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New design rules for Palo Alto housing projects govern everything from window sizes to architecture styles

City Council also creates fast-track process for 100% affordable housing projects

The Arbor Real residential community in Palo Alto. By a 5-1 vote, the City Council approved a broad suite of code revisions for housing development standards on June 1, 2022. Embarcadero Media file photo by Olivia Treynor.

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."

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"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.

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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.

SummerHill Homes has proposed a 48-townhome development at 2850 W. Bayshore Road. Rendering courtesy SDG Architects.

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.

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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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New design rules for Palo Alto housing projects govern everything from window sizes to architecture styles

City Council also creates fast-track process for 100% affordable housing projects

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Jun 2, 2022, 9:31 am

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.

Comments

tmp
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jun 2, 2022 at 2:30 pm
tmp, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2022 at 2:30 pm

Overbearing state laws are forcing cities to create objective standards because developers can sue cities based on subjective standards and claim that they are keeping them from building what they want. The city is now forced to create rules for cookie cutter type housing so they can at least have some standards to slow down the overbuilding that the state is forcing on us.

Of course it would be more beneficial to have each project looked at in relationship to its surroundings and what it is being built for but the need for black and white, spelled out objective standards is called for as a way to protect what developers will try to build here if we didn't have the standards.

Only when city's can again control their own density and development and can overturn recent state sponsored give away laws that benefit their rich development based funders will we be able to once again talk one on one with a developer and make them build something acceptable to the community.

We only have the overreaching state legislature and governor to blame for tasteless, overlarge and environmentally destructive development in this state.


Chris
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on Jun 3, 2022 at 7:25 am
Chris, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on Jun 3, 2022 at 7:25 am

A lot of people claim to be environmentalists, yet they are in favor of giant increases to the population. This is not an environmentally friendly position AT ALL. The biggest problem facing our environment is that there are way too many humans on Earth. To feed seven billion people we have to use petroleum fertilizer, which gobbles up the soil too fast, exacerbating our problem. Good for the council on limiting the greed of these disgusting developers who have hijacked Sacramento to all of our great peril


JAlto
Registered user
Palo Alto Orchards
on Jun 4, 2022 at 7:26 am
JAlto, Palo Alto Orchards
Registered user
on Jun 4, 2022 at 7:26 am

The difference in professed ideals (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and material reality (thwarting development of affordable development at all costs) is striking. The majority of residents of Palo Alto should just admit what they want: A safe community that consists almost entirely of wealthy, well-educated Asian and White white-collar workers and schools that only include children of the same. One that pulls up ladders and jealously hoards habitable space for personal luxury and to deliberately exclude people who it perceives as lesser.

Instead of confronting reality, the majority, like TMP and Chris suddenly discover that they are "environmentalists". TMP is probably aware that this is merely lip service. Their real concern is the first part-- "tasteless" and "overlarge" development-- residences that ruin their pristine suburbia. TMP does not want to actually solve environmental problems, just export them, and use them as a wall to keep property values up and undesirables out. They are evading the real problem: There is not enough housing. It is too expensive. The solution is to build. But, by pointing to a larger problem that cannot be fixed by the community of Palo Alto, they escape taking any responsibility for problems they could solve.

There is nothing magical or more refined about making money in "tech". Crafting cheap consumer products in China and burning fuel to ship them thousands of miles is not eco friendly. Operating giant server farms is not eco friendly. Building electric cars, which still require metals forged in pollution dense factories and charge off of a grid that is also pollution heavy, is again, not solving the problem.

So, this is not about the environment. This is about keeping out the working class. This is about keeping out black and brown people. This is about selfishness and hypocritical blindness. Build and solve the problem, or admit you are the problem, Palo Alto.


Eric Filseth
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jun 5, 2022 at 3:37 pm
Eric Filseth, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jun 5, 2022 at 3:37 pm

This is a bit old but I’ll weigh in anyway.

The Weekly shouldn’t repeat the conflation of Market-Rate housing with Affordable housing. The main obstacle to building AH is not design standards but funding. The “anything-but-money” State Legislature ignores this truth as air cover for their empty AH promises to Californians, while giving goodies to special interests. But it’s not helpful for the media to tell people AH isn’t about money, when that’s where the real effort is needed. (Note Wilton Ct didn’t need the AH overlay; also PA has the 2nd-highest AH percentage in the County.)

The State’s “standards” legislation doesn’t touch Affordability; its goal is to remove design-quality as a Market-Rate housing criteria, a freebie to Big Real Estate. Essentially it aspires to: “as long as it’s under 1/3 commercial, just build it, and never mind appearance, privacy, daylight, etc.”

However while some folks agree with this, likely more don’t. So Sacramento splits the baby. Most design standards involve judgment – it’s why cities have Architectural Review Boards vs just checklists. So on one hand Sacramento says essentially, “as of Jan 1, 2022, existing residential design standards in California are void – anything goes now” (again, overwhelmingly for Market-Rate, given lack of AH funding; also most cities already flex for true AH projects). On the other, Sacto nods to the majority by saying, “ok, you can have some standards back, if you can reduce them to just numbers.” Yet it’s still less constraint, not more.

The real question - the Weekly should ask it - is: “do we want residential design standards at all?” If “no,” then we should get rid of Objective Standards too. If “yes,” then OS is the framework. But none of it will produce AH; Sacramento may be long on mandates, which cost (them) nothing, but they’re much shorter on funding, which actually does produce AH. So if AH is in fact what you want, then - plug here - think kindly on a possible business tax this Fall.


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