News

​​Housing plan stretches Palo Alto's height limit

New document proposes numerous strategies for residential projects that would exceed 50-foot threshold

The Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission endorsed policies and programs in the city's Housing Element during a meeting on June 29, 2022. Embarcadero Media file photo by Olivia Treynor.

For decades, developers looking to build in Palo Alto faced a formidable restriction: a citywide 50-foot height limit that restricted most new buildings to four stories.

These days, as the city is preparing a plan to accommodate more than 6,000 new housing units over the next eight years, the rule is facing its biggest stress test since the city adopted it about 50 years ago. Palo Alto's proposed Housing Element, which lays out the city's housing strategies and lists potential housing sites, includes a variety of policies that would allow residential developments to exceed the 50-foot limit.

The Planning and Transportation Commission on Wednesday night reviewed and endorsed the policies and programs in the ambitious document, which aims to help Palo Alto meet its state mandate of 6,086 new residences between 2023 and 2031, as determined by the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process. These include rezoning industrial and commercial areas in south Palo Alto to allow housing use; allowing more density along El Camino Real and other transit-rich areas; and exploring the creation of affordable housing and parking garages on city-owned lots.

Many of the new programs, however, envision developments that would exceed the city's usual height limit, including proposed residences on properties owned by Stanford University. One policy, for instance, calls for encouraging an affordable-housing project at 27 University Ave., near the downtown Caltrain station, with a height of 85 feet and 270 apartments. Another policy encourages exploring an 85-foot building with 425 apartments at 1100 Welch Road, also a Stanford-owned property. Several sites along El Camino Real, including Palo Alto Square and the McDonald's site at 3128 El Camino Real, could accommodate development that go up to 75 feet.

In addition to these site-specific programs, Palo Alto also is exploring broader policies that would allow affordable-housing providers to exceed the 50-foot limit in other neighborhoods. This includes reforming the Housing Incentive Program, which grants affordable-housing providers height, density and parking concessions. The program, which made its debut in 2018 and which was initially envisioned only for sites along El Camino Real and in downtown and the California Avenue business district, would be expanded to other districts. Aside from producing housing, a key goal of the Housing Incentive Program is to offer developers an alternative to relying on recent state laws such as Senate Bill 330 and the State Density Bonus law, which limit the city's ability to influence projects.

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Jonathan Lait, director of the Planning and Development Services Department, suggested at the Wednesday meeting that a developer who meets the requirements of the city's revamped Housing Incentive Program would be able to get more height, more density and an expedited approval, with one courtesy meeting with the Architectural Review Board and a certain path toward a green light.

"By approving these concessions or these incentives in the housing program, we as a community would be saying, 'We would accept and tolerate a development of this size, scale and density with these reduced standards. We accept that.' You meet our objective standards, you get a courtesy meeting, you get a building permit," Lait said. "That's huge for a developer. That is a huge incentive."

The Housing Element stops well short of proposing an outright elimination of the 50-foot height limit, a policy that continues to wield broad support among political leaders. Even as council members have become more willing in recent years to grant limited exceptions to specific residential projects, they have not had any debates about revising or abolishing that policy.

But even though Palo Alto's new housing plan preserves the limit, it also reflects the city's shifting debate over building heights. The question is no longer over whether exceptions to the 50-foot limit should be granted at all. Rather, it's under what circumstances should projects be allowed to break the barrier by right?

Commission Chair Ed Lauing, who co-chairs the Housing Element Working Group, has argued exceptions to the height limit should be reserved for affordable housing — a position shared by many in the working group and in the community.

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"If we're going to put up higher buildings, that should be in targeted areas and for specific purposes," Lauing said on Wednesday.

That said, not everyone is thrilled about going high. Hamilton Hitchings, who also served on the Housing Element group but who was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the group, suggested that the city should limit Stanford developments to 50 feet unless they include more affordable housing than the city typically requires. Jeff Levinsky went further and said that the city should simply not allow developments that exceed the limit.

"We don't need to allow housing taller than 50 feet," Levinsky said. "Developers love to get even more giveaways by claiming our current standards don't pencil out but we have projects in town building 100% affordable housing in under 50 feet so clearly it can."

