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June 08, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Here comes housing Here comes housing (June 08, 2005)

With thousands of new homes being built in the coming decade, is Palo Alto getting too crowded?

by Jocelyn Dong

The carpet's being laid at the Classic Residence by Hyatt along Sand Hill Road, preparing for the first of hundreds of senior residents to move in next week.

In downtown Palo Alto, construction workers scramble around inside the sheet-rock shell of what is fast becoming a 60-condominium and townhome complex, at 800 High St.

In south Palo Alto, demolition bulldozers will soon tear into Hyatt Rickey's, the historic "garden hotel" closing this month after five decades in business. A Texas firm intends to turn the El Camino property into 185 homes.

Palo Alto is in the midst of the largest housing boom in two decades -- quite a feat for a built-out city that has only 0.5 percent vacant land.

Due to the economic tumble of the past few years, commercial buildings are no longer the hot properties. For developers, housing now has the "it" factor. Many commercial properties, vacant since the dot-com bust, are being converted into lucrative housing.

Major projects are in the pipeline: In addition to Hyatt Rickey's, the next-door Elks Lodge property is expected to host 100 homes one day; the Campus for Jewish Life and Bridge Housing projects will add 400 units of housing to San Antonio Road; and the old Mayfield Mall site just over the Mountain View border could add another 130 homes.

Depending on whom you ask, the residential development is a welcome opportunity for aspiring homeowners, or it's a state-mandated burden, or it's a threat to existing residents' quality of life.

It is not, however, a local anomaly. Nationwide, construction on new housing in April hit its highest level in the past two years -- 22 percent higher than this time last year, according to the U.S. Census.

In California, construction is fueled by state mandate as well as developers' initiative. Estimating that 500,000 new residents a year will be moving into the state, the government has directed local municipalities to shoulder their "fair share" of housing. Palo Alto's assigned target is to add 1,367 units between 1999 and 2006, with more later.

Despite national trends and years of talk about local housing projects, it appears awareness of the boom -- as a whole -- is only now surfacing in public consciousness.

"We're up to our eyeballs in housing," one long-time neighborhood leader recently lamented.

This decade's planned developments are leading some to wonder whether the city's at a tipping point that could forever change Palo Alto's character.

Just how much housing is coming to town is a moving target. But even the most conservative estimate shows a reversal of a decades-long downward spiral. In the 1970s, the city's housing increased by 11 percent; in the 1980s by 6 percent; and in the 1990s -- when commercial buildings were in higher demand -- by 3 percent.

This decade, through 2010, housing is expected to grow at least 7 percent -- or as much as 12 percent -- according to city projections. And that doesn't even include projects already planned for construction after 2010.

Elaine Meyer, president of the University South Neighborhood Group, recently started thinking about the housing boom after years of hearing complaints about the city's lack of housing.

"I always heard the mantra: 'We need more housing. We need more housing,'" she said. Curious about how much is being built, she developed a detailed list -- posted on her association's Web site.

According to Meyer, 3,762 housing units are planned or have been completed recently. Multiplying that by the average number of people per home, Palo Alto's population of roughly 58,600 could grow by another 8,650 residents.

"The whole picture is a surprise," Meyer said. "I don't think there's a shortage anymore."

Others seem equally astonished. Meyer's list even ended up quoted on another resident's blog.

The debate over development in Palo Alto has simmered, and sometimes erupted, for decades.

Current concerns are but the latest flare-up in an ongoing discussion over quality of life. Fears of commercial over-development took hold in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to such restrictions as a 50-foot height limit. Fights over "monster" homes erupted in neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in guidelines for reviewing two-story homes, among other regulations.

Signs that the development dispute is heating up again were amply evident when the City Council considered a proposal in March to allow small second dwellings -- so-called "granny" units -- on single-family properties of 6,000 to 8,100 square feet.

Although the staff projected that only about eight units per year would be added, scores of residents rose up in protest.

"Threatened -- that's what we're feeling," said Carlin Otto, whose street could have had 33 homes eligible for the second dwelling units, according to a neighbor's estimate. The proposal "would be a disaster for Palo Alto," Otto said.

Mary Carlstead, who also lives in a neighborhood of single-family residences, recalled the prediction of a former mayor that the city would one day find itself at a point when it could no longer welcome new development -- or additional residents.

"The time has come," Carlstead said. "We have no more room."

She felt the granny-unit proposal was a violation of trust.

"We thought we were entering into a covenant with the city" by buying in a single-family residential neighborhood, she said.

