News

City Council applies 35-foot height limit to 'transition zones'

New nonresidential buildings near dense residential zones can no longer soar to 50 feet

Residents of the Palo Alto Central condominium complex on California Avenue were among those who have expressed concerns about building heights in nearby zoning districts. Embarcadero Media file photo.

Responding to residents' calls for greater privacy protections, the Palo Alto City Council on Monday revised the zoning code to limit the height of new

nonresidential buildings within 150 feet of residential areas, even areas designated for higher density.

The City Council voted 6-1, with Vice Mayor Lydia Kou dissenting, to adjust the section of the zoning code that deals with height transitions, which governs how tall buildings can be in commercial zones that are close to residential zones. The new language adds the RM-40 district, which allows developments with up to 40 dwellings per acre, to the list of zoning districts that fall under a rule that was previously reserved for areas with lower density.

The Monday revision also clarifies that the rule for lower heights applies within 150 feet of a residential zone. Whereas the city typically has a height limit of 50 feet for new developments, under this rule the permitted height would be decreased to 35 feet for projects within 150 feet of a residential zone, even if the properties don't abut.

The Monday zone change was part of the council's broader effort to adopt new "objective standards" for new developments, a move spurred by state legislation that makes it harder for cities to deny approval for developments based on subjective criteria. It was also a response to residents in residential zones close to El Camino Real and California Avenue who argued that their zoning districts should get similar protections from large buildings in nearby zones that other districts do.

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Terry Holzemer, who lives at Palo Alto Central, a condominium complex on California Avenue, said he and other residents feel like they're "under threat" when existing rules don't apply to their district, which is zoned for higher density.

"I think we should be treated the same way as all sections of town and we should have our zone mentioned as well," Holzemer said.

While the council action aimed to respond to these concerns, the new rule includes key exceptions. First, the reduced height limit only applies to nonresidential buildings. Requiring a similar rule for housing projects would amount to "downzoning" residential areas, which city officials said could run afoul of state laws and threaten the city's ability to produce needed housing.

In addition, a developer can request an exception to the 150-foot transition zone, which would require approvals from the Architectural Review Board and the planning director. Residents would also have an opportunity to appeal any project that gets the required approval to the council.

Not everyone supported the appeal process. Kou said the process proposed by staff puts an undue burden on residents to monitor nearby developments so that they can file timely appeals. And while planning staff said it's not unusual for other cities to treat residential districts with higher densities different from single-family districts, Kou argued that Palo Alto should place a high priority on protecting the privacy and living standards of its residents.

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"I hear of complaints of neighbors (where) a neighbor is talking on the phone or doing a Zoom meeting and they can hear it at their homes," Kou said.

She proposed a list of adjustments to the zoning code that eliminate the exceptions proposed by staff. Many of her proposals were in line with the recommendations from Jeff Levinsky, who similarly argued that the new process for requesting an exception to height transitions is unnecessary.

"I don't think anyone thought that what this process is supposed to do is put new burdens on residents," Levinsky told the council.

Most council members agreed, however, that the changes proposed by staff are sufficient to set up the types of protections that residents have called for. They noted that anyone who applies for an exception to the 150-foot rule would have to undergo a discretionary review process that gives the city ample opportunity to make sure that the new development does not intrude on the privacy of nearby residents.

"People in the RM-40 district have a reasonable expectation of the same type of privacy protection as people in RM-20 and the RM-30," council member Eric Filseth said.

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 >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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City Council applies 35-foot height limit to 'transition zones'

New nonresidential buildings near dense residential zones can no longer soar to 50 feet

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Apr 12, 2022, 12:40 pm

Responding to residents' calls for greater privacy protections, the Palo Alto City Council on Monday revised the zoning code to limit the height of new

nonresidential buildings within 150 feet of residential areas, even areas designated for higher density.

The City Council voted 6-1, with Vice Mayor Lydia Kou dissenting, to adjust the section of the zoning code that deals with height transitions, which governs how tall buildings can be in commercial zones that are close to residential zones. The new language adds the RM-40 district, which allows developments with up to 40 dwellings per acre, to the list of zoning districts that fall under a rule that was previously reserved for areas with lower density.

The Monday revision also clarifies that the rule for lower heights applies within 150 feet of a residential zone. Whereas the city typically has a height limit of 50 feet for new developments, under this rule the permitted height would be decreased to 35 feet for projects within 150 feet of a residential zone, even if the properties don't abut.

