In his “State of the City” speech on Feb. 8 — a talk normally confined to highlighting the City Council’s recent accomplishments and annual priorities — Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff took a detour to address an unusually heated and convoluted meeting that had taken place the prior week.
In deliberating over an update to the city’s guiding land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan, the council voted to abolish downtown’s limit on new development and remove any mention of height limits for buildings. Most controversially, it decided on a 5-4 vote to strip all programs from the plan, a decision that sparked such a community backlash that the council later reversed it.
Despite these actions, which took many in the community by surprise, Scharff assured the crowd at HanaHaus that the sudden changes wouldn’t dramatically impact the Comprehensive Plan, a vision document that some regard as the city’s “constitution.”
“No one will see every policy or implementation program they want in the plan, but I’m confident that the finished product will not be vastly ideologically different from the current plan we have, and that it will accurately reflect our collective vision for Palo Alto in 2030,” Scharff said.
His speech came at a transition point for the Comprehensive Plan update. Launched in 2006, the process has been undermined by political indifference, disagreements about the preferred approach and laborious copyediting by a group of planning commissioners with little input from the council or the community.
Then this year, the update process jumped into warp speed — and then some. Between January and this week, council members introduced and approved new Comprehensive Plan policies that had not been previously discussed, much less vetted, including ones calling for less required parking for new multifamily housing in areas served by public transit and allowing more dense new hotels.
Earlier this month, the council hit a critical milestone when it approved the plan’s two most critical chapters (or elements): Land Use and Transportation.
Now, if things go as planned, the updated document will be adopted later this year, paving the way for new zoning policies and — ultimately — development projects.
As this “collective vision” comes into focus, residents on both sides of the political divide are becoming increasingly engaged. Hundreds have attended recent public hearings on the Comprehensive Plan or submitted letters to the council advocating for or against policies. A growing coalition of housing advocates, buoyed by last November’s council election, is calling for the council to “go big” on housing.
Diane Morin, member of the citizens group Palo Alto Forward, told the council in March that the city needs to have “diverse housing for the diverse community that has come to Palo Alto and to help regional needs.” Judy Kleinberg, president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, urged council members to “be bold.”
“Let’s get housing downtown, near transit, and let’s help solve this housing imbalance,” Kleinberg said at the hearing.
At the other end of the political spectrum are those who believe the city needs to focus less on building and more on existing “quality of life” issues — parking shortages, traffic jams and unwelcome urbanization.
Joe Hirsch, a Barron Park neighborhood resident who co-founded the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, told the council at the same meeting that the city needs to “focus on the needs of current residents who are here and now.” More growth and more people means more cars and worsening gridlock, Hirsch said.
“Have a plan in place that will mitigate the problems we have now and then gradually expand housing to the extent it can be accommodated without adversely affecting the quality of life for all of us — those who are here and now and those who will come afterwards,” Hirsch said.
While much work remains to be done, the blurry outlines of the “collective vision” Scharff cited began to crystallize this month. Over a dizzying series of page-long motions, amendments, substitute motions and counter-amendments that at times left council members wondering what they were voting on, the council swiftly adopted policy changes. Those changes — large and small — promise to alter the city’s path between now and 2030 and, in many ways, belie Scharff’s claim that the new plan will not be much different from the current one.
So, what exactly should residents expect to see in the new vision? Find out what the council is looking to change in the areas of development, building height limit, housing, transportation and business.
Lifting the lid
Some call it a blunt and unnecessary tool.
Others say it’s a much-needed panacea for the city’s growing pains.
The topic of whether the city should limit development to a fixed total square footage and, if so, what that cap should cover has been debated in Palo Alto for more than three decades.
The driver of the conversation is usually, well, drivers. In 1986, downtown’s parking and traffic problems prompted the City Council to approve a study that ultimately established a 350,000-square-foot cap on non-residential development in downtown and to tighten up rules on building density and required parking spaces.
At the time, the council was responding to a period of rapid growth, with more than 470,000 square feet of commercial space approved between 1980 and 1984. (By contrast, the city produced only 120,000 square feet of new commercial space between 1971 and 1979.)
This dynamic, according to a 1985 report, “recreated a vitality of downtown Palo Alto which has been lost after the opening of Stanford Shopping Center, almost 30 years later.” Yet the growth also created traffic jams and parking shortages, according to the study.