Stanford, meanwhile, is hoping to get the height concessions without the requirement for more below-market-rate units. The concept it had proposed for the site at 27 University Ave., near the downtown transit center, envisions five stories of housing over two stories of parking.

Jessica von Borck, Stanford's director of land use, said Wednesday that the university supports being part of Palo Alto's housing solution and encouraged the city to pursue a holistic plan for Stanford properties along El Camino Real. She also urged the council not to stipulate an affordable-housing percentage.

"Height isn't a trade-off for developing more affordable units," Von Borck said. "Height doesn't mean construction is more affordable, it simply means a project is feasible to build because it avoids underground parking."

The historic MacArthur Park building has been at its current location, 27 University Ave. in Palo Alto, since 1919. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

Even if the city grants the height exemption, the University Avenue project would have to overcome other hurdles before it becomes reality. Chief among them is the historic MacArthur Park building, which was designed by Julia Morgan and built in 1918 in Menlo Park as part of Camp Fremont, a mobilization camp for World War I soldiers. According to Palo Alto Stanford Heritage, the building was purchased by Palo Alto and moved to its current site in 1919. Winter Dellenbach, a local resident and land-use watchdog, suggested Wednesday that it would be inappropriate to move the historic building to another location to accommodate a new development.

"It's culturally backward and frankly is embarrassingly ignorant," Dellenbach said. "Should our city do such a thing, architects, preservationists and educated people all over California and nationally will be appalled by Palo Alto's desecration."

The planning commission, for its part, firmly supported exploring taller and denser developments at the Stanford sites than would normally be allowed. After a long and wide-ranging discussion, commissioners voted 5-0, with Vice Chair Doria Summa and Commissioner Bryna Chang absent, to approve the new Housing Element's goals, policy and programs. The only issue on which they couldn't get a clear consensus was on whether the University Avenue development should be focused primarily on affordable housing or allowed to have market-rate units. Lauing and commissioners Keith Reckdahl, Cari Templeton and Giselle Roohparvar all supported focusing on below-market-rate apartments while Commissioner Bart Hechtman suggested that doing so could preclude redevelopment altogether.

Commissioners also debated whether landowners at commercial and industrial sites around Fabian Way, near U.S. Highway 101, should be allowed — or required — to build housing when redeveloping their properties. A key strategy of the city's housing plan is to rezone some of these properties to allow residential use. Reckdahl suggested that the zone change should preclude commercial uses, which fetch much higher rents.

"If the landowner has the option of building housing or offices, more likely than not he's going to pick offices," Reckdahl said.

Hechtman, meanwhile, said he is concerned that if the city mandates all new projects to be residential, landowners in the commercial areas will simply not redevelop at all.

"The reason we're struggling with this is because office use is so lucrative," Hechtman said. "People don't want to give it up and translate it to housing because it doesn't pay. Now if you tell someone, 'If you're going to tear the building down you can only build housing,' their response will be, 'Fine, I'll keep the building,' and that will result in us not getting any housing."

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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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​​Housing plan stretches Palo Alto's height limit

New document proposes numerous strategies for residential projects that would exceed 50-foot threshold

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Jun 29, 2022, 11:20 pm

For decades, developers looking to build in Palo Alto faced a formidable restriction: a citywide 50-foot height limit that restricted most new buildings to four stories.

These days, as the city is preparing a plan to accommodate more than 6,000 new housing units over the next eight years, the rule is facing its biggest stress test since the city adopted it about 50 years ago. Palo Alto's proposed Housing Element, which lays out the city's housing strategies and lists potential housing sites, includes a variety of policies that would allow residential developments to exceed the 50-foot limit.

The Planning and Transportation Commission on Wednesday night reviewed and endorsed the policies and programs in the ambitious document, which aims to help Palo Alto meet its state mandate of 6,086 new residences between 2023 and 2031, as determined by the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process. These include rezoning industrial and commercial areas in south Palo Alto to allow housing use; allowing more density along El Camino Real and other transit-rich areas; and exploring the creation of affordable housing and parking garages on city-owned lots.

