News

Commission backs plans to add 6,000 residences

Despite some concerns, panel endorses strategies for meeting city's regional housing mandate

Arbor Real homes in Palo Alto on Nov. 13, 2020. Photo by Olivia Treynor.

Palo Alto's plan to add more than 6,000 new dwellings by 2031 calls for substantial growth along El Camino Real and near Caltrain stations, an influx of housing in industrial areas around San Antonio Road and a continuing proliferation of accessory dwelling units throughout the city's residential neighborhoods.

It calls on adding density to areas already zoned for multifamily housing so that parcels that currently accommodate 30 and 40 dwellings per acre would be allowed to have 40 and 50, respectively — a major change that the city believes can create 1,657 additional units in the planning period between 2023 and 2031. The plan also calls on local churches to construct apartment buildings in their parking lots and endorses the construction of residential complexes on city-owned parking lots downtown, policies that would add another 316 dwellings.

These policies are expected to be included in the city's new Housing Element, a document that will lay out the city's plan to meet its regional allocation of 6,086 units in the next cycle of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation. Meeting this state goal would require Palo Alto to produce an average of 760 residences per year throughout the planning cycle, roughly eight times the number that it permitted in 2021.

On Wednesday, the necessarily ambitious plan received a key vote of confidence when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission approved each of the strategies that had been recommended by city staff and the Housing Element Working Group, a panel of residents, commissioners, developers and other stakeholders that have been working on the project for over a year.

In some cases, the commission even went beyond the working group's recommendations. While the working group had split over the proposal to build housing on public parking lots and ultimately failed to muster the majority needed to formally back this strategy, the planning commission held no such reservations and moved to advance it.

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The planning commission also supported a more aggressive approach in planning for new housing at the downtown transit center, land that is owned by Stanford University and that the university suggested can accommodate up to 530 units. While the working group supported planning for 180 dwellings on the site, a number at the lowest end of Stanford's proposed scenarios, the planning commission agreed after an extensive discussion to raise that number to 270.

The debate over the transit center site at 27 University Ave. represented the biggest split among the commissioners, with some suggesting a more conservative approach or demanding that the site be limited to below-market-rate housing and others calling for the city to go bigger and plan for 360 dwellings at the downtown site. Commissioner Bart Hechtman pushed for the higher number, a proposal that Commissioner Cari Templeton supported.

"I think this is a place where we should be a bit more ambitious than the numbers the working group came up with," Templeton said.

But with most of their colleagues rejecting this proposal, the commission settled for 270 dwellings, a compromise proposed by Chair Ed Lauing.

Commissioner Keith Reckdahl noted that because the site is zoned as a "public facility," it would be appropriate to make sure that residential growth on the site consists only of affordable housing. He ultimately agreed to soften the language and merely recommend that the city pursue only affordable housing for the site, a proposal that passed by a 4-3 vote, with the support of Bryna Chang, Lauing and Doria Summa.

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Hechtman warned that only requiring affordable housing at the transit center could end up preventing any housing production at the central site.

"The false assumption that seems to me underlies this motion is that if we require it, it will get built," Hechtman said of Reckdahl's proposal. "I don't think it's necessarily true. I think if we require it, nothing will get built. That's actually worse than having some percentage be built for affordable."

Click on the square icon at the top left-hand corner to view sites by strategy type, such as transit corridors. Map by Jamey Padojino.

Most of the other strategies proposed by the working group advanced by broad consensus. This includes the strategy of building more multifamily complexes within a half-mile of the city's Caltrain stations, which is expected to generate about 798 dwellings and which explicitly excludes low-density zones. The commission unanimously supported the strategy, even as Summa voiced some concerns about encouraging additional growth in the Mayfield neighborhood near California Avenue, an area that has seen an influx of commercial projects go up in the past decade.

"We don't know what's going to happen with remote working and things like this," Summa said. "But I'd be worried that particularly in Mayfield, increasing the number of units per acre … may put a real burden on some of the people already living in that area.'

The commission also voted 6-1 to support the strategy of increasing zoning along El Camino Real, which is expected to net 274 additional units. While most members supported building more housing along the transit corridor, Summa dissented and said she wasn't confident that the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority will offer sufficient bus services along El Camino to make it a viable transit corridor.

"I'd like to be peachy about the future of the bus corridor, but the VTA seems like a very troubled agency to me and there's a lot of uncertainty for me about their future," Summa said.

Others argued that building housing along El Camino would, if anything, nudge the VTA to boost bus service there.

"In general, when we increase density along the El Camino Real, we'll also have the additional benefit of improving the bus service. I think it's a good idea," Templeton said.

