New study on revenue potential from 2020 tax ballot measures

August 17, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

On August 20, the Council Finance Committee will take a deeper dive into potential Tax Measures to place on the 2020 Ballot. The latest analysis describes the process and revenue potential for a General Bond or a Parcel Tax and a commissioned study on Business Tax measures in the Bay Area over the past 10 years, including comparative research across municipalities and analysis and modeling of the range of potential revenue the city might generate via a business tax vehicle (based on employee head count, square footage, or payroll expenses).

There are a lot of variables that can impact how much revenue a given tax might generate, including potential exemptions and different pricing levels and structures. In selecting an appropriate vehicle, the city must also consider “potential areas of tax leakage” and impacts on the economic environment and tax ecosystem. With further Finance Committee and council direction to narrow the focus, more complex scenarios will be modeled. Meanwhile, In a nutshell, the initial analysis modeled the following including initial, general assessments of impacts on equity, administrability, stability, and economic benefits:

  • General Obligation Bonds ranging from $100 to $500 million in debt issuance. These would require 2/3 voter approval.
  • Parcel Taxes of either a flat $350 per parcel or a $1 per square foot per eligible parcel, yielding between $7 million and $25 million per year. City parcel taxes typically require 2/3 voter approval.
  • Business license taxes, whether based on employee headcount, square footage, or payroll size, could potentially generate $1 million to $15.5 million annually, depending on the tax rate. If the tax is considered a “general tax”, it requires only majority voter approval. If a “special tax” it would require 2/3 voter approval. Whether “general” or “special” depends on the level of specificity regarding what the revenues will be spent on.

Following the Finance Committee meeting, staff will return to City Council with an update and confirm timing for next steps, including polling and stakeholder outreach, with an eye toward a decision about the type of measure to pursue by October/November. Click here for the staff report. 

Fry’s site owner reluctant to redevelop just as city’s NVCAP costs may escalate

August 16, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

The North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan will return to City Council for endorsement of an expanded planning process for the 60 acre area surrounding the Fry’s Electronics property. The Fry’s Electronics site, a 12 acre parcel at the core of the study area for the NVCAP is coveted in the city’s Housing Element for its potential for a “realistic yield” of 221 new housing units. Indeed, the potential redevelopment of the site following the upcoming expiration of the Fry’s Electronics lease was a driving factor in initiating the NVCAP to ensure the area evolves into a vibrant, well connected, mixed-use neighborhood. The city received a two-year grant from Caltrans in 2018 to develop the coordinated area plan, with local matching funds provided by the Sobrato organization, the property owners for the Fry’s site. 

To accommodate council direction from a March 11 Town Hall meeting, process concerns expressed by NVCAP Working Group members, and an expanded environmental analysis related to the Fry’s site’s historical significance, staff hopes to receive a one-time, two year extension of the project deadline under the Caltrans grant. 

March council direction included study of alternatives for naturalizing Matadero creek, analysis of stronger housing, displacement prevention, and office size limits, and objective accounting to assess impacts of potential zoning changes on both property owners and community amenities.

On Monday August 19, staff will seek council endorsement of a revised overall approach and schedule for the project and staff’s response to Working Group members’ concerns as well as authorization to expand the scope (and cost) of the planning consultant’s contract and add a new contract to study the feasibility of naturalizing the creek.

If approved, the expanded scope of the NVCAP project will escalate costs by 40 percent, including up to $367,112 that will not be covered by the Caltrans grant. In order to fund the expanded scope, staff proposes exploring opportunities to share plan development costs with large property owners in the study area. 

Recent indications that the Sobrato organization has little interest in redeveloping the Fry’s site suggests a change of heart since their 2018 investment of $138,000 in the NVCAP planning process. Whether that is due to the direction the NVCAP is heading, a hardening negotiating position, or other factors remains to be seen. However it does complicate the framework for council’s August 19 decision making. 

Without redevelopment of the Fry’s property, the NVCAP’s housing potential would be significantly diminished as would opportunities for enhanced neighborhood amenities and mobility across the 60-acre plan area. The city must nonetheless complete the NVCAP within one to three years (depending on extension of the Caltrans grant) or assume responsibility for moneys already paid out of the grant. Adding new investment in the NVCAP, despite diminished expectations regarding the Fry’s site, entails risk. But opting out of the proposed new scope for the project could undermine credibility and limit the future promise of the plan. 
This item is scheduled for council action on August 19, beginning at 6:50 pm. Click here for the staff report.

