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To add housing, Palo Alto looks beyond historic height limit

Original post made on Nov 14, 2023

As part of a push for more housing, Palo Alto on Monday relaxed height, density and parking rules in several sections of the city. One casualty of the change? The city's 50-foot height limit, which has long been seen as sacrosanct.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, November 14, 2023, 12:05 AM

Comments (23)

Posted by NTB2
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 14, 2023 at 9:36 am

NTB2 is a registered user.

GS there were public comments, a lot about increasing denser infill within the Palo Alto city tree canopy. Appears your reporting is selective and does not address in the above dire consequences of 2000 units of housing (twice that in human populous residing there in the future) right in the path of climate change at Bayland, sea level rise — squeezed between a major freeway , industrial toxic area where there are zero city served amenities (public transit) — w the exception of a 55 million dollar new waste water plant. How is your news organization grappling with such realities? Surely connecting the dots for public contemplation is good balanced reporting. For example: the staunch R1 zone protections Kuo & co. strengthen w each CC meeting held. Meanwhile a plan to expand a SFH w a massive climate sucking pool gets their way again. Equity, inclusion, climate concerns was not at the feet of of our council. Stanford, big developer $$$$$ and nosing at Calif State mandated control was. I don’t believe anything Council Burt iterates about the environment, bike travel, open space. His words are meaningless by his actions from his pulpit.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 14, 2023 at 10:21 am

Online Name is a registered user.

"The council's vote also raises the height and density limits on a Stanford University-owned site at Pasteur Drive and Sand Hill Road, an area where Stanford is planning to build about 450 apartments for its affiliates."

Question: Does housing limited to Stanford affiliates count toward the city of Palo Alto's RHNA numbers??

"The height limit here would now be 85 feet and the FAR would be 3.5. In addition, Stanford would have to provide half a parking space per residence, well below the typical standard, and the city's typical open space requirement would be relaxed so that private open spaces like balconies could be counted."

Can't wait for the cartoons showing Stanford people driving half a car and their officials claiming that helps them achieve their "no net new" car trips.

Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 14, 2023 at 10:44 am

Paly Parent is a registered user.

This is like death by a thousand cuts...what will Palo Alto look like in 10-20 years? Will anything be left of the small-town vibe? We should be honest about that.

Posted by Local news junkie
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 14, 2023 at 12:04 pm

Local news junkie is a registered user.

This article states that the zoning proposals were the the result of discussions “by the city planning staff and area property owners, and they reflect recent proposals from area developers.” Were any Palo Alto residents included in these discussions, the people who will actually be affected?

Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 14, 2023 at 12:15 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

"Does housing limited to Stanford affiliates count toward the city of Palo Alto's RHNA numbers??"

In general, yes. The Pasteur Drive site is actually part of Palo Alto's Housing Element.

Affiliate housing has other consequences, though, so it's not necessarily a win-win. There are property tax implications, for example.

Posted by Lightning Man
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 14, 2023 at 12:16 pm

Lightning Man is a registered user.

I hope that this new housing will include rooftop gardens with trees and gathering spaces instead
of heat-sucking roofing materials! Rooftop gardens should be part of the building code.

Posted by ALB
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 14, 2023 at 12:24 pm

ALB is a registered user.

A letter was sent to the city council re: Land Use Element of Comp Plan by former CC member Greg Schmid an economist.

The 6,086 housing units required by HCD to be built in PA between 2023 and 2031 are based entirely on a Bay Area new jobs forecast made by HCD in 2019. The new jobs numbers were subsequently translated into jobs in each city with new housing concentrated near the new jobs by an internal technical committee directed by MTC that included the state agencies HCD and DOF.

California Code 65584.01 (current as of Jan. 1, 2023) states clearly that the total population projected for the region by the Department of Finance shall be within 1.5 percentage points of that made by the Council of Governments. If it is not then "the population of the region shall be the population projection for the region prepared by the Department of Finance."

Note that in 2019, the Department of Finance forecast a population growth of seven percent for the SF Bay Area in the period 2020-2030, consistent with the housing numbers. But, in April 2023, the Department of Finance updated their projection that showed a population decline of 1.7 percent for the Bay Area from 2020-2030. (Note that the 2023 projection showed a decline of 1.2 percent for Santa Clara County).

Before approving the Land Use Element of the Comp Plan, it would be appropriate to ask a representative of DOF to appear publicly before the Council to state clearly whether that state agency approves of the 2019 population and housing projections used in the current Bay Area Housing Element. Those numbers appear to be wildly out of range.

Gregory Schmid

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 14, 2023 at 1:04 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

I am very concerned that we will be left with a load of high rises that nobody wants to live in. Google, Facebook, and others are reducing the number of employees in their nearby campuses. Those that are left very often want to live in San Francisco or other places where there is great nightlife or a beach. As they move into the young family demographic, they want single family homes or at least town homes with their own miniscule backyard, a garage for bikes, trikes, and other play equipment.

