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City tries to put a value on 'public benefits'

Original post made on Sep 12, 2013

With the traffic and parking impacts of Palo Alto's building boom dominating public discussion, officials on Wednesday balked at launching a zone change that would enable a four-story office building to go up at the city's most congested intersection.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, September 11, 2013, 11:24 PM

Comments (32)

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Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2013 at 3:54 am

Marie is a registered user.

Would this planned community provide sufficient parking for all employees and other occupants? If not, turn it down. California Avenue has a deficit of parking. Would this PC include enough housing to offset any additional housing requirements by ABAG? If not, turn it down. Would this include BMR housing? If not, turn it down. These are the only public benefits that count.

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Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2013 at 8:50 am

The economic analysis to calculate a monetary benefit to the City for approving the Stanford Med Center project made sense in that case. It was a project with regional significance,public benefit
including a necessary seismic upgrade which had to be approved at some level. So to calculate an offset monetary benefit to Palo Alto which would absorb the impacts was an appropriate response.

This type of economic analsis is not appropriate for other developer projects seeking PC status.These are discretionary for profit projects which have no broad public benefit and which have permanent impacts on the City streetscapes, character and quality of life which cannot be offset. That is the essence and purpose of zoning and land use planning.

Selling off the City to developers in a huge escalation of development is not good public policy, is actually wreckless, anti-environment, anti-planning and is completely destroying the qualities and sustainabilty of our City and causing more deficits
in housing,parking and more traffic gridlock. Our City is completely
off-track with no vision of the future outcome of these policies.
Quantifying the developer economic benefit as a basis and rationale for granting PC's should not make us comfortable with this outcome.

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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 12, 2013 at 9:13 am

With Ken Hayes and Jim Baer fronting this project, it will go through as designed, and nobody at city hall will ever follow up on its "public benefits."

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Posted by Charlie
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 12, 2013 at 9:39 am

Blocking all light to sunrise assisted living will take years off the lives of the residents. This is a 19000sf lot. Why not build a 19000sf building?

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Posted by Anothr big vox
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2013 at 11:05 am

Jeez another oversized box by Ken Hayes. The most unimaginative architect you could imagine. He is good at one thing though, maximizing profit for his employer. What a hack.Mass production boxes.
Thanks to the Planning Commission for trying to right a wrong.(until Mr. Martinez returns to compliment the developers).

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Posted by Julian
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2013 at 11:17 am

How about this: no zoning exceptions.

That'll make the calculation easy. Given the history of "public benefits" in this city, just stop pretending.

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Posted by A
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 12, 2013 at 11:20 am

Clearly the PC process is broken. It is time to eliminate it as an option for developers. As long as it is on the table and millions of dollars are at stake, developers will find some way to game or corrupt the system.

The world is full of cities that have little to no zoning and those that have well-thought-out plans. It is very easy to tell which is which.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 12, 2013 at 12:37 pm

PC does not work for the residents of Palo Alto, while it works well for the Developers. Time to put an end to PC zoning. Problem solved.

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Posted by Another
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 12, 2013 at 1:08 pm

One of the problems with the "public benefit" is that what benefits the actual public and what benefits "the City (Council)" are two different things, and City Council doesn't seem to put much stock in the former.

For example, allowing a developer to avoid putting parking in their buildings downtown in exchange for some BMR units that they then get "in lieu" fees from would seem like a great deal to the City Council -- they get free money, which they can claim is a public benefit as good as housing poor people, and they don't have to deal with the downtown parking, so who cares?

At Maybell, the claim is also that the "public benefit" of the rezoning is affordable housing, but the upzoning is so extreme -- from "low density" R-2 and RM-15 to nearly the equivalent of RM-60 for the main building -- you'd think that would net a pretty good public benefit. But the reality is that the upzoning isn't necessary to build the affordable housing, it's only necessary to SAVE MONEY for the developer.

