The long and winding road to an updated 'land-use bible' | July 19, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - July 19, 2013

The long and winding road to an updated 'land-use bible'

How the city's effort to amend its Comprehensive Plan fell so far behind schedule

by Gennady Sheyner

When Palo Alto officials decided in 2006 to revise the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, housing was all the rage.

New housing complexes had been popping up like spring flowers, from 800 High Street in the north (a project that survived the city's last referendum, in 2003) to the Altaire and Echelon complexes in the south. For the City Council and city planners, the big challenge was protecting commercial areas from the growing residential tide and making sure that residents in the new housing developments would have adequate nearby amenities. The problem was that the Comprehensive Plan on the books, which was intended to guide the city from at least 1998 to 2010, encouraged this trend. At the time of the Plan's adoption, the city was coming off three decades of slow growth, and leaders were trying to encourage more housing. The document they approved 15 years ago cites a "limited supply" of residential zones and said that the city will "rezone commercial land to residential and strongly discourage the conversion of residential lands to commercial."

Then the housing boom happened. The venerable Hyatt Rickeys hotel on El Camino Real and Charleston Road became Arbor Real, a dense, 181-townhouse complex. The area around East Meadow Circle also saw a housing surge, with more than 500 new units of housing going up on sites that once featured industrial uses. The time was ripe, the council decided, to update the city's chief land-use policy.

The scope of work was seen as fairly manageable. The council wasn't looking for full-scale change. The goal was to add a new Sustainability Element, bringing together the city's various environmental policies and goals, and to create two "area concept plans" — one for the area around East Meadow Circle, where much of the new housing was centered, and another for the neighborhood around California Avenue. The city approved an $850,000 contract for this work in April 2008 with the expectation that it would be completed in 2010 or, at the latest, 2011.

Five years later, the update is still in progress. Last month, the price tag passed the $1 million mark when the council approved a $290,000 addition to its contract with the consultant, Design Community & Environment. With scant council direction or public awareness, the scope of the revision has changed nearly as dramatically as the city's economic and demographic conditions.

The shifting scope and expanding timeline have caught even some council members by surprise. At the June 24 council meeting, just before the council authorized the additional expenditure, Councilwoman Karen Holman raised concerns about why the Comprehensive Plan update is taking so long.

"We seem to have grown to where we're now redoing the whole Comprehensive Plan," Holman said.

Like her colleagues, Holman told the Planning and Transportation Commission at a May 20 discussion of the Comprehensive Plan that she appreciates all the work that the commission has been doing on the update. But she said she was surprised by the fact that the city appears to be "starting from scratch" with the amendment process.

"I don't know how we've had so much mission creep," Holman said. "I'm not sure how we got here."

One reason for the delay has to do with the development trends Palo Alto has seen since 2006. The residential problem that the amendment was meant to solve has been overtaken by a rapid escalation in commercial growth. In the last few years, the council gave the green light to College Terrace Centre, an office development on El Camino Real and College Avenue, and to Lytton Gateway, a four-story building at the site of a former Shell station at the intersection of Alma Street and Lytton Avenue. This trend, which began in the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn and which continues to gather steam today, makes the land-use dilemmas of 2006 seem as stale as many of the policies in the current Comprehensive Plan.

Eduardo Martinez, who chairs the planning commission, acknowledged as much during the May 20 discussion. In a departure from the relatively narrow scope of work the council envisioned in 2006, the commission has spent the past three years revising every chapter (or "element" in planning parlance) of the 300-plus-page document and weighing each policy, program and goal. Some of the recent changes, he said, may already be due for revisions.

"I noticed from 2010, when we first began to reorganize it, until now, the circumstances have changed and some of the policies and programs in it need to be updated already," Martinez said.

Initially, Martinez worked with past Chair Daniel Garber to review the Comprehensive Plan. Around 2010, he decided to get his colleagues involved and assigned different elements, or chapters, to each colleague or subcommittee of colleagues. In a recent interview, he called it "probably the best decision I ever made" as chair. Given all the recent changes to the city's economy and demographics, the commission felt it would be a good time to revise all the policies in the Comprehensive Plan and consider which still apply.

More recently, Martinez said, the planning commission decided to revise the governance and business elements in the Comprehensive Plan and to review every chapter to make the structure more clear and the document more "usable" and "actionable," with more direct links between the city's goals and policies that support these goals. The commission also extended the timeline for the updated document from 2020 to 2025.

