housing crisis, building it near transit makes it easier to use and gets cars off the roads at rush hour if even a small percentage of the residents in those buildings commutes to jobs elsewhere along the line. It also becomes easier to use for occasional trips to other cities, meaning somewhat less pollution and less weekend traffic. Using things like Zip Cars instead of owning your own car with a dedicated parking spot also becomes more viable. Any businesses in the city that run shuttles would also already have incentive to use a Caltrain station as a stop, so clustering residential units at the stops make it easier for shuttles to collect both local and non-local workers in one go with fewer stops along the shuttle route vs if they were spread out across the city.

All of those benefits go away if the building is built far enough away that it becomes inconvenient to get to, at which point most of the residents will have greater need for cars and add to traffic congestion, even if they're just driving across the city.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2019 at 10:34 am

Regarding density, there are a number of resources on the Web that illustrate different options. I tend to favor 3-story row houses at 30 units per acre myself, but, there are other 4-story options under 50 feet that can go to about 45 units/acre. Row houses are the most cost-effective construction per square foot of living space.

Web Link

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