Town Square

Post a New Topic

Redefining downtowns: Cities bank on 1970s planning tool to bring in new housing

Original post made on Jun 17, 2022

Many cities on the Peninsula and around the Bay Area that are relying on precise plans to transform their downtowns. Those who have successfully implemented such plans agree that the key to making them work is a lot of effort upfront.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, June 17, 2022, 6:56 AM

Comments (24)

Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 17, 2022 at 10:11 am

Allen Akin is a registered user.

The Redwood City Planning Department has an excellent website that you can use to look at all the projects recently completed as well as those in the pipeline.

I did that a couple of months ago and learned that across *all* projects, Redwood City added/will-add a total of 4855 housing units and 8.8M sq ft of office space (not including retail and medical). At 150 sq ft per employee, that's more than 58K new employees. Working Partnerships USA says you need a housing unit for every (roughly) 1.4 jobs. So to house those employees, Redwood City *should* be building at least 41K new housing units. Bottom line: Redwood City is actually making its jobs/housing imbalance worse at a rate of more than 8 to 1.

The article gives Redwood City credit for being a "regional leader when it comes to housing production." But given the numbers above, is this really appropriate? I'd love to see an article documenting how cities around the region are doing with respect to their overall jobs/housing imbalances.

FWIW: As the article implies, Mountain View is paying some attention to this issue, and at least one plan (for East Whisman) requires that jobs and housing be roughly in balance.

Posted by SE Hinton
a resident of another community
on Jun 17, 2022 at 11:00 am

SE Hinton is a registered user.

This article notes that precise plans have been around since the 1970s, or for nearly 50 years. One wonders how many more years it will take to consider recent, 2018 and later, urban planning tools designed to mitigate climate change? These newer ideas build upon the precise plan concept and are summarized in the San Francisco Estuary Institute's (SFEI) guide "Making Nature's City," which can be found here Web Link Though fairly new, both the cities of Mountain View and Sunnyale are making active use of these concepts. Perhaps Palo Alto might join this effort, jumping to the vanguard of city planning?

Posted by scott
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 17, 2022 at 5:07 pm

scott is a registered user.

It's totally nuts that Palo Alto is relying heavily on industrial/commercial areas in South Palo Alto for an outsized chunk of its housing planning, while so much of downtown, CalAve, and their environs, are stuck at 2 stories. There are few amenities in the San Antonio/101 area, and limited transit options.

We have a wave of older Palo Altans who are not going to be able to safely drive for very much longer. When that day comes, a home in a car-dependent neighborhood becomes a prison. But our council is stubbornly keeping condos walkable to groceries, shopping, coffee shops, and Caltrain essentially illegal. If people don't start demanding condos in our downtowns, a lot of seniors are going to be choosing between house arrest with their television, and leaving their beloved community ties behind to find a city where it's easier to be independent later in life.

Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 17, 2022 at 5:56 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

I don't think Council deserves a lot of blame for failure to build taller apartments and condos in the downtown areas. The developers are making it pretty clear that the economics don't work out at the moment. "Economically infeasible to build" was the phrase used by the architect of the high-density project at 955 Alma, despite the Council stating its willingness to grant the architect's request for a few extra feet of height beyond the existing 50-foot limit. Ventura isn't progressing because Sobrato wants more offices and less housing in order to make the profit target. If I understand correctly, the four-story apartment building proposed for 660 University is still in play, but we'll see.

Plenty of older folks get by just fine in the mixed apartment and single-family-house neighborhoods near downtown. We need huge numbers of new downtown condos for seniors only if you assume explosive population growth in those areas, and while some people really want that, many people don't.

Getting back to the point of Gennady's article, a precise plan seems like a good way to build consensus about what should be developed. It doesn't *automatically* solve the economic challenges, though.

Posted by scott
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 17, 2022 at 6:32 pm

scott is a registered user.

Council deserves all of the blame for Palo Alto's failure to provide housing for people at all stages of life. Want a clear example? It is totally illegal to build housing for people without cars. Too old to drive? Too bad. You're paying for at least one empty parking space in Palo Alto --probably two. Such is the wisdom of City Council. Adds hundreds of per month to rent, and tens of thousands per unit to building costs.

955 Alma was a PHZ proposal. Fully parked. They didn't bring it to Council because they thought it wouldn't work. I didn't watch that hearing, so I can't tell you which bonkers Council demand killed it, but there was definitely a bonkers Council demand that killed it. Probably demanded a density reduction if they said 'yes' on height.

Posted by ALB
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 17, 2022 at 10:28 pm

ALB is a registered user.

Sorry Scott that project was given a green light by the city council but the developer walked away. Why? I believe they could not bankroll their apartment
complex. So do not park blame at the feet of the city council for the Alma project that evaporated because the developer could not get it together.