There was also a clear consensus among commissioners about allowing housing in the "general manufacturing" zones, which are located in south Palo Alto and which currently prohibit residential development. But in supporting this strategy, which is expected to generate about 596 additional housing units, commissioners also urged the city to explore adding schools, transit and retail to the area to support the influx of residents.

Commissioners Chang and Giselle Roohparvar also argued that the city should carve out some areas in the commercial area to be strictly for housing rather than building apartment buildings next to industrial sites — a position that all of their colleagues embraced.

The commission's marathon discussion was the second of two hearings on the new Housing Element, which the City Council is scheduled to review on March 21. Some members of the public urged the commission to go even further, particularly when planning for the downtown transit site on University Avenue. Sheryl Klein, who co-chairs the Housing Element Working Group and who serves as chief operating officer at the nonprofit developer Alta Housing, was among them. At the commission's Feb. 9 meeting, Klein argued that the transit-rich area represents a great opportunity for housing, particularly because it isn't located near any low-density neighborhoods.

"It just seems like a waste not to have it zoned more densely," Klein said.

Liz Kniss, a former three-time Palo Alto mayor who now serves as president of the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto, also suggested that the city could go much further in building housing on downtown parking lots — a proposal that was developed and championed by local architects Peter Baltay and David Hirsch.

Palo Alto's affordable housing shortfall, she wrote to the commission, has "become a crisis for all but the affluent."

"It has resulted in a hollowing out of our community, where low-, moderate-, and middle-income people cannot afford to live," Kniss wrote.

Building affordable housing on top of parking at downtown lots could create about 1,000 housing units, which would be located near transit, shopping and services, she noted.

"These sites could create 'car-light' walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, reducing lengthy commuting and greenhouse gas emissions, and restoring the social and economic balance in our housing," Kniss wrote.

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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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Commission backs plans to add 6,000 residences

Despite some concerns, panel endorses strategies for meeting city's regional housing mandate

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Feb 24, 2022, 12:09 am

Palo Alto's plan to add more than 6,000 new dwellings by 2031 calls for substantial growth along El Camino Real and near Caltrain stations, an influx of housing in industrial areas around San Antonio Road and a continuing proliferation of accessory dwelling units throughout the city's residential neighborhoods.

It calls on adding density to areas already zoned for multifamily housing so that parcels that currently accommodate 30 and 40 dwellings per acre would be allowed to have 40 and 50, respectively — a major change that the city believes can create 1,657 additional units in the planning period between 2023 and 2031. The plan also calls on local churches to construct apartment buildings in their parking lots and endorses the construction of residential complexes on city-owned parking lots downtown, policies that would add another 316 dwellings.

These policies are expected to be included in the city's new Housing Element, a document that will lay out the city's plan to meet its regional allocation of 6,086 units in the next cycle of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation. Meeting this state goal would require Palo Alto to produce an average of 760 residences per year throughout the planning cycle, roughly eight times the number that it permitted in 2021.

On Wednesday, the necessarily ambitious plan received a key vote of confidence when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission approved each of the strategies that had been recommended by city staff and the Housing Element Working Group, a panel of residents, commissioners, developers and other stakeholders that have been working on the project for over a year.

In some cases, the commission even went beyond the working group's recommendations. While the working group had split over the proposal to build housing on public parking lots and ultimately failed to muster the majority needed to formally back this strategy, the planning commission held no such reservations and moved to advance it.

The planning commission also supported a more aggressive approach in planning for new housing at the downtown transit center, land that is owned by Stanford University and that the university suggested can accommodate up to 530 units. While the working group supported planning for 180 dwellings on the site, a number at the lowest end of Stanford's proposed scenarios, the planning commission agreed after an extensive discussion to raise that number to 270.

The debate over the transit center site at 27 University Ave. represented the biggest split among the commissioners, with some suggesting a more conservative approach or demanding that the site be limited to below-market-rate housing and others calling for the city to go bigger and plan for 360 dwellings at the downtown site. Commissioner Bart Hechtman pushed for the higher number, a proposal that Commissioner Cari Templeton supported.

"I think this is a place where we should be a bit more ambitious than the numbers the working group came up with," Templeton said.

But with most of their colleagues rejecting this proposal, the commission settled for 270 dwellings, a compromise proposed by Chair Ed Lauing.

Commissioner Keith Reckdahl noted that because the site is zoned as a "public facility," it would be appropriate to make sure that residential growth on the site consists only of affordable housing. He ultimately agreed to soften the language and merely recommend that the city pursue only affordable housing for the site, a proposal that passed by a 4-3 vote, with the support of Bryna Chang, Lauing and Doria Summa.

Hechtman warned that only requiring affordable housing at the transit center could end up preventing any housing production at the central site.

