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Publication Date: Friday, January 30, 2002

Desperately seeking housing Desperately seeking housing (January 30, 2002)

Future demand sets high goal for city officials

by Geoff S. Fein

Palo Alto has a housing crisis.

Shut out by prohibitive housing prices, employees in the private and public sector are forced to commute from as far away as Tracy, Modesto and the foothills of the Yosemite Valley. The result is snarled traffic, increased air pollution, limited parking, and an ever-increasing imbalance between jobs and housing.

City officials are expected to address the issue Feb. 4 when the long-awaited housing element -- a study illustrating housing conditions and needs on a local and regional scale -- is brought before the City Council.

The study is part of a state mandate that cities demonstrate an ability to provide adequate housing for residents whose incomes range from very low to above-moderate.

"The most important thing is that it is a key challenge, and how we meet that challenge will determine the future of Palo Alto," City Manager Frank Benest said.

The challenge is steep. According to figures released by the Association of Bay Area Governments, the 75,000 commuters who currently cross Altamont Pass each day to work throughout the Bay Area will triple within 10 years.

To emphasize the effects of such a drastic increase in population, ABAG devised housing allocations for cities and unincorporated areas within Santa Clara County. The figures were designed to show communities how much housing must be built to accommodate workers and future residents.

According to ABAG, Palo Alto must build 1,397 units of housing by 2006 to meet its residential needs.

Palo Alto's housing element details how the city will build: 265 units of housing for very-low income families -- those earning less than 50 percent of the median income level in the community;.116 units for low income families -- those earning between 50 and 80 percent of the county's median income; 343 units for moderate income -- those earning between 80 and 120 percent of the median income; and 673 units of above moderate housing -- those earning more than 120 percent of the median.

The median income for a family of four in Santa Clara County is $87,000. In Palo Alto, the median income for a family of four is $107,100.

City officials say meeting ABAG's numbers will be difficult to achieve. However, there is no penalty if Palo Alto fails to build 1,397 units.

"We need to demonstrate we have sufficient land to accommodate these units and that we haven't created an impediment to their development," said Julie Caporgno, the city's advanced planning manager.

P alo Alto has started to chip away at ABAG's numbers. For example, the new Stanford West apartments will add more than 600 units, with 15 percent of that number devoted to below-market housing.

Although the development will be used to satisfy the university's own housing shortage, it is expected to lessen the burden on Palo Alto to house Stanford faculty, staff, and families.

In addition, the Palo Alto Housing Corporation will add 54 below-market-rate units at Oak Court, near downtown, to help low-income families.

In July 2000, the city obtained an option to acquire a 1.23-acre site in the South of Forest Avenue (SoFA) area for development of affordable rental housing. The neighboring SummerHill development, comprising 10 single-family homes and approximately 60 condominiums, will also diminish the housing need for the above-moderate income level.

However, even with the creation of more than 700 housing units, Palo Alto still comes up short.

Last year, the city held four community forums addressing the housing crisis. The goal was to try and find solutions, Caporgno said

The city also created an advisory group made up of housing advocates, including such groups as Peninsula Interfaith Action, the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, the Palo Alto Unified School District, and the city's Human Relations Commission.

In August more than 100 residents turned out for the third housing forum at Cubberley Community Center Auditorium. Through a series of smaller break-out sessions and a larger group discussion, city officials gathered input from the attendees.

Ideas that surfaced at the forum included utilizing the Mayfield site, creating mixed-use units, converting parking lots into housing, providing disincentives for building commercial sites, encouraging secondary or accessory units, and discouraging the demolition of multiple housing lots to build monster homes.

Information from each of the forums was incorporated into a city manager's report the City Council received on Oct. 9 Strategies devised by the planning staff were included along with the public comments.

Staff proposed increasing the below-market-rate housing requirement by 5 percent. Currently, the city requires small developments to have at least 10 percent of the units for BMR. Larger projects are required to set aside 15 percent.

Staff also proposed significantly increasing the housing development fee from $4 per square foot to $12. Those funds are used to buy land for new affordable housing developments.