“Congestion Downtown continued to increase, caused by both Downtown Palo Alto traffic and by through traffic going to and from other locations, generally outside the city’s boundaries,” states a 1986 study that could’ve easily been penned in 2017. “Concerns in the community arose regarding the increased level of traffic that was being generated by the recently approved projects in Downtown Palo Alto.”
In addition to creating the 350,000-square-foot cap, the council directed staff to review the limit once new development reached a threshold of 235,000 square feet — which it did in 2013. Today, there are 281,770 square feet of new development in the downtown area, along with two projects in the city’s planning “pipeline” totaling 29,950 square feet. This leaves just 38,280 square feet of development allowed under the downtown cap.
The limitation — along with the policy of re-evaluating it — is enshrined in the existing Comprehensive Plan, approved in 1998. The document also includes a broader cap of 3.26 million square feet on non-residential development in nine planning areas throughout the city that were identified in a 1989 land use study.
In addition to these two long-existing caps, the City Council adopted two years ago an annual 50,000-square-foot limit on office and research-and-development projects in downtown, along El Camino Real and around California Avenue.
As part of the Comprehensive Plan revision, one of the most significant questions that the council wrestled with is what to do about these three caps. It didn’t take long for members to reach a consensus on maintaining the overall cap, which today allows an additional 1.7 million square feet of development throughout the city. That cap will remain in the Comprehensive Plan.
There was more disagreement about the 50,000-square-foot office cap, with council members generally agreeing that it should be kept but disagreeing over whether it should be included in the updated Comprehensive Plan. (They ultimately agreed to leave it out but to pass an ordinance continuing the policy.)
The biggest clash came over the downtown cap. On Jan. 30, the council moved to abolish the downtown development limit entirely, with Councilman Cory Wolbach and Mayor Greg Scharff advocating that route. Both argued that, as the city’s most transit-friendly area, downtown is also the part of the city most suitable for growth.
“If we’re gonna have further office development or RND (research-and-development) development in Palo Alto, downtown is still one of the smartest places to put it,” Wolbach said.
Scharff seconded Wolbach’s motion and pointed to the low rate of solo drivers among employees of downtown’s biggest companies (a recent survey by the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association indicated that only 26 percent of them drive alone to work). Scharff called the rate “amazing.”
“If we’re looking for the best places to do (commuter) trip reduction, it’s downtown,” Scharff said. “Nowhere else in the city comes close to that.”
Those on the council who favor slow city growth rejected this view. Much like their 1986 counterparts, they pointed to downtown’s parking and traffic problems as the main reasons why the downtown cap should remain.
Councilman Eric Filseth, who made a failed bid to restore the downtown cap, pointed to a recent citizens survey showing a growing number of citizens reporting that they don’t believe the council is acting in their interests.
“Why is this happening?” Filseth asked. “Probably not because we let Facebook get away, and we haven’t densified fast enough.”
While he agreed that downtown is served by more public transit than other areas, he said that adding development will not reduce car commuters but merely increase them at a slower rate.
Councilman Tom DuBois joined Filseth, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou in dissent.
“I think it’s pretty radical to just blow away the cap … when we recognized all the issues we’ve been dealing with downtown,” DuBois said.
Cracks in the ceiling
For 40 years, almost all new buildings in Palo Alto had to be shorter than 50 feet in height.
The invisible ceiling remains intact to this day and, much like in the past, it has its ardent supporters and detractors. For “residentialists,” who favor slow city growth, it’s a bedrock protection against the “Manhattanization” of their fair city. Even the City Council’s most pro-growth members — Cory Wolbach and Adrian Fine — have been cautious about slaying this political sacred cow. Both have said in the past that they support maintaining the limit, even though Fine had once called it “arbitrary.”
The current Comprehensive Plan doesn’t have a formal policy on height limits, but it notes that the established 50-foot threshold “has been respected in all new development since it was adopted in the 1970s.”
“Only a few exceptions have been granted for architectural enhancements or seismic safety retrofits to noncomplying building,” the Comprehensive Plan states.
But for city growth advocates, architects and developers, that’s not exactly a good thing. For them, the height limit, which is codified in a city ordinance, is an arbitrary barrier that exacerbates the city’s housing crunch and prevents quality building design. Randy Popp, a former chair of the city’s Architectural Review Board, has argued on many occasions that allowing a few extra feet would free architects to design more attractive four-story buildings. And Charles “Chop” Keenan, one of the city’s most prominent developers, urged the council in an April letter to focus less on height and more on the number of stories, particularly when retail is planned for the ground floor. (Retail space typically demands a 15-foot ceiling, he said.)