Posted by scott
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 17, 2022 at 10:51 pm

scott is a registered user.

It is definitely the Council. Even if what you're saying is true: PHZ projects are definitionally noncompliant. They're for projects the zoning doesn't support. And if 955 Alma almost worked fully parked, at 55', it definitely would have worked with less parking at 65' --and without the extra delay (=expense) of asking special permission of the Council if that were, you know, legal. Those limits are Council's responsibility.

We also are among the worst cities in the state for both entitlement and permitting times. Also Council's responsibility.

Claims of infeasibility are always made in the context of legal constraints (which create economic constraints) that the Council is responsible for and could remove. They're responsible. Full stop.

Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 17, 2022 at 10:56 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

Parking requirements are designed to meet the expected needs of *anyone* who might live there *for the entire lifetime of the building*. A particular senior might not need a parking space, but later in life that senior might need the services of a caregiver who does. Or the condo might be sold to a tech employee who works nearby and doesn't need a car, but then changes jobs and can't get to their new workplace easily without one. Or a couple who share a car. And so on. One use-case might not need parking, but that doesn't mean *all* use-cases don't need parking.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 18, 2022 at 8:31 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

You can read today 06/18/22 in the SJM about the issues in East Palo Alto concerning the building of new projects which are running into the problems of an aging sewer system that cannot support additional growth. Many major projects are on hold now that the EPA city is asking the contractors to pay for the sewer upgrades and connection. That could be construed to as a business tax vs a utility tax. Mayor builders - Sobrato and Jobs project are on hold.

Anyone commenting on the problems associated with building never get to the problems the new building creates and the ability of the exisiting system to support the new building. And how to address the financial issues as to who pays for what.

Above commentator talks about Redwood City - since I am up there on a regular basis I can say that they are building a beautiful city, and also continually working the bayland section to address the pitfalls of rising water creepage. They are building at a furious rate in the downtown area. They are not off-loading new growth onto the residential neighborhoods. Their approach is realistically addressing the added cost of upgrading the systems which support additional growth.

All I see here is the blame game which we are so good at but no realistic grasp of what the exisitng systems are and who pays for the upgrades and required connetctions. Redwood City has a different imprint of location on the bay as well as a deep water port. They have a lot of property east of hwy 101. Palo Alro is very limited on it's imprint on the bay relative to buildable land east of 101.

Add to the problem is the amount of open land on the SU campus. Open land has no sewer system which must be built and connection to existing systems created. SU is building a whole new campus in RWC which includes a hospital, campus, and massive housing in a giant apartment building. THey seem to know what they are doing.

Posted by marc665
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 18, 2022 at 9:49 am

marc665 is a registered user.

How about we outsource the management of Palo Alto to a city that has shown that they are competent by getting things done. Let's say Redwood City or San Carlos. We could lay off all the management in city hall.


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 18, 2022 at 12:06 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@Scott, there are quite a few 55+ complexes in downtown Palo Alto right now, including Lytton Gardens and that white stucco complex on Middlefield. There may be others but those immediately come to mind.

The City Manager and PA Planning allowed formerly affordable housing at hotels (The President Hotel) and what's now Nobu to be converted into luxury hotels over vehement protests because they were so greedy for the hotel tax. Then came the pandemic.

Oh, oopsie.

Now they want us to pay for affordable housing after removing 85 President Hotel residents and 200? SRO occupants from the Nobu site.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 18, 2022 at 4:16 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Suggestion for City Council: pay attention to Allen Akin.

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 19, 2022 at 5:49 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

One poor fool's "redefining" is just another more practical and intelligent person's example of ignorant, imperious and destructive crazed impulse. I'm in the latter camp. Any "redefined" (what a disgusting, deliberately disguised PC word) living complex over 3 stories should be banned from our downtowns. And any living complexes over 2 stories should be banned from our residential 'hoods. And ALL new residential housing must include at least 2 off-street parking spaces for each apartment because public transportation in the Bay Area suburbs is useless --- except for Caltrain. God, these well-meaning fools drive me crazy with their ignorance and stupidity.

Posted by SteveDabrowski
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 20, 2022 at 2:10 pm

SteveDabrowski is a registered user.

I'm often puzzled by posters who are enthralled with the way Mountain View and Redwood City are expanding their housing in so many areas. If you really want that for your home then just move there! Why do you want to live here or care what Palo Alto does if that is your kettle of fish. Palo Alto remains more expensive than those two cities as it always has.

I guess you just want to have the zip code to show your friends, kinda like having a Beverly Hills zip over Echo Park.