The thoroughness should make the document more applicable, but it comes at a price — more delays. Martinez, who often cites the Comprehensive Plan in reviewing proposed developments, noted at the May 20 discussion that the commission began its revision of the Land Use Element "so long ago, that the members I worked with no longer work on the commission." Commissioner Arthur Keller said the same thing about the Transportation Element subcommittee, of which he is the sole remaining member.

The commission had decided to split its work into two phases. In Phase One, members made some minor word adjustments and identified issues that were ripe for further revision. In Phase Two, which is almost complete, the commission went through each element with a fine-tooth comb, rewriting vision statements and adding and deleting policies in subcommittee meetings. At a March 13 commission meeting, Advanced Planning Manager Steven Turner described the commission's decision to take a more proactive role in rewriting the plan.

'We got through Phase One, but at the start of Phase Two there was a sense by the commission that perhaps we might be able to have a more interactive discussion between commission and staff about taking a look at goals, policies and programs in each element more specifically," Turner said.

Over the past year, each subcommittee has been bringing its work to the full commission, which has been approving each element one at a time — a long process that the council will begin to replicate later this year.

The commission's thorough approach isn't the only reason for the significant delays in upgrading the Comprehensive Plan. The city's planning staff has lost key officials during the review process, Martinez said, including Julie Caporgno, who retired as chief planning official. The council's decision to temporarily trim the budget for the amendment process after the 2008 economic crash also slowed things down somewhat.

Another reason for the major delay, according to the June 24 report, is the city's decision to revamp the model used to forecast traffic impacts of new developments. The new model will be based on the methodology used by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and will take into account all the latest land-use activities and planning documents. It will also consider all the major developments in neighboring cities, including East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Mountain View. It will have 2012 as its base year and will help the city forecast traffic assumptions for 2025 and 2035.

The council also contributed to the delays by pursuing a number of smaller vision documents concurrently with the Comprehensive Plan amendment. In 2010, with high-speed rail stirring anxieties citywide, the council appointed a 17-member citizen committee to formulate a community vision for the Caltrain corridor. The resulting Rail Corridor Study, which took two years to complete, includes a long list of policies and recommendations, many intended to more strongly connect the city's east and west areas (which are separated by the train tracks) and to promote safer rail intersections. The study, which was not a part of the program in 2006, will now be incorporated in the Comprehensive Plan.

Another vision document that city planners have been working on is the Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan — a roadmap geared toward making Palo Alto one of the nation's most bike-friendly cities. Like the rail vision, the bike master plan was approved last year and will now be a part of the new Comprehensive Plan package.

Finally, there's 27 University Ave., a critical area connecting Palo Alto and Stanford University, which includes Palo Alto's busy downtown Caltrain station and public-transit hub. Developer John Arrillaga proposed a giant office complex and a theater, as well as improvements to the transit area. After huge public outcry over the proposal and the city's process for handling it, however, the council voted 5-3 to seek out "focused community input" to develop a vision for that specific area. It will involve six to eight meetings. (Councilmembers Pat Burt, Holman and Greg Schmid dissented, favoring a more thorough planning process.)

The 27 University effort may further delay the adoption of an updated Comprehensive Plan. The June 24 staff report notes that the project "would establish new land uses and zoning at the site and would affect land use throughout the downtown area."

"The outcome of these studies and projects would appropriately inform the Comp Plan Amendment," the report states.

Under the current projections, the council will begin reviewing the amended Comprehensive Plan in August, one element at a time, Mayor Greg Scharff told the Weekly. The goal is to adopt it in 2014, Scharff said. For council members and residents concerned about the recent development trend, in which large new proposals are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, this is a big deal. An updated Comprehensive Plan, Holman said, should provide guidance to council members and promote trust between the city and the greater community, effectively ensuring that all parties are on the same page when it comes to new development.

"If we don't follow our Comprehensive Plan or don't have the update in place that would be relevant, then we have a free-for-all situation," Holman said.

Schmid, an economist and the council's most vehement proponent for broad, strategic thinking (which makes him the council's most frequent dissenting vote), made a similar point in a recent interview. Schmid, who was elected to the council in 2007, said that in his term there have been "very few meetings that have addressed the Comp Plan issues themselves, as opposed to specific projects."

"It is frustrating that we're dealing with these things one (development) application at a time without a general context of what it means for the city and how it helps transform or change the city into something that is desirable," Schmid told the Weekly.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


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