Many of the new programs, however, envision developments that would exceed the city's usual height limit, including proposed residences on properties owned by Stanford University. One policy, for instance, calls for encouraging an affordable-housing project at 27 University Ave., near the downtown Caltrain station, with a height of 85 feet and 270 apartments. Another policy encourages exploring an 85-foot building with 425 apartments at 1100 Welch Road, also a Stanford-owned property. Several sites along El Camino Real, including Palo Alto Square and the McDonald's site at 3128 El Camino Real, could accommodate development that go up to 75 feet.

In addition to these site-specific programs, Palo Alto also is exploring broader policies that would allow affordable-housing providers to exceed the 50-foot limit in other neighborhoods. This includes reforming the Housing Incentive Program, which grants affordable-housing providers height, density and parking concessions. The program, which made its debut in 2018 and which was initially envisioned only for sites along El Camino Real and in downtown and the California Avenue business district, would be expanded to other districts. Aside from producing housing, a key goal of the Housing Incentive Program is to offer developers an alternative to relying on recent state laws such as Senate Bill 330 and the State Density Bonus law, which limit the city's ability to influence projects.

Jonathan Lait, director of the Planning and Development Services Department, suggested at the Wednesday meeting that a developer who meets the requirements of the city's revamped Housing Incentive Program would be able to get more height, more density and an expedited approval, with one courtesy meeting with the Architectural Review Board and a certain path toward a green light.

"By approving these concessions or these incentives in the housing program, we as a community would be saying, 'We would accept and tolerate a development of this size, scale and density with these reduced standards. We accept that.' You meet our objective standards, you get a courtesy meeting, you get a building permit," Lait said. "That's huge for a developer. That is a huge incentive."

The Housing Element stops well short of proposing an outright elimination of the 50-foot height limit, a policy that continues to wield broad support among political leaders. Even as council members have become more willing in recent years to grant limited exceptions to specific residential projects, they have not had any debates about revising or abolishing that policy.

But even though Palo Alto's new housing plan preserves the limit, it also reflects the city's shifting debate over building heights. The question is no longer over whether exceptions to the 50-foot limit should be granted at all. Rather, it's under what circumstances should projects be allowed to break the barrier by right?

Commission Chair Ed Lauing, who co-chairs the Housing Element Working Group, has argued exceptions to the height limit should be reserved for affordable housing — a position shared by many in the working group and in the community.

"If we're going to put up higher buildings, that should be in targeted areas and for specific purposes," Lauing said on Wednesday.

That said, not everyone is thrilled about going high. Hamilton Hitchings, who also served on the Housing Element group but who was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the group, suggested that the city should limit Stanford developments to 50 feet unless they include more affordable housing than the city typically requires. Jeff Levinsky went further and said that the city should simply not allow developments that exceed the limit.

"We don't need to allow housing taller than 50 feet," Levinsky said. "Developers love to get even more giveaways by claiming our current standards don't pencil out but we have projects in town building 100% affordable housing in under 50 feet so clearly it can."

Stanford, meanwhile, is hoping to get the height concessions without the requirement for more below-market-rate units. The concept it had proposed for the site at 27 University Ave., near the downtown transit center, envisions five stories of housing over two stories of parking.

Jessica von Borck, Stanford's director of land use, said Wednesday that the university supports being part of Palo Alto's housing solution and encouraged the city to pursue a holistic plan for Stanford properties along El Camino Real. She also urged the council not to stipulate an affordable-housing percentage.

"Height isn't a trade-off for developing more affordable units," Von Borck said. "Height doesn't mean construction is more affordable, it simply means a project is feasible to build because it avoids underground parking."

Even if the city grants the height exemption, the University Avenue project would have to overcome other hurdles before it becomes reality. Chief among them is the historic MacArthur Park building, which was designed by Julia Morgan and built in 1918 in Menlo Park as part of Camp Fremont, a mobilization camp for World War I soldiers. According to Palo Alto Stanford Heritage, the building was purchased by Palo Alto and moved to its current site in 1919. Winter Dellenbach, a local resident and land-use watchdog, suggested Wednesday that it would be inappropriate to move the historic building to another location to accommodate a new development.

