News

Palo Alto's downtown plan would focus on housing

City Council to consider accepting an $800K grant to increase residential development

The Palo Alto City Council will consider on April 18, 2022 whether to move ahead with a housing plan for the downtown area. Embarcadero Media file photo.

Fueled by federal funds, Palo Alto is preparing to undertake a three-year planning process aimed at answering a critical question: What would it take to build more housing in the downtown area?

The city has received a grant of $800,000 from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) for the planning process, which is expected to take about three years and culminate in a new Downtown Housing Plan. The City Council will consider accepting the grant on Monday night as well as discuss committing additional city funds for the planning effort.

If adopted, the downtown plan would play a central role in the council's efforts to increase housing in the city's most transit-served area. It may also help the city plan for transportation improvements, including a reconfiguration of the city's northernmost rail crossing at Palo Alto Avenue so that the road and the tracks no longer intersect.

The proposed planning area for the Downtown Housing Plan is roughly bordered by Alma Street, Cowper Street, Lytton Avenue and Hamilton Avenue. Map by Jamey Padojino.

That said, the boundaries of the proposed planning area stop just short of the downtown Transit Center, which includes a Caltrain station and various bus stations. The plan would cover the area just east of the tracks, between Alma and Cowper streets and bounded by Lytton Avenue in the north and Hamilton Avenue in the south.

While transportation improvements would be considered as part of the planning, the main focus of the effort would be housing. The money that the MTC is distributing comes from the Federal Highway Administration and is dedicated to planning in "priority development areas" — areas that cities designate as ripe for growth and change and that are typically located next to transit hubs. The council designated a 206-acre portion of downtown as a priority development area in January 2020, making it eligible for planning grants. The 76-acre area that staff has proposed for the Downtown Housing Plan is included in the priority development area.

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Planning Director Jonathan Lait said that city staff had initially considered a broader downtown planning effort, one that considered the transit center and improving connections between downtown, Stanford University and Stanford Shopping Center. The decision to focus on the section just east of the transit hub was based on the staff's estimate of what can actually be accomplished with the grant dollars.

Lait noted, however, that staff has been in discussions with Stanford University about possibly expanding the area to include the transit area if the council opts to do so.

The city's Comprehensive Plan, which is generally seen as its land use bible, includes a policy that encourages an area plan for downtown. A broad analysis, however, would require more than double the grant money that the city has received from the MTC, Lait said.

"We're really talking about a more extensive planning effort," Lait said, referring to the Comprehensive Plan policy. "The idea here is to capitalize on the opportunity that we have now."

If the council approves the MTC grant, the housing plan would be one of several concurring efforts to create a new vision for downtown. The council has already directed staff to evaluate streetscape improvements along University Avenue to make it more compatible with the parklets that popped up along the thoroughfare during the pandemic and that are now set to become permanent fixtures.

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Then there's grade separation, the city's large-scale effort to redesign all of its grade crossings so that streets no longer intersect with rail tracks. The redesign effort initially included the city's northernmost rail crossing at Palo Alto Avenue, though the council ultimately voted to defer its design work on this crossing until it forms a broader plan for the downtown area.

Given its limited scope, the MTC grant is unlikely to further the discussion of the Palo Alto Avenue crossing. But Mayor Pat Burt noted that other funding sources may become available for grade separations in the downtown area. One potential source is the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which included $700 million for grade separation as part of its Measure B, the 2016 sales-tax measure. The money is earmarked for Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale.

Burt said in an interview that one important factor that the council will consider in its discussion of the MTC grant is the degree to which the city should be hanging its planning efforts on the regional agency's stipulations. He also said it's important for the housing plan to be consistent with the city's vision for transportation improvements.

The area around the downtown Palo Alto Caltrain station could play a pivotal role in the city's new Downtown Housing Plan. Embarcadero Media file photo.

"I'd want to see a plan that would increase housing in our downtown area significantly over time and do so in a way that is integrated in not only more transit use but necessary changes that fit grade separations and infrastructure that is approaching 100 years old in the multimodal center," Burt said.

The MTC grant requires the city to complete its planning effort within three years, by April 30, 2025. The funding agreement for the grant requires Palo Alto to complete a series of reports as part of the planning process, including an evaluation of the relationships between jobs and housing affordability, an analysis of existing inequities between people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds, and consideration of changes to development standards that would make housing construction more feasible.

The plan's goal to increase residential construction in downtown Palo Alto has taken on a greater sense of urgency over the past year as the city is moving toward adopting a new housing element, a document that identifies housing sites and strategies that will allow it to meet its regional mandate of adding 6,086 new dwellings by 2031. The area immediately around the downtown Caltrain station could play a pivotal role. Stanford University, which owns the land, had proposed a concept for accommodating up to 530 apartments near the transit station. That, however, would entail a 137-foot-tall building.

In March, the council backed a more modest alternative when it voted to include 270 apartments at the center site in the next housing element.

Even with a limited scope that excludes the transit center, the MTC grant is unlikely to be enough to complete the plan for the 76 acres. City staff believe that it would take at least an additional $150,000 annually to hire consultants who would support the project, according to the report from the planning department. A key decision that the council will have to make on April 18 is whether to commit these funds.

