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Palo Alto begins overhaul of design rules for approving new housing

City Council hopes new 'objective standards' will give city more power to shape development

The Sobrato Organization's proposed 85-townhome development at 200 Portage Ave. is one of two projects that is relying on SB 330 for streamlined approval. Rendering courtesy KTGY Architecture + Planning

Responding to recently approved housing legislation, the Palo Alto City Council kicked off on Monday the complex and at times contentious process of revamping the city's rules for approving new residential projects.

The goal of the effort is to establish new "objective standards" — clearly defined rules that will govern the designs of new buildings. Unlike existing rules, which tend toward more subjective guidelines such as neighborhood compatibility, the new ones are clearly measurable. They cover everything from parking lot sizes and window styles to yard dimensions and the building's "vertical rhythm."

Like other cities, Palo Alto is revising the rules in response to recent state laws such as Senate Bill 35 and Senate Bill 330, which effectively ban the city from turning down qualifying housing projects based on subjective criteria that are open to interpretation. The new "objective standards" — which by definition require "no personal or subjective judgement" — address this by giving the city a suite of tools to steer new developments toward officially sanctioned designs.

The specificity is at times striking. One proposed rule specifies that an upper story of a new building that is next to an existing structure must have a minimum façade break of 5 feet in width, 2 feet in depth and 32 square feet in area for every 36 to 50 feet of a building's façade length. Another proposed rule states that buildings that are greater than 25 feet in height and 70 feet in length and that face a public street shall not have a "continuous façade plane greater than 70% of the façade length without an upper floor modulation, which can include bay windows."

The council's Monday discussion was the first of a series of public hearings on the new objective standards, with the next one set for Oct. 25.

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Planning Director Jonathan Lait said that the goal of the endeavor is to take existing subjective standards and "make them objective so that we can continue to honor our interest in these design criteria or these aesthetic standards that wouldn't otherwise apply if one of those qualifying housing projects come forward."

"There's been some concerns that we're removing some aspects of the code and that it's weakening some of the standards, but the intent here is really to strengthen those things that this community over the years has really embodied in terms of design and aesthetic interests," Lait said.

The new proposal is the product of more than a year of public hearings and conversations between city staff and local architects, developers and consultants. This included eight meetings with the full Architectural Review Board and five more with the board's specially appointed ad hoc committee, as well as three hearings in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission. Both boards ultimately voted to approve the package of revisions prepared by staff, even though some Architectural Review Board members expressed concerns that the new rules are a bit too prescriptive and may lead to a "cookie-cutter" design. Osma Thompson, chair of the board, said Monday that even with that concern, the new standards will "push designers toward a pretty good cookie at the end of the day."

"We've attempted to formulate this document with utmost intent of promoting high-quality design in Palo Alto," Thompson said. "We're aware of other cities and other projects that create guidelines, and we intend to continue monitoring the implications these standards have on projects and intend to revisit as necessary in the future."

Not everyone is thrilled about the new rules. Some architects have suggested that they are too restrictive. Architect Heather Young pointed to a new provision in the objective standards that requires a side-yard setback of at least 10 feet. The provision, she noted, would significantly reduce the building width on a 50-foot lot on El Camino Real, creating "awkward and unappealing massing."

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"The idea that good — or even acceptable — design results from the overlay of one-size-fits-all fixed dimensional requirements on all projects, regardless of site, use, context, or style, is an illusion that completely misses the opportunity and nuance that take our cities from rote need fulfillment to delight," Young wrote.

Some residents also took issue with the new rules but for the very opposite reason. The new objective standards, they argued, would not be as effective in protecting existing neighborhoods from new developments as the existing design guidelines.

The umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, which includes representatives from various local neighborhood associations, contended in a letter that the process for adopting new design standards is flawed because it sought little public input (aside from developers, architects and consultants); it did not include an analysis of any impacts; and it did not include clear comparisons between existing rules and the ones proposed.

"The proposed ordinance removes privacy protections for residents near new development and deletes long-standing context-based protection rules," Sheri Furman and Becky Sanders, co-chairs of Palo Alto Neighborhoods, wrote in a letter to the council.