Benest said the city also wants to allow secondary units attached or located within a home to provide greater affordable housing opportunities. Bedrooms converted into private apartments, complete with bathrooms and cooking, would fall under the new concept of a secondary unit.

Benest would like to see the city discourage the conversion of residential land to non-residential use, such as private schools or other institutional needs. He also wants to limit the loss of existing housing units to "lot combining," or tearing down two or more housing units to build one. That philosophy causes the city to fall further behind its housing goals, Benest said.

Planning staff will focus mixed-use development along El Camino Real and San Antonio Road. The idea is to build denser housing along transportation corridors.

Currently the Comprehensive Plan allows 40 housing units per acre. Although there has been some discussion of increasing that number to 50, it hasn't been officially recommended by planning staff, Caporgno said.

Another idea is to ensure the city limits new office and commercial development, or at least makes sure new developments are mixed-use so some housing is built, Benest said.

One way to accomplish this goal could be to displace commercial sites with housing.

"We don't have much vacant land, so if you put housing on site it will displace another use which generates traffic," Caporgno said. "Housing won't create new impacts."

Adopting this method could potentially add 1,000 housing units and remove 2,000 to 2,500 new and existing jobs, she said. The difference could result in improved traffic conditions in Palo Alto.

"If you can replace some job producing uses with residential uses, it's much better than the commute patterns we see," Benest said.

The city's principal strategy is to increase the supply of housing through a site inventory.

Caporgno said there is a list of about 22 sites for potential housing. Of those, about nine will need either changes in density or type-of-use. Sites that appear on the list include 800 High St., the former Creamery property; 2755 El Camino Real, a VTA Park & Ride lot; 151 El Camino Real at Churchill Avenue, currently medical offices; and 525 San Antonio Road, currently a religious day care center.

City officials have already identified three locations that could meet the immediate need for future housing: Edgewood Plaza, Alma Place and land currently owned by Sun Microsystems at 901 San Antonio Road.

The Sun site, however, may already be spoken for. The Jewish Community Center, after targeting the Mayfield property for months, recently announced their intention to move to Sun. If the JCC changes their mind, Caporgno said, developers are interested in the Sun site for a housing project.

Because of the uncertainty of where the JCC will eventually locate, the Mayfield site wasn't included in the city's site inventory.

"If the JCC goes to Sun, the council has indicated an interest in not only having a smaller community center (at Mayfield), but adding housing at the Mayfield site," Benest said.

One proposal both the council and community have agreed on is the need to change the city's zoning ordinance to allow for mixed-use development.

"You need to revise the zoning ordinance so there are good standards and flexibility for mixed use projects that incorporate housing," he said. "Edgewood Plaza and Alma Place are classic examples."

Benest said the city should also look to its redevelopment agency to help build affordable housing. A city requires such a tool if it is serious about affordable housing, he added.

"Having an RDA is not only a way of dealing with infrastructure and public improvement issues as well as revitalizing regional centers," Benest said, "but its big focus will be housing."

Edgewood Plaza is the perfect example, he said.

The RDA has focused its sights on redeveloping Edgewood Plaza. Benest said creating a center with just neighborhood serving retail won't pan out.

"A developer can't come in, redevelop (Edgewood), and get rents to justify the investment," Benest said. "What will make it economically viable is to have some housing."

Benest said any proposal will include both market-rate and BMR housing.

But mixed-use development may not be limited to Edgewood Plaza, Alma Place or along El Camino Real. Benest said a developer could propose to redevelop parts of downtown or California Avenue.

"My question (is), are there housing units on top? Wherever there is an opportunity (for housing) we are going to be looking for that," he said.

Another issue that surfaced at the Oct. 9 council meeting was the concern of creating more housing just to get a few affordable units. Several council members said they were worried about the stress that would put on city services and infrastructure.

Benest said the city can't just have affordable housing. The subsidies alone would be difficult for any city to handle. For example, the subsidy for Oak Court -- the 54-unit affordable housing project in the South of Forest Avenue area -- is $160,000 per unit.

"You can't say you need 600 units (of affordable housing). We don't have subsidy dollars," Benest said. "You can't buy your way out of the affordable housing problem. That's why you need an array of strategies."

E-mail Geoff S. Fein@paweekly.com


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