"The false assumption that seems to me underlies this motion is that if we require it, it will get built," Hechtman said of Reckdahl's proposal. "I don't think it's necessarily true. I think if we require it, nothing will get built. That's actually worse than having some percentage be built for affordable."

Most of the other strategies proposed by the working group advanced by broad consensus. This includes the strategy of building more multifamily complexes within a half-mile of the city's Caltrain stations, which is expected to generate about 798 dwellings and which explicitly excludes low-density zones. The commission unanimously supported the strategy, even as Summa voiced some concerns about encouraging additional growth in the Mayfield neighborhood near California Avenue, an area that has seen an influx of commercial projects go up in the past decade.

"We don't know what's going to happen with remote working and things like this," Summa said. "But I'd be worried that particularly in Mayfield, increasing the number of units per acre … may put a real burden on some of the people already living in that area.'

The commission also voted 6-1 to support the strategy of increasing zoning along El Camino Real, which is expected to net 274 additional units. While most members supported building more housing along the transit corridor, Summa dissented and said she wasn't confident that the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority will offer sufficient bus services along El Camino to make it a viable transit corridor.

"I'd like to be peachy about the future of the bus corridor, but the VTA seems like a very troubled agency to me and there's a lot of uncertainty for me about their future," Summa said.

Others argued that building housing along El Camino would, if anything, nudge the VTA to boost bus service there.

"In general, when we increase density along the El Camino Real, we'll also have the additional benefit of improving the bus service. I think it's a good idea," Templeton said.

There was also a clear consensus among commissioners about allowing housing in the "general manufacturing" zones, which are located in south Palo Alto and which currently prohibit residential development. But in supporting this strategy, which is expected to generate about 596 additional housing units, commissioners also urged the city to explore adding schools, transit and retail to the area to support the influx of residents.

Commissioners Chang and Giselle Roohparvar also argued that the city should carve out some areas in the commercial area to be strictly for housing rather than building apartment buildings next to industrial sites — a position that all of their colleagues embraced.

The commission's marathon discussion was the second of two hearings on the new Housing Element, which the City Council is scheduled to review on March 21. Some members of the public urged the commission to go even further, particularly when planning for the downtown transit site on University Avenue. Sheryl Klein, who co-chairs the Housing Element Working Group and who serves as chief operating officer at the nonprofit developer Alta Housing, was among them. At the commission's Feb. 9 meeting, Klein argued that the transit-rich area represents a great opportunity for housing, particularly because it isn't located near any low-density neighborhoods.

"It just seems like a waste not to have it zoned more densely," Klein said.

Liz Kniss, a former three-time Palo Alto mayor who now serves as president of the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto, also suggested that the city could go much further in building housing on downtown parking lots — a proposal that was developed and championed by local architects Peter Baltay and David Hirsch.

Palo Alto's affordable housing shortfall, she wrote to the commission, has "become a crisis for all but the affluent."

"It has resulted in a hollowing out of our community, where low-, moderate-, and middle-income people cannot afford to live," Kniss wrote.

Building affordable housing on top of parking at downtown lots could create about 1,000 housing units, which would be located near transit, shopping and services, she noted.

"These sites could create 'car-light' walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, reducing lengthy commuting and greenhouse gas emissions, and restoring the social and economic balance in our housing," Kniss wrote.

Comments

Chris
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on Feb 24, 2022 at 9:50 am
Chris, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on Feb 24, 2022 at 9:50 am

The state just issued an announcement that it will provide NO WATER for farmers this year. [Portion removed] Liz Kniss better not be calling herself an environmentalist
Sacramento is controlled by developers. At the same time they've made severe drought warnings, they've implemented mandatory population increases. That is insane


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 24, 2022 at 10:41 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Feb 24, 2022 at 10:41 am

Stanford University gets a low target for its own property while Liz Kniss champions more development! Who could have imagined when Stanford keeps claiming none of its massive development will add a single car trip and Liz Kniss keeps claiming we've got NO traffic problems at all.

How stupid do they think we are not to see through these blatant self-serving lies.

I guess the new $100,000,000 donation to Stanford to build/expand a children's hospital, causing them to abruptly terminate the leases of hundreds of Welsh Rd dental and medical professionals won't add a single bit of traffic.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 24, 2022 at 10:53 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Feb 24, 2022 at 10:53 am

Housing to be built in church parking lots?

Midtown Safeway to be considered as a place for new housing?

Building on parking lots for car light housing? What does that mean? Transit is terrible to non-existent in north SCC county.

I can see losing amenities to new housing as a lose/lose scenario. Present residents losing useful amenities and new residents having no amenities. Who thinks this stuff up?