Who are the people who are going to be living in these high rises? Are they going to be teachers and their families? Are they going to be police, firefighters, hospital workers, etc. and their families?

Are we going to be left with empty high rises?

And if we're going to get people in them, what will they do in their spare time? We have no recreational amenities in town other than restaurants? Will they spend all their weekends hiking in the Baylands?

City planning is dismal and as I said, I am concerned that we won't have people who want to live in these rabbit hutches in the sky.

Posted by Amie
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 14, 2023 at 4:44 pm

Amie is a registered user.

Our rental vacancy rate is 1.5%. Our rental housing stock is aging, ill equiped for the population that needs it, and short of supply. We have thousands of people people commuting hours and hours to get here to go to work. I can guarantee that housing units constructed will be occupied happily by individuals and and families who now don't have to sit in cars for hours each day spewing GHGs. I will be happy to call them my neighbors.

This is good for our schools, good for Cal Ave, and good for our climate and equity goals.

Housing and climate are two of four council goals to address, same as in 2022. We need to take them seriously and address them! Thank you Council, yes this and MORE.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 15, 2023 at 7:36 am

Resident is a registered user.

The mandate is really coming from Sacramento (“Marc Berman”) not Palo Alto City Council (“Lydia Kou”). But no matter where it came from, it’s unlikely to produce actual housing-cost relief.

The argument is that by putting more housing units on each parcel, you can reduce their individual cost. But that’s really only true for the land-cost component; per-unit construction costs, huge in the Bay Area, don’t fall much with density. And while on a single-family home land costs can be half or more of the total value, on a multi-unit building land costs are typically less than 10% of the total, even on the Peninsula. So even if you double the building height and FAR, you’re still only reducing per-unit costs by maybe 5%. And it’s actually even less than that, because while in a perfectly-efficient market competition would reduce rents by that amount, in messy real life developers invariably keep much of that ~5% for themselves. So density or not, rents stay stubbornly high.

And truthfully not much density, either. Real estate investors live or die by what’s called “cap ratio,” basically anticipated rental income divided by project costs. What that means is if prevailing-market rents ever do fall faster than costs, investors simply stop investing; so in practice you never get the vast housing expansion it would take for “trickle-down” to actually work.

That’s the real reason RHNA and all these anti-nimby housing bills haven’t even increased housing production rates, let alone cut housing prices and homelessness: because the main obstacle isn’t actually nimbyism, but the region’s difficult construction economics. Yet without major drops in housing prices, the notion of thousands of current long-distance commuters suddenly moving here seems farfetched. The reality remains that if you want lower housing costs, then somebody must pay. Absent that, the best justification for tall buildings remains, you like tall buildings.

Posted by Padraig
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 15, 2023 at 9:31 am

Padraig is a registered user.

Thank goodness. It's about time! Yes to raising the height limit. Increase density, increase town revenues, increase train ridership. Reduce sprawl and long commutes. It's the only way forward.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 15, 2023 at 9:59 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

The people who make up these numbers are willfully ignorant of the water, electricity, utility costs, sanitation costs, etc that are required to support housing. We need a law suit concerning efforts to implode onto cities requirements that they are unable to support. Each city does not have a fully compliant utility system with resolution as to the containment and treatment of water issues - That is all of the people taking showers, going to the bathroom, washing dishes and clothes. WE are further hampered by tree roots that eat into the sewer drains that prevent the clearing of sewage to the main drains. That is happening at my house.

Bottom line is that you cannot keep heaping people onto the land without all of the tools required to process their presence on the land. We are heading back to a third world country when we willfully neglect all of the elements that are required to support humans on the land in a place that requires strict compliance with the laws concerning the disposal of waste.

They are purposeful in their disregard of all of the elements that are required to support human presence on the land under the current understanding of how this is all handled. They need to be identified as to who they are and how they expect each city to increase their ability to handle all of the basic sanitation, water, and electrical requirements of running a city. Disregard of those elements of running a city is a legal issue.

Posted by Eeyore
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 15, 2023 at 12:38 pm

Eeyore is a registered user.

I don’t think many people will trade a long commute from their single family dwelling with a yard where their children can play to live in an equally expensive rabbit warren in the sky..

Posted by Tecsi
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 15, 2023 at 2:18 pm

Tecsi is a registered user.

I think 6-7 floor apartments, with underground parking and ground-floor retail can make a lot of sense. Check out the 7-story The Dean on San Antonio which does just this. It offers 100+ units per acre.

That said, let’s wait to see if developers actually decide to move forward and build. Expensive market-rate apartments like The Dean rent for $4000-$6000+ and are targeted to very well-paid tech people.

It’s not clear how much such demand will be there for at least 2-4 years. Developers don’t build to meet state housing mandates; they build when they are confident of a high-return to their investors.

So developers’ action—or inaction—will tell us how accurate state housing demand forecasts are.

