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As new housing laws take effect, Palo Alto plays zone defense

City Council adopts rules for homeowners looking to split their lots, build additional units

Homes in the 3500 block of Louis Road in Palo Alto. The City Council adopted an urgency ordinance that sets "objective standards" for proposals that seek to add additional housing in single-family zones on Dec. 6, 2021. Embarcadero file photo by Veronica Weber.

When state lawmakers approved a law this year that allows homeowners in single-family zones to split their lots and build up to four dwellings, they hailed it as a sensible way to encourage residential construction in communities that have little appetite for dense apartment complexes.

But in Palo Alto, city leaders see Senate Bill 9 as a threat to the city's land-use powers and to the character of single-family neighborhoods. On Monday, they sought to address this threat by passing a series of new design standards that builders will have to meet to get approval for additional housing on residential lots in single-family zones.

The city unanimously approved an urgency ordinance that establishes a set of "objective standards" governing everything from garage widths, roofline styles and the size of second floors. One new rule requires at least one second-floor bedroom to have its largest window facing the front lot line. Another rule prohibits the height of a building's first-floor eaves or parapets to be more than 18 inches higher than the average height of an eave or parapet of homes on abutting lots. And if at least 50% of the homes on the block have street-facing porches, the proposed house also would have to include a street-facing porch no less than 6 feet deep and 8 feet wide.

By adopting these design rules, as well as many others, the city is looking to shift from its traditional approach of using subjective criteria to review housing proposals in single-family zones to quantifiable, or "objective," design standards. In supporting the urgency ordinance, which took effect immediately upon adoption, council members pointed to the fact that SB 9 prohibits them from relying on subjective guidelines, making the new rules necessary.

Council member Greer Stone, a vehement critic of SB 9, suggested that the new rules may actually help the city achieve more housing.

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"If we have these projects fitting in with the neighborhoods, if they're consistent with neighborhood character, I believe we're going to have less contentious debate about these projects," Stone said. "I think we'll have less public outcry against projects if they're maintaining the character of the neighborhood.

"My hope is that this will actually encourage more projects and better projects."

Others were less sanguine about some of the changes. Council member Alison Cormack suggested that the new rules on garage designs may be a bit too rigid.

"I am stunned that we are contemplating insisting that garage doors should match the material, color and panel design pattern of the entry door or window fenestration," Cormack said, referring to one new objective standard.

'I think we'll have less public outcry against projects if they're maintaining the character of the neighborhood.'

-Greer Stone, city council member, Palo Alto

Palo Alto is far from the only city that is now playing zone defense against SB 9, with Cupertino and Los Altos Hill preparing their own updates of design standards, ostensibly to protect their communities from incompatible new developments. Palo Alto's process in revising development rules is expected to unfold gradually over the coming year.

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In addition to approving an urgency ordinance and a nearly identical interim ordinance on Monday to ensure that the new rules are in place when SB 9 kicks in on Jan. 1, the council signaled that it plans to advance a new permanent ordinance in the coming months, pending reviews by the city's Architectural Review Board and its Planning and Transportation Commission. Both bodies have been heavily involved in crafting the newly adopted objective standards. Components of the permanent ordinance may include an impact fee that builders would have to pay to support the city's affordable housing efforts and a requirement that any builder that uses SB 9 to split lots and build three more dwellings needs to restrict one of the units as affordable housing.

Not everyone was thrilled about the city's effort. Numerous residents and housing advocates characterized Palo Alto's new requirements as just the latest instance of the city resisting calls from the state to build housing. Michael Quinn pointed to the city's recent appeal of its new Regional Housing Needs Allocation numbers, which was unanimously rejected by the Association of Bay Area Governments, and the city's process for choosing members of the Housing Element Working Group, which was led by a group of three council members who privately corresponded about the group's composition before unveiling their list for the full council to adopt.

"We're in pretty bad shape here," Quinn said. "If we continue to thumb our nose at the state, we're going to get stepped on. They're going to step in and intercede and we're just putting ourselves into a worse and worse position."