The Monday zone change was part of the council's broader effort to adopt new "objective standards" for new developments, a move spurred by state legislation that makes it harder for cities to deny approval for developments based on subjective criteria. It was also a response to residents in residential zones close to El Camino Real and California Avenue who argued that their zoning districts should get similar protections from large buildings in nearby zones that other districts do.

Terry Holzemer, who lives at Palo Alto Central, a condominium complex on California Avenue, said he and other residents feel like they're "under threat" when existing rules don't apply to their district, which is zoned for higher density.

"I think we should be treated the same way as all sections of town and we should have our zone mentioned as well," Holzemer said.

While the council action aimed to respond to these concerns, the new rule includes key exceptions. First, the reduced height limit only applies to nonresidential buildings. Requiring a similar rule for housing projects would amount to "downzoning" residential areas, which city officials said could run afoul of state laws and threaten the city's ability to produce needed housing.

In addition, a developer can request an exception to the 150-foot transition zone, which would require approvals from the Architectural Review Board and the planning director. Residents would also have an opportunity to appeal any project that gets the required approval to the council.

Not everyone supported the appeal process. Kou said the process proposed by staff puts an undue burden on residents to monitor nearby developments so that they can file timely appeals. And while planning staff said it's not unusual for other cities to treat residential districts with higher densities different from single-family districts, Kou argued that Palo Alto should place a high priority on protecting the privacy and living standards of its residents.

"I hear of complaints of neighbors (where) a neighbor is talking on the phone or doing a Zoom meeting and they can hear it at their homes," Kou said.

She proposed a list of adjustments to the zoning code that eliminate the exceptions proposed by staff. Many of her proposals were in line with the recommendations from Jeff Levinsky, who similarly argued that the new process for requesting an exception to height transitions is unnecessary.

"I don't think anyone thought that what this process is supposed to do is put new burdens on residents," Levinsky told the council.

Most council members agreed, however, that the changes proposed by staff are sufficient to set up the types of protections that residents have called for. They noted that anyone who applies for an exception to the 150-foot rule would have to undergo a discretionary review process that gives the city ample opportunity to make sure that the new development does not intrude on the privacy of nearby residents.

"People in the RM-40 district have a reasonable expectation of the same type of privacy protection as people in RM-20 and the RM-30," council member Eric Filseth said.

Comments

Evergreen Park Observer
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Apr 13, 2022 at 10:18 am
Evergreen Park Observer, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Apr 13, 2022 at 10:18 am

The problem with 'exceptions' is that City staff has a history of approving all applications for exceptions so that that they are no longer 'exceptions' but become the rule. Hard to trust that City staff will act in the interest of residents rather than moneyed developers and business interests based on their prior behavior.


ALB
Registered user
College Terrace
on Apr 13, 2022 at 10:55 am
ALB, College Terrace
Registered user
on Apr 13, 2022 at 10:55 am

I agree with Evergreen Park Observer. The city must be obligated to notify residents when an exception is under application. Lydia Kou did her homework and understands the needs of residents.


neighbor1200
Registered user
Professorville
on Apr 13, 2022 at 11:02 am
neighbor1200, Professorville
Registered user
on Apr 13, 2022 at 11:02 am

Certain areas should be zoned for high residential buildings. That is the best way for Palo Alto to increase housing units. Russian communists broke up existing apartments to cram more families into each one. In a free society, we build more units.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2022 at 11:07 am
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Apr 13, 2022 at 11:07 am

Per usual Gennadey, your article is lacking a quality of investigative journalism a “free” press demands and its audience/readers of all ilk deserve. There were others publicly commenting about adding height ... how come you left those voices out? Hmmm.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 14, 2022 at 11:37 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Apr 14, 2022 at 11:37 am

In Menlo Park high residential building are being built on El Camino. In Redwood City high residential buildings are built on El Camino and the streets next to the train station and shopping center. This is a repurposing of commercial property. Looks good and is next to a major highway and train station. It checks all of the boxes. Mountain View now is building high rise apartments on San Antonio and California street, which was previously commercial property.

El Camino in the PA section can be repurposed for high rise buildings. That would follow the guidance being provided by the state. We have high rise residential buildings in the direct proximity of City Hall and the train station. More can be added in this section consistent with state guidelines.


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