News

Palo Alto council splits over downtown housing plan

Division puts grant-funded planning effort in jeopardy

A proposal to accept an $800,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to advance a downtown housing plan was narrowly approved by the City Council on April 18, 2022. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

Despite general consensus that downtown Palo Alto is the perfect place to add residential development, the City Council clashed on Monday over whether to move ahead with a housing plan for the transit-friendly area just east of the University Avenue Caltrain station.

The debate was prompted by an $800,000 grant that the city received last year from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to develop a downtown housing plan, a vision document that would explore strategies and policies for adding housing. While the grant would help facilitate the planning process, City Manager Ed Shikada warned that it would not be enough to steer it to completion and estimated that the city would need to spend about $150,000 in local funds annually over the three-year planning period.

The effort got off to a shaky start on Monday, with just four council members — Mayor Pat Burt and council members Alison Cormack, Greer Stone and Greg Tanaka — voting to accept the grant funding to move ahead with the plan. Three of their colleagues — Vice Mayor Lydia Kou and council members Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth — dissented and argued that the housing plan would serve as a distraction from other ongoing planning efforts.

While the 4-3 vote allows the city to trudge ahead with accepting the MTC funds, it casts a cloud over a planning effort that staff was planning to kick off in the coming months. Crucially, the vote does not provide planning staff with the funding it had requested to launch the plan — funds that would be reimbursed by the MTC as part of the grant. That's because adjusting the council's budget requires a two-thirds council vote, a threshold that the council failed to meet.

The vote does, however, set the council up for another debate over the downtown plan in the coming weeks, as members kick off public hearings for next year's budget. The planning effort could hinge on whether council members choose at that time to authorize the funding.

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Some council members strongly supported moving ahead with the plan, which targets a 76-acre portion of downtown that is roughly bounded by Alma Street on the west and Cowper Street on the east, between Lytton and Hamilton avenues. Council member Alison Cormack suggested that the timing of the plan is particularly suitable given the many changes that the area has experienced over the past two years, with the number of employees diminishing, the vacancy rate increasing and parklets becoming a permanent fixture of the streetscape.

"To me this plan will be one of the cornerstones of our new downtown," Cormack said. "And our downtown is going to have to change based on the pandemic. It's going to be different than it's been."

Others, however, argued that the downtown plan would take attention and resources away from the many planning efforts already underway. These include the drafting of Palo Alto's new Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out strategies for residential development and potential housing sites to accommodate the 6,086 residences that the city must plan for between 2023 and 2031. Palo Alto is also proceeding with work on streetscape improvements on University Avenue, crafting a permanent parklet ordinance and putting together an area plan for a portion of the Ventura neighborhood.

Kou suggested that the city should focus on the ongoing efforts and on "doing them well," rather than adding more to the workload. Filseth concurred.

"I just worry the whole thing is going to be a giant distraction," Filseth said. "There's a lot of ways this can go wrong. I think it's going to take on a life of its own and it's going to suck bandwidth, attention and resources away from what we really need to get the Housing Element done."

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The idea of putting together a coordinated plan for downtown Palo Alto is far from new. The city's Comprehensive Plan includes a policy that explicitly calls for such an effort. And when the council debated its options for redesigning its rail crossing at Palo Alto Avenue in 2019, members agreed to defer the discussion so that the question can be considered as part of the broader planning process.

The downtown housing plan that the council debated Monday would not include consideration of rail crossings or transportation improvements. Its main focus would be housing and the boundaries of the planning area notably exclude the transit center at 27 University Ave., which includes a Caltrain station, numerous bus stops and the MacArthur Park restaurant. Planning Director Jonathan Lait said staff had proposed a relatively narrow scope — with a clear focus on housing — so that the effort could be aligned with MTC's funding proposal.

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.

"This seems like a very timely grant so we're hoping to peel off the housing piece and really focus on that and we'll come back to the council when the time is right for the coordinated area plan," Lait said.

The Monday discussion suggests that the plan could still advance, though some of the details remained unresolved. DuBois took issue with staff's plan to hire consultants to shepherd the downtown effort and suggested that it would be more beneficial to hire a long-term planner who could work on the various efforts pertaining to downtown. He also suggested that the downtown plan is "out of order" given all the other planning efforts already in the works.