Nearly as much affordable housing can already be built at Maybell under the existing zoning, if they didn't use nearly 60% of the property to make extra money and extra in lieu fees from higher density market-rate housing than is otherwise able to be built in the neighborhood. And same number of affordable units wouldn't need to be in such a small space (so dense and high) absent the financing scheme to save the developer money. If as much money were paid per unit as at, say, 801 Alma, the builder could have put in JUST the affordable housing, 60-units - while staying fairly close to the existing zoning in height, setback, density, daylight plane, parking, etc. That would arguably be a reasonable use of PC zoning laws, and there would have been no great controversy over having a PC zone at Maybell. (I know this because many neighbors have asked for just such a compromise.) Just as much affordable housing would be provided, but the impacts to the neighborhood would be less because the zoning laws would be respected (or at least approximated).

It's not like the affordable housing couldn't be built in this town without the financing scheme, because someone just built an even larger affordable complex downtown (which is arguably even a more expensive place to build) without using such a scheme. But if it flies at Maybell, it's going to become the new norm in the rest of town.

So what, in the end, is the public benefit, really? What allowing builders downtown to build without providing parking and allowing this upzoning at Maybell (with seriously substandard parking) to enable the financing scheme have in common, is that the zoning codes are heavily violated in order to give the builder or the City a financial benefit. The public does not benefit. If the City Council has to offer convoluted justifications to TELL us we are benefiting, we are not benefiting. They are benefiting. It's not the same thing. The affordable housing could be provided without the upzoning, and people would still build in downtown Palo Alto if they had to provide the needed parking.

PC zoning should be prohibited in residential neighborhoods. It should be seriously curtailed elsewhere else. The City Council can't be trusted to protect the interests of the public, or to stop confusing their own self-interests with the public interest.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 12, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Bob M, we're ready to sign your "eliminate PC" referendum petition!

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Posted by Tina Peak
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 12, 2013 at 5:40 pm

It is time to end all PC exemptions. This city needs to enforce current zoning laws and not a square foot more. We are already packed to the gills around here. The streets are jammed, schools are bursting at the seams, public infrastructure is crumbling. The city planning department needs to stop negotiating with developers (who from past wins seem to be much more adept at getting what they want from the city) and do the other part of their job which is to maintain and improve the city for the residents who live here.

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Posted by Brunel Mach
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2013 at 6:00 pm

" the streets are jammed"
Which streets? All the streets or just some of them. It is these kind of exaggerations that cast doubt on the claims of those that oppose any and all new developments in town.

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Posted by senior longtime resident
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 12, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Many of the comments indicate that Palo Altans are very unhappy with PC rezoning and our City Council's obvious bias towards developers. We have further evidence of this with the over 4000 signatures on the petition to reverse the rezone on the Maybell project. PC with overdevelpment and inadequate parking are bad enough in commercial areas, but we are now faced with this in our residential neighborhood. We hope that many of you will vote in November AGAINST MEASURE D. That will drive the point home that PC rezoning is not right in every case for Palo Altans!

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Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2013 at 7:27 pm

PC's, design and parking exemptions of course need to be
ended. Our City has been battered by these abuses and residents
call for enforcement of existing zoning. But the existing zoning is too lenient in the first place. We need a downzoning and reduction of FAR's in our commercial and residential areas.

And the fact that so much over-development has occurred and is still in the pipeline, it is simply too late to revert to existing zoning. The camel's back has been broken. A build-out of Palo Alto under existing zoning at this point is tantamount to the total destruction of the City.

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Posted by Another
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 12, 2013 at 9:20 pm

The whole premise under which all ths densification is occurring, the justification for all ths PC zoning, is flawed, too. If we just densify like a major city, the thinking goes, people will be nearer their jobs and there will be less impact on the environment. But people stuck in traffic make more emissions, as do the more and more workers who will take the buses and shuttles from nicer places to live, or from cities like San Francisco (which we will not be competing with by turning from a nice quiet suburb into a dense ugly unpleasant suburb.)

