Responding to new state laws, Palo Alto is preparing to overhaul its process for approving new housing developments.
Instead of subjective guidelines that require developers to ensure that their projects fit in with the surrounding neighborhood and give city leaders ample wiggle room to demand revisions, the city will now lean on "objective standards" — clear rules that, if followed, will allow housing projects to win approval under a streamlined process.
The city has been developing the new objective standards for well over a year, with the Architectural Review Board holding 11 public hearings on the project and the Planning and Transportation Commission holding three. Both panels had supported adopting the proposed objective standards, which the council is set to review and potentially approve on Aug. 16.
In explaining the effort, Jodie Gerhardt, the city's manager of current planning, noted that certain residential projects are no longer required to go through the city's discretionary review. Without clear "objective standards," the only rules that the city would be able to enforce are height limits and setback requirements, Gerhardt told about 25 people Monday at a virtual webinar on the effort.
"We as a city believe in high-quality developments so we'd like to have more standards," Gerhardt said. "We're taking our current design criteria and turning them into objective standards so that we can maintain that high-quality development."
The new standards encompass elements such as façade design, building massing and open space requirements. They address these elements with striking specificity, requiring, for instance, a minimum façade break of 4 feet in width, 2 feet in depth, and 32 square feet of area for every 36-50 feet of a building's façade lengths. The new standards specify that when a building is within 40 feet of an abutting structure, no more than 15% of the area facing that structure shall be windows or other glazing. They also dictate how far an upper floor should be set back when a new development is next to a much smaller building (6 feet). And they require each building that is three stories or taller to have a differentiated base, middle and top.
While the new rules aim to give the city a greater say over housing projects, the public reception so far has been mixed. Some of the attendees chafed at how the rules treat height limits, particularly for buildings in or near RM-40 zones, which allow up to 40 dwellings per acre. Under existing laws, new projects within 150 feet of residential zones have a height limit of 35 feet. RM-40 zones, however, are excluded from this.
Several residents in the Mayfield neighborhood, including those in the Palo Alto Central condominium complex, urged city staff on Monday to address this discrepancy and give their zoning district, RM-40, the same protections from tall buildings that other zones enjoy. Area resident Terry Holzemer suggested that treating RM-40 differently from other neighborhoods "is not fair or equitable to the residents who pay taxes just like everyone else who own property in this city."
Others worried that replacing context-based guidelines with objective standards would lead to projects that don't fit with their particular neighborhoods.
"Somehow, by throwing out context-based design, it sounds like anything goes," Mayfield resident Peter Shuler said. "And I think you have to be very careful about saying, 'We're not going to consider context anymore, we're just going to plop stuff down and put a pretty façade on it and that will make it fit in.'"
One member of the Architectural Review Board had similar misgivings about the new rules. David Hirsch, the only board member who voted against the proposed objective standards, suggested that the new mandate that calls for all buildings with three or more stories to have a clear base, top and middle is too restrictive. He pointed to several recent residential developments that won approval from the council despite failing to follow those guideless.
"There are so many other good ways to do it," Hirsch said at the March 18 meeting, just before the Architectural Review Board voted to approve the changes to the city's development standards. "And I think even if you look back at Wilton Court or if you look at the Page Mill project, Windy Hill — those projects violate the idea of it being a base, middle and top. Definitely, they aren't of that ilk. For that reason, I don't think we should pass on this unless we alter that aspect of it."
The Planning and Transportation Commission also supported the new objective standards. At its June 9 meeting, commissioners agreed that these rules should also apply to projects in "public facility" zones, which include the former Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority parking lot at 2755 El Camino Real, where the developer Windy Hill Ventures is now constructing a 57-unit residential development. The only commissioner who dissented was Doria Summa, who noted that the parks and public plazas are also typically included in this zoning designation.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck noted that the new rules would make it harder for the city to reject projects that meet quantifiable standards. At the same time, the objective standards would prevent certain developments from getting automatic approval without meeting a clear set of design rules. He alluded to Cupertino, where a major mixed-use project known as Vallco Town Center was approved through the SB 35 process despite opposition and litigation from project opponents.
"I think the objective standards are a NIMBY nightmare," said Alcheck, using the derisive acronym that stands for "Not in my backyard." "And, frankly, the consequences of not adopting objective standards will be a NIMBY nightmare. We've been judged, as a number of local municipalities have, and our subjective standards are too good at stopping the housing development — basically, restricting supply which is at the heart of the entire housing crisis."
The city's new rules also provide some flexibility for those projects that want to stray from the objective standards. Those that do so, however, would now longer qualify for streamlined approval. Chris Wuthman, director of Stanford University Real Estate, suggested that this could create an obstacle for affordable housing projects.
Palo Alto's new standards, Wuthman noted, do not recognize the differences between building rental and for-sale projects and between developments with greater and lesser affordability.
"The hope is that the standards are not such that they unintentionally cause projects with greater affordability to have to use this alternative route and lose the streamlining," Wuthman said.
Most members of the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Architectural Review Board, however, agreed with planning staff that the new standards, while not perfect, are a valuable tool for ensuring that the city has some say over new housing developments. Gerhardt noted that the rules would apply only to three types of projects: those that are 100% residential, mixed-use projects that are at least two-thirds residential and those that provide transitional housing.
Osma Thompson, chair of Architectural Review Board, acknowledged the "philosophical concerns" surrounding the new objective standards — particularly, concerns as to whether the new objective rules can lead to creation of great buildings. The new rules, however, are "a result of a lot of input and a lot of effort to make it as good as we can," Thompson, who supported the adoption of the standards, told the planning commission at the June 9 meeting.
A June report from Planning Director Jonathan Lait notes that the design standards "aim to strike a balance between prescriptiveness and flexibility."
"They are intended to lead to buildings that implement good design principles and that exhibit an acceptable level of articulation and detail," Lait's report states. "However, because these standards are objective, they cannot anticipate all different types of buildings and unique architectural designs that a developer may want to achieve."