Supporters of the downtown plan maintained that the effort, while time-consuming, aligns well with the city's efforts to create more housing and to convert some of the commercial properties in transit-friendly areas to residential use.

"I think that looking at housing opportunities and particularly ones that would potentially adjust us from greater office growth to greater housing growth downtown is an appropriate approach and worth our effort," Burt said.

Stone, who also supported advancing the plan, argued that a failure to do so would demonstrate to regional and state agencies that the city is not making the necessary efforts to meet its housing goals.

"I think it's damning evidence that we left $800,000 on the table to be able to redevelop a housing work plan," Stone said.

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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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Palo Alto council splits over downtown housing plan

Division puts grant-funded planning effort in jeopardy

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Mon, Apr 18, 2022, 11:50 pm

Despite general consensus that downtown Palo Alto is the perfect place to add residential development, the City Council clashed on Monday over whether to move ahead with a housing plan for the transit-friendly area just east of the University Avenue Caltrain station.

The debate was prompted by an $800,000 grant that the city received last year from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to develop a downtown housing plan, a vision document that would explore strategies and policies for adding housing. While the grant would help facilitate the planning process, City Manager Ed Shikada warned that it would not be enough to steer it to completion and estimated that the city would need to spend about $150,000 in local funds annually over the three-year planning period.

The effort got off to a shaky start on Monday, with just four council members — Mayor Pat Burt and council members Alison Cormack, Greer Stone and Greg Tanaka — voting to accept the grant funding to move ahead with the plan. Three of their colleagues — Vice Mayor Lydia Kou and council members Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth — dissented and argued that the housing plan would serve as a distraction from other ongoing planning efforts.

While the 4-3 vote allows the city to trudge ahead with accepting the MTC funds, it casts a cloud over a planning effort that staff was planning to kick off in the coming months. Crucially, the vote does not provide planning staff with the funding it had requested to launch the plan — funds that would be reimbursed by the MTC as part of the grant. That's because adjusting the council's budget requires a two-thirds council vote, a threshold that the council failed to meet.

The vote does, however, set the council up for another debate over the downtown plan in the coming weeks, as members kick off public hearings for next year's budget. The planning effort could hinge on whether council members choose at that time to authorize the funding.

Some council members strongly supported moving ahead with the plan, which targets a 76-acre portion of downtown that is roughly bounded by Alma Street on the west and Cowper Street on the east, between Lytton and Hamilton avenues. Council member Alison Cormack suggested that the timing of the plan is particularly suitable given the many changes that the area has experienced over the past two years, with the number of employees diminishing, the vacancy rate increasing and parklets becoming a permanent fixture of the streetscape.

"To me this plan will be one of the cornerstones of our new downtown," Cormack said. "And our downtown is going to have to change based on the pandemic. It's going to be different than it's been."

Others, however, argued that the downtown plan would take attention and resources away from the many planning efforts already underway. These include the drafting of Palo Alto's new Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out strategies for residential development and potential housing sites to accommodate the 6,086 residences that the city must plan for between 2023 and 2031. Palo Alto is also proceeding with work on streetscape improvements on University Avenue, crafting a permanent parklet ordinance and putting together an area plan for a portion of the Ventura neighborhood.

Kou suggested that the city should focus on the ongoing efforts and on "doing them well," rather than adding more to the workload. Filseth concurred.

"I just worry the whole thing is going to be a giant distraction," Filseth said. "There's a lot of ways this can go wrong. I think it's going to take on a life of its own and it's going to suck bandwidth, attention and resources away from what we really need to get the Housing Element done."

The idea of putting together a coordinated plan for downtown Palo Alto is far from new. The city's Comprehensive Plan includes a policy that explicitly calls for such an effort. And when the council debated its options for redesigning its rail crossing at Palo Alto Avenue in 2019, members agreed to defer the discussion so that the question can be considered as part of the broader planning process.

The downtown housing plan that the council debated Monday would not include consideration of rail crossings or transportation improvements. Its main focus would be housing and the boundaries of the planning area notably exclude the transit center at 27 University Ave., which includes a Caltrain station, numerous bus stops and the MacArthur Park restaurant. Planning Director Jonathan Lait said staff had proposed a relatively narrow scope — with a clear focus on housing — so that the effort could be aligned with MTC's funding proposal.

