Palo Alto looks to revamp review process for housing projects | July 23, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 23, 2021

Palo Alto looks to revamp review process for housing projects

By shifting to objective standards, city hopes to provide clarity, retain rights to judge new buildings

Responding to new state laws, Palo Alto is preparing to overhaul its process for approving new housing developments.

Instead of subjective guidelines that require developers to ensure that their projects fit in with the surrounding neighborhood and give city leaders ample wiggle room to demand revisions, the city will now lean on "objective standards" — clear rules that, if followed, will allow housing projects to win approval under a streamlined process.

The city has been developing the new objective standards for well over a year, with the Architectural Review Board holding 11 public hearings on the project and the Planning and Transportation Commission holding three. Both panels had supported adopting the proposed objective standards, which the council is set to review and potentially approve on Aug. 16.

In explaining the effort, Jodie Gerhardt, the city's manager of current planning, noted that certain residential projects are no longer required to go through the city's discretionary review. Without clear "objective standards," the only rules that the city would be able to enforce are height limits and setback requirements, Gerhardt told about 25 people Monday at a virtual webinar on the effort.

"We as a city believe in high-quality developments so we'd like to have more standards," Gerhardt said. "We're taking our current design criteria and turning them into objective standards so that we can maintain that high-quality development."

The new standards encompass elements such as fa?ade design, building massing and open space requirements. They address these elements with striking specificity, requiring, for instance, a minimum fa?ade break of 4 feet in width, 2 feet in depth, and 32 square feet of area for every 36-50 feet of a building's fa?ade lengths. The new standards specify that when a building is within 40 feet of an abutting structure, no more than 15% of the area facing that structure shall be windows or other glazing. They also dictate how far an upper floor should be set back when a new development is next to a much smaller building (6 feet). And they require each building that is three stories or taller to have a differentiated base, middle and top.

While the new rules aim to give the city a greater say over housing projects, the public reception so far has been mixed. Some of the attendees chafed at how the rules treat height limits, particularly for buildings in or near RM-40 zones, which allow up to 40 dwellings per acre. Under existing laws, new projects within 150 feet of residential zones have a height limit of 35 feet. RM-40 zones, however, are excluded from this.

Several residents in the Mayfield neighborhood, including those in the Palo Alto Central condominium complex, urged city staff on Monday to address this discrepancy and give their zoning district, RM-40, the same protections from tall buildings that other zones enjoy. Area resident Terry Holzemer suggested that treating RM-40 differently from other neighborhoods "is not fair or equitable to the residents who pay taxes just like everyone else who own property in this city."

Others worried that replacing context-based guidelines with objective standards would lead to projects that don't fit with their particular neighborhoods.

"Somehow, by throwing out context-based design, it sounds like anything goes," Mayfield resident Peter Shuler said. "And I think you have to be very careful about saying, 'We're not going to consider context anymore, we're just going to plop stuff down and put a pretty fa?ade on it and that will make it fit in.'"

One member of the Architectural Review Board had similar misgivings about the new rules. David Hirsch, the only board member who voted against the proposed objective standards, suggested that the new mandate that calls for all buildings with three or more stories to have a clear base, top and middle is too restrictive. He pointed to several recent residential developments that won approval from the council despite failing to follow those guideless.

"There are so many other good ways to do it," Hirsch said at the March 18 meeting, just before the Architectural Review Board voted to approve the changes to the city's development standards. "And I think even if you look back at Wilton Court or if you look at the Page Mill project, Windy Hill — those projects violate the idea of it being a base, middle and top. Definitely, they aren't of that ilk. For that reason, I don't think we should pass on this unless we alter that aspect of it."

The Planning and Transportation Commission also supported the new objective standards. At its June 9 meeting, commissioners agreed that these rules should also apply to projects in "public facility" zones, which include the former Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority parking lot at 2755 El Camino Real, where the developer Windy Hill Ventures is now constructing a 57-unit residential development. The only commissioner who dissented was Doria Summa, who noted that the parks and public plazas are also typically included in this zoning designation.