“Four stories in 50 feet can be done, but having 65 feet would be a much better building,” Keenan wrote.
The council continues to voice support for the 50-foot height limit, which remains politically popular. But even after praising it, they took a vote in January that opened the door to changing — or abolishing — the restriction. The updated Comprehensive Plan, they decided, will have no mention of the height limit.
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, who proposed editing out the height limit, acknowledged at the council’s Jan. 30 meeting that the rule has worked well over the years. She then argued that, rather than being embedded in the document, the policy should be kept on as a regular ordinance, subject to the whims of the present and future councils.
“It worked well,” Kniss said of the height limit. “If it continues as an ordinance, we’ll have flexibility with it.”
Some council members took issue with her logic. Karen Holman and Lydia Kou took the opposite view and said the height limit should be included in the Comprehensive Plan. Tom DuBois joined them in dissent.
“If our policy is to retain the 50-foot height limit, then it belongs in the Comprehensive Plan,” Holman said.
But on this issue, like on most others, those favoring more city growth carried the day. Councilman Eric Filseth, who typically sides with the “residentialist” camp, joined the council majority in voting 6-3 to remove the height restriction from the Comprehensive Plan.
“I’m certainly not prepared to repeal and replace it tonight, but at the same time we shouldn’t ban it outright,” Filseth said. “We don’t know what our needs will be 10 or 15 years from now.”
The council’s Jan. 30 vote doesn’t mean that the city’s 50-foot height limit will become completely irrelevant with the Plan’s adoption. It does, however, suggest that the council will be more lenient about breaking the limit for projects that offer coveted amenities like affordable housing and ground-floor retail. The fact that three of the six city-growth scenarios being analyzed as part of the Comprehensive Plan update include what staff calls “modest exceptions” to the height limit for such projects further underscores the ceiling’s crumbling foundation.
Even so, the council took pains at the January meeting not to go too far on the issue. Members opted not to include any policies explicitly allowing greater heights. Mayor Greg Scharff, like his colleagues, observed that the community generally likes the restriction, with not too many people saying that it needs to be raised.
That sentiment, however, is starting to change, as evidenced by the crowds of people attending meetings over the past two years to urge the council to “go big” on housing. Leaving the height limit out of the land-use document, Scharff argued, will allow this debate to continue.
“We’re not trying to change (the height limit), but we’re leaving the door open for that conversation in the future,” Scharff said.
A modest proposal
When Vice Mayor Liz Kniss was campaigning for re-election last fall, one issue towered above all others among residents with whom she spoke.
“It was housing, housing and more housing,” Kniss said during the City Council’s March 20 meeting, as the council was deciding how many new housing units to plan for between now and 2030.
Public calls for more housing remained high after November, with hundreds of residents flocking to council hearings, signing petitions and penning emails urging the City Council to “go big” on housing. John Kelley, who is part of the growing crowd, told the council that if the city doesn’t do anything “dramatic” about housing, families and friendships in Palo Alto will be torn apart.
“Are we simply going to be a community of the most wealthy of the world, or are we going to be a community that respects continuity of families, continuity of friendships and continuity of people living here?” Kelly asked on Jan. 30.
Some on the council share his view. Adrian Fine, who made housing the centerpiece of his council campaign, called it the community’s “No. 1 concern.” The city, he said, has not pulled its weight on housing for decades. The fact that between 2007 and 2013 the city only constructed 13 percent of the housing units that it was asked to plan for under its regional housing allocation only underscores that fact.
“I just don’t think moderation is the way to go on this. … I’d like to see Palo Alto be a leader on this,” Fine said.
Councilman Cory Wolbach agreed and called the Comprehensive Plan a chance for the council to “right our wrongs” and “clean up our mess.”
But as the council wrestled with the question of how much new housing to add, moderation was exactly what it settled for. Faced with six potential city-growth scenarios — ranging from 2,720 (in the scenario that continues all existing planning policies) to 6,000 housing units (the most aggressive growth scenario, added at the urging of the pro-housing crowd), the council’s two wings agreed to meet somewhere the middle.
At the urging of Mayor Greg Scharff, the council chose a scenario that would produce between 3,545 and 4,442 units by 2030 — far short of the 10,000 that Kelley urged, the 8,000 that Wolbach had advocated for and the 10,225 that the City of Mountain View is including in its precise plan for the North Bayshore area.