Stop the PC zoning! It's basically a way to circumvent zonng laws. Don't we have any smart lawyers in town who can figure out how to get rid of it for that reason? Don't we citizens have property rights granted by the state, not just the City?

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Posted by bill g
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 12, 2013 at 10:32 pm

The primary "public benefit" must be parking - no exceptions. I'm willing to listen to others, but that is not negotiable.

What our past and present elected City Council members have done is what many elected officials do - become politicians who want to look good now and be reelected. They are never called to account later for the foolish things they've done, or approved done, on their watch.

Excuse me - I do not include Dick Rosenbaum and one or two others in that category.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 12, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Vice Chair Arthur Keller, reflecting the prevalent view, said the benefits should be "commensurate with the benefit to the developer of increased development."

This is not the correct equation. The costs of public benefits that the developer may have to provide in order to mitigate the terrible impacts to the community may in fact cost more, or WAY more than the developer would stand to profit. So be it - then the developer should move on. Example, at some point we tip and we need schools built - that means expensive real estate needs to be purchased in Palo Alto. We need above or below grade rail crossings to solve traffic and safety issues. We should make a list of public benefits that this community needs and values, and let developers line up to solve those real problems. Dense housing, landscaping, fountains? COME. ON. GET REAL. The impacts caused by these developments are permanent and devastating - the costs to developers for bringing in these undesirable impacts should be steep.

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Posted by A
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 13, 2013 at 12:36 am

To Brunel Mach, who in a previous post calls it an exaggeration to say the "streets are jammed". I think anyone who drives much during the morning rush would not call it an exaggeration at all. Anytime you have to wait 2 or 3 cycles of a light to get through an intersection, that is a jammed street. Anytime the left turn lane at a light is backed up onto the main road, that is a jammed street. Over the years I have witnessed two accidents in front of our house where school kids on bikes were injured by cars. That is a jammed street.

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Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 13, 2013 at 8:36 am

I think there will be much more public involvement when the independent analysis of public benefits are presented to the public. The developer's consultant proposed 9 benefits and with independent analysis the public and the Commissioner can evaluate the developer's first offer.

To Mr. Mach, the proposed Transportation Element of the Comp Plan is a partial answer to your question about "Which streets and intersections are impacted?" Key intersections and a few streets are identified but the duty of the city to measure and report on street/intersections is absolutely vague. Furthermore, the Transportation lacks specificity down to currently endangered "purely neighborhood streets" street with curreent dangerous spillover traffic from clogged main arteries. Other concerned citizens need help in making the Comp Plan a useful, practical document responsive to citizens' concern. contact me for more info

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Posted by Brunel Mach
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 13, 2013 at 9:53 am

"I think anyone who drives much during the morning rush would not call it an exaggeration at all."
Which streets are you referring to?? You give a generic "all streets are jammed"--which they are not. Naturally during morning rush hour there will be more traffic. Or do you prefer the opposite???

" Anytime you have to wait 2 or 3 cycles of a light to get through an intersection, that is a jammed street."
That may be what people in Palo Alto consider to be a jammed street, but that is natural for some intersections during peak traffic times.

"Anytime the left turn lane at a light is backed up onto the main road, that is a jammed street."
Maybe then a left turn signal needs to be installed at that location

" Over the years I have witnessed two accidents in front of our house where school kids on bikes were injured by cars. That is a jammed street."
2 accidents over who knows how many years?? What were the circumstances???

So as Mr Buchanan points out, the city needs to know which streets are impacted. Certainly not all of them as some people would like us to think.

The one example I can think of is Embarcadero Road near Paly with those 3 traffic lights. Not sue why the city has not acted on that matter

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2013 at 10:06 am

Jammed streets, yes.

Alma NB left turn onto Churchill, often backed up. Double problem because of the trains, but there is a left turn signal. Jammed.

Driving WB Oregon in the morning means that often more than one green light is necessary even for straight traffic as only a couple of cars can get through each light because of the amount of cross traffic entering which takes all the space before the tailback from the next light. Jammed.