Housing advocate Kelsey Banes, a Palo Alto resident who serves as executive director of the advocacy group Peninsula for Everyone, also encouraged the council to embrace the state's efforts to create duplexes and lower-cost housing options. Banes, who grew up in a duplex, said the housing option allowed her mother to have a place that she could afford to buy when she became a single mom. She also suggested that SB 9 is unlikely to spur a huge construction boom in Palo Alto.

"We're most likely to see subdivisions of existing properties into duplexes, but the financial reality in Palo Alto is that most people are still going to be incentivized to build McMansions and take $3 million homes and turn them into $7 million homes," Banes said.

Council members, however, strongly supported the new laws and characterized them as a necessity given the state's prohibition on use of subjective standards. The new objective standards, according to staff, remain guided by the city's subjective criteria, which require a "unified visual character" in building facades and the use of "appropriate roof pitches" to manage perceived height, among other goals.

Mayor Tom DuBois and council member Eric Filseth both noted that the only reason that the city is adopting the rules is because of the new state laws. Both favored starting out with stricter rules and gradually loosening them.

"It is what it is, and if you don't like it, call your Assemblyman," Filseth said. "I agree with the conservative approach."

'If we continue to thumb our nose at the state, we're going to get stepped on.'

-Michael Quinn, resident, Palo Alto

There was less consensus on the council about impact fees, a requirement that most members supported but that some thought would be too onerous and, in some ways counterintuitive. Filseth and DuBois both argued that the new residences created through lot splits will not be affordable and that it is incumbent on the city to charge impact fees to support other affordable housing efforts. Council member Greg Tanaka disagreed and suggested that imposing fees will serve only to deter development.

"I think having more fees will make it harder to develop," Tanaka said. "It's not going to help. It's going to discourage it and not encourage it."

Cormack, meanwhile, said she disagreed with the "conservative" approach proposed by DuBois and Filseth and urged her colleagues not to make the new rules too stringent. She said that during her office hours she has had conversations with people whose children were born and raised in Palo Alto but who will no longer be able to live in the city because of insufficient housing options.

"I just want us all to contemplate for a moment that there probably are some people in Palo Alto who will be able to use this tool to enable their children to live nearby," Cormack said.

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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

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As new housing laws take effect, Palo Alto plays zone defense

City Council adopts rules for homeowners looking to split their lots, build additional units

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Dec 7, 2021, 2:05 pm

When state lawmakers approved a law this year that allows homeowners in single-family zones to split their lots and build up to four dwellings, they hailed it as a sensible way to encourage residential construction in communities that have little appetite for dense apartment complexes.

But in Palo Alto, city leaders see Senate Bill 9 as a threat to the city's land-use powers and to the character of single-family neighborhoods. On Monday, they sought to address this threat by passing a series of new design standards that builders will have to meet to get approval for additional housing on residential lots in single-family zones.

The city unanimously approved an urgency ordinance that establishes a set of "objective standards" governing everything from garage widths, roofline styles and the size of second floors. One new rule requires at least one second-floor bedroom to have its largest window facing the front lot line. Another rule prohibits the height of a building's first-floor eaves or parapets to be more than 18 inches higher than the average height of an eave or parapet of homes on abutting lots. And if at least 50% of the homes on the block have street-facing porches, the proposed house also would have to include a street-facing porch no less than 6 feet deep and 8 feet wide.

By adopting these design rules, as well as many others, the city is looking to shift from its traditional approach of using subjective criteria to review housing proposals in single-family zones to quantifiable, or "objective," design standards. In supporting the urgency ordinance, which took effect immediately upon adoption, council members pointed to the fact that SB 9 prohibits them from relying on subjective guidelines, making the new rules necessary.

Council member Greer Stone, a vehement critic of SB 9, suggested that the new rules may actually help the city achieve more housing.

"If we have these projects fitting in with the neighborhoods, if they're consistent with neighborhood character, I believe we're going to have less contentious debate about these projects," Stone said. "I think we'll have less public outcry against projects if they're maintaining the character of the neighborhood.

"My hope is that this will actually encourage more projects and better projects."

Others were less sanguine about some of the changes. Council member Alison Cormack suggested that the new rules on garage designs may be a bit too rigid.

