With some reservations, planning commissioners endorse package of reforms to meet Housing Element goals
by Gennady Sheyner / Palo Alto Weekly
Uploaded: Fri, Oct 13, 2023, 8:46 am
Acclaim Companies submitted on Aug. 2 a “builder’s remedy” application for a 380-apartment complex at 3150 El Camino Real. Courtesy Studio T-Square/city of Palo Alto
Palo Alto’s plans to create a new housing hub on a stretch of El Camino Real, south of Oregon Expressway, received rave reviews this week from area developers, though one major builder suggested on Oct. 11 that it may still rely on state laws to override local zoning laws.
The city is in the midst of changing the zoning standards in its new El Camino “focus area” between Page Mill Road and Matadero Avenue, a segment that has seen several major development proposals over the past year. It also contains Palo Alto Square, a business park that is considering an addition of housing on its parking lots, according to city officials.
The goal of the new zoning effort is to both add housing and to convince the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) that Palo Alto has the capacity to accommodate its goal of 6,086 new dwellings between 2023 and 2031. The state agency has rejected the city’s Housing Element twice, including the version that the City Council formally adopted last May. The city hopes that by relaxing development standards such as height, density and parking, it will remove existing constraints to housing construction.
The Planning and Transportation Commission advanced this effort on Oct. 11 when it recommended a series of zone changes that would implement the city’s new policies. During a marathon session that featured tense debates and a flurry of votes, commissioners struggled to reconcile the city’s housing goals with the need to ensure that the code changes don’t overwhelm existing neighborhoods or create substandard living conditions for new residents.
The plan for the new El Camino Real focus area was among the initiatives that moved forward, with the commission voting 5-1, with Commissioner Cari Templeton dissenting, to support the strategy (Commissioner George Lu, who lives in this area, recused from the commission’s discussion of this policy). In doing so, however, commissioners raised concerns about the need to protect Matadero Creek, which flows through the development site at 3400 El Camino Real, and to ensure that the housing complex at this site isn’t built too close to single-family homes.
The zoning debate, which started on Wednesday and spilled into Thursday morning, comes with a sense of urgency. Under state law, Palo Alto and other cities have until Jan. 31 to implement the zoning changes required to implement Housing Element policies. Assistant City Attorney Albert Yang told the commission that a failure to do so would make the city’s legal position even more precarious when it comes to housing laws.
“Right now, the city position is that, notwithstanding the HCD’s position, we think our Housing Element complies with the minimum requirements of state law,” Yang said. “We won’t be able to take that position after Jan. 31 if we haven’t adopted an implementing ordinance.”
Fueled by this sense of urgency, the commission recommended a series of zone changes. At the same time, some members expressed trepidation about many of these changes, which in some cases only advanced by 4-3 votes. Commissioners specifically raised concerns about approving zone changes on Stanford University-owned sites that would allow Stanford to limit housing to its affiliates and avoid paying property taxes, a key source of revenue for the local school district.
Commissioners Keith Reckdahl and Bryna Chang were particularly concerned about the revenue issue and asked city staff to consider mechanisms for ensuring that these revenues flow in, whether in the form of taxes or impact fees. Currently, the city is considering three Stanford-owned sites for future housing projects: two on El Camino and one on Pasteur Drive, near the Stanford University Medical Center. Under the proposed plans, the two El Camino projects would be for the general public while the Pasteur project would be limited to Stanford staff, faculty and postdoctoral students.
Unlike the City Council, which raised some objections earlier this month about Stanford limiting its new housing projects to its own affiliates, the commission was generally amenable to Stanford’s plan for staff housing. Its primary concern was around property taxes.
“Whether it’s affiliates or not affiliates, they have the same impact on PAUSD and we should ensure that,” Reckdahl said, before the panel voted 5-1, with Commissioner Bart Hechtman dissenting, to support his direction to staff.
Hechtman, meanwhile, raised concerns about adding policies that would weaken the incentives to build housing. He brought up similar concerns during the discussion of the El Camino focus zone when some of his colleagues proposed provisions that would better protect the creek and require more distance between new developments and adjacent single-family homes.
Templeton, meanwhile, took the opposite stance and suggested that the city is moving too fast in approving the new development standards for the proposed focus area. Under the proposal that the commission endorsed, sites in this area would have a height limit of 85 feet (far higher than the existing 50-foot standards) and they would be allowed to accommodate roughly twice as much density than they currently do.
“I feel like we’re stuck between a rock and a hard spot because this isn’t ready,” Templeton said. “If this was any other point in time there’s no way this would be considered for approval.”
The proposed focus area, which the City Council is expected to formally approve next month, received high marks from the two developers who are already pursuing major residential projects on this segment of El Camino.
“We are very pleased with the movement in this focus area to allow this density,” said Mark Johnson, partner at Acclaim Companies.
Acclaim is currently advancing a seven-story, 380-apartment project at 3150 El Camino Real, which until recently housed The Fish Market restaurant. Earlier this year, the developer indicated that it is willing to rely on the “builder’s remedy” provision of state law, which applies to cities without approved Housing Elements and which allows developers to override local zoning regulations.