We are a residential community where we deserve to have amenities, both recreational and commercial. We deserve to be able to live our lives with daylight in our backyards and patios, with trees shading our homes and grass (yes grass) for our children to play on.

Don't turn Palo Alto into a concrete jungle with nothing but housing and dependent on Amazon deliveries.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 24, 2022 at 11:13 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Feb 24, 2022 at 11:13 am

Lots of forces at work here - the SV Venture guy who thinks we are suppose to look like Manhattan. People are leaving Manhattan in droves. People are leaving NY in droves. All of these people flowing in the door that want us to look like the disaster that they fled from. If they like that so much why not stay there?

Some one needs to do a Meyers-Briggs test on the people who arrive to change what is here. That test tells you what the driving force is for a person - an organizer, a provocateur, a bean counter, a hostile force, etc.

Get back to what the number is referring to - people who work at SU? SU needs to step up and provide housing for the people who work there. Get the facts on all of this - the major commercial buildings are on SRP property.


Mondoman
Registered user
Green Acres
on Feb 25, 2022 at 7:05 pm
Mondoman, Green Acres
Registered user
on Feb 25, 2022 at 7:05 pm

"The plan also calls on local churches to construct apartment buildings in their parking lots."
Nuff said :(


SteveDabrowski
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 26, 2022 at 2:32 pm
SteveDabrowski, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Feb 26, 2022 at 2:32 pm

What a pack of sheep we have in our planning commission and our leaders in general. Wringing their hands and writing letters begging for ABAG's permission to do a little less, but falling in line after all without any whisper of a fight.

As we look at this there is a proposition trying to gather signatures that would force these issues back into local control and probably make ABAG an advisory body only. However do we see our leaders advocating for this in any way? Just the usual limp arguments about being neutral, maintaining the city above it all, not wanting to take an official position. Blah blah blah...

The usual leadership avoidance we have all gotten used to. Wring your hands and write letters begging for relief which probably end up in the mail room waste basket is the bread for the day. Do some positive politicking and bully pulpit work encouraging and facilitating advancement of the proposition which would put an end to this tyranny, well that might be too controversial.

No joy here!


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 26, 2022 at 4:14 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Feb 26, 2022 at 4:14 pm

And the percentage of homes bought for investment purposes hits a record high

Web Link

And you think the ADUs, the new housing bills and institutional house flipping are going to increase affordability while speculation increases, more offices are built....


Jim King
Registered user
another community
on Feb 27, 2022 at 9:23 am
Jim King, another community
Registered user
on Feb 27, 2022 at 9:23 am

* "Housing to be built in church parking lots?"

* "Midtown Safeway to be considered as a place for new housing?"

* "Building on parking lots for car light housing?"

* "What does that mean?"

^ It means that fewer people are attending or driving to church nowadays and those parking lots could provide critical housing + increase the coffers of the respective churches.

The Midtown Safeway (though convenient) is one of the worst Safeways in the area in terms of modern/convenient layout and parking lot crime. [Portion removed.]

Since Palo Alto prides itself as an eco-minded bike enthusiastic community, maybe keep in mind that a few additional bike racks would take up far less room than an automobile parking lot and the newly allowed square footage could accommodate a lot of new condos.


SteveDabrowski
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 27, 2022 at 1:03 pm
SteveDabrowski, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Feb 27, 2022 at 1:03 pm

Six thousand new residences is a pipe dream or a disaster for our community from a visual, traffic and resource point of view. Just a glance at the corner of California and San Antonio should set off major alarm bells! But wait!! Six thousand this year, but maybe twelve thousand next year, these quotas never stop or have any semblance of practicality-they are just numbers.

I particularly object to seeing our town inundated by these huge ugly developments that degrade our quality of life with their visual density. I am not uniformly against adding housing, but it should be limited to what is reasonably possible without destroying what we value about our city. Take for example the new residential towers at Escondido Village in Stanford. There is density there for sure, but they are elegant buildings set out in a thoughtful way, giving a feeling like a good part of Manhattan. Quality housing can be done, but just buying in to numbers that require a complete inundation of big ugly box structures in every corner and eliminating light industrial and service business from the city should be a non starter.

Palo Alto and other effected cities should take ABAG to court and see if their requirements can be overturned.


Chris
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on Feb 27, 2022 at 3:12 pm
Chris, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on Feb 27, 2022 at 3:12 pm

This guy Jim King! We don't want to live in a cancerous, dementia filled, concrete wasteland. We want to be able to breathe and play in the grass.

Did you forget that there are too many people on Earth? Or do you just read Forbes and they told you we have a "housing shortage?" (As opposed to an unsustainably large population)

People don't bike to Safeway!! Groceries are heavy!!! Try livin' in the real world kid


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