As Palo Alto launches the complex process of identifying sites to accommodate more than 6,000 new residences, city leaders plan to zoom in on prominent commercial areas such as Stanford Shopping Center and Stanford Research Park.
The process of selecting housing sites and deciding how much housing these sites can realistically accommodate began to roll out over the past week, as the city's newly appointed Housing Element Working Group held its first meeting and elected its co-chairs: Sheryl Klein of the nonprofit builder Alta Housing and Ed Lauing, a member of the Planning and Transportation Commission. On Monday night, the City Council began its own journey toward the new Housing Element when it approved staff's timeline for crafting the document and offered its early comments on the state-mandated document.
Council members generally acknowledged that creating housing inventory for the period between 2023 and 2031 will be a daunting endeavor, given the high number of residences that Palo Alto is required to plan for and recent state laws that both restrict what sites can be listed and impose new penalties for cities that fall short. Under the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process, Palo Alto's housing allocation is set to roughly triple in the next cycle, going from 1,988 in the current planning period to 6,086 in the period stretching from 2023 to 2031.
For a city that consistently fails to meet both its own goals and its regional obligations on housing development, the new numbers represent a steep challenge — one that is almost certain to revive in the coming months of community debates about building heights, parking rules and the sanctity of single-family zoning. These issues will also take center stage next Tuesday, when the council weighs in on two proposed housing developments: a mixed-use project with 36 microstudios at 955 Alma St. and a plan for a three-story, 24-apartment building at 2239 Wellesley St. in the College Terrace neighborhood.
While the majority of the council has consistently opposed allowing multifamily developments in single-family neighborhoods — a position that represents a high hurdle for the College Terrace project — council members indicated on Monday that the state mandate will require them to look for housing opportunities in areas that have historically seen only commercial use. Mayor Tom DuBois suggested that the city look at Stanford Shopping Center and Stanford Research Park for housing opportunities and Planning Director Jonathan Lait confirmed that staff will look at these areas, as well as at neighborhoods that are already zoned for multifamily residences.
Even open-space areas, DuBois said, should be in play in the upcoming planning process.
"I would like to challenge the planning commission and council to think a bit outside the box," DuBois said. "I believe we're going to have to be very creative and consider a possible expansion of the areas that we'd consider for housing.
"I'm not talking about our neighborhoods," he added.
Like most of his colleagues on the council, DuBois has been critical of the housing allocation process, which council members have characterized as an unfunded mandate that may be impossible to meet. Next Tuesday, the council will consider whether to formally appeal the city's allocation with the Association of Bay Area Governments, the regional agency that brings representatives from cities throughout the Bay Area to craft the methodology that is used to develop the housing allocations.
On Monday, several council members reiterated their prior concerns about the state's planning process — namely, that it puts too much emphasis on market-rate housing and provides too little financial support to enable affordable housing.
Council member Greer Stone described the housing process as a state mandate that is "left to struggling cities in an economic crisis to fund on our own." Vice Mayor Pat Burt said that by focusing on the number — rather than types — of new residences, the housing allocation process is creating an incentive for cities to focus on adding studios and small apartments to meet the regional targets, to the detriment of larger residences that can accommodate families.
"We're going to have such difficulty meeting 6,000 housing units," Burt said. "Achieving both our city's objectives to balance the demographics and meeting the numerical demands are conflicting objectives."
Under the timeline that the council endorsed Monday, planning staff will work with the Housing Element Working Group to create an inventory of potential housing sites by March 2022. Staff will then work with the group, the Planning and Transportation Commission and the council's ad hoc committee to draft new programs to encourage housing. The city would submit an early draft to the state Department of Housing and Community Development by June 2022 and the council would then adopt the Housing Element in November 2022.
The planning exercise has already generated widespread community interest, with more than 80 residents applying to serve on the 15-member Housing Element Working Group. Some in the community view the planning process as a ripe opportunity for the city to rethink its growth policies and actually boost its housing stock. For others, it's a misguided and likely fruitless exercise.
Kathy Jordan, a member of the working group, pointed on Monday to recent reports from the state Department of Finance showing that California has lost about 182,000 residents in the past year, while Santa Clara County has seen its population drop by 0.6% over the past year — figures that she implied challenge state's growth projections.
Resident Jeffrey Hook also criticized the regional mandates and suggested that it would be foolish to plan for an increasing population at a time when critical resources are increasingly threatened by climate change.
"Does it make sense to be planning for more people at a time when water is going to become increasingly scarce?" he asked.
Jordan Grimes, member of the advocacy group Peninsula for Everyone, soundly rejected that argument and said that the region's population is declining is because cities are doing such a miserable job in providing housing.
"Given California's and Palo Alto's, specifically, unfortunate commitment to making housing as expensive and difficult to build as possible, it's a miracle that our population has kept growing for as long as it has, and it's frankly a testament to how much people will endure to live here," Grimes said.