There are at least two projects in the city's development pipeline that would be immune from the city's changes. One is a proposal from Sobrato Organization for an 85-townhome development at 200 Portage Ave., next to the building that until recently housed Fry's Electronics. Another is a 48-home development that SummerHill Homes plans to construct just east of Greer Park, at 2850 Bayshore Road. Both are relying on the streamlining provisions of Senate Bill 330, which freezes the development standards that the city has in place at the time of the application and precludes the city from changing the rules or requiring lower density.

Of bigger concern to Palo Alto staff is Senate Bill 35, which creates a streamlining process for residential developments in cities that fail to meet their housing targets under the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process. That means that in Palo Alto, which is far behind the regional mandate for below-market-rate housing, projects that offer affordable housing are eligible for streamlined approval. (Palo Alto has, however, produced enough market-rate homes over the current housing cycle to preclude market-rate developments from relying on SB 35's streamlining rules).

That, however, may change in the next eight-year cycle of RHNA, with the city facing a mandate of creating 6,086 dwellings between 2023 and 2031. If the city falls behind, these developments will proceed through the streamlined process. Objective standards will then be the city's primary method for asserting its design preferences.

"Four years into our RHNA cycle, if we're not on pace to meet our market-rate housing production, then that's when these objective standards are really going to kick in," Lait said. "That's what we're preparing for and trying to anticipate through this endeavor.

The council agreed that the exercise is well worth pursuing even though council members weren't ready to immediately approve the multitude of code changes proposed by staff. Some members suggested additional focus areas. Mayor Tom Dubois and Vice Mayor Pat Burt both wanted to see more provisions that protect residents' views. Council member Greer Stone favored greater attention to resident privacy.

Council members Eric Filseth and Lydia Kou both urged a cautious approach, noting that the council may not have the option of undoing any of its efforts to loosen the zoning rules. Filseth pointed to what he called the "growing spiderweb of state mandates" and suggested that legislators have shown that they are "very serious about getting into the municipal architecture business."

"This is not the state imposing stuff on us," Filseth said of the proposed objective standards. "This is us preparing for the state imposing stuff on us."

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Palo Alto begins overhaul of design rules for approving new housing

City Council hopes new 'objective standards' will give city more power to shape development

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Mon, Oct 4, 2021, 11:16 pm

Responding to recently approved housing legislation, the Palo Alto City Council kicked off on Monday the complex and at times contentious process of revamping the city's rules for approving new residential projects.

The goal of the effort is to establish new "objective standards" — clearly defined rules that will govern the designs of new buildings. Unlike existing rules, which tend toward more subjective guidelines such as neighborhood compatibility, the new ones are clearly measurable. They cover everything from parking lot sizes and window styles to yard dimensions and the building's "vertical rhythm."

Like other cities, Palo Alto is revising the rules in response to recent state laws such as Senate Bill 35 and Senate Bill 330, which effectively ban the city from turning down qualifying housing projects based on subjective criteria that are open to interpretation. The new "objective standards" — which by definition require "no personal or subjective judgement" — address this by giving the city a suite of tools to steer new developments toward officially sanctioned designs.

The specificity is at times striking. One proposed rule specifies that an upper story of a new building that is next to an existing structure must have a minimum façade break of 5 feet in width, 2 feet in depth and 32 square feet in area for every 36 to 50 feet of a building's façade length. Another proposed rule states that buildings that are greater than 25 feet in height and 70 feet in length and that face a public street shall not have a "continuous façade plane greater than 70% of the façade length without an upper floor modulation, which can include bay windows."

The council's Monday discussion was the first of a series of public hearings on the new objective standards, with the next one set for Oct. 25.

Planning Director Jonathan Lait said that the goal of the endeavor is to take existing subjective standards and "make them objective so that we can continue to honor our interest in these design criteria or these aesthetic standards that wouldn't otherwise apply if one of those qualifying housing projects come forward."

"There's been some concerns that we're removing some aspects of the code and that it's weakening some of the standards, but the intent here is really to strengthen those things that this community over the years has really embodied in terms of design and aesthetic interests," Lait said.

The new proposal is the product of more than a year of public hearings and conversations between city staff and local architects, developers and consultants. This included eight meetings with the full Architectural Review Board and five more with the board's specially appointed ad hoc committee, as well as three hearings in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission. Both boards ultimately voted to approve the package of revisions prepared by staff, even though some Architectural Review Board members expressed concerns that the new rules are a bit too prescriptive and may lead to a "cookie-cutter" design. Osma Thompson, chair of the board, said Monday that even with that concern, the new standards will "push designers toward a pretty good cookie at the end of the day."