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 20, 2022 at 5:24 pm

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

I am a senior and one very low income resident of the 2017 completed Mayfield Place 2500 ECR. It’s sandwiched between Stanford Research and Palo Alto Cal Biz district. The building is 5 years old and is falling down. Concrete structure is cracking on both exterior hallways/walls, appliances are fire hazards and carpets are worn and torn. Lease guaranteed one parking spot yet was not informed it would be in an unsafe parking puzzle — when electricity goes out or earth tremors occur can’t get car in or out. It’s a broken solution. 195 elevator spots for 2ton cars where 8 resident store a second cars
in there long term. The 38 surface outside spots are reserved for Vista Center for the Blind!! Hello they have about 4 employees and no walk in appoints for the visually impaired. We are threatened w tow signs all day long when most are empty and there is no unloading loading zone. If I had stronger wits I’d sue the City, Related and Stanford. Now the plumbing has reeked and leaked and burst all over the Lift and outside area. Water is turned off for 6 hours at a time for emergency repairs. There is major disfunction and a infrastructure break down here. Hypocrisy and Irony are 20/20. We can’t park in empty Vista spots, we can’t park in Lift because of constant break down and unsanitary, unsafe floods, and We can’t park on the City street because Mayfield is disallowed from Palo Alto residential parking program. So families w small children, disabled and elderly are having to park blocks away to carry children, groceries, walkers etc . Residents at Mayfield are punished for decisions and mistakes they did not make. So it feels we are not welcome anywhere but to be shut in and not make waves because...of the oppressive housing market schemes. it’s entirely wrong and backwards system and only satisfies a check box made years ago. It’s a negative sum game. Children are not allowed to run outside in grassy courtyard, and have to play soccer in the private Vista parking lot.

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 20, 2022 at 6:37 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

Duh? Who wrote this feel-good '70s ignorant Progressive garbage? It's 2022, and time to realize that if we enact such such useless "save the poor of the World" polices, the we are just destroying the quality of life in the well-deserve cities that support the US economy, which in turn supports the poor folk of the USA?

Ronald Reagan was correct with "trickle down economy". If you want to save the poor, give them solid jobs in a solid economy run by superiors.

That's Economics 101 for any intelligent, practical person --- with an emphasis upon intelligent since most political extremes in the USA are neither intelligent nor practical

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 22, 2022 at 6:31 pm

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

@williamhitchens haha are you related to the late ultra right wing Christopher? Your sentiment about the poor is anti-democratic and down right sounds like fascism. Mussolini was right is what you mean. Move to Hillsbough or another planet with beliefs like yours and don’t forget your Velvita brick of tax free gold . We only got the squeeze cheese Reagan served up to the less fortunate in the 1980’s. Even then the lines were long.

Posted by Eric Filseth
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 23, 2022 at 8:28 pm

Eric Filseth is a registered user.

As @Allen Akin points out, one characteristic of nearly all the precise plans cited in this article is: they produce more housing demand than supply, thereby making those cities’ housing problems worse. Do the sums.

The number of people who actually spend time following these things is a tiny fraction of society, maybe a few hundred people out of 68,000 in Palo Alto. Far too many of that subset, for whatever reasons, choose to claim symbolic victory on the absolute housing count, while ignoring the new demand created, and the associated effective loss of housing supply. But the math is inexorable, and more people get hurt, not fewer.

There’s nothing wrong with precise plans, but much of their value has historically been to provide a framework for cities to negotiate development deals that exchange commercial approvals for housing --- deals whose economics rarely pencil out unless the overall project is net-negative on housing. Not that precise plans -require- net-negative housing; that’s a City decision, independent of the planning format. But they do seem to work out that way.

Nor is it that no city should ever approve a net-negative-housing plan; they may be perfectly sensible in cities with low housing costs and low jobs-housing ratios. But if you do decide you will not accept net-negative-housing projects, then specific plans lose one of their main reasons for being. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with them; just, their relative value as a planning tool is reduced.

The Weekly has long been a rock of common sense and critical thinking, on issues that sway in the turbid ebb and flow of human passion. May you guys never lose that core.

Posted by Ryan
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 23, 2022 at 10:13 pm

Ryan is a registered user.

The thing is, Palo Alto actually needs LESS housing, not more. Restore parks, open up nature, reduce traffic, overcrowding, pollution. Improve quality of life by reducing housing.

Posted by I can't breathe pollution
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 5, 2022 at 11:00 am

I can't breathe pollution is a registered user.

I find these discussions generally to be devoid of overpopulation concerns.
There are way too many people on the planet already.
Considering the water "solutions" being put being forth currently, I would rather have less neighbors than be forced to drink filtered wastewater

Posted by Paige
a resident of another community
on Jul 8, 2022 at 11:05 am

Paige is a registered user.

First, I thank the Lord every day for Eric Filseth, for putting him in an elected office, and letting him speak. You go girl!

There is a relationship between housing demand and housing supply. People fawn over "jobs" without having to acknowledge that they are units of housing demand, and, as Eric points out, housing demand is nearly always approved at rates that exceed housing supply thus making the housing situation worse.

