Building affordable housing in Palo Alto is notoriously difficult thanks to a combination of high land costs, strict development standards such as a 50-foot height limit and a robust bureaucratic process that often involves months, if not years, of public hearings.
On Wednesday, the City Council approved a zone change that members hope will speed the process for affordable housing developers. As part of a broad revision to the city's development standards, the council adopted a rule that will allow builders who are relying on the "affordable housing" zoning overlay to avoid the city's extensive review process and obtain more or less automatic approval.
The change comes at a time when the city is facing increasing pressures from the state to build more housing. The city has consistently fallen well short in meeting regional mandates for below-market-rate housing and its recent efforts to encourage more projects have failed to generate the type of building boom that city leaders had hoped for. The new "affordable housing" (AH) zone that the council created in 2018, which loosens development standards for below-market-rate developments, has so far netted just one project: the 59-apartment complex known as Wilton Court that the city approved in 2019 and is now being completed at 3705 El Camino Real.
The city's failure was highlighted in a recent report from the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury, which noted the "lack of alignment on AH (affordable housing) goals and on the zoning changes AH requires" and concluded that the city's "multiplicity of planning policies and documents creates lengthy processes and can lead to frustration for all parties, including neighborhoods as well as developers."
Jean Eisberg, the consultant leading the revision process, said Wednesday that the code change allowing for an expedited approval process is "both in response to the Civil Grand Jury report as well as thinking about the purpose and the process of the Affordable Housing overlay, which really are not aligned right now."
"This overlay allows more flexible development standards for 100% affordable projects, but at this time the legislative process is really onerous so as a result we're not really seeing applicants taking advantage of this opportunity," Eisberg told the council Wednesday. "This proposed process would allow projects that meet this affordability criteria to automatically qualify for those flexible design standards."
A key goal is to give developers of affordable housing more certainty that the project they want to get built would actually come to fruition, Assistant Planning Director Rachael Tanner said.
Removing the legislative process for these projects, she noted, increases certainty and creates a faster route to approval, she said. The existing process, she noted, involves reviews by the Architectural Review Board, the Planning and Transportation Commission and the council, with each review potentially involving multiple public hearings.
"That could add at least a year or more for a project for something that we ostensibly want to encourage as a city," Tanner said.
The change was part of a broad suite of code revisions that the council approved by a 5-1 vote, with council member Alison Cormack dissenting and council member Tom DuBois absent. The vast majority of these changes were implemented to give the city more control over the design of new housing developments at a time when new state laws have made it more difficult for municipalities to flat out reject residential proposals that don't meet local design guidelines.
The effort specifically addresses state laws that prohibit cities from basing their land use decisions on existing "subjective criteria" such as whether the new projects create a "residential scale in keeping with Palo Alto neighborhoods" and whether ground floor use are "appealing to pedestrians" — concepts that have been subject to extensive debate at meetings of the Architectural Review Board and the council.
Now, cities must rely on "objective standards" that are defined in Senate Bill 330 as those "involving no personal or subjective judgment by a public official and being uniformly verifiable by reference to an external and uniform benchmark or criterion available and knowable by both the development applicant or proponent and the public official."
The significance of the new law became apparent in April, when the Architectural Review Board rejected the proposed design from SummerHill Homes for a 48-condominium complex at 2850 W. Bayshore Road. The applicant argued that because it met all the existing objective rules pertaining to features like height and density, it is eligible for expedited approval and that the city's failure to approve the project could lead to litigation. The Planning and Transportation Commission last week signed off on SummerHill's subdivision proposal and the council is scheduled to review it later this month.
On Wednesday, the council responded to the state mandates by adding dozens of new objective standards, continuing a process that council members launched last year. One new rule, which aims to protect the privacy of neighbors, bars builders within 40 feet of an abutting structure from placing windows on more than 15% of the facing façade area unless the windows are obscured. Another specifies that porches on new residential developments need to be large enough so a "6-foot by 6-foot square can fit inside of a porch for each unit."
And to ensure a variety in building massing, the new rules include a menu of design options for façade composition and require builders to choose from this menu. Buildings must also now include a "minimum façade break of 4 feet in width, 2 feet in depth and 32 square feet of area for every 36 to 40 feet of façade length."
Not everyone was thrilled about the changes. Vice Mayor Lydia Kou was reluctant to abandon the city's subjective criteria, which she she said provides "valuable protection for residents from adjacent massing and density." The new objective rules, she suggested, may not go far enough.
"We're coming up with these kinds of standards that may … degrade more of what we have in place right now and have huge impacts on the neighbors," Kou said. "It's very hard for me to support any of this at this point."
Cormack took the opposite view and argued that in some cases the new objective standards are too restrictive. She specifically objected to the new 15% threshold on windows.
"This seems like something that is inappropriate to require for the people who are going to come to live in our city," Cormack said.
Most council members argued that while the new rules aren't perfect, they are necessary to make sure the city has some control over the appearance of new developments in light of recent state laws. Mayor Pat Burt said that the city no longer has the option of relying on its subjective criteria.
"Unfortunately, we're faced with either adopting these proposals or something close to them or being left with current objective standards, which provide fewer protections for the community," Burt said.