Commissioner Michael Alcheck noted that the new rules would make it harder for the city to reject projects that meet quantifiable standards. At the same time, the objective standards would prevent certain developments from getting automatic approval without meeting a clear set of design rules. He alluded to Cupertino, where a major mixed-use project known as Vallco Town Center was approved through the SB 35 process despite opposition and litigation from project opponents.

"I think the objective standards are a NIMBY nightmare," said Alcheck, using the derisive acronym that stands for "Not in my backyard." "And, frankly, the consequences of not adopting objective standards will be a NIMBY nightmare. We've been judged, as a number of local municipalities have, and our subjective standards are too good at stopping the housing development — basically, restricting supply which is at the heart of the entire housing crisis."

The city's new rules also provide some flexibility for those projects that want to stray from the objective standards. Those that do so, however, would now longer qualify for streamlined approval. Chris Wuthman, director of Stanford University Real Estate, suggested that this could create an obstacle for affordable housing projects.

Palo Alto's new standards, Wuthman noted, do not recognize the differences between building rental and for-sale projects and between developments with greater and lesser affordability.

"The hope is that the standards are not such that they unintentionally cause projects with greater affordability to have to use this alternative route and lose the streamlining," Wuthman said.

Most members of the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Architectural Review Board, however, agreed with planning staff that the new standards, while not perfect, are a valuable tool for ensuring that the city has some say over new housing developments. Gerhardt noted that the rules would apply only to three types of projects: those that are 100% residential, mixed-use projects that are at least two-thirds residential and those that provide transitional housing.

Osma Thompson, chair of Architectural Review Board, acknowledged the "philosophical concerns" surrounding the new objective standards — particularly, concerns as to whether the new objective rules can lead to creation of great buildings. The new rules, however, are "a result of a lot of input and a lot of effort to make it as good as we can," Thompson, who supported the adoption of the standards, told the planning commission at the June 9 meeting.

A Juner eport from Planning Director Jonathan Lait notes that the design standards "aim to strike a balance between prescriptiveness and flexibility."

"They are intended to lead to buildings that implement good design principles and that exhibit an acceptable level of articulation and detail," Lait's report states. "However, because these standards are objective, they cannot anticipate all different types of buildings and unique architectural designs that a developer may want to achieve."

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Andrew Boone
a resident of another community
on Jul 21, 2021 at 1:05 pm

Andrew Boone is a registered user.

An effort to move towards more objective building design standards could also include ways to cut motor vehicle traffic such as better bicycle parking and discounted or free public transit passes. Vehicle traffic can be minimized by consistently incorporating better “multi-modal-friendly design” into future Palo Alto buildings. Some of the city’s current design standards, such as car parking minimum requirements, do exactly the opposite - increase vehicle trips while reducing the use of transit, bicycling, and walking.

Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 21, 2021 at 1:21 pm

commonsense is a registered user.

Would these objective standards apply to single family homes?

Posted by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Jul 21, 2021 at 1:26 pm

Gennady Sheyner is a registered user.


The objective standards will not apply to single-family homes. Only to multi-family projects with three or more units (which does not include ADUs).

Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 21, 2021 at 2:08 pm

eileen is a registered user.

Will these standards require the developers to plant trees? The leafy Palo Alto canopy will be lost without some shade trees and permeable paving.

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 22, 2021 at 6:26 pm

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

“Chris Wuthman, director of Stanford University Real Estate, suggested that this could create an obstacle for affordable housing projects.” Last I knew Stanford Real Estate did not accept S8 Vouchers. They deny low income renters by charging excessive rents and attaching HOA’s. Lot’s of progressive words to snare and delude us into thinking otherwise. All this distractive discussion about the look of a facade? What about interior floor plans that are efficient and livable, an attractive size for a family to live and grow. All Palo Alto cares about is how it looks from the outside. Inside can be cheap materials, tiny squished floor plans, cheap appliances that break after a few months and just plain, ugly. Rich people don’t give a hoot about poor local families as long as it has a pretty facade! Designs @that don’t fit it w the neighborhood” is separate and unequal i.e. No people of mixed incomes of color. BLM!. Good design outside and inside is necessary : form & function . Yet. All this is just more about saying “no” to mixed use housing for all.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Downtown North

on Jul 23, 2021 at 4:03 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Posted by Quinten
a resident of another community
on Jul 24, 2021 at 12:18 am

Quinten is a registered user.