Council may turn to strategic Blue Ribbon Committee to speed action on grade separations

August 15, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

The ongoing saga of deciding how best to separate roadways from the train tracks may see a new player as City Council considers appointing a Rail Blue Ribbon Committee, comprised of former Palo Alto mayors and city council members. On August 19, council will consider staff’s recommendation to appoint a politically savvy group to supplement the work of the Expanded Community Advisory Panel, or XCAP, that took over from the original Community Advisory Panel earlier this year. As proposed, the new group of former electeds may be joined by non-voting representatives from the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, Stanford University, Caltrain, Valley Transportation Authority, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. The RBRC’s primary role would be to advise council on the selection of grade separation alternatives, but may also extend to development of a funding strategy for implementation – a function of increasing urgency as Palo Alto’s allotment of Measure B grade separation funds may be reduced by a delayed decision, contrary to the expectations of many. 

The XCAP (comprised of neighborhood members, and representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, the Planning and Transportation Commission, PAUSD, and Friends of Caltrain), would continue its work to help staff “increase awareness and understanding of the options and complex trade offs that must be considered in the decisions ahead for the city” and ensure that “neighborhood perspectives are reflected in the development and evaluation of grade separation alternatives.

In contrast, the Rail Blue Ribbon Committee, or RBRC, would provide strategic recommendations directly to the council regarding “community-wide benefits and impacts, local and regional political considerations, and financing strategy for implementation.” Looking beyond neighborhood concerns, the RBRC will focus on how to build citywide voter support and compete for regional funding and project commitments. Staff hopes that former electeds will bring an understanding of both “the political environments locally and regionally” that will inform their recommendations regarding the viability of the various alternatives.

Beyond grade separation alternatives, staff recommends a range of RBRC involvement in funding strategy for the selected alternative:

  1. Limited to making recommendations on dollar amounts to be targeted via a tax ballot measure (regardless of the tax vehicle);
  2. Recommending a dollar target, timing, and the parameters of a specific tax vehicle; or
  3. All of option 2 plus design of polling and a community awareness campaign leading to decisions on a ballot measure.

This item is scheduled for council action on August 19, beginning at 9:15 pm. Click here for the staff report. 

City pushes for fair representation on VTA in response to Civil Grand Jury

August 15, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

In June 2019, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury released a highly critical report regarding the operations and governance of the Valley Transportation Authority and asked cities within the VTA service boundary to respond to specific recommendations regarding VTA Governance. City Council will discuss and approve a draft response on August 19.

The Civil Grand Jury report stated that “year after year, VTA operates one of the most expensive and least efficient transit systems in the country.” Despite a series of critical civil grand jury reports dating back to 2004, the VTA continues to veer from one financial crisis to another, while also perpetuating a structural deficit of $50 to $60 million per year. Regular users represent fewer than 5 percent of the county’s commuters despite continuous, significant increases in operating costs, 90 percent of which are subsidized by taxpayers. 

Overall, the jury concluded that radical changes in policy and strategic oversight are needed, but that the VTA Board as currently structured and operated, lacks the capability to accomplish that change. Key findings point to lack of experience, engagement, continuity and leadership on the board; insufficient time investment due to other duties as elected officials; domination of the board by representatives of San Jose and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors “in terms of numbers, seniority and influence;” and frequent tension between directors’ fiduciary duties to the VTA and the political demands (and interests) associated with their local elected positions.

Key jury recommendations include calls for the VTA and the county to commission separate studies of successful transportation agency governance structures, reports from each city on its views regarding VTA governance, and consideration of such things as duration of directors’ terms, appointing directors who are not actively serving elected officials, and extending the chairperson’s term to two years.

Palo Alto’s draft response requests that the studies of successful governance include, not just “large city” agencies, but specifically those in metropolitan areas where service boundaries span multiple municipalities. The city cautions that small cities, and especially those without representation on the VTA Board, will need time and resources to meaningfully weigh in on alternative governance structures for the VTA, including strategies to sustainably represent the interests of multiple municipalities. Specifically, the city proposes evaluating VTA governance (and representation) based not only on population distribution, but also such things as employment and sales tax generation (a primary source of VTA revenues) or communities with direct interest in shared permanent transportation issues, such as Caltrain and High Speed Rail. Palo Alto urges that VTA provide funding to an organization such as the Cities Association of Santa Clara County to facilitate that work. 

