Guest Opinion: We shouldn't let 'Planned Community' zone steal our public benefits | July 16, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 16, 2010

Guest Opinion: We shouldn't let 'Planned Community' zone steal our public benefits

My beautiful hometown, Pomona, was destroyed by rapacious development. The orchards are gone, along with its beauty, charm and livability.

This loss affected me — I pay attention to decisions our city makes, knowing its wonky process can elevate or diminish us, with great consequence in our daily lives. I don't want our town to lose more than it gains as we grow and change.

This is why I am interested in the train wreck known as Planned Community (PC) zoning — a category of zoning that often diminishes, rather than builds, our community.

Let me tell you about PC zoning.

A developer agreed to build a 1,786-square-foot plaza in Palo Alto for public use as part of his successful application for PC zoning. When the plaza was finished, it measured less than 600 square feet, including just over 100 square feet of useable open space.

The same developer agreed to color-tint public sidewalks on Channing and Alma, adjacent to his project. Permanent color was to be mixed into the cement, but apparently it was applied superficially, fading away along with its beautification benefit to the public.How did this happen? After an 18-month investigation of 10 city-approved PC-zoned developments, I think I know. This is what I found and what we can do about it. It matters because PC-zoned projects are all over town, and when the public benefit component fails, it is to our detriment.

Planned Community zoning was intended to provide greater flexibility for exceptional projects. In practice, it enables developers to change zoning to build bigger and denser projects that produce vastly greater profits than possible through regular zoning. Acquiring PC zoning has practically become the default setting for big development in Palo Alto. According to Planning Department staff, the city has granted about 140 PC rezonings.

"Public benefits," provided by the developer and supposedly not otherwise attainable under regular zoning, are a fundamental requirement for a change to PC zoning. The city and its residents must absorb the impact on infrastructure, traffic and services caused by over-sized development, so it is only reasonable that public benefits should be significant, valuable and substantial — and permanent.

Yet all too often public benefits are minimal and short-lived, used to barely justify a developer's desire for a PC-zoning change.

The current PC ordinance should be amended to require the value of a project's public benefits to approximate the increased profit a developer gains from building bigger and denser under PC zoning, putting an end to measly benefits.

Two PC agreements I reviewed contain contradictory language or conflicting components — guaranteeing a public benefit failure. The responsibility for poor drafting lies squarely with staff and the City Council. An example of contradictory language is found in the PC agreement for the project at Sheridan at Park Boulevard:

"The project includes a plaza which will be accessible to the public. The plaza will include a water feature, benches and landscaping. The public accessibility of the plaza shall not in any manner restrict or limit the owner of the subject property in the lawful exercise of any property rights the owner may have with respect to the subject property, including the plaza area."

Predictably, the owner exercised his right to use the supposedly public plaza and its amenities for private use, installing an outdoor cafe that fills the plaza with paying customers enjoying our "public benefits."

The little plaza at Homer and High is an example of conflicting components written into a PC agreement that guarantees failure. According to the agreement, the plaza was to be a comfortable space, open and accessible to the general public for informal socializing without charge. However, the plaza could also include seating restricted during business hours for patrons of the project's retail use. The agreement goes on to state that any restricted access shall be supportive of, rather than in conflict with, free public use.

A restaurant now crams the plaza with furniture 24/7, with nary a square inch of space for the non-paying public. This is a flagrant violation of the PC and a later use agreement — but the city turns a blind eye.

The issue is not the worthiness of these restaurants but the broken promises to the public and how the city crafts and enforces our public benefits.

The community room planned for the Alma Plaza PC illustrates how the usefulness and value of a public benefit can be eroded during the approval process. By imposing onerous time restrictions on the use of a proposed community room in order to free up parking spaces, the developer successfully transferred value from the public back to himself. Now you see a public benefit, now you don't.

Surprisingly, PC projects pass final inspections and meet City conditions of approval even when a major public benefit is missing or flawed. The undersized plaza on Channing, mentioned above, is an example. I found no explanation for this inspection negligence.

The most shocking failure by the city to enforce its own laws is in section 18.38.160 of our PC ordinance. This requires the building department to inspect all PC-zoned projects at least once every three years. Yet no inspections have been conducted on any PC property, according to staff. An inspection would have found the defective coloring of the sidewalks at Channing and Alma and other post-construction problems elsewhere.

Lack of inspections is not a recent lapse due to a crummy economy or understaffing, — the requirement is decades old. I wonder how many public benefits from 140 PCs have been lost because the city doesn't enforce its own ordinances or conduct inspections? The city should levy a fee on PC project owners to cover the costs of these inspections, just as other towns do to finance annual fire inspections.