Loma Verde crossing Middlefield. Any car wanting to turn from Loma Verde in either direction has to wait for multiple bikes and pedestrians crossing and these turning cars hold up traffic in both directions. Add to that the amount of illegal parking on Loma Verde as overspill parking for Philz - often Fire Trucks - makes this a very hard intersection particularly in the am commute. Jammed.

Meadow/Middlefield - any time there is a crossing guard because of the amount of school traffic (crossing guard is needed and hopefully when the new library opens and schoolkids can ride through the library like they used to this will help). Jammed.

Alma at Alma Plaza, the lights at Mikis means so much traffic gets stopped at both lights - was worse when Mikis was open. Jammed.

El Camino at T & C, almost all day. Jammed.

Alma/Sand Hill intersection - the amount of traffic forced to do U turns causes tailbacks. Jammed.

Arastradero and surrounding areas during morning commute. Jammed.

These are just the intersections I experience. I am sure others know more.

Some of these could be alleviated with better timing of lights. Others would be better if there were shuttles serving schools for all students not just the lucky few. Some could do with left turn lights.

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Posted by Stanford worker
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 13, 2013 at 10:20 am

RESIDENT LISTS A hodgepodge of streets with traffic and by his own admission, the fact that there is slow traffic may not have to do with the number of cars--i.e. school children at Meadow/Middlefield, parking issues at Philzz etc.
Yes, if go up Churhchill during school commute hours, there will be traffic.
Bit does resident and others think that we should be able to just zoom from one location to another any time of day regardless if it is rush hour or not??? That will not happen in a city like palo alto with it;s schools, businesses and residents.
Bottom line, resident's claims have little to do with the development issues

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Posted by resident
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm

@ Charleston Gardens Parent
You made a very good point:
"We should make a list of public benefits that this community needs and values, and let developers line up to solve those real problems."

This is a much better approach than letting developers create their own list of 'public benefits'. And certainly basic impact mitigations should not count as public benefits, they should simply be expected and required.

The cumulative stress of expanded development is not being addressed.

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Posted by They could care less
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Every time we go to a city council meeting, it is apparent that the members could care less about the neighborhoods they do not have to live in, ie, south of Oregon Expwy.

We are not getting fair representation, as San Jose and other cities give individual districts, and too many members on the council should be disqualified from even being on it. Liz Kniss and others apparently have financial interest from some of these projects they approve. These members should be recalled post-haste.

We thought last year's city council was bad, this one takes the cake!

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Posted by Grammar police
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2013 at 5:01 pm

To the above poster. You think they care!!! Or do you mean they could not care less. Big difference.

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Posted by Just us sardines
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Here are your instructions for how to start a recall. Have at it. Methinks most of those who signed the Maybell referendum would line up to sign.

Web Link

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Posted by Just us sardines
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 13, 2013 at 7:14 pm

"We should make a list of public benefits that this community needs and values, and let developers line up to solve those real problems."

The trouble is that there is no way to say any given plan will solve a problem and no BS-check on the City Council or anyone else in such a process. If they want a project to go through, such as at Maybell, they just twist themselves into knots trying to justify what they want. Hypocrisy, inconsistency, making up their own facts -- if it's in service of what they want, anything goes.

For example, neighbors just participated in a major six-figure safety improvement of Maybell, and everyone involved really got as much out of that street as is possible given the limits of the infrastructure (how narrow Maybell is, etc). The City loans millions to buy a property on the street, and works out a complex and inflexible financial scheme long before there is any public input. One of the Councilmembers' lawfirm represented a seller, but he did not recuse himself from later rezoning votes.