The city is open to participating in legislative reforms pertaining to governance structure, but cautions that they must address the root concerns that lead to underrepresentation of smaller cities, particularly those bordering other counties. In particular, it may be premature to commit to extending the Chairperson’s term prior to resolving issues of fair representation across constituent agencies. 
This item is scheduled for council action on August 19, beginning at 7:50 pm. Click here for the staff report.

Parks and Rec Commission dips toes in fraught waters

July 30, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

On July 23, the Parks and Recreation Commission attracted a rare large audience with two agenda items addressing what has historically represented the “third rail” of Palo Alto’s park politics: opening Foothills Park to non-residents and allowing dogs off-leash in unfenced areas of city parks. Neither of the items, instigated by two commission ad hoc committees, was agendized for action; they were intended to merely initiate a conversation and stimulate direction to the ad hoc committees for further consideration of options.

Foothills Park Access

Current city law limits park attendance to 1,000 visitors at a time. Non-residents are allowed to enter Foothills Park via hiking trails at any time, but if they want to enter by car, they must be accompanied by a resident. In practice, however, the residency requirement is only enforced on weekends and holidays. Despite that de facto open door policy five days a week, Commissioner Ryan McCauley, a member of the commission’s Foothills Park ad hoc committee and the lead advocate for expanding non-resident access to the park, criticized the current law as a “very rough tool” for managing park use and preservation. He emphasized that access could be expanded in a variety or combination of ways.

The ad hoc committee presented three potential strategies for expanding park access:

  • Update the municipal code to allow non-residents to drive into the park on non-holiday weekdays.
  • Grant full access to students in the Palo Alto Unified School District who live outside city limits and students of the Ravenswood School District.
  • Create a reservation system by which non-residents can purchase passes for weekend access.

Not surprisingly, public comment was split. Some favored expanded access as simply “the right thing to do” while others worried that more cars and people in the park would pose a threat to the serenity, flora and fauna, and maintenance level of the park. Commission Vice Chair Jeff Greenfield emphasized that any plan to expand access should minimize financial impacts on the city (including staff time), should be easy to understand, implement, and manage, and should readily facilitate monitoring of impacts.

It was unclear whether there was majority support on the commission for the underlying intention of expanding non-resident access. But if the city was to go that direction, commissioners generally seemed to favor strategies focused on underserved populations, students, and people who volunteer their services in Palo Alto. Commissioner David Moss wanted the commission to take note that Palo Alto is growing and that the 1,000-visitors-at-a-time limit could eventually lead to Palo Altans being turned away even if the residency requirement were retained.

Off-Leash Dogs

Unlike expanding users in Foothills Park, expanding opportunities for residents to exercise their dogs off-leash is a priority policy in the 2017 Parks Master Plan. Attentive to that policy, the ad hoc committee on dog parks recommended that the commission support using Capital Improvement Project (CIP) funding available in FY2020 and FY2022 to expand the dog parks at Greer Park and Mitchell Park. Dog owners frequently criticize the adequacy of both dog parks and each offers potential for larger exercise areas.

In addition to moving forward on dog park investments, the ad hoc committee sought commission feedback on the desirability of a pilot program that would allow dogs off-leash in designated unfenced areas of parks for a limited number of hours a day. Eleanor Pardee Park and Heritage Park were mentioned as possible candidates for such a pilot, but the ad hoc committee is still considering appropriate options. Commissioner Keith Reckdahl strongly supported fenced dog parks, but not unfenced off-leash hours, while other commissioners thought they could get behind a plan for unfenced hours as long as it was a pilot project.

Historic significance of Fry’s Electronics site may complicate redevelopment options as NVCAP planning process advances

August 5, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

In October 2018, the city kicked off a formal planning process to create a community-driven, integrated plan for redevelopment of the 60 acre area including and surrounding the Fry’s Electronics site in the North Ventura neighborhood. The North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan, or NVCAP, process is intended to produce a plan and regulatory framework for a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood with multifamily housing, commercial services, green space, and well-defined connections to transit, bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

With the data collection and community “visioning and priorities” stage of the process wrapping up, the city and community working group are shifting their attention to the development of plan alternatives. On August 19, City Council is tentatively scheduled to provide direction on anticipated changes in the scope of consultant services, including a likely budget increase. Staff also plans to seek an extension of the funding deadline in order to address the historic significance of the property, explore options to re-naturalize Matadero Creek, and finalize a contract for feasibility and cost estimates for open space options.