By shifting from subjective guidelines to objective standards, city hopes to provide clarity and retain rights to judge new buildings. Responding to new state laws, Palo Alto is preparing to overhaul its process for approving new housing developments. Instead of subjective guidelines that require developers to ensure that their projects...
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Posted by Old PA Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 26, 2021 at 2:47 pm

Old PA Resident is a registered user.

I'd love to see setbacks from sidewalks included and planting of [drought resistant] trees required. Palo Alto is what it is because it is so much more beautiful than many surrounding towns. That means that special canopy of trees, and setbacks. That ugly grocery at Alma & East Meadow is an example. I really hope we learned something and don't do that again.

Posted by mjh
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 26, 2021 at 7:44 pm

mjh is a registered user.

Previous council's hypocrisy (or at least past majorities) as to how much they value our tree canopy, as oppose to the bidding of their larger campaign contributors who benefit from construction, is demonstrated by how the planning department and council changed the code to allow new construction along El Camino right up to the edge of the sidewalk. Which prevents street trees from growing a symmetrical and balanced canopy, instead growing lop-sided and ultimately unstable.

Despite the council's stated goal of transforming the entire length of El Camino into a "shady Parisian-like boulevard" by investing in planting new street trees along its entire length. A goal intended to contribute to the concepts of "healthy cities" and "walkable neighborhoods" initiatives adopted by council.

As many of the newer El Camino trees are finally reaching a decent size, those planted in front of second and third story construction built out to the sidewalk are prevented from developing symmetrical and balanced canopies. Instead growing increasingly lop-sided with almost the entire weight of their branches pushed out over El Camino. It is obvious that many of these trees, if not all, will eventually become unstable. Just as they are achieving what should be a beautiful and "shady" canopy they will either have to be removed or left deformed with heavy pruning. Long before their life span is completed, and hardly the investment in street trees the city and its residents made.

It is time for Council to change the building code to mandate all new construction must have their second and higher stories stepped back at least 15 feet from the street planting strip. Palo Alto's leafy street trees are a symbol of Palo Alto's charm, as well as a considerable civic investment which should be valued and protected by our city staff and council.

Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 26, 2021 at 9:59 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

The reporter writes:

"I think the objective standards are a NIMBY nightmare," said Alcheck, using the derisive acronym that stands for "Not in my backyard." "And, frankly, the consequences of not adopting objective standards will be a NIMBY nightmare.”

Does anyone out there understand what point the commissioner is making outside of his damned-if-you-damned-if-you-don’t view that no matter how things turn out, those whom he is disparagingly referring to will suffer ill effects?

Of course, attacking those he disagrees with is nothing new from this corner, except that the code of conduct in the new City Boards, Commissions and Committees Handbook, developed in part to address his past behavior states “members shall refrain from abusive conduct, personal charges, hostile body language, disrespectful language or verbal attacks upon the character of others.”

Don’t ask me why, but I did try to figure out what non-gratuitous points he was trying to make and then to respond.

The points, I think, are:

a) If the city moves away from context-based design standards to objective standards for proposed projects that abut certain residential and mixed-use zoning districts, local control of zoning may be diminished, and

b) If objective standards are not set by the city, we may be pre-empted by the state setting objective standards for us.

Both of these are valid points, which is why our City and its relevant bodies (staff, ARB, PTC, and City Council) is in the process of creating objective standards.

The issue at hand is what are the optimal objective standards for Palo Alto to enact. Any digression into attacks on perceived enemies from the dais should be seen as an affront to the citizenry.

Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 27, 2021 at 1:25 pm

eileen is a registered user.

@Native-to-the-bay: Try taking a short internet dive into beautiful, affordable housing design. You will see tons of examples of great architecture and nature-filled city-scapes. All people, rich or poor deserve to live in beautiful surroundings, don't you think?

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