No surprise, the main problems created by the development - densification of a residential neighborhood, 50-foot building in a residential neighborhood, not nearly enough parking onsite and no way for the neighborhood to absorb excess, impacts to the major school commute corridors that run on either side of the property, etc. - are deemed not to be problems by the City, which dismisses the neighbors' concerns as NIMBYism, rather than addressing them. The City fails to demand the heightened scrutiny of developments on school commute corridors their own policy requires, and says, without doing any safety analysis for bikes and pedestrians, that there will be little or no impact (on a seriously substandard street that already exceeds 3300 vehicle trips per day, with over 1,000 kids every day on bike and foot every day).

So they propose to make another six-figure grant to "improve" Maybell, as if it hadn't already just been improved as good as it gets.

The trouble is that "public benefits" and "public input" seem to be in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders don't ever seem to be the actual public. Developers and City Council will play similar games with assessing what "solves" problems.

We would have a lot fewer problems if they just obeyed the laws and zoning rules we already have.

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Posted by Henry
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 13, 2013 at 7:22 pm

@Just us Sardines - If there were to be a successful recall, who would then serve on Council? For that matter who will run in 2014 that would actually serve the people?

We have a leadership vacuum except for folks who can profit either politically or financially from their terms in office.

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Posted by Just us sardines
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 13, 2013 at 9:06 pm

"who will run in 2014 that would actually serve the people?"

You got me there.

I would hope anyone who might consider bringing us a recall would also consider trying to bring us representative districts as others above have suggested. I think it would be much easier to find council representatives if they were representing - and elected from - much smaller districts from within the city.

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Posted by new approach
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Turning over the Council is challenging for the reasons cited.In the short-term as a stopgap measure we need through initiative to create
a review function outsourced to a recognized design professional
hired by and accountable to a citizen committee to review all
public and private projects for compatibility, scale, aesthetics,
functionality (e.g. parking).Also since the City has hired a new PR
Administrator, to fight the PR war the residents should buy
space on a Bayshore freeway billboard. It should say "Thank you
for destroying our City" and then list key current Council members.

Like this comment
Posted by Just us sardines
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 14, 2013 at 10:54 pm

@new approach,
The first initiative actually needs to be an initiative to get an impartial ballot committee, mostly taken from the communications community, that hashes out an impartial ballot statement and question in a public process, as they have had in San Francisco for the last 30 or 40 years.

Unfortunately, unless you can keep the City from writing the "impartial" election materials, it's going to be very hard to pass initiatives and referenda to oppose them.

This would be an excellent government project for some high school students...

Like this comment
Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 15, 2013 at 10:13 am

PC zoning was not intended to allow increased density for sale to the highest bidder. It was meant to offer flexibility for consolidating parcels with mixed zoning designation, so that the technicalities did not get in the way of the intent of the zoning. The value of those benefits belong to the people, and how they are spent needs to be determined by the people -- not the developer.

We are now using it to violate all historical zoning so that density can be sold to the highest bidder. The practice is coming to a parcel in your neighborhood soon -- unless we all stand up and stop the waive.

Yes, there will be high-priced spin doctors that will point to a worthy cause to justify each "little" and "harmless" exception.

There is a horrifying list of high density projects on the drawing board, and if Measure D is approved, it will only embolden those that would sell our skylines and overrun our neighborhoods with three-story homes on 3,000 foot lots.

Palo Alto's historical zoning is really based on providing quality of life for the residents. I think stack and pack three story homes on 3,000 square foot lots is not the future I support. I will vote against Measure D -- it is the first domino. Packing 60 senior apartments into a space that zoning says can only accommodate 47 (or less) respectful living spaces does not deliver the dignity that our seniors deserve. We must provide affordable housing, not stacked-up storage boxes rented as apartments.

Voting against Measure D takes a stand for the quality of life for all residents, including those that move into the new developments that will be built.

Our quality of life is not for sale. If Measure D is not stopped, the lot next to you will become a high density PC zone for the next stated worthy cause.

Stop the nonsense, and let's work together to collectively reach the worthy goals of affordable senior housing, public safety buildings, athletic fields and theaters without auctioning off our quality of life.


Timothy Gray

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