"It's culturally backward and frankly is embarrassingly ignorant," Dellenbach said. "Should our city do such a thing, architects, preservationists and educated people all over California and nationally will be appalled by Palo Alto's desecration."

The planning commission, for its part, firmly supported exploring taller and denser developments at the Stanford sites than would normally be allowed. After a long and wide-ranging discussion, commissioners voted 5-0, with Vice Chair Doria Summa and Commissioner Bryna Chang absent, to approve the new Housing Element's goals, policy and programs. The only issue on which they couldn't get a clear consensus was on whether the University Avenue development should be focused primarily on affordable housing or allowed to have market-rate units. Lauing and commissioners Keith Reckdahl, Cari Templeton and Giselle Roohparvar all supported focusing on below-market-rate apartments while Commissioner Bart Hechtman suggested that doing so could preclude redevelopment altogether.

Commissioners also debated whether landowners at commercial and industrial sites around Fabian Way, near U.S. Highway 101, should be allowed — or required — to build housing when redeveloping their properties. A key strategy of the city's housing plan is to rezone some of these properties to allow residential use. Reckdahl suggested that the zone change should preclude commercial uses, which fetch much higher rents.

"If the landowner has the option of building housing or offices, more likely than not he's going to pick offices," Reckdahl said.

Hechtman, meanwhile, said he is concerned that if the city mandates all new projects to be residential, landowners in the commercial areas will simply not redevelop at all.

"The reason we're struggling with this is because office use is so lucrative," Hechtman said. "People don't want to give it up and translate it to housing because it doesn't pay. Now if you tell someone, 'If you're going to tear the building down you can only build housing,' their response will be, 'Fine, I'll keep the building,' and that will result in us not getting any housing."

Comments

Eva_PA
Registered user
Ventura
on Jun 30, 2022 at 11:00 am
Eva_PA, Ventura
Registered user
on Jun 30, 2022 at 11:00 am

I'm really confused. The photo shows a "crows nest" attached to some condos/apartments. Why approve that design? It's not attractive, but also doesn't serve any purpose for increased housing if that is the point at all.


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 30, 2022 at 12:20 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 30, 2022 at 12:20 pm

Some might find the varied roof line helps break up what would otherwise look like a shoe box. Perhaps it holds the stairwell or an elevator which I’ve noticed often have to go a bit higher than the residential units themselves


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 30, 2022 at 9:15 pm
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 30, 2022 at 9:15 pm

“It's culturally backward and frankly is embarrassingly ignorant," Dellenbach said. "Should our city do such a thing, architects, preservationists and educated people all over California and nationally will be appalled by Palo Alto's desecration." I find this quote offensive. Dellenbach, if I’m not mistaken, is a private property mogul. Plenty of historic landmark blds are moved many times over (look at Redwood City). Also why not incorporate the “history” into design and development of the property. Like the cannery at Fry’s site. could certainly use a face lift w a historic look like a McArthur bldg. Move it there. What we do not want is a city like Wash DC. Everything is 50 ft. All the poor people live within 17 blocks of the Capital, squeezed, overcrowded, delapitated, unsavory housing “ghettoizing” our most vulnerable. What is tragic is ascetics of “look” is overpowering half dead unhoused falling out on our streets. Folks — is this humane? Is this sane planning? We no longer take the higher road with care and as Cormack said a “thoughtful” approach to planning for the future. Instead because some gross monstrosity “home” is approved and built in North Ventura area, the whole of the tiny historic “cannery” homes skyrocket in property values. That’s the crime. Not height or desiring. The density is happening. Just w McMansions being approved and built in inappropriate places and ways that nix multi family cluster cottage housing. Shame on the Planning & Development Dept. Take the dollars for SFH R1Development and forget the 48% of the rest of us renters and or first time home buyers. Mixed use, denser, higher, infill multi family homes are the only way. Widening freeways for low-wage labor stopped working. The cog is caught in its own hype.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jul 1, 2022 at 1:55 am
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jul 1, 2022 at 1:55 am