"This seems like a very timely grant so we're hoping to peel off the housing piece and really focus on that and we'll come back to the council when the time is right for the coordinated area plan," Lait said.

The Monday discussion suggests that the plan could still advance, though some of the details remained unresolved. DuBois took issue with staff's plan to hire consultants to shepherd the downtown effort and suggested that it would be more beneficial to hire a long-term planner who could work on the various efforts pertaining to downtown. He also suggested that the downtown plan is "out of order" given all the other planning efforts already in the works.

Supporters of the downtown plan maintained that the effort, while time-consuming, aligns well with the city's efforts to create more housing and to convert some of the commercial properties in transit-friendly areas to residential use.

"I think that looking at housing opportunities and particularly ones that would potentially adjust us from greater office growth to greater housing growth downtown is an appropriate approach and worth our effort," Burt said.

Stone, who also supported advancing the plan, argued that a failure to do so would demonstrate to regional and state agencies that the city is not making the necessary efforts to meet its housing goals.

"I think it's damning evidence that we left $800,000 on the table to be able to redevelop a housing work plan," Stone said.

Comments

Jeremy Erman
Registered user
Midtown
on Apr 19, 2022 at 12:07 am
Jeremy Erman, Midtown
Registered user
on Apr 19, 2022 at 12:07 am

Why does the regional Transportation Commission have this kind of money to give away for a housing plan, but not for public transit? Wouldn't it make more sense to use this money to restore the free shuttle program that was cut in 2020?

And why does the City need an $800,000 grant to help develop a "housing plan?" anyway? Doesn't the City have its own planning department? Isn't this their job? Why do we need extra money for this, and why would it involve outside consultants who don't necessarily live here or know anything about what it's like to live or work in Palo Alto?


chris
Registered user
University South
on Apr 20, 2022 at 12:05 am
chris, University South
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2022 at 12:05 am

Jeremy,

The city needs money to hire people with VISION. The current politicians and staff are mired in the muck created by years of inattention to housing. The limited amount of housing built in the last 20 years is evidence that the current and recent incumbents lack the creativity to push through the changes required to make housing happen.

The MTC needs to put money toward encouraging housing in areas near transit, in order to drive ridership to current transit and hopefully new and more frequent options. Only putting money toward transit in sprawling residential areas is very expensive.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 20, 2022 at 10:19 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 20, 2022 at 10:19 am

Yes, the city needs to hire people with vision and objectivity after years of catering to the big-money, build-more-offices-and-hotels crowd which has increased competition for housing thus raising prices. PA has a much higher proportion of rental housing than surrounding towns -- a point the pro-density crowd consistently ignores.

And speaking of vision, the city loves to plead poverty and mourn the decline of downtown while both Los Altos and Menlo Park both have multiple monthly and weekly events to bring people downtown. What has PA done??

Nothing because the residents who'd be coming downtown to those events aren't big developers, big employers etc. on whom they've based the city economy. Now they're working tirelesssly to turn the "business tax" into one on residential utility customers by making it a two-tier ballot initiative where only aoproving the latter will restore our city services!

Some might call that "creative repositioning" while others call it a shaneless cash grab.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 25, 2022 at 6:19 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Apr 25, 2022 at 6:19 pm

The obvious place for new housing is on El Camino - similar to Menlo Park and Redwood City. The other obvious place is in the downtown area where you already have tall buildings.
We have a major problem in that a lot of the El Camino section has SU property so it looks like we are not doing anything. SU will either build or not build - we don't control that process. However - reading part of the problem at the SU hospital is "visiting nurses". People who come in for major problems then leave. The City of Palo Alto is not responsible for providing housing for traveling nurses - that is a SU decision on hiring practices. The have ample land to build suitable housing for traveling nurses if that is how they want to operate.

We seem to end up being responsible for hiring decisions of major institutions that we have no control over. They appear to be effectively managing that situation through the local legislators. There lies part of the problem - the local legislators are tone deaf to what the residents and cities want.


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