As Palo Alto advances a new vision for housing growth, two local architects are pitching an idea that they believe could generate as many as 1,000 new dwellings near downtown and California Avenue: constructing housing over city-owned parking lots.
Under the proposal from Peter Baltay and David Hirsch, who both serve on the city's Architectural Review Board, the city would issue a request for proposals to developers to build three- to five-story buildings filled with small apartments on parking lots. All of the existing parking would be maintained on these lots, though much of it would be shifted underground, with housing built above it.
Baltay and Hirsch began exploring the concept about six months ago. They toured every lot in the California Avenue and downtown areas to count parking spots and create estimates for how much housing each can accommodate. They estimate that downtown's 12 surface parking lots, which today contain 707 parking spaces, can potentially accommodate about 740 housing units as well as 1,070 parking spaces. On California Avenue, the five surface parking lots can be developed to include 263 residences as well as 397 parking spaces, up from the current level of 282 spaces (the parking garages in the two business districts are not included in the proposal).
"We have to stress over and over again that we won't lose parking," Baltay said in an interview Wednesday. "This does not require a loss of a single parking space."
The two architects believe that their idea can not only generate hundreds of new housing units in each of the two business districts, but that it can help revitalize retail at a time when the business community is reeling from the rising popularity of online shopping and the economic damage wrought by COVID-19. More importantly, they said, their plan would allow the city to dictate the terms of the new development, including building designs and affordability levels in the new housing complexes.
This, they argue, is particularly important at a time when the state is setting aggressive housing targets for local jurisdictions and adopting new laws that curb city powers to reject development proposals. Under the state's Regional Housing Allocation Process, Palo Alto will have to plan for 6,086 new housing units between 2023 and 2031, which makes their proposal particularly timely.
As members of the Architectural Review Board, Baltay and Hirsch are intimately familiar with both the difficulty of getting through the approval process and the importance of ensuring that new buildings have ample parking. In advocating for exploring the use of parking lots, they note that they are acting as individuals and not in their capacity as board members (they have not discussed the proposal with anyone else on the board, Baltay said).
They are, however, preparing to go through their own vetting process to advance their concept. The first step occurred earlier this month, when they pitched the parking lot idea to the Housing Element Working Group, a citizen's panel that is helping Palo Alto adopt its Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lists the city's housing policies and that includes an inventory of sites that can accommodate housing.
In the Sept. 2 presentation, Baltay noted that because these lots are in commercial areas, the new development will not adversely impact the city's existing residential communities.
"We can control the development parameters of the new buildings," Baltay said during the presentation. "Since the city owns the land, we are able to insist on projects that reflect the physical and social character and values of our community."
Hirsch stressed during the presentation the economic benefit that the plan could bring to the retail areas and noted that by focusing dense multifamily developments on sites around downtown and in the California Avenue area, the city can avoid significant growth in corridors that abut low-scale residential neighborhoods, including Middlefield Road, Alma Street and El Camino Real.
"The trending decline in brick-and-mortar retail activity combined with the catastrophic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our local shopping districts," Hirsch said. "Bringing new residents to downtown areas can help reverse this trend, creating variety, vitality in our urban district."
The idea of building housing on city-owned lots isn't exactly new. In 2018, as the city prepared to adopt a new Housing Work Plan, the City Council considered and rejected a policy that would make parking lots available for new housing. At that time, council members expressed concern about giving up a scarce and precious commodity, public land, before the council voted 6-3 not to include the policy in the plan.
Other cities have been more receptive to the idea. Mountain View has recently approved a project from the nonprofit Alta Housing that would bring 120 affordable-housing units to a city-owned parking lot near Castro Street. Hirsch also pointed to housing projects in Burlingame and San Mateo that rely on parking lots to create 132 and 54 apartments, respectively.
To demonstrate what such a project would look like in Palo Alto, the two architects created a concept plan for the parking lot on Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street, which the council had previously considered as a site for a new parking garage. The illustration shows a five-story building with 83 apartments with skylights, clerestory windows and a roof deck. The project would also include 130 underground parking spaces.
Baltay and Hirsch said they believe that it's time for Palo Alto reconsider the idea of housing over parking on public lots. Rather than force it to cede control over public land, the plan allows the city to exert control and shape its own housing destiny, they argued.
"If it's important for you to step the building down to fit a neighborhood, you can do that. You own the land, you call the shots," Baltay said. "You wait until the state tells you what the rule is, you lost. It's so important that the city has the opportunity to not only do these things, but to do them under Palo Alto's standards."
The Housing Element Working Group proved largely receptive to the proposal, with 12 members supporting further exploration of the concept and three opposing it. For many, the support came with caveats. Arthur Keller, a former planning commissioner who serves on the working group, insisted that the projects not include "puzzle lifts" for cars as part of their parking schemes (Baltay and Hirsch confirmed that they are not). Another group member, Hamilton Hitchings, insisted that any housing projects developed on parking lots be 100% affordable housing projects, targeting residents who make no more than 80% of area median income.
"If we're using public land, this really has to be for low income (residents). … It needs to be developed by a nonprofit and it needs to receive state funding," Hitchings said.
Kathy Jordan, who also serves on the housing group, suggested that the plans are not providing sufficient parking, given that the architects are proposing only 0.5 parking spaces for each new apartment on the public lot. She also criticized the plan for privatizing a public asset.
"We have a private party that would be profiting, earning income, over a public property and amenity," Jordan said.
While the tentative proposal does not explicitly require the new apartments to be offered at below market rate, Baltay emphasized that the city can set that as a condition when it issues a request for proposals. Hirsch said that in the preliminary concept, 93% of apartments are studios and one-bedroom units — which means that, at the very least, they would be relatively affordable when compared to other local apartments.
Hirsch also said in an interview that while the concept has the potential to create more than 1,000 apartments, these would be developed over a long period of time. One possible path forward, he said, is to select one lot in downtown and one in the California Avenue business district and see what proposals the city receives for housing developments.
"It's never going to be done in one shot," Hirsch said in the interview. "It's a long-term process."