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Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 10, 2014

Palo Alto faces competing pressures on zone changes

City Council tries to reconcile state mandates for more housing with residents' outrage over new development

by Gennady Sheyner

Faced with state pressure to speed up housing development and intense community pressure to slow it down, Palo Alto officials will try to strike a delicate balance Monday night when they consider a list of revisions to the city's zoning code.

The revisions, which the City Council is expected to adopt, aim to integrate into city law the programs and policies of the city's Housing Element, a state-mandated document that the city adopted last summer. A critical component of the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, the Housing Element is at once a vision document that lays out the city's housing policies and a detailed inventory of potential housing sites. Years overdue, the newly adopted document has a planning horizon of 2007 to 2014, which means the city is already preparing to adopt the next version later this year. One of its main objectives is to demonstrate how the city will meet its state-mandated allocation of 2,860 housing units.

Despite its miniscule shelf-life, the Housing Element is expected to spur some change in the zoning code. For one thing, it would increase the number of units per acre a developer can build in a neighborhood commercial (CN) zone from 15 to 20. The city has 32 such parcels, including segments of El Camino Real in College Terrace, Evergreen Park, Ventura and Barron Park neighborhoods.

City planners estimate that this zone change would yield an additional 64 units citywide, bringing the city closer to complying with a housing mandate all council members nonetheless see as unreasonably burdensome.

On Jan. 6, minutes after she was elected mayor by her council colleagues, Nancy Shepherd referred to the city's upcoming work on a new Housing Element as "one of the terrors that we get to do again." But she stressed that consequences of ignoring the law would be "devastating to Palo Alto."

But some residents see the new revisions as the city's latest move toward a denser and denser Palo Alto and another example of leaders ignoring residents' concerns over parking and traffic.

Cheryl Lilienstein, a Barron Park resident who helped lead the successful "Vote Against D" campaign last year and who is now president of the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, brought up the issue at Monday's council meeting. Lilienstein said the proposed ordinance "again greatly increases density for neighborhood commercial properties all over town, but especially along El Camino."

"The current economic boom has resulted in accelerated commercial and high-density housing development and the continued departure of neighborhood-serving retail," Lilienstein said. "So this boom is not resulting in so-called 'pedestrian friendly' or 'walkable neighborhoods,' especially on El Camino. Why is there no ordinance requiring neighborhood-serving retail? Why is there no ordinance that requires specific pedestrian-friendly design?"

Another provision that the city plans to introduce into its zoning code on Monday would establish design standards for emergency shelters and designating a commercially zoned parcel east of U.S. Highway 101 for such a shelter. The city is working with the nonprofit InnVision to develop these standards. If a developer meets the standards, he would be entitled "by right" to build an emergency shelter at this site with no additional city review.

The city is also adding to its zoning code a provision that entitles disabled residents to request "reasonable accommodations," such as wheelchair ramps, with a streamlined review process.

In addition to these changes, the council will also consider revamping the city's "density bonus ordinance," a law that provides zoning exceptions to developers who provide affordable housing.

If adopted, the law would limit the types of "concessions" builders can request from the city to a menu of allowances — such as additional height, mass or lot coverage — deemed by the city to have "minimal adverse impacts." A developer who asks for a concession that is not on the menu would have to provide financial information demonstrating why this concession is necessary for affordable housing, according to a new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment.

The granting of incentives to affordable-housing developers is far from new. A state law first adopted in 1979, developers already receive a bonus of 25 percent more density if they meet certain affordable-housing requirements (the bonus depends on the income level of future residents and the percentage of units devoted to affordable housing).

The State Density Bonus Law was further beefed up in 2004, when lawmakers instituted a sliding scale of density bonuses from 20 to 35 percent, depending on the number of units being built. To sweeten the deal for developers, it also enabled them to receive three "development concessions," a heretofore vague concept that Palo Alto's new ordinance aims to clear up with its menu of items.

Menu items include an increase in height, a 25 percent reduction in side-yard requirements (provided, in both cases, that the project is not next to a low-density residential zone), and additional density.

A report from the planning department notes that because of the state law, the city has "very little discretion to deny concession requests." One goal with the new law is to limit the impacts of these concessions by steering developers toward pre-vetted concessions. Another goal is to promote construction of affordable housing and to make it easier for the city to meet a state mandate that it zone for more housing units.

"Without a local ordinance, builders and developers have broad flexibility to request concessions, and the city has limited flexibility to deny them," the staff report states.

Thus far, the city has been granting developers concessions largely on an ad hoc basis. When Eden Housing applied to build the housing development at 801 Alma St., the concessions it received included permission to encroach into required setbacks, a density bonus and the waiving of a requirement to provide private open space. A developer at 195 Page Mill Road requested an addition to the density bonus he would have already received.

The revised density-bonus law will not apply to "planned community" (PC) zone projects, which grant developers zoning exemptions in exchange for negotiated public benefits, which have ranged from tiny public plazas and funky statues to affordable housing units and cash contributions toward parking programs. The designation, which was used by developers of the new Lytton Gateway building and which the Palo Alto Housing Corporation applied for in its ultimately doomed quest to build affordable housing on Maybell Avenue, has been widely criticized in the community in recent years and will be the subject of reform efforts in the coming year.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at