Zone changes aim to bring housing to Palo Alto

New 'housing incentive programs' target California Avenue, El Camino Real

Palo Alto's effort to encourage more housing advanced Monday night, when the City Council approved a slew of zoning revisions that speed up the approval process and grant density bonuses to certain residential projects around California Avenue and along El Camino Real.

Over a series of votes, the council concluded on Monday a process that it launched more than a year ago to promote more housing. The effort reached a major milestone on Dec. 3, when the outgoing council relaxed zoning standards in the downtown area and created a new program that grants residential builders significant density bonuses. It continued this week, when council members approved similar changes for the other commercial districts.

The newly approved zone change aims to both grant developers new incentives to construct residential projects and provide them with an alternative to Senate Bill 35, a state law that creates a streamlining approval process for residential projects that designate at least half of their units as below-market-rate units. By contrast, Palo Alto's new "housing incentive program" preserves the existing review process and includes a less stringent below-market-rate housing requirement (15 percent of the units are required to be designated as below-market-rate).

Palo Alto's program also offers significant density bonuses. On California Avenue, residential density would be more than tripled, with permitted floor-area-ratio (a measure of density) increasing from 0.6 to 2.0. Along El Camino Real, allowed density would be increased from 0.5 or 0.6 (depending on the zone) to 1.5.

Both programs are similar to the one that the council approved for downtown, where the council raised the permitted density last month 3.0. Interim Planning Director Jonathan Lait told the council that the goal is to "encourage more housing, and for that housing to take place through a local process that we still want to maintain."

In addition to allowing more floor area, the council officially scrapped its limit on housing units. With the new rules, as long as a project meets all the development standards — height, setback and floor area, it can have as many units as the developer wants. It also specified that developers can use roof decks to meet their "open space" requirements, a chance that will allow builders to dedicate a greater share of their space to housing units.

In keeping with the council's new spirit of compromise, the council was nearly unanimous in approving most of these changes. Councilwoman Lydia Kou was the sole dissenter on the items that pertained to rooftop open spaces. Citing their potential noise impacts, Kou argued that the city should institute code-enforcement provisions before relaxing the rules.

Kou said she was particularly concerned about allowing too many roof decks on El Camino Real, given that several sections of the thoroughfare include single-family homes.

"I don't think it's thought out carefully," Kou said of the new rooftop rules. "We want to have more housing stock, but at the same time we can't forget the impacts to the residents who will be living there."

Councilman Tom DuBois also raised concerns about the new rooftop policy and suggested a requirement that rooftop gardens be only allowed on the third story of a building or higher. His colleagues agreed.

The zone revisions mark another victory for Palo Alto's housing advocates and another achievement for a council that is trying to meet a goal of generating 300 units annually. In just the past two months, the council has made a slew of zoning revisions and approved its first affordable-housing project in seven years, a 59-unit complex in the Ventura neighborhood known as Wilton Court.

Mayor Eric Filseth touted the series of zone changes as a significant accomplishment, particularly when considered alongside the council's Dec. 3 actions and its recently adopted restrictions on office development. Palo Alto's efforts to simultaneously boost its housing stock and limit commercial development are an important step toward addressing the regional imbalance of jobs to housing.

And while housing production in Palo Alto has been slim in recent years, with only one multifamily project approved in 2018, Filseth said he was confident that the zone changes, along with the city's recent easing of rules on accessory-dwelling units, will help Palo Alto get to its goal of 300 annual units.

"We should allow ourselves to acknowledge and (take) credit and be happy about that," Filseth said at the conclusion of the discussion.

While council members were united on most issues, they continued to split over what exactly constitutes "affordable housing" and over how far the council should go to favor affordable housing over the market-rate variety. Under the city's existing definition, the term can apply to housing geared for "moderate-income" residents who make up to 120 percent of area median income, which amounts to about $125,000 for a family of four, according to Lait.

Councilman Tom DuBois favored the more restrictive definition of 80 percent of area-median income. In discussing zone changes around California Avenue, DuBois argued that only projects geared toward low-income residents should be eligible for the new "affordable housing overlay" district and exempt from the city's ground-floor-retail requirement.

"I remain concerned that what we're calling affordable housing overlay is going to favor market-rate housing and I want to make sure it's attractive to projects that are below market rate to have some additional incentive," DuBois said.

Others countered that even the "moderate-income" level is well below Palo Alto's market rate. Vice Mayor Adrian Fine, the lead author of a colleagues memo that prompted the zoning revision, pointed at 57-unit development that the council approved last year for the corner of El Camino and Page Mill. Despite consisting entirely of "microunits," the developers were planning to charge rents of well above the "moderate-income" level, about 180 to 190 percent of area-median income, Fine estimated.

"Yes, we should be providing more regulatory flexibility for those low-income units," Fine said. "But here in Palo Alto, we'd be lucky if we got a project for 80 to 100 percent."

After DuBois made a motion to limit the ground-floor exemption to projects geared toward 80 percent of area median income, Fine proposed an amendment raising it to 100 percent. Fine's amendment failed by a 3-3 vote, with Filseth recusing and DuBois, Kou and Greg Tanaka dissenting. The council then voted unanimously to support the 80 percent level.


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89 people like this
Posted by Neal
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 29, 2019 at 10:04 am

Neal is a registered user.

Once again, developers win and residents lose.

73 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 29, 2019 at 11:01 am

Annette is a registered user.

I watched from home and was struck by this consistency: in the process of approving the various changes, CC also increased the discretion of the Planning Director. If, on top of that, Staff's recommendation regarding a waiver process for the Grandfathered Facilities Ordinance is approved, the Planning Director will, in many instances, have largely unfettered discretion. Said differently, one need only curry favor with a single person rather than convince a majority on City Council. The waiver circumvents the public. We can all appreciate that there's some appeal to that since the Palo Alto process often protracts the planning and approval process, but there are safeties built into that process. I think these are safeties that we do not want to forfeit to a single person or department. Even if there is an appeal process, a decision once made is difficult to reverse. If this is of concern to you, read Staff's recommendation to the PTC, write the PTC, and attend tomorrow night's meeting.

10 people like this
Posted by @Neal
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2019 at 11:14 am

You're sitting in a house valued at well over a million dollars paying taxes well below the market rate while everyone else is lucky to find a garage to live in. [Portion removed.]

96 people like this
Posted by ABAG owns PA
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 29, 2019 at 11:15 am

You guys haven't gotten it yet. ABAG owns PA, the ECR corridor will be a bastion of development and high rises. You worry about ADU's and traffic? Just wait till all this development gets going!

But hey, California has unlimited resources! No worries about drought here, keep 'em coming!

14 people like this
Posted by Homeowner
a resident of University South
on Jan 29, 2019 at 11:54 am

This is great news for residents! It's a shame it took the stick of SB35 to make City Council act on this.

66 people like this
Posted by GoneOnTooLong
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2019 at 12:44 pm

We left 2 years ago.
So glad we did.
We were in town last weekend to see friends and were so sad to see how much the town and area has gone downhill. Our friends want to leave too but home prices have really fallen and they feel they can’t sell right now. they believe home prices will recover in the spring. I hope for their sakes that home prices stop declining, but after what I saw, I think Palo Alto is in store for a steep drop. It’s a horrible place to visit, and I’d hate to try to live there now.

When we got home to our small country town, I felt so bad about what I’d seen in PA, so I came back to this site because I felt that I needed to say something. I hope residents can halt the development and out of control business office expansion. I sure hope for my friends sake that they can get out this spring.

60 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2019 at 1:27 pm

Welcome to the Sardine Can.

No infrastructure, but plenty of bedrooms pack and stack with nothing to do but work and sleep.

The new Palo Alto!

56 people like this
Posted by Control before Growth
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 29, 2019 at 3:34 pm

We live on Lincoln Avenue,. Today I dropped my purse crossing the street to get in my car. Before I could even pause to pick it up I had to scoot out of the way for a speeding car that turned from Cowper onto Lincoln and drove right over my handbag. We were a block away from Addison Elementary. Traffic has gotten so out of control that everyone uses Lincoln as a cut through but the police never monitor for speeding. We don't need growth until we get what we have under control.

55 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 29, 2019 at 3:53 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

@Control before Growth: I made a similar comment to a Council member yesterday. There have been several accidents at Lincoln and Middlefield over the past year, and traffic on Lincoln is up 85% over the past five years. Most of this appears to be cut-through.

I'm under the impression that much of the Council doesn't believe traffic is a significant problem, or doesn't believe that it's going to get worse as housing density increases without a corresponding improvement in transportation.

48 people like this
Posted by ABAG owns PA
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 29, 2019 at 4:16 pm

@Allen, don’t kid yourself, they absolutely know...... THEY DONT CARE. Again, when is everyone going to realize you can elect whomever you want, it isn’t going to make a difference. The politicians are beholden to the realtors/developers and they’ve sold their souls in the name of “progress”.

ABAG. Look it up, see who’s involved and connect the dots. You can debate all you want on these message boards but it’s DONE and no going back.

62 people like this
Posted by Another Giveaway
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2019 at 5:02 pm


This all seems an awful lot like the European Union model applied on a smaller scale. Shift governance into un-elected bodies stuffed with ideologues that do not have to answer to the voters.

This is all so profoundly un-democratic. When did the Democratic party stop believing in democracy?

7 people like this
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 29, 2019 at 8:05 pm

So glad to see the housing crisis being addressed. Keep the construction coming! If the situation doesn't improve, my wife and I may move to LA, where the base rent is less than half of what it is here.

47 people like this
Posted by YIMBY Narrative wrong
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 29, 2019 at 9:27 pm

It turns out that the NIMBY narrative that higher density housing leads to lower housing costs is WRONG: upzoning for higher density housing actually leads to INCREASED housing costs according to a recent study in Chicago:
Web Link

10 people like this
Posted by YIMBY Narrative wrong
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 29, 2019 at 9:28 pm

Meant YIMBY (not NIMBY) narrative in post above

7 people like this
Posted by Seattle Begs To Differ
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2019 at 2:30 am

Amid building boom, 1 in 10 Seattle apartments are empty, and rents are dropping

Web Link

11 people like this
Posted by Seattle Begs To Differ
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2019 at 2:39 am

That study is ridiculous. Of course the brand new housing in upzoned areas is expensive. It's new housing! Adding new housing supply puts downward pressure on rents regionally as demand is soaked up by new constructions and fewer people compete for housing further away, making that housing cheaper.

11 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 30, 2019 at 6:30 am

Annette is a registered user.

@ControlBeforeGrowth - I cannot stop thinking about what you wrote because the "what ifs" are wholly bad. Thank goodness it was *only* your purse that the speeding driver ran over and he or she did not cause you bodily harm. If you are so inclined, I think the PAPD and the CC should hear about your experience because it illustrates the inherent perils of not adequately addressing the infrastructure side of growth.

Palo Alto needs motorcycle cops.

29 people like this
Posted by Giraffe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 30, 2019 at 10:03 am

Giraffe is a registered user.

Can someone explain how all the commercial development helps Palo Alto? I have lived here 30 years and it seems to me that it was a better place to live then than it is now. Back then, WAY less traffic. Fewer cars parked on the streets. Parking available downtown. Seems like the streets were in better shape. No campers parked on El Camino. Etc.

What am I missing??

10 people like this
Posted by @Giraffe
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2019 at 10:17 am

Retired Senior Citizens Questions Usefulness Of Job Growth After Exiting Job Market

19 people like this
Posted by Jerry
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 30, 2019 at 4:10 pm

Living in Palo Alto has deteriorated to unacceptable over the last 30 years. Residents want less traffic, safety downtown at night, fewer break ins, fewer hotels and new condos and aparartments.
Life is horrible here in Palo Alto, especially with City Council constantly harping and promoting more "affordable housing" and "subsidized housing" and increased density and higher buildings. not to mention City Council using Barron Park as a dumping ground for unacceptable apartments, condominiums and trailer park always in Barron Park to support horrible traffic and out of control crime.
Like many residents I am stuck with a house that has increased in selling price, but if I sold I would have to pay 20% Federal Capital Gains Tax, 3.8% Obamacare Tax, and 12% CA tax (thanks to Jerry Brown) so after taxes I could not afford to buy a condo or townhouse in Campbell or Los Gatos. So I am like many "House Poor" residents with virtually most potential home value appreciation going to taxes so someone could buy a townhose in Palo Alto. Just pathetic.

10 people like this
Posted by @Jerry
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2019 at 5:03 pm

"Like many residents I am stuck with a house that has increased in selling price, but if I sold I would have to pay 20% Federal Capital Gains Tax, 3.8% Obamacare Tax, and 12% CA tax (thanks to Jerry Brown) so after taxes I could not afford to buy a condo or townhouse in Campbell or Los Gatos."

What a rough life.

15 people like this
Posted by Rick
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 31, 2019 at 2:44 pm

Just disgusted with our CC. I think they learned about city management by playing FarmVille.

10 people like this
Posted by sunshine
a resident of University South
on Feb 1, 2019 at 7:49 am

At present, there is only one good person on City Council, and she is about fed up with all the bickering. Watch the vote tallies and you will know who she is.
Per usual, ever since I have lived in Palo Alto (1964) residents of Old Palo Alto and Professorville are dumping on Barron Park. This is one of the few areas of Palo Alto where one can be within a mile or two of town with a nearby good grocery store that has not succumbed to "Palo Alto perfect" syndrome to look down on other parts of town and any school not associated with Stanford.
We do not need more development, especially any related to offices, exercise parlors, or overpriced restaurants that feature a sound level close to a din. The quiet, romantic places that featured excellent food and quiet dining are gone. I taught an evening class downtown for many years. The class let out at 9:30-10:00 pm and I parked in an alley. I would never do that now as it is unsafe. You could walk in most neighborhoods in the evening and be perfectly safe.
No more over development until the next ones are right next door to most of the Council members or in Professorville or Old Palo Alto.

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

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