"We've attempted to formulate this document with utmost intent of promoting high-quality design in Palo Alto," Thompson said. "We're aware of other cities and other projects that create guidelines, and we intend to continue monitoring the implications these standards have on projects and intend to revisit as necessary in the future."

Not everyone is thrilled about the new rules. Some architects have suggested that they are too restrictive. Architect Heather Young pointed to a new provision in the objective standards that requires a side-yard setback of at least 10 feet. The provision, she noted, would significantly reduce the building width on a 50-foot lot on El Camino Real, creating "awkward and unappealing massing."

"The idea that good — or even acceptable — design results from the overlay of one-size-fits-all fixed dimensional requirements on all projects, regardless of site, use, context, or style, is an illusion that completely misses the opportunity and nuance that take our cities from rote need fulfillment to delight," Young wrote.

Some residents also took issue with the new rules but for the very opposite reason. The new objective standards, they argued, would not be as effective in protecting existing neighborhoods from new developments as the existing design guidelines.

The umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, which includes representatives from various local neighborhood associations, contended in a letter that the process for adopting new design standards is flawed because it sought little public input (aside from developers, architects and consultants); it did not include an analysis of any impacts; and it did not include clear comparisons between existing rules and the ones proposed.

"The proposed ordinance removes privacy protections for residents near new development and deletes long-standing context-based protection rules," Sheri Furman and Becky Sanders, co-chairs of Palo Alto Neighborhoods, wrote in a letter to the council.

There are at least two projects in the city's development pipeline that would be immune from the city's changes. One is a proposal from Sobrato Organization for an 85-townhome development at 200 Portage Ave., next to the building that until recently housed Fry's Electronics. Another is a 48-home development that SummerHill Homes plans to construct just east of Greer Park, at 2850 Bayshore Road. Both are relying on the streamlining provisions of Senate Bill 330, which freezes the development standards that the city has in place at the time of the application and precludes the city from changing the rules or requiring lower density.

Of bigger concern to Palo Alto staff is Senate Bill 35, which creates a streamlining process for residential developments in cities that fail to meet their housing targets under the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process. That means that in Palo Alto, which is far behind the regional mandate for below-market-rate housing, projects that offer affordable housing are eligible for streamlined approval. (Palo Alto has, however, produced enough market-rate homes over the current housing cycle to preclude market-rate developments from relying on SB 35's streamlining rules).

That, however, may change in the next eight-year cycle of RHNA, with the city facing a mandate of creating 6,086 dwellings between 2023 and 2031. If the city falls behind, these developments will proceed through the streamlined process. Objective standards will then be the city's primary method for asserting its design preferences.

"Four years into our RHNA cycle, if we're not on pace to meet our market-rate housing production, then that's when these objective standards are really going to kick in," Lait said. "That's what we're preparing for and trying to anticipate through this endeavor.

The council agreed that the exercise is well worth pursuing even though council members weren't ready to immediately approve the multitude of code changes proposed by staff. Some members suggested additional focus areas. Mayor Tom Dubois and Vice Mayor Pat Burt both wanted to see more provisions that protect residents' views. Council member Greer Stone favored greater attention to resident privacy.

Council members Eric Filseth and Lydia Kou both urged a cautious approach, noting that the council may not have the option of undoing any of its efforts to loosen the zoning rules. Filseth pointed to what he called the "growing spiderweb of state mandates" and suggested that legislators have shown that they are "very serious about getting into the municipal architecture business."

"This is not the state imposing stuff on us," Filseth said of the proposed objective standards. "This is us preparing for the state imposing stuff on us."

Comments

Name hidden
Downtown North

Registered user
on Oct 5, 2021 at 1:35 am
Name hidden, Downtown North

Registered user
on Oct 5, 2021 at 1:35 am

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


tmp
Registered user
Downtown North
on Oct 5, 2021 at 11:57 am
tmp, Downtown North
Registered user
on Oct 5, 2021 at 11:57 am

Hopefully the city will impose the strictest standards that it can. Large set backs, no intrusive windows, no exemptions to height or set back limits, no exemptions to the FAR, mandating enough parking for todays car usage, etc.