@Eva not only was 1979 boondoggle Prop 13 a Wnfall for Palo Alto it was double insured by 1979’s prop 4, AKA “the Gann Limit”. Essentially dead bolting the Palo Alto door (City Limits) to building multi family homes yet essentially freezing single family property taxes to 1979 levels. Theses propositions cut a productive housing lifeline to a growing population in the Bay Area and specifically to the Peninsula on the cusp of locally based Apple, HP etc. This heinous proposition safeguarded single family home ownership while proliferating commercial builds for the coming tech revolution in the area. I would not mind residing in the “Crows nest”. At least I could see what is next coming down the road. Web Link
The sad fact is, that “Gann Affect” has provided California w an enormous tax based surplus. Yet instead of giving this back to the have nots ( who are suffering so under Prop 13 & 4) the state’s behemoth bureaucracy will spend years incrementally dolling out small dollars to the unfortunate while cooperations like Chevron, Apple, Facebook etc will squash any hope of humanness moving forward. Californians, like Alaskans are due their fair share of the billions and billions of dollars it’s accumulated and now reaping from these draconian props of a former Century! You know when a family just owned one home and before shopping malls, the Internet and app like Door Dash. :(((((


Chris
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jul 3, 2022 at 1:53 pm
Chris, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jul 3, 2022 at 1:53 pm
I can't breathe pollution
Registered user
Barron Park
on Jul 5, 2022 at 10:42 am
I can't breathe pollution, Barron Park
Registered user
on Jul 5, 2022 at 10:42 am

I would like anyone who is in favor of crushing our wise building limits to admit that they are not an environmentalist.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jul 5, 2022 at 2:12 pm
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jul 5, 2022 at 2:12 pm

@I can't breathe: "buildings" are not homes for humans and the amount of crushing the land, filling landfills, and pouring concrete which goes into local commercial builds is indeed pollution. when a City Governance ignores the needs of its very population and skews numbers to make it look like problems are being actively addressed is a shame. Yet like perhaps you, @Chris I am here because I am a third generation Palo Altan. Just because I have strong opinions, history, experience, blood, bones, brains, and a caring thumping heart. Palo Alto's made plenty of high rise bld mistakes: Palo Alto Square, City Hall to name a couple. Many HUGE single family houses -- which are the size of apartment complexes -- in Old Palo Alto and alike, suck up city blocks, precious oxygen & water for the many. When a few are resisting cluster cottages, compact, economical neighborhood multi-family dwellings because of the fear of a drop in the bucket, private property values, parking their four cars. @Filseth "doesn't pencil out" is another term for NIMBY. Certainly massive SFH builds are an economic boon for PA. What is a disgrace is the loss of connection when a City ignores the growing will of the people. From data points avail: Most of Palo Alto knows, understands, wants to address and solve the local unhousing mess. A City who can't collectively work together to make a definitive move to better of all here now. Stumbling over half alive, unhoused humans everywhere is the obvious sign that we are in trouble as a humanity. It's as real as it get yet ignored because of entitled attitudes, "just move" or "it doesn't pencil out" . Talk about ruining the "character of the neighborhood" are the idiotic, architectural bland, cookie cutter McDonald, prefabricated, stucco & glued together single family houses slip in by the hundreds decimating quaint, historic, former work force areas like North Ventura. Mindful community planning, yes.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jul 10, 2022 at 10:59 am
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jul 10, 2022 at 10:59 am

Palo Alto has lots of geniuses. Surely one can develop a program for determining REAL housing need so that communities add housing inventory that will actually be occupied. And another that determines how much of an environment can be built out within the parameters of existing infrastructure.

Balance is important; arguably critical. We all know that Palo Alto's built environment is heavy on commercial development and light on housing. I'm not sure we can correct that imbalance without converting some of the commercial space to housing. Whether commercial or residential, all development impacts the environment. At the very least whatever is built should be unquestionably needed so that we aren't hurting the environment and stressing our infrastructure for development that is speculative.

Geniuses: SOS!


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