As part of the initial assessment of the plan area, the city commissioned an evaluation of the project area for potential historic resources. The evaluation found that the Fry’s Electronics building at 340 Portage Avenue and an associated office building on Ash street are historically significant due to association with the historic Santa Clara County cannery industry and retain integrity in six of the seven required categories, making the property eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources. According to city staff, “the cannery is associated with the Bayside Canning Company, which was owned by a prominent Chinese immigrant [Thomas Foon Chew] and a groundbreaking figure in the canning industry. Mr. Chew was able to make the Bayside Canning Company the third largest fruit and vegetable cannery in the world in the 1920s, only behind Libby and Del Monte.”

As such, the property qualifies as a historic resource for the purposes of review under the California Environmental Quality Act and will be subject to supplemental environmental analysis. Whether the property’s historic significance will demand preservation of all or parts of the buildings themselves remains to be seen. However, the city’s Historic Resources Board was in agreement on July 25 that the buildings needed to be preserved and incorporated into the new project in some way. How to accomplish that while optimizing the underlying housing potential in that area, located in the core of the NVCAP, adds a new challenge to the planning process.

New impact report offers data and analysis to inform contentious debate over Castilleja’s redevelopment

August 5, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

Editors note: This story has been updated to clarify the DEIR’s conclusions regarding net new daily car trips and distinguish between total daily trips and new trips on specific roadways.

The City of Palo Alto will finally enter the fray after standing on the sidelines of a multi-year public relations battle between Castilleja and its residential neighbors over the private school’s ambitious proposal to redesign its campus and expand enrollment to 540 students over the next four years (125 more students than allowed under their existing Conditional Use Permit). On August 14, the Planning and Transportation Commission will hold the first public hearing on a Draft Environmental Impact Report for the project. The DEIR, released on July 17, is subject to a 60-day public comment period, ending on September 16, 2019. The Historic Resources Board will hold another public hearing on September 12. Council action is not yet scheduled.

Two Stories

The sometimes fractious tale of two projects that has unfolded in recent years has the school touting its redesign as a much needed “modernization” that will expand access to “the unique transformational power of an all-girls education,” including to the 22 percent of students who receive financial assistance. (Tuition and fees for 2019/20 school year cost $49,900; current aid recipients represent incomes from below $20,000 to $300,000.) School representatives cite 30 community meetings held since 2012 to support their claim that the plan incorporates neighborhood input and was developed in consultation with the community in order to minimize, and even reduce, neighborhood impacts. 

Castilleja officials emphasize that the school’s above-ground building footprint will not increase and that their proposed enrollment growth will be incremental and closely monitored. If it results in an increase in car trips, the next increment must be delayed until the school can bring car trips back under a cap of 440 cars during peak commutes. Finally, they argue that a new underground garage (adding 68 additional parking spaces to the school’s inventory, for a total of 142 spaces) will not invite more driving, but rather is intended to reduce on-street parking and traffic spillover on neighborhood streets.

Neighbors, on the other hand, tell the story of commercial expansion by a tax exempt corporation in an R-1 residential zone, through redevelopment that would overwhelm the quiet neighborhood with traffic and noise, eliminate heritage trees, and violate the city’s municipal code by improperly excluding the underground garage from the site’s floor area limits, resulting in “30,000 more above-ground square feet than is allowed by current code.” 

They describe a process that ignored or misrepresented public input, a garage that will incentivize more driving as well as change the face of the neighborhood, replacing houses with a garage exit that will shine hundreds of headlights directly into neighboring property, disrupt traffic patterns, and cause cars to queue along Emerson and Bryant Streets as they wait to enter or leave both the parking garage and Embarcadero Road. 

The fact that Castilleja “increased enrollment from 415 to 450 over 12 years [in violation of the school’s Conditional Use Permit], starting 2 years after they agreed on 415,” looms large as a source of mistrust regarding Castilleja’s intentions, practices, and reliability for future compliance. 

The Project

Castilleja’s plan includes removing two school-owned houses, replacing five existing buildings with a single new, three-story academic building, eliminating 47 surface parking spots, freeing up green space (including a .33 acre “park” that neighbors would be permitted to access), adding a 50,500 square foot underground parking garage, lowering the pool below grade, and rebuilding basement classroom space. On net, above grade building area will be slightly reduced and below grade built area will increase, resulting in a total expansion of 77,784 square feet, a 47 percent overall increase.

Development will occur in four phases over three to four years, with student enrollment increasing to 490 students in phase one, 520 students in phase three, and reaching the maximum 540 students in phase four. If the school exceeds the car trip cap of 440 peak trips per day, subsequent enrollment growth will be put on hold until they return to compliance.