I filed three complaints with Code Enforcement more than a year ago regarding lost public benefits. The complaints remain "in process," with no resolution, even for blatant violations. There is a $500 per-day penalty for violating zoning laws, and the city should use it to secure our public benefits.

We are collateral damage in a PC zoning game of Three-Card Monte, with agreements and benefits shifting and disappearing like cards in a con man's hand. This is unacceptable. The City Council must be willing to protect the interests of Palo Alto residents, and must amend the PC ordinance, ensuring it is only used for truly exceptional projects, laden with enduring, valuable, desirable and measurable public benefits.

Winter Dellenbach has been a resident of Palo Alto since 1970. She opposed 800 High St. and other development/growth-related planning issues. She can be e-mailed at


Posted by Barbara, a resident of Professorville
on Jul 16, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Thank you, Winter Dellenbach, for your research and for exposing the puzzling weakness of public benefits in PC-zoned projects.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 16, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Much of today's planning is devoted to correcting the errors of last decades planning. I miss the neighborhood grocers and the corner saloon.

Posted by Still more, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Two other so called public benefits are
The statue of the woman holding a washing machine over her head in the Riace restaurant. Yes, that was a "public benefit".
and the so called gathering place on the corner of Channing and High Streets. The sharp edged planter box and uncomfortable bench assures that no one ever stops there. Did the ARB approve that disfunctional design?

It's really hard not to wonder how wide the corruption is, that permits so much manipulation of the law.

Posted by Paul, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 16, 2010 at 3:37 pm

"the so called gathering place on the corner of Channing and High Streets"

And the so called public plaza on the corner of Homer and High, which the neighboring restaurant in the PC building at 800 High Street has privatized. Now get this: that's perfectly legal. The city ordinance that created the 800 High PC had an escape clause allowing the development to privatize this "public" benefit unilaterally, at will.

How did this little gem ever get by the sharp-eyed guardians of the public trust at City Hall? Don't those people over there read their own proposed laws, especially the ones that developers thoughtfully draft for them?

Posted by Neighbor, a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 16, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Has anyone seen the jitney buses the Campus for Jewish Life agreed to run in return for being allowed to build more densely than City zoning codes and 12 ft. higher than the City's 50 ft. height limit? Where is our mitigation for granting a PC?

Posted by Jeremy Jones, a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Jul 16, 2010 at 7:23 pm

This guest opinion needs to be read with caution. At the end of the piece, it clearly states that Winter "opposed the 800 High St. project and other development/growth related planning issues".
Sounds to me like Winter may qualify as a PA NIMBY--sounds like she is against everything--"I have been living here since 1970--I have mine and no one else should get what they want--I want PA to be remain frozen in time-that is what I wanted for Pomona also"
So is Winter just being a sore loser? Is that why she is ripping apart the public benefits for projects that she failed to stop?
These claims need to be looked into to see what is the story. But let us just say that she is correct--who is to blame? Who is responsible for assuring that we get the public benefits promised?
Maybe Winter should be talking to them instead of complaining on the pages of the PA Weekly--or is she planning a new assault on some PA project and is Winter just greasing the wheels with made up complaints? Only time will tell.

Posted by Still more, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 17, 2010 at 12:05 am

The answer to the question "--who is to blame? Who is responsible for assuring that we get the public benefits promised?" is obvious. The city needs to enforce its own laws. When it gives a financial benefit to someone, it should check to see that the requirements are met.
Nothing esoteric about enforcing the law, though Jeremy finds this hard to accept.
Some years ago Councilman Anderson made an issue about the corruption in the enforcement of this special zone, but nothing has happened.
Not only is there no enforcement, but the benefits are usually benefits to the project itself, like some landscaping around itself. It is corrupt from beginning to end.

Posted by Tim Buck II, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 18, 2010 at 2:05 pm

About a year ago somebody claimed the 800 High Street developer gave the mayor about $10,000 in campaign contributions during the (election) year that the city council authorized the project. Soon afterward, that communication and its thread disappeared without a trace. Does anyone have those details?

Posted by Lisa, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 18, 2010 at 2:54 pm

It was stated on the mandatory campaign contribution form filled out by the candidate's campaign - $10,000 from the developer. Several other council incumbents running for reelection took $1000. contributions of the in-kind variety - meaning value to the candidate of services rendered, in this case paid for by the 800 High St. developer who hired workers to go door to door with leaflets, law signs, etc. These council members were supporters of building 800 High, and active in supporting it to defeat the grassroots ballot measure to stop it from being built. The developer spent nearly a quarter million dollars to defeat the ballot measure and narrowly won.