"I am stunned that we are contemplating insisting that garage doors should match the material, color and panel design pattern of the entry door or window fenestration," Cormack said, referring to one new objective standard.

Palo Alto is far from the only city that is now playing zone defense against SB 9, with Cupertino and Los Altos Hill preparing their own updates of design standards, ostensibly to protect their communities from incompatible new developments. Palo Alto's process in revising development rules is expected to unfold gradually over the coming year.

In addition to approving an urgency ordinance and a nearly identical interim ordinance on Monday to ensure that the new rules are in place when SB 9 kicks in on Jan. 1, the council signaled that it plans to advance a new permanent ordinance in the coming months, pending reviews by the city's Architectural Review Board and its Planning and Transportation Commission. Both bodies have been heavily involved in crafting the newly adopted objective standards. Components of the permanent ordinance may include an impact fee that builders would have to pay to support the city's affordable housing efforts and a requirement that any builder that uses SB 9 to split lots and build three more dwellings needs to restrict one of the units as affordable housing.

Not everyone was thrilled about the city's effort. Numerous residents and housing advocates characterized Palo Alto's new requirements as just the latest instance of the city resisting calls from the state to build housing. Michael Quinn pointed to the city's recent appeal of its new Regional Housing Needs Allocation numbers, which was unanimously rejected by the Association of Bay Area Governments, and the city's process for choosing members of the Housing Element Working Group, which was led by a group of three council members who privately corresponded about the group's composition before unveiling their list for the full council to adopt.

"We're in pretty bad shape here," Quinn said. "If we continue to thumb our nose at the state, we're going to get stepped on. They're going to step in and intercede and we're just putting ourselves into a worse and worse position."

Housing advocate Kelsey Banes, a Palo Alto resident who serves as executive director of the advocacy group Peninsula for Everyone, also encouraged the council to embrace the state's efforts to create duplexes and lower-cost housing options. Banes, who grew up in a duplex, said the housing option allowed her mother to have a place that she could afford to buy when she became a single mom. She also suggested that SB 9 is unlikely to spur a huge construction boom in Palo Alto.

"We're most likely to see subdivisions of existing properties into duplexes, but the financial reality in Palo Alto is that most people are still going to be incentivized to build McMansions and take $3 million homes and turn them into $7 million homes," Banes said.

Council members, however, strongly supported the new laws and characterized them as a necessity given the state's prohibition on use of subjective standards. The new objective standards, according to staff, remain guided by the city's subjective criteria, which require a "unified visual character" in building facades and the use of "appropriate roof pitches" to manage perceived height, among other goals.

Mayor Tom DuBois and council member Eric Filseth both noted that the only reason that the city is adopting the rules is because of the new state laws. Both favored starting out with stricter rules and gradually loosening them.

"It is what it is, and if you don't like it, call your Assemblyman," Filseth said. "I agree with the conservative approach."

There was less consensus on the council about impact fees, a requirement that most members supported but that some thought would be too onerous and, in some ways counterintuitive. Filseth and DuBois both argued that the new residences created through lot splits will not be affordable and that it is incumbent on the city to charge impact fees to support other affordable housing efforts. Council member Greg Tanaka disagreed and suggested that imposing fees will serve only to deter development.

"I think having more fees will make it harder to develop," Tanaka said. "It's not going to help. It's going to discourage it and not encourage it."

Cormack, meanwhile, said she disagreed with the "conservative" approach proposed by DuBois and Filseth and urged her colleagues not to make the new rules too stringent. She said that during her office hours she has had conversations with people whose children were born and raised in Palo Alto but who will no longer be able to live in the city because of insufficient housing options.

"I just want us all to contemplate for a moment that there probably are some people in Palo Alto who will be able to use this tool to enable their children to live nearby," Cormack said.

Comments

Ann
Registered user
Community Center
on Dec 8, 2021 at 11:03 am
Ann, Community Center
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2021 at 11:03 am

Do we want children and schools in Palo Alto or just more big lots with single homes? Or maybe we should have some multi story buildings with condos . I lived through one schools closing does any one remember? 4 schools within
in my .