Now true in Facebook Village and the downtown SRI project in Menlo Park.

In downtown Menlo Park, the office rents in the Springline project are the highest in the US. Apartment rents are $7000/mo for a 2 BR and over $4000/mo for a 1BR. On a sf basis the $7/sf prices there nearly double high residential rent figures in the Bay Area.

Gennady obscures the true the history of the Derry project. After being referended, the group of citizens who led the referendum quickly negotiated a new project. The main sticking point was that the initial project was planned at 53-units per acre where 40-units per acre were allowed. That's why the approval need to change the General Plan, and that change made it vulnerable to referendum. The prior council allowed the 53 units by changing City parcel counting rules to exclude space dedicated to a road. The staff report first pitched the project as 40 units they got caught misleading the community.

The re-negotiated Derry project was quickly approved by Menlo Park, but became a victim when the housing bubble burst in 2008.

By the time the market came back, Menlo Park had approved its generous new downtown zoning and Greenheart bought up the re-negotiated Derry approvals along with another office approval and scrapped them both for a larger combined project that had more office space and fewer housing units.

That Derry housing is reborn as the pricey Springline housing.

Posted by Paige
a resident of another community
on Jul 8, 2022 at 11:14 am

Paige is a registered user.

When RWC first approved is 2500 downtown units it had no inclusionary BMR ordinance in place. It didn't adopt one until 2018, well after most of the units had been approved or built. I honestly don't know if RWC approved a single BMR unit in all of the 2500, but I believe they did not.

Under a normal BMR ordinance at rates between 15% and 20% RWC would have produced 250-500 downtown BMR units, instead of ...... probably none.

Posted by Paige
a resident of another community
on Jul 8, 2022 at 12:06 pm

Paige is a registered user.

Gennady also mis-reports the core of the objection that led to Menlo Park downtown Measure M.

First, the DTSP as approved restricted itself to a 240,820 square feet of commercial development and 680 residential units. Measure M didn't set that limit. Council did.

Measure M did try to harden the limit by requiring voter approval to raise it, but it didn't set the initial limits. The limits were advertised as being for the next 20-30 years. They are essentially built out now, 10 years later.

Secondly, once the DTSP was approved, a large chunk of the 240k "commercial" development became consumed immediately by two large, regional office projects, one proposed by Greenheart and one proposed by Stanford.

Before approving the DTSP the city of Menlo Park went through years of a public visioning process that culminated in a multi-hundred page Vision Plan. In the Vision Plan, the word "office" appears twice, co-incidentally. No citizen in Menlo Park ever asked for regional office buildings downtown. Period. End of Story. Not one. Ever. People wanted housing and retail, not office. Fish stores and books stores. Small town. Retail oriented. Pedestrian oriented.

If you look at all of the downtown commercial development in Menlo Park along ECR, particularly north to Atherton, and near the train station, and now, on the SRI site, the overwhelming development form is not housing, and it is not retail, it's regional-sized office building. There are a few boutique hotels and some token retail, and not enough housing, but luxury housing offered at $7/sf.

Downtown Menlo Park got built out with a land-form that was never wanted by its citizens, and never appeared in its Vision Plan. BTW, it is now impossible to locate the downtown Vision Plan document on the City's website. I cannot find it anywhere.

Arguably, downtown Menlo Park got hijacked by VC capital moving in from Sand Hill Road. That's why the office rents are the highest in the US.

Posted by Paige
a resident of another community
on Jul 8, 2022 at 1:56 pm

Paige is a registered user.

" as approved restricted itself to a 240,820 square feet of commercial development and 680 residential units. Measure M didn't set that limit. Council did."

I goofed. Council approved 474,000 sf of "Commercial". Measure M sought to limit OFFICE to 240,820 sf. It left the 474,000 sf "commercial" cap in place, but would have given voters control over raising the commercial cap. The remaining 474,000 - 240,820 could be built as "retail."

Measure M sought to insure that at least 220,000 sf of the "commercial" allowance would be built out as "retail" and no more than 240,820 would be built out as office.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

Burning just one "old style" light bulb can cost $150 or more per year
By Sherry Listgarten | 12 comments | 3,262 views

Banning the public from PA City Hall
By Diana Diamond | 27 comments | 2,364 views

Pacifica’s first brewery closes its doors
By The Peninsula Foodist | 0 comments | 2,094 views

Holiday Fun in San Francisco- Take the Walking Tour for An Evening of Sparkle!
By Laura Stec | 8 comments | 1,930 views

Premiere! “I Do I Don’t: How to build a better marriage” – Here, a page/weekday
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,549 views


Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund

For the last 30 years, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund has given away almost $10 million to local nonprofits serving children and families. 100% of the funds go directly to local programs. It’s a great way to ensure your charitable donations are working at home.