I followed the campaign thinking for a political science project but then didn't use it. I was surprised that so much money/value was changing hands with elected officials.

Posted by Tim Buck II, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 18, 2010 at 4:00 pm

I wonder if an enterprising investigative local newspaper or reporter might check out this "rumor."

Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2010 at 7:30 pm

The editors retired the Stanford Hospital thread when it didn't stir up enough continuing blather about Palo Alto's land use here we are with this nonsense.

Posted by ld timer, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 18, 2010 at 7:56 pm

You should see what they plan to do in Menlo Park, with a downtown visioning plan. In the cause of "vibrancy", they want a hotel, 3 story buildings downtown, 5 story buildings on El Camino, additional 600 housing units. All of this in face of about 70% of the downtown property owners saying NO.

So Palo Alto may be messed up, but Menlo Park, is on it's way also, unless the incumbents get swept out of office this fall.

Posted by Still more, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 18, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Here's some more "nonsense", neighbor, -- also known by honest people as violating an Ordinance.
In addition to the 2 plazas that don't really exist, the developer was required to compensate the city for the enormous expansion of the permitted use of the 800 High Street site. The major public benefit was to be 63 parking spaces for public use. Here is the text from the Ordinance:
ix) The Project will build and maintain, as part
of its private garage, sixty-three (63) parking spaces to be
managed by the City for the life of the building. (Six of these
may be lost to future subterranean connections to adjacent
properties on Alma Street.)
(ii)Public Parking Agreement. Project's owner and
City will enter into an agreement for use by the City of sixty-
three (63) vehicle spaces in the parking garage and any
associated bicycle parking by the City which shall be recorded
prior to issuance of any building permit. Compliance with that
agreement is a requirement of this PC zoning district.

Anybody know what happened to that parking?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 19, 2010 at 10:17 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

If anyone is interested in building a 50 story building at Waverley & Colorado, they have my blessings.

Posted by City Hall Taste?, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 19, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Take a look at skyscraper wannbe that is Palo Alto City Hall. It is from this hideous architectural fortress that the City of Palo Alto leadership issues dictates about public benefits and architectural taste to developers. See a disconnect here?

Posted by Paul, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 19, 2010 at 4:22 pm


TB II referred to an "enterprising investigative local newspaper," not the Weekly.

Posted by Still more, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 19, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Lisa needs to name the candidates who got the valuable in-kind services from the developer. I do recall that one candidate admitted it at a public meeting.

Anyone ever use the parking under 800 High Street?

Posted by Gunslinger, a resident of another community
on Jul 21, 2010 at 5:32 am

So what are we gonna do about these rapacious developers and traitorous officials? What are we gonna do? Just take it? Or are we gonna demolish them and their sinful agendas

We have the power people. Use it

Posted by Still more, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2010 at 5:07 pm

I happened to drive by the corner of Homer and High Street just now. Amazing! Large rectangular planters outline the open area so that it is defined as private property of the restaurant. I dare a passerby to sit or stand in there!
I looked up the city documents and found a couple of paragraphs:

The volume of the building shall be reduced, as necessary, to permit the expansion and redesign of the project’s private, common, and publicly accessible open space areas with specific focus on substantial improvement of the High Street and Homer Avenue, and High Street and Channing Avenue, corners. These spaces shall be designed, built and maintained as attractive, accessable, usable, comfortable open spaces use by the general public.

(viii) The Project will provide plaza [the word plaza is crossed out] accessible to e public publicly accessible open spaces at the corners of High Street and Channing Avenue and High Street and Homer Avenues. The plazas [plaza crossed out] open spaces will include seating, landscaping and a substantial setback from the property line beyond those required by City’s zoning districts.
They will provide comfortable public, albeit privately owned and maintained, places for informal socializing in an area short of such amenities. They will be open to the general public without charge.
800 High Ordinance
So not only did the developer violate the ordinance by privatizing the "publicaly accessible open spaces", but the city Code Enforcement doesn't enforce the law.
I'm not sure a financial fine is in order. Some folks need to go to jail for stealing from the public.

Posted by Still more, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Today I drove past the corner of High and Channing where an open-to-the-public space was supposed to be.
The space is filled with high concrete planters with one metal bench facing the street. In no way is this a public gathering space.
I hope this developer never tries to build in Palo Alto again. His violations of the public trust and the law might, it is to be hoped, land him in jail.

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