Posted by Pat Markevitch
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 15, 2023 at 6:31 pm

Pat Markevitch is a registered user.

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, don't forget the demand on our schools, parks, open space and recreation programs. We are already behind our parks/open space ratio to residents that is in the City Charter.

Posted by NTB2
a resident of Mayfield
on Nov 15, 2023 at 11:56 pm

NTB2 is a registered user.

Many displaced are our own. Our children, our parents, our cousins, our brothers/sisters — ours. Dispersing homes among the single family dwelling SFHO R1 zones is Just Action to stepping a few feet aside from what is overly owned — sharing. If one can give dollars to a third world, surely one or two or three can give to within our own city borders. Or is sending over there blinding the deprivation here?

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 16, 2023 at 9:48 am

Online Name is a registered user.

So many posters here are being logical and realistic about how the flawed housing bills will do little to increase desirable and more affordable housing regardless of how many DODO (Developer Owned Developer Operated) politicians and lobbyists claim otherwise.

"And if we're going to get people in them, what will they do in their spare time? We have no recreational amenities in town other than restaurants?"

So true! That quote reminds me of one of Best Of Palo Alto surveys where the most exciting entertainment was some WiFi spot!

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 16, 2023 at 12:52 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

So true Pat - people keep attacking CHS/Palo Alto Community Center. That location delivers playing fields, rooms for special interest groups, ride share parking, children's different interest groups - dance. If it works then attack it.
They attack one place when places in their own locations are not working.

Posted by Adam
a resident of University South
on Nov 24, 2023 at 8:22 pm

Adam is a registered user.

I'm really glad to see the city of Palo Alto leaving behind its 50-foot cap on housing. Lots of people want to live in apartments, which is why developers are interested in building them.

Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Nov 25, 2023 at 9:27 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

50 years ago when the height limit was adopted, it came about to block tall office buildings DTN.

I was following council back then and do not remember tall housing being an issue in the discussion. I live next to two apartment buildings that are way over 50 feet and it is not a problem.

Raising the height limit for housing in specific locations like council just did on ECR or DTN where I live promotes feasibility and brings needed housing.

Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 27, 2023 at 5:08 am

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

It is nice to have the height limits relaxed a bit! Building out, generally speaking, is usually worse for the environment than building up, esp. to a reasonable height, e.g. 4 floors. From the point of view of the pedestrian, there is little difference between 2-story and 4-story buildings. Calling a 4-story building a "high rise" is misleading IMO.

That said, as an earlier commenter wrote above, Palo Alto MUST start instituting sustainability requirements like living roofs and purple pipe systems -- both of which benefit residents tremendously, by lowering cooling and heating bills, and lessening costs of water. Palo Alto also has to get better about enforcing tree protection laws and making sure that new development does not encroach onto environmentally sensitive areas including riparian corridors. All this is much more possible, when building height limitations are 4 floors rather than 2!

I also agree with an earlier commenter who said they were afraid that large residential buildings would be unused if aimed at tech workers. That seems likely if Palo Alto continues its consistent trend of approving only extremely dense developments of studio (or tiny one-bedroom) units, best suited for tech bros but not working families.

It is well documented that the biggest housing need in PA is 2- and 3-bedroom homes. Building these homes is often only affordable to developers when they partner with nonprofit housing NGOs and/or work with government subsidies (remember section 8?). Commercial developers rarely have the capacity to provide the kind of affordable, family/extended family housing most urgently needed locally, e.g. for families of teachers, first responders, service workers, and other low-to-middle income working families.

Lastly, it was sad to see Stanford again getting a windfall benefit. Balconies are NOT open space. Stanford with the largest endowment in the world should be required to preserve open space for the rest of us, not privatize it for its self-selected group of professors, staff, and students. Open space access is an issue of environmental justice, and Stanford should be held to at least the same standards as everyone else. If you ask me, given that Stanford pays ZERO taxes on its education-related operations (the vast majority of its operations, including most housing), Stanford should be held to a HIGHER standard that tax-paying property owners. Why in the world does the Palo Alto City Council continue to give undeserved benefits to the wealthiest and largest Palo Alto property owner, which fails to pay its fair share like everyone else into public coffers? It is backwards thinking. Stanford can afford open space far more than the vast majority of private -- and all truly nonprofit -- property owners.

City Council -- please stop giving windfalls to Stanford, that the rest of us end up paying for by making up for the loss in tax revenue, public resources, or quality of life. Enough already.

Posted by Local news junkie
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 27, 2023 at 10:47 am

Local news junkie is a registered user.

Stanford will be allowed to count “private balconies” as open space in its new development?
Kind of like the Reagan Administration wanting to count ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables. Insanity!

Posted by Bill Fitch
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 27, 2023 at 11:08 am

Bill Fitch is a registered user.

Glad to see Palo Alto get high rises going. The value of land makes this the only way to increase our population and decrease the long running jobs/housing imbalance.

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