Scharff and Councilman Eric Filseth both said that taking the middle path on housing is a “balanced” approach to growth. The city, Filseth said, has done a good job maintaining its balance between being “a purely residential suburb like Saratoga and Woodside versus a crowded urban city like downtown San Francisco.
“A lot of cities would like to be where we are,” Filseth said. “Would everybody in Palo Alto like to have this and also have no traffic, easy parking everywhere, all the dog parks and playing fields you can possibly imagine and housing that everybody can afford who wants to live here? Of course. But it’s not going to happen.”
“I think what most people want is for us to keep this balance. I think most people don’t want to be Atherton, and they don’t want to be the Mission District either.”
After Wolbach’s bid to raise the number of housing units faltered by a 4-5 vote (with Kniss, Fine and Greg Tanaka joining him), the full council voted 8-1 to accept Scharff’s more moderate proposal. Yet the council also approved by a 5-4 vote — with all four residentialist-leaning members dissenting — to add to the plan a program exploring more dense multifamily complexes in areas well-served by public transit.
There was far more consensus on the topic of new housing sites. In addition to reaffirming its often-stated preference for small housing units in transit-rich locations, the council unanimously agreed to explore multi-family housing along El Camino Real at Stanford Shopping Center, near the Stanford University Medical Center and at Stanford Research Park. (The only major disagreement came over whether housing should also be considered at Town & Country Village; the council voted 5-4 not to include it as a potential residential site.)
Tiffany Griego, manager of Stanford Research Park, indicated on March 20 that the idea of adding housing is one the park has also been considering.
“Stanford and the council have a shared vision in encouraging a mix of uses in Stanford Research Park,” Griego said. “Where we see great opportunity is encouragement of housing in Stanford Research Park and in close proximity to jobs and transit.”
Driving away from cars
Sometime between now and 2030, Page Mill Road will get new lanes, buses will run with greater frequency along El Camino Real, and the railroad tracks will no longer intersect with local streets at four Palo Alto locations.
Or so, at least, the City Council hopes.
All these projects are included in Palo Alto’s new transportation vision, which the council unanimously adopted earlier this month.
The list of goals in the updated Transportation Element of the Comprehensive Plan includes reducing traffic congestion, improving local bikeways, adding transit options, protecting neighborhoods from traffic, and improving parking. At its core, it rests on two objectives that both complement and contradict each other: make driving more pleasant; and get people to stop driving.
When it comes to big-ticket regional improvements, the council’s focus is clearly on the former. Its top priority is separating the Caltrain tracks from the city’s roadways, known as “grade separation” — a project that will likely cost more than $1 billion and take years to complete. The council’s Rail Committee is kicking off a campaign to solicit public input on grade separations, a project that was kick-started by a $700 million allocation to Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto from Measure B, a sales tax that county voters approved last November.
Another regional project, the county’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) program — which would create curbside boarding platforms along El Camino Real and enable faster and more frequent bus service — is also endorsed in the new Transportation Element. (The council stopped short of supporting a prior BRT proposal that would have featured dedicated bus lanes on El Camino.) And after some debate, the council backed earlier this month a proposal by Santa Clara County to add lanes on Page Mill Road/Oregon Expressway, provided these lanes are designated for carpools or buses.
But when it comes to local projects, the council’s goal is to get as many people as possible to switch from driving to other modes of transportation. It’s eyeing a set of policies, called transportation-demand management (TDM), that incentivize people to make the switch.
The new Transportation Element includes programs calling for the city to create formal TDM requirements for new developments; require new developments to pay transportation-impact fees that would be used for programs that reduce congestion; and require enforcement with “meaningful penalties” for non-compliance.
It also establishes targets that developers will have to meet in shrinking the number of solo drivers during peak commute hours. The targets are a 45 percent reduction downtown; 35 percent in the California Avenue area; 30 percent in Stanford Research Park and along El Camino Real; and 20 percent in other parts of the city.
On the issue of parking, the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Comprehensive Plan Update drafted a policy that new development projects should “meet parking demand generated by the project, without the use of on-street parking, consistent with the established parking regulations.” In May, however, the council made a few moves to loosen the rules. Councilmen Adrian Fine and Cory Wolbach changed “meet” to “manage.” The idea, Fine told the Weekly, is to recognize that the conversation should include — in addition to parking requirements — strategies for managing demand through TDM measures and paid parking.