But while he supported the city’s push on El Camino, Johnson did not preclude the option of Acclaim relying on the State Density Bonus law – which grants builders additional waivers from local regulations – as part of its new project at the Fish Market site. The benefits provided by the state law, he said, may be “essential to making this project actually happen.”
“While we’re encouraged, we are concerned we may not be able to build this project using the developing standards proposed for El Camino focus area without implanting some of the density bonus waivers,” Johnson said.
Ted O’Hanlon, who has been working on the housing project proposed for the Creekside Inn site at 3400 El Camino Real, also lauded the new focus zone. The project, which is being developed by Oxford Capital Group, currently consists of a hotel building, a 185-apartment complex and four townhomes. He encouraged the city to advance policies that allow more height and, in doing so, let developers use the core of the building for parking and thus help them avoid the expense and disruption of constructing underground garages.
“We are excited to be included in the El Camino Real focus plan and look forward to working with the city on a continuing basis,” O’Hanlon said at the Oct. 11 meeting.
While El Camino is expected to accommodate a small portion of the city’s housing plan, a much larger share would go to the San Antonio Road and Fabian Way area, where most properties are currently zoned for commercial and industrial uses. The proposed Housing Element envisions about 2,000 dwellings – roughly a third of the city’s total – in this area, which would see more height and density than any other Palo Alto neighborhood.
The commission supported the new zoning standards for this area, even as members expressed reservations about issues like parking requirements and the area’s proximity to the Baylands. Vice Chair Bryna Chang noted the lack of transit services in this area and suggested raising the proposed parking standards. While some employees in this area, particularly those who work at nearby Google properties, may be able to get to work without cars, many others will have few good options for getting around.
“From an equity perspective, I’m concerned that if we don’t have adequate parking, we’re creating an area that’s livable only for certain people,” Chang said. “And it’s a problem because it’s a large amount of our RHNA allocation and it’s also a large swath of a section of Palo Alto.”
But Planning Director Jonathan Lait suggested that tightening parking standards could undermine the goal of the project, which is to make development easier.
“To achieve the densities that the Housing Element prescribes for this area, we need to eliminate constraints in our zoning code that would preclude us form achieving those densities,” Lait said. “Parking is one of those constraints.”
While the commission ultimately voted to support the new zoning standards in south Palo Alto, Templeton said she wasn’t convinced that the area can – or should – accommodate as many housing units as the council and planning staff envision. She suggested that the city explore additional sites elsewhere for housing.
“There’s no need to put all 1,900 that are being claimed can be built in this area,” Templeton said. “They don’t all have to go here. There are other places they can go.”
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut.
on Oct 13, 2023 at 9:14 am
It was instructive to see the parade of
for-profit developers urging the PTC to support changes that will make them a fortune.
Developer Owen Byrd was compelled to reveal he was allied with with Yimby Action and Palo Alto Forward. Of course he is – they are developers’ defacto lobbyists.
Cities being forced by the State to take actions it knows are adverse to Palo Alto is a shame.
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 13, 2023 at 9:44 am
These proposed zoning changes are nothing but a reckless rush towards overdevelopment, completely disregarding the character and essence of our community. The city’s attempt to appease state demands inflating housing numbers at the expense of our neighborhoods is extremely concerning. The potential 85-foot building height and increased density will not only disrupt the existing community aesthetics but also put a strain on our already burdened infrastructure. Moreover, the hasty push towards meeting the state’s arbitrary housing goals undermines the thoughtful planning process that should prioritize the interests and values of long-standing Palo Alto residents. This is a sad time for all of Palo Alto.
on Oct 13, 2023 at 10:04 am
Well, just so long as the developers and Stanford get their way to limit their contributions to the community, to limit their tax liabilities and to maximize their profits ….
Re Owen Byrd, let’s also recall his role as Chairman of the Board of Downtown Streets and his attacks on Embarcadero Media for daring to call him out on his role and enabling their abuse of their workers while their execs enriched themselves.
If you want to opine on Stanford’s development plan which helps them and hurts the rest of us by taking more housing off the PA market and tax rolls while pushing up housing prices, please write to Boardoperations@cob.sccgov.org before their 10/17 meeting.
on Oct 13, 2023 at 10:36 am
I have lived in South Palo Alto all my life, and watched as “our” city council and planning commission and given the short shrift to South Palo Alto over the years. The communities on either side of El Camino share apartments, very narrow streets, dedicated bike routes to grammar schools, High schools, the VA hospital and Stanford. Allowing over large developments with inadequate parking, high priced apartments, and possibly not contributing to the services the city charges other developers, is not right. Our street and schools will be over impacted with these developments. 1/3 of the city requirements do not have to be put all in one place. I see the city is looking at San Antonio, Frys, South Palo Alto, but nothing in North Palo Alto. Where is the fairness in this?
on Oct 13, 2023 at 11:08 am
Yes let’s put all of the new development South of Oregon so the wealthier neighborhoods don’t have to put up with the traffic and other density problems it will cause. East Charleston and Louis is already a mess because of the new light.
And let’s also make sure Berman and Becker get voted OUT next time because they voted for these unconstitutional bills that take away local control; they are just big gifts to developers.
on Oct 13, 2023 at 12:17 pm
The State requires that any site chosen for a Housing Element must have a realistic possibility of redevelopment in the next eight years. Right now, there’s potential for more housing *units* on realistically-possible sites in the South part of town than in the North.
There definitely are Housing Element sites in the North part of town. (There’s one targeted for a dense multifamily project on my block here in Professorville.) Off the top of my head I don’t know whether there is a greater number of *sites* in the North or South parts of town, but if we can agree on the dividing lines I might be able to figure it out.
If a property is already generating (or likely to generate) good revenue for its owner, the owner is unlikely to redevelop. This is one reason there aren’t more Housing Element sites in already-dense areas like Downtown.
Keep in mind that the State’s overall goal is to eliminate local control. If you disagree with this you have to take it to the State level, through your representatives or the initiative process. At the local government level, there are major legal constraints on what can be done.
(Speaking for myself, not the PTC)
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 13, 2023 at 12:17 pm
Palo Alto should partner with other locations to initiate a lawsuit against the state Department of Housing and Community Development to halt their “assignments” of what be built in specific cities. None of the members have been voted by the residents of Palo Alto so should have no say in what we decide here. 6,086 new residences seem to be far too high for a small town like Palo Alto and will disrupt the lifestyle that we have become accustomed.
This seems to be a land grab by the politicians and their allied property developers. Terms like ‘Weiner’s Remedy’ and ‘Berman’s Remedy’ are very concerning. Any developer that wants to build apartments here should post a large Performance Bond to be drawn from later by the PAUSD and requirements for rebuilding the roads, electrical system and fiber installations.
on Oct 13, 2023 at 12:24 pm
Traffic is not mentioned in this article. Getting from my house to Stanford (3 Mile trip) use to take 5-10 minutes. Now the same trip takes 20 minutes. With the new housing it will double again. public transportation will suffer as well. Think about it!!!
on Oct 13, 2023 at 1:10 pm
@Ocam’s Razor, I totally agree. Other cities are doing that, especially since the whole economy has changed since the housing targets were adopted — mass layoffs, state budget deficits so affordable housing’s not getting funded, remote work, declining population. weather/drought, etc. — but the state is refusing to reconsider ANYTHING in the face of the new reality for another 8 years.
@Joel, right.Traffic and under-parking are rarely mentioned and never considered because the developers and all their well-funded lobbyists and DODO politicians (Developer Owned Developer Operated) keep spouting their fairy tales that no one wants to needs cars to get to work, that people are going to live near where they work because no one in Sillycone Valley ever changes jobs ….
Evergreen Park Observer
on Oct 13, 2023 at 5:34 pm
Jonathan Lait says that parking is just one of the things that has to go if we are to build housing. So, where does he propose to put the cars that people in the new developments will undoubtedly own? Even if people ride their bike or take the ridiculously slow bus to work, they will own a car and keep it parked somewhere. After all, there will come a time when they want to drive to a friend’s house for dinner (perhaps in the winter when it is cold and raining), to the doctor when they are terribly sick, when they grocery shop and have a lot to carry, or when they want to drive somewhere for a weekend vacation. Until a lot of things change, people will need a car for many things. Not providing parking is just putting one’s head in the sand and ignoring reality. Similarly, not mentioning how congested El Camino Real is currently and having no plan to address an added 1500 cars or so just with residents is not “planning” for reality.
PA Community Advocate
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 14, 2023 at 10:03 am
The housing “crisis” or “shortage” in the Palo Alto – East Palo Alto – Mountain View area is a myth. Look at the vacancies for rentals online.
You don’t get to have a nice 4bd 3ba 3,000sqft home in whatever town you like at the price you want. The entitlement is out of control.
The only winners here are the real estate developers.
on Oct 14, 2023 at 10:19 am
The subject of parking requirements came up several times during Wednesday’s meeting, so I’ll just summarize the comments I made there as well as some of the feedback from City Staff.
The State limits the amount of parking the City can *require*. This is especially true within a half-mile of Caltrain stations, where the requirement must be zero.
Developers are aware that housing without adequate parking usually isn’t marketable, so they tend to include some even where it isn’t strictly required.
A big problem arises when it’s possible to dump the parking burden onto adjacent streets. Not only does that move traffic, noise, pollution, and safety issues onto neighborhood streets, it defeats the sustainability goals the reduced parking was intended to support in the first place.
We don’t have many tools to deal with this. The best is probably Residential Preferential Parking (RPP) districts. However, the State has limitations on those, too. Current City law also requires that they be established by petitions from the neighborhoods.
Neighborhood groups could consider creating RPP districts right away. Overnight parking controls might be another approach to keep in mind. Not only would that protect existing neighborhoods like Barron Park, but it would encourage developers to do the right thing by providing adequate parking and implementing transportation demand management plans to reduce the need.
(Speaking for myself, not for the PTC.)