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 8, 2021 at 11:15 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2021 at 11:15 am

The "big" lots are in Los Altos, Portola Valley, Atherton, etc. which are totally immune from this type of development because they have few if any jobs!

Thanks to unelected ABAG and all the "housing" advocates for working so hard to turn Palo Alto into the ugly look-alike mess that El Camino's become with little or no provision for BMR or affordable units. The developers thank you.

Too bad about Palo Alto's charm. If I'd wanted to live in a boring development, I'd move to Florida for a fraction of what I pay here for the same ugliness but with more privacy, less congestion, better parking and lower taxes.

Thank heavens the developers and tech whales get to continue their never-ending expansion adding tens of thousand MORE workers each YEAR than housing so housing prices never drop because there will always be more people than homes.

Read up on the huge office complexes being built and bought daily!

At least their execs can live on their pristine 1-acre+ homes in Los Altos Hills, Portola Valley and Atherton and are immune from this mess.

Re offices, didn't Palo Alto collect 3,000+ signatures for a ballot initiative to cap office growth?? Why are we still building offices??


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2021 at 12:16 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2021 at 12:16 pm

"I am stunned that we are contemplating insisting that garage doors should match the material, color and panel design pattern of the entry door or window fenestration." for once I agree with CM Cormack. Eichlers, and there are many hundreds of Eichlers in Palo Alto, were originally designed NOT to match this way. Garage doors carry the siding across the planar facade. Maybe she lives in an Eichler, so she gets this. Does this new rule mean I have to change the garage portion of my original Eichler if I remodel?

Kelsey Banes gives no credit to this community for the duplexes and affordable housing that exist and that are being built right now. It's hard to take her hyperbolic statements seriously.
There are no McMansions in my neighborhood, but we do have condos, townhouses, and ADUs. We also have two affordable senior complexes nearby and one affordable housing apartment building within a 1/2-mile and one affordable apartment building coming across the street. Not everyone who lives in Palo Alto is rich. We are a built out community. Property is held by private interests. Getting housing of any kind built is simply not easy. SB9 was poorly written legislation. It should have attached housing infill to transportation and infrastructure funding to support that housing. All sticks, no carrots--an unfunded mandate that will create real problems for many communities, including Palo Alto. Bad law.


toransu
Registered user
Barron Park
on Dec 9, 2021 at 4:42 pm
toransu, Barron Park
Registered user
on Dec 9, 2021 at 4:42 pm

You people are actual ghouls. Your aesthetic preferences don’t trump the ability of people to afford to live here. The absolute audacity; you should all be ashamed of yourselves. You’d be the first people to complain about local mainstays like the Prolific Oven closing due to how hard it is to find workers who will drive for hours every day to get to work. But you’re the cause! You bought the house, not the neighborhood, and while playing stupid games trying to keep Palo Alto a “small town”, you’re gonna win stupid prizes! If you want to live in a small town, then move to Amador County or something. You just want to have your desserts and eat them to, and don’t like it when you have to choose one or the other.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 9, 2021 at 5:25 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 9, 2021 at 5:25 pm

It's ghoulish to note that there are NO provisions for affordable housing in these two bills and that their proponents have suckered you to benefit their backers? The population keeps growing 3.2 times faster than MARKET RATE housing so that's more competition which pushes up housing prices!

Facts matter.

You think developers are going to rush to create affordable housing in that environment?? It's tough enough getting them to build houses instead of more profitable offices!!

We want affordable, BMR housing for the workers at Prolific Oven etc, not more "workforce" housing for highly paid techies.

Maybe *you* should be ashamed of *yourselves* for not ensuring that the bills covered Prolific Worker staff instead of the well-paid big tech workforce, huh?

We fought to preserve the President Hotel's affordable housing units when the "pro-development" forces converted it to a LUXURY hotel.

Palo Alto is being destroyed for a lie. Housing's not going to get cheaper. Big tech's not going to stop adding millions of sq feet of office space. We're just going to get more crowded. more expensive, more congested and uglier.


Anonymous
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 12, 2021 at 10:38 pm
Anonymous, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Dec 12, 2021 at 10:38 pm

Online Name is intelligent and accurate. Thank you.


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