The Draft Environmental Impact Report noted that the project would “enable improved safety, sustainability and programmatic space” for Castilleja’s student population, and acknowledged features designed to minimize “school-related disruptions on the surrounding neighborhood,” such as new limits on special events, as well as amenities designed to benefit the community, including landscaping, preservation of mature trees, and .33 acre “park” that could be used by the school’s neighbors. 

On the other hand, the DEIR concluded that higher student enrollment could significantly increase daily car trips, from the current total of 1198 trips to 1477 total trips, despite Castilleja’s current Transportation Demand Management program. “The net new trips associated with the increased enrollment is 279 or an 18.9% increase from the existing conditions.” Citing a June 2019 analysis prepared by Castilleja’s TDM consultants, Nelson/Nygaard, the DEIR anticipates that the enhanced TDM program proposed in Mitigation Measure 7a could reduce car trips by 12 percent to 22 percent. At the high end of effectiveness, that could mean a net reduction of daily trips to 1152. However, if the enhanced TDM measures perform at the lower end, the project would still produce a net increase of 102 daily trips.

Importantly, even if a successful, enhanced TDM program results in a net reduction in total daily trips, the concentration of school-related traffic on specific roadways due to the consolidation of parking in the underground garage would create significant and unavoidable project-related traffic impacts. In particular, the project would significantly increase daily car loads on Emerson Street between Embarcadero Road and Melville Avenue, and cause considerable new delays at the intersection of Alma Street and Kingsley Avenue. The DEIR deems the enhanced TDM program in Mitigation Measure 7a insufficient to reduce those traffic impacts to less than significant levels. The resulting potential to exacerbate existing land use conflicts between the school and its residential neighborhood was deemed a further significant and unavoidable impact of the project that would “create land use incompatibility or physically divide and established community.”

DEIR analysis of estimated change in traffic volume at various roadway segments attributable to Castilleja’s proposed project

The DEIR also identified significant or potentially significant environmental impacts on noise, trees (biological resources), air quality and seismicity associated with the project, but concluded that mitigation measures could reduce those impacts to less than significant. 

Finally, the Castilleja project was found to be generally consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. However, the DEIR’s zoning consistency analysis highlights that the proposed above-grade gross floor area represents a .41 Floor Area Ratio whereas the maximum FAR allowed on the site per city code would be .3026. Existing buildings on the site represent a FAR of .43 and Castilleja has requested a variance from the city to allow it to maintain its existing above-grade FAR. Because the proposed project results in a smaller non-compliance, the DEIR deems the proposed .41 FAR to present no new adverse physical environmental effects. The DEIR analysis does not count the project’s 128,166 below-grade basement square footage in the FAR calculation.

What’s next?

In addition to analysis of Castilleja’s proposed project, the Draft EIR analyzed three alternatives:

  • Alternative 1:  No project.
  • Alternative 2:  Moderate enrollment increase. Reduce maximum enrollment from 540 to 506 students, allowing for slight reductions in both the size of the new academic building and the number of off-street parking spaces.
  • Alternative 3:  Moderate enrollment increase with reduced parking. Reduce maximum enrollment from 540 to 506 and reduce on-site parking to 92 spaces (minimum required by city code), with 52 spaces in the below grade garage and the rest in on-site surface lot at the corner of Emerson and Kellogg.

The public has 60 days to comment on the DEIR. You can email comments to, offer oral comments at the August 14 Planning and Transportation Commission Hearing (6:00 pm, Council Chambers, City Hall) or the September 12 Historic Resources Board Hearing (8:30 am, Council Chambers, City Hall), or send them to: 

Amy French, Chief Planning Official, Planning & Community Environmental Department, City of Palo Alto, 250 Hamilton Ave, 5th Floor, Palo Alto, CA 94301

Following the public comment period, a Final Environmental Impact Report will be prepared, including responses to each submitted comment and any additional analysis conducted. The FEIR will also be subject to a public comment period and will provide the final analysis to guide City Council’s decision on whether to approve or deny the proposed project or an alternative. A Final EIR indicating significant and unavoidable impacts would require the council to make a finding of “overriding considerations” justifying approval of the project. 

Note: DEIR comments are most effective when they specifically address impacts identified in the report or gaps in analysis or offer additional relevant information that can inform the analysis.

For more information related to the project visit the following websites:

City of Palo Alto:  DEIR Executive Summary

City of Palo Alto:  Castilleja DEIR documents

Castilleja School:  Castilleja Re-imagined

Protect Neighborhