News

Palo Alto looks to revamp review process for housing projects

By shifting from subjective guidelines to objective standards, city hopes to provide clarity and retain rights to judge new buildings

Wilton Court, a 58-unit affordable-housing project developed by Alta Housing, is one of just a few multifamily developments that Palo Alto has approved in recent years. Rendering courtesy Alta Housing.

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."

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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.'"

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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."

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Palo Alto looks to revamp review process for housing projects

By shifting from subjective guidelines to objective standards, city hopes to provide clarity and retain rights to judge new buildings

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Jul 21, 2021, 8:36 am

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."

Comments

Andrew Boone
Registered user
another community
on Jul 21, 2021 at 1:05 pm
Andrew Boone, another community
Registered user
on Jul 21, 2021 at 1:05 pm

An effort to move towards more objective building design standards could also include ways to cut motor vehicle traffic such as better bicycle parking and discounted or free public transit passes. Vehicle traffic can be minimized by consistently incorporating better “multi-modal-friendly design” into future Palo Alto buildings. Some of the city’s current design standards, such as car parking minimum requirements, do exactly the opposite - increase vehicle trips while reducing the use of transit, bicycling, and walking.


commonsense
Registered user
Professorville
on Jul 21, 2021 at 1:21 pm
commonsense, Professorville
Registered user
on Jul 21, 2021 at 1:21 pm

Would these objective standards apply to single family homes?


Gennady Sheyner
Registered user
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Jul 21, 2021 at 1:26 pm
Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
Registered user
on Jul 21, 2021 at 1:26 pm

@Commonsense,

The objective standards will not apply to single-family homes. Only to multi-family projects with three or more units (which does not include ADUs).


eileen
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jul 21, 2021 at 2:08 pm
eileen , College Terrace
Registered user
on Jul 21, 2021 at 2:08 pm

Will these standards require the developers to plant trees? The leafy Palo Alto canopy will be lost without some shade trees and permeable paving.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jul 22, 2021 at 6:26 pm
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jul 22, 2021 at 6:26 pm

“Chris Wuthman, director of Stanford University Real Estate, suggested that this could create an obstacle for affordable housing projects.” Last I knew Stanford Real Estate did not accept S8 Vouchers. They deny low income renters by charging excessive rents and attaching HOA’s. Lot’s of progressive words to snare and delude us into thinking otherwise. All this distractive discussion about the look of a facade? What about interior floor plans that are efficient and livable, an attractive size for a family to live and grow. All Palo Alto cares about is how it looks from the outside. Inside can be cheap materials, tiny squished floor plans, cheap appliances that break after a few months and just plain, ugly. Rich people don’t give a hoot about poor local families as long as it has a pretty facade! Designs @that don’t fit it w the neighborhood” is separate and unequal i.e. No people of mixed incomes of color. BLM!. Good design outside and inside is necessary : form & function . Yet. All this is just more about saying “no” to mixed use housing for all.


Name hidden
Downtown North

Registered user
on Jul 23, 2021 at 4:03 pm
Name hidden, Downtown North

Registered user
on Jul 23, 2021 at 4:03 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


Quinten
Registered user
another community
on Jul 24, 2021 at 12:18 am
Quinten, another community
Registered user
on Jul 24, 2021 at 12:18 am

By shifting from subjective guidelines to objective standards, city hopes to provide clarity and retain rights to judge new buildings. 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...
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