The council also agreed to explore requiring less parking at multifamily residences located near public transit. Wolbach and Fine, the council’s leading housing advocates, both led the charge on the new program. Parking, Fine said, is “a large cost to housing, and I believe this council is supportive of housing.”
The proposal passed 6-3, with Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou in dissent.
“We can only encourage so many things with reduced parking requirements without creating other kinds of issues,” Holman said. “We can’t use that as the carrot to encourage the kinds of development we want in all areas.”
Filseth said the big flaw in the proposal is that it fails to consider a critical question: Where is everyone going to park?
“All the good feelings in the world aren’t going to create a place for the cars to go,” Filseth said.
Embracing tech, but carefully
It’s a problem most cities would envy. But job growth in Palo Alto — a regional leader in both technology innovation and traffic frustration — is as much a problem to be solved as a sign of prosperity.
As part of updating its Comprehensive Plan, the City Council agreed to a goal of creating between 9,850 and 11,500 new jobs by 2030 — a middle ground on a menu of options that ranged from 8,868 to 15,480 jobs. Much like with housing targets, the goal struck a compromise between residentialist council members looking to rein in job growth, which they see as unsustainable, and development-friendly council members who believe the city should celebrate its high-tech roots and create more jobs.
The new Business Element crafted by the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Comprehensive Plan clearly acknowledges this tension. While calling successful businesses “an integral part of a thriving, complete community,” it also alludes to Palo Alto’s most intractable land-use dilemma: the fact that it has about three times as many jobs (more than 100,000) as employed residents (about 36,000).
“This indicates an exceptionally strong local economy, but it has also brought negative side effects over the past decade,” states the proposed Business Element, which the council is scheduled to review on May 22. “Due to the high number of jobs, relative to a low number of employed residents, many workers must commute to Palo Alto, resulting in traffic congestion, air pollution and parking constraints.”
Without a dramatic increase in housing or a devastating recession, this tension is unlikely to disappear any time soon. None of the planning scenarios that the city is evaluating as part of the environmental analysis for the Comprehensive Plan update came anywhere close to reducing the jobs-housing imbalance (which ranged from 2.71 to 3.20 in the six proposed scenarios).
That’s not to say, however, that the council is business unfriendly. Earlier this month, members sought to correct a zoning anomaly that generated national headlines about Palo Alto over the past year — the uncertainty over whether software startups are legally allowed to operate in downtown Palo Alto.
It became an issue after former Mayor Pat Burt suggested that downtown’s zoning wasn’t intended to accommodate the types of research-and-development uses one can find at Stanford Research Park and that the city should revise its zoning code to ensure consistency.
Mayor Greg Scharff noted that people from elsewhere were laughing at Palo Alto because of rumors that the city that gave rise to Facebook and Google is outlawing startups. Scharff characterized the new policy as an important correction.
Councilman Adrian Fine called the new policy “an affirmative vision.”
“Software development and technology is the lifeblood of this community,” Fine said.
rolling out the red carpet to tech in the Comprehensive Plan. Councilman Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Karen Holman argued against adopting any broad land-use policies for downtown without more analysis of potential negative impacts.
The council majority agreed, but not everyone was enthusiastic about
Holman said the question is one of size and scale. Should the city encourage the types of small startups that have cemented Palo Alto’s reputation as an incubator, or should its zoning policies acquiesce to tech giants like Palantir, which now has about 800 workers spread out among its leased downtown properties?
Or, to put it in the TV show “Silicon Valley” terms: Should Palo Alto be known as the home of Pied Piper or the home of Hooli?
Given the council’s recent swing toward more development-friendly policies, the new Comprehensive Plan is unlikely to establish any new limitations on high-tech businesses. But the council also agreed on May 1 not to disrupt things too much. A separate proposal by Tanaka to legalize the long-established practice of launching startups out of residential homes fizzled by a 3-6 vote, with only Fine and Cory Wolbach joining him. Scharff called the proposal “radical,” while Eric Filseth said he would be “astonished if a majority of Palo Alto residents supported legalizing hacker houses in R-1 (single-family) neighborhoods.”
In addition to embracing Palo Alto’s tech DNA, the updated Comprehensive Plan will likely address other emerging issues relating to jobs, retail and the world of tech. One new proposed policy calls for attracting businesses that innovate in the areas of “mobility and sustainability”; another calls for helping traditional retail adapt to the impacts of online shopping; yet another would consider ways to give more “development flexibility” to Stanford Research Park while not worsening traffic conditions.