Planning director sheds 'interim' status

Jonathan Lait to lead department on permanent basis

Jonathan Lait, who has been serving as Palo Alto's interim planning director since April, will remain in the position on a permanent basis, City Manager Ed Shikada announced Wednesday.

Lait, who joined the city in 2014 as assistant planning director, became the city's top planner last year with the departure of then-Planning Director Hillary Gitelman. As interim planning director, Lait has been at the forefront of the city's most significant zoning achievements, including the recent zoning-code revisions to encourage more housing and to restrict commercial development.

Lait has been the lead staff member on advancing the City Council's Housing Work Plan, an effort that has already resulted in a wide range of zone changes. He took a leading role in the council's creation last year of an "affordable-housing overlay district," which relaxes development standards for below-market-rate projects. Last month, the council approved the first project under this zoning tool, a 59-unit development from the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing.

Under his leadership, the council approved in December and January dozens of other zone changes, including the creation of a "housing incentive program," which gives significant density bonuses to residential developments in transit-friendly areas, and the elimination of "maximum unit" regulations in high-density residential districts.

Lait has also been at the center of some of the city's most divisive debates and controversial decisions, including his December approval of a mixed-use project at 429 University Ave. and last month's approval of five wireless-communication facility "nodes" in the downtown area. In both cases, his approval followed a rejection from the Architectural Review Board and sparked vehement criticism from project opponents.

He also had to perform damage control last year after planning staff adopted an ordinance banning the conversion of "grandfathered" buildings in the downtown area (those that don't comply with current codes) to different uses. The provision, which Lait said was added to the code erroneously due to an "administrative error," became a major obstacle for various commercial developers looking to switch from one use to another. These include the planned conversion of President Hotel apartments into a luxury hotel (the Planning and Transportation Commission last week voted to scrap that clause to most types of conversions, though going from residential to non-residential uses will remain illegal if the council adopts the commission's recommendation).

In appointing Lait, Shikada lauded his "leadership and ability to navigate what is arguably one of our toughest and most high-profile positions."

"He has successfully managed the department while continuing to bring forward key policy items related to zoning and land use, which are clearly community quality of life priorities and constitute a significant part of the Council's agendas," Shikada said in a statement.

Shikada also called Lait's appointment as permanent director a "key step in the reunification of the City's Planning, Development Services, and Code Enforcement operations," which were separated several years ago." The department also no longer includes the Transportation Division, which has been reorganized into a separate city office (Palo Alto is hoping to recruit a new chief transportation official to head the office this spring).

The council is scheduled to affirm Lait's appointment on Monday night. His annual salary will be $238,368.

Before coming to Palo Alto, Lait had served as assistant director of community development in Beverly Hills.

"Palo Altans are deeply invested in their community and I appreciate how land use decisions can impact the quality of its neighborhoods and the success of its businesses," Lait said in a statement. "I look forward to engaging the community to balance the diversity of interests, so that together, we can strive to enhance the quality of life for those who live, work, and visit our community."


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11 people like this
Posted by 94301
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 7, 2019 at 10:17 am

I applaud this decision. Jonathan Lait has been very open and approachable to the public. He seems genuinely interested and effective in getting stuff done. I have high hopes for him to be more proactive than his predecessors.

13 people like this
Posted by Judith Wasserman
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 7, 2019 at 10:38 am

Judith Wasserman is a registered user.

Please DO NOT reunite the Planning Department and Development Services until Lait has a chance to bring the Planning Department up to a viable condition. The Development Center has been a workable, useful and well-functioning, service-oriented department, while Planning has been dysfunctional and mired in the political swamp.

Until it is demonstrated that re-combining the 2 departments will not result in the DC being drawn into the same swamp, leave it alone.

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

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