The state and the greedy developers that they are currently supporting, who are using all of the new state laws to overcrowd and reduce livability in cities and remove our rights, are eager to force cities to let them build their monstrous ugly buildings. So again we need to pass the most restrictive design laws we can so that they don't have as much room for their disastrous proposals.

Further we need to support law suits and referendums to roll back these give-away bills (like SB9 and 10) to developers that are damaging and destroying our ability to live in nice communities that are not overcrowded, polluting, environmental destroying nightmares that are being forced on us now.


Chris
Registered user
University South
on Oct 5, 2021 at 1:16 pm
Chris, University South
Registered user
on Oct 5, 2021 at 1:16 pm

Tmp,

People would have more sympathy for you if Palo Alto had not built commercial space for 120,000 workers. Then it closes the gates and tell the rest of the state to worry about where these workers live.

If you think about it, you will understand why Palo Alto has been fighting a losing battle at the state level.

Palo Alto has the ability to build well-designed housing which will have a net benefit on the environment.






Steve Dabrowski
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 5, 2021 at 4:09 pm
Steve Dabrowski, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Oct 5, 2021 at 4:09 pm

Californians for Community Planning have submitted a ballot measure to the Secretary of State to pass a constitutional amendment making local zoning control the law of the state and to overrule Sacramento efforts like SB10 and 9 to rule our communities. The effort will be working to get sufficient signatures to get it on the 2022 ballot. It would be a good thing if our local elected leaders and the local media would get behind this effort or at least publicise it.

Details of the initiators and the text of the initiative can be found on the website associated with the effort, just type in the groups name shown above and it will come up. On Safari there will be a note indicating the certificate is not recognized, but clicking continue will get you right to it. On Chrome however it comes up with some red letter warnings about donating etc and a push to get additional Google security added. Just click on advanced button and go down to the bottom where it shows in fine print to click and get to the site.

A couple of weeks ago Chrome went to it without issue, but it may be that Google realized the initiative would be counter to their desires to flood our area with worker housing so they have decided to try to obstruct access with this trick.


Local Resident
Registered user
Community Center
on Oct 6, 2021 at 8:36 am
Local Resident, Community Center
Registered user
on Oct 6, 2021 at 8:36 am

The website and donations work fine on my PC without any warnings in Google Chrome. To read more about and ideally support the ballot for maintaining local zoning control go to: Web Link


Eric Filseth
Registered user
Downtown North
on Oct 8, 2021 at 7:23 pm
Eric Filseth, Downtown North
Registered user
on Oct 8, 2021 at 7:23 pm

There aren’t 120K total jobs in Palo Alto, let alone new ones; but in the post-Recession tech boom we certainly added far more jobs than housing. Census data shows from 2010 to 2016 Palo Alto added 20,000 new jobs, a 25% increase and 9 times more than the entire previous decade; plus a few hundred housing units. The whole Valley ran up unprecedented housing deficits during that time, with Palo Alto one of the leaders.

Palo Alto’s office caps were adopted to stop this. Census data suggests success: since 2016 Palo Alto job growth has been essentially zero. PA housing deficits are flat or even slightly declining, a nearly unheard-of situation.

However, the region’s are still escalating. In building new deficits, high job-growth cities including Mt View (40K new jobs since 2010, 3.4K new housing), Sunnyvale (30K new jobs, 5.5K new housing) and Santa Clara (27K new jobs, 5.1K new housing) have passed Palo Alto (20K new jobs since 2010, 0.7K new housing), and continue to pull away. Menlo Park (14K jobs, .8K housing) is close behind.

The key measure of human impact is actually the arithmetic difference, not the ratios. You have to adjust for workers per housing unit, but the short answer is 10K jobs / 2K housing displaces over 3,600 more workers than 5K jobs / 1K housing; plus any cohabitants.

The extreme “let the rest of the state worry about it” case is San Francisco: 198,385 new jobs from 2010 to 2020, a 33% increase. At 1.35 workers per housing unit (Working Partnerships USA), demand would be 146,951 new units. In that time SF actually added 29,686 new units - a difference of 117,266 units, equal to the entire housing supply of Palo Alto, Mt View and Sunnyvale combined. The social impacts of adding three cities’ worth of negative housing to SF in 10 years have been well-documented. Incidentally, the legislators now attempting to control all California housing through state mandates hail primarily from … SF.

Data is from Census tables H1 and B08601.


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