The report also notes that downtown faces numerous challenges that limit housing production. These include high land costs, the tendency of office development to be far more lucrative for developers than residential buildings, and the fact that public parking takes up a significant amount of land in the area.

"Through a focused and thoughtful housing plan, the city can identify ways to help overcome these challenges and find opportunities to promote greater housing production," the report states.

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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 >>

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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Palo Alto's downtown plan would focus on housing

City Council to consider accepting an $800K grant to increase residential development

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Apr 14, 2022, 9:20 am

Fueled by federal funds, Palo Alto is preparing to undertake a three-year planning process aimed at answering a critical question: What would it take to build more housing in the downtown area?

The city has received a grant of $800,000 from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) for the planning process, which is expected to take about three years and culminate in a new Downtown Housing Plan. The City Council will consider accepting the grant on Monday night as well as discuss committing additional city funds for the planning effort.

If adopted, the downtown plan would play a central role in the council's efforts to increase housing in the city's most transit-served area. It may also help the city plan for transportation improvements, including a reconfiguration of the city's northernmost rail crossing at Palo Alto Avenue so that the road and the tracks no longer intersect.

That said, the boundaries of the proposed planning area stop just short of the downtown Transit Center, which includes a Caltrain station and various bus stations. The plan would cover the area just east of the tracks, between Alma and Cowper streets and bounded by Lytton Avenue in the north and Hamilton Avenue in the south.

While transportation improvements would be considered as part of the planning, the main focus of the effort would be housing. The money that the MTC is distributing comes from the Federal Highway Administration and is dedicated to planning in "priority development areas" — areas that cities designate as ripe for growth and change and that are typically located next to transit hubs. The council designated a 206-acre portion of downtown as a priority development area in January 2020, making it eligible for planning grants. The 76-acre area that staff has proposed for the Downtown Housing Plan is included in the priority development area.

Planning Director Jonathan Lait said that city staff had initially considered a broader downtown planning effort, one that considered the transit center and improving connections between downtown, Stanford University and Stanford Shopping Center. The decision to focus on the section just east of the transit hub was based on the staff's estimate of what can actually be accomplished with the grant dollars.

Lait noted, however, that staff has been in discussions with Stanford University about possibly expanding the area to include the transit area if the council opts to do so.

The city's Comprehensive Plan, which is generally seen as its land use bible, includes a policy that encourages an area plan for downtown. A broad analysis, however, would require more than double the grant money that the city has received from the MTC, Lait said.

"We're really talking about a more extensive planning effort," Lait said, referring to the Comprehensive Plan policy. "The idea here is to capitalize on the opportunity that we have now."

If the council approves the MTC grant, the housing plan would be one of several concurring efforts to create a new vision for downtown. The council has already directed staff to evaluate streetscape improvements along University Avenue to make it more compatible with the parklets that popped up along the thoroughfare during the pandemic and that are now set to become permanent fixtures.

Then there's grade separation, the city's large-scale effort to redesign all of its grade crossings so that streets no longer intersect with rail tracks. The redesign effort initially included the city's northernmost rail crossing at Palo Alto Avenue, though the council ultimately voted to defer its design work on this crossing until it forms a broader plan for the downtown area.

Given its limited scope, the MTC grant is unlikely to further the discussion of the Palo Alto Avenue crossing. But Mayor Pat Burt noted that other funding sources may become available for grade separations in the downtown area. One potential source is the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which included $700 million for grade separation as part of its Measure B, the 2016 sales-tax measure. The money is earmarked for Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale.

Burt said in an interview that one important factor that the council will consider in its discussion of the MTC grant is the degree to which the city should be hanging its planning efforts on the regional agency's stipulations. He also said it's important for the housing plan to be consistent with the city's vision for transportation improvements.

"I'd want to see a plan that would increase housing in our downtown area significantly over time and do so in a way that is integrated in not only more transit use but necessary changes that fit grade separations and infrastructure that is approaching 100 years old in the multimodal center," Burt said.

The MTC grant requires the city to complete its planning effort within three years, by April 30, 2025. The funding agreement for the grant requires Palo Alto to complete a series of reports as part of the planning process, including an evaluation of the relationships between jobs and housing affordability, an analysis of existing inequities between people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds, and consideration of changes to development standards that would make housing construction more feasible.

The plan's goal to increase residential construction in downtown Palo Alto has taken on a greater sense of urgency over the past year as the city is moving toward adopting a new housing element, a document that identifies housing sites and strategies that will allow it to meet its regional mandate of adding 6,086 new dwellings by 2031. The area immediately around the downtown Caltrain station could play a pivotal role. Stanford University, which owns the land, had proposed a concept for accommodating up to 530 apartments near the transit station. That, however, would entail a 137-foot-tall building.

In March, the council backed a more modest alternative when it voted to include 270 apartments at the center site in the next housing element.