Citing public sentiment and a lack of guarantee that the granny units would be used as affordable rentals, the council voted down the proposal, 5-4.

It isn't just the added noise and traffic of new housing that people cite as problems; there is also a somewhat more elusive sense of Palo Alto simply becoming too crowded. With limited land, the new residential areas consist of more densely packed townhomes, condominiums and apartments.

"I didn't move here to live in density. I don't want Palo Alto to house everybody from A to Z," said Midtown resident Stepheny McGraw, whose neighborhood may be the site for 90 new townhomes and single-family homes and is also being eyed for an auto row.

The city's declining sales-tax revenue has also prompted concerns -- a worry that the city won't be able to pay for the infrastructure needed by the thousands of additional residents. (See sidebar.)

"Until we have more of a tax base, we shouldn't throw more people in here," McGraw said.

ot everyone's worried about the impact of thousands of new residents. Some say the growth is exactly what the city needs, to "protect the environment, promote social equity and promote the economy."

Guided by city zoning regulations, new housing includes affordable homes, senior residences, assisted-living facilities and places for first-time homebuyers -- and homes near mass transportation.

Owen Byrd, a local development attorney who worked on Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan, sees infill housing -- construction in already-built areas, usually on small parcels -- as development in the right direction.

Denser housing uses less land, allows lower-income residents to move in and stimulates the economy, he said.

He sees the present lower-density suburbia as promoting a car-dependent culture, one that's also economically monochromatic.

"Maybe it's time to have a fresh civic discussion of where we want to go and what we want to be. Are we going to be honest that we're the city of Palo Alto, and part of the Bay Area metropolitan region, or are we going to aspire to be more like Atherton?," Byrd asked rhetorically.

"Pretending to be a 'town' in the fourth largest region in the country is not only delusional, it's wrong. It frustrates attaining the goals of a healthy environment, social equity and economic well-being."

Marlene Prendergast, executive director of the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, has worked for years to bring new homes to the city. The nonprofit organization recently opened its 53-unit Oak Court Apartments, an affordable housing complex in the University South neighborhood. She had been in favor of the granny unit proposal as a means of adding to the affordable-housing stock.

Yet she's sensitive to the concerns: Protests over housing point to a larger issue, she said.

"The issue really is we are getting more urban. This continuous fight about the smallest thing is reflective of that gradual trend some people don't want to recognize," she said. For those who've lived in the city for decades, part of the fear is that "we're losing our community."

Palo Alto's reputation as a destination spot has contributed to the feeling of being more crowded. It used to be that one could travel around the city without forethought. Now, she said, people think, "You can't go downtown without being trampled by the masses."

Although there's a perception that a housing onslaught is about to be unleashed, Steve Emslie, director of planning and community environment, paints a different picture. He says the boom isn't out-of-proportion and that city guidelines are aimed at preserving the city's character.

"We tend to underestimate the amount of incremental change in density that can maintain our character, our edge, our interfaces with our neighborhoods and still retain suburban quality. There's a lot of potential for modestly organizing infill housing so that it doesn't become the carbuncle (that drew) the huge reaction in the '60s and '70s."

The key is looking at underutilized but already developed areas and being very judicious about what to build, he said.

"There's so much potential. ... It's going to take incremental, modest steps to introduce housing that's attractive, that contributes positively to the urban environment, that continues to provide housing opportunities for all levels and also doesn't detract from others," Emslie said.

Judicious building, however, may be difficult with state laws designed to reduce local resistance to housing. In early 2005, Senate Bill 1818 went in effect, which directs cities to allow developers to build up to 35 percent denser projects than previously allowed, under certain circumstances. This month, an additional bill, SB 435, aims to add to regulations along the same lines.

To navigate the future in an intelligent manner, a number of residents are hoping for a renewed public dialogue.

"We need to, as a community, keep making sure the council and staff are always stepping back ... and we're not just looking at projects as they come," said Penny Ellson, who lives in Greenmeadow and tracks development issues for her neighborhood association.

"How will we connect that housing to bike-able, walk-able spaces? How will we make sure there is retail within walking distance? We haven't answered the questions about libraries. If we're going to put lots and lots of housing down here (in south Palo Alto), what's that going to do for Mitchell Park (Library)? It's maxed out. There are a lot of big issues here."

"This is a time for us to be proactive and ... have a community discussion about what we want. How that happens, that's for the council to decide," Ellson said.

Like many people who are wondering about the impact of housing and residents yet to come, she has many questions.

"We're on the cusp of something here. I don't know what the answers are."

Senior Staff Writer Jocelyn Dong can be e-mailed at

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