Even with a limited scope that excludes the transit center, the MTC grant is unlikely to be enough to complete the plan for the 76 acres. City staff believe that it would take at least an additional $150,000 annually to hire consultants who would support the project, according to the report from the planning department. A key decision that the council will have to make on April 18 is whether to commit these funds.

The report also notes that downtown faces numerous challenges that limit housing production. These include high land costs, the tendency of office development to be far more lucrative for developers than residential buildings, and the fact that public parking takes up a significant amount of land in the area.

"Through a focused and thoughtful housing plan, the city can identify ways to help overcome these challenges and find opportunities to promote greater housing production," the report states.

Comments

tmp
Registered user
Downtown North
on Apr 14, 2022 at 6:14 pm
tmp, Downtown North
Registered user
on Apr 14, 2022 at 6:14 pm

We do not need more development in Palo Alto. Earth Day will be with us on April 22nd. The biggest driver of habitat loss, massive extinction, pollution of air, water and land and climate change is massive human overpopulation. In the past century the population of humans has gone from 2 billion to 8 billion people. This has driven all of the above crises.

If we as a society want to save other species, slow global warming and attempt to provide a better world for our own species - we have to stop the development mantra. It doesn't matter where you build more stuff - it is still more stuff with the associated negative impact on the environment. Buildings use resources that require expenditures of fossils fuels to make cement, provide timber, girders and wires and then ongoing resources to light and heat and keep the building functional. It is never a good idea to tear something down and build something new and it is an especially bad idea to build bigger and more.

We need to set limits and discuss how to get to fewer humans thus enabling a return to more land, air and water for the rest of the species on this planet. Fewer people allows for a better quality of life for those here. Less impact from our way of life, our farms, better schools with fewer students, more open space and better care for the smaller numbers of inhabitants of every area. We need to be mindful and stop worshipping at the feet of the development cartel that seems to control government in this area.

Think about Earth Day and how to stop human growth and overpopulation, not how to cram more buildings into downtown.


Nancy the real Nancy
Registered user
Downtown North
on Apr 15, 2022 at 7:57 pm
Nancy the real Nancy, Downtown North
Registered user
on Apr 15, 2022 at 7:57 pm

How about converting the President Hotel into housing? Can I get $5,000 of that grant for my input?

Oh wait....never mind.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 15, 2022 at 9:58 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 15, 2022 at 9:58 pm

@Nancy the real Nancy, What a good idea! However did you think of it!

I DO wonder what happened to the 80 middle-income longtime residents of the President Hotel we brilliantly displaced only a few years ago and did nothing to help in spite of all the hearings and protests.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 18, 2022 at 12:26 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Apr 18, 2022 at 12:26 pm

Great idea. Check out Menlo Park and Redwood City - all new high rise housing next to El Camino and the train tracks. Good architecture. As to the President Hotel - what is happening there? they are trying to make that back into a hotel but taking a long time. to do it.


Jeremy Erman
Registered user
Midtown
on Apr 18, 2022 at 11:46 pm
Jeremy Erman, Midtown
Registered user
on Apr 18, 2022 at 11:46 pm

Funny how the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Valley Transportation Authority have money to give cities for reconfiguring neighborhoods and rail-crossings (not to mention freeway toll lanes and bike lanes), but balk at providing regular public transit that covers all of Santa Clara County, or a particular city. Why not use this $800,000 to restore the free shuttle program that was cut in 2020, and enhance city-wide transit immediately rather than spend years drafting a plan to enhance just downtown in some currently undefined way?


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 19, 2022 at 2:36 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 19, 2022 at 2:36 am

If you like this, you'll love Monday night's City Council meeting *(Agenda 8) on whatwas supposed to be the Business Tax but which was morphed into of "Revenue Generating Measures" -- what I call the "residential utility tax" and what city staff and their polling consultants call "Measure to Affirm Gas Transfer Tax" -- ie the continued practice of overcharging utilities customers aka residents,

Thanks to their polling, the only way to restore residential city services is to approve the Gas Transfer Tax since a Business Tax -- if it ever passes after all the stakeholder lobbying -- is slated for other purposes.

How wonderful that we're paying a consultant to craft the ballot language which at least one speaker noted was heavily weighted and deceptive after discussing the proposals with the only stakeholders that matter -- and they're not residents.



Paly Grad
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 2, 2022 at 9:17 pm
Paly Grad, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on May 2, 2022 at 9:17 pm

We may not need as much new housing as some have predicted!

“California’s population shrinks for second year in a row”

“About 280,000 more people left California for other states than moved here in 2021”

“California lost 117,552 people in 2021”

“Of the state’s 10 largest cities, half of them lost population: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland and Anaheim.”

Source: Web Link


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2022 at 8:40 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 3, 2022 at 8:40 am

I second Paly Grad's post above.

California is losing its population rise. I would imagine that Palo Alto is no longer the desirable place to live that it was even 5 years ago. Hybrid working means that people may only go into offices once or twice a week so a longer commute doesn't necessarily seem so bad.

Less people working in Palo Alto means that we should expect less restaurants due to less customers, etc.

It is time to put our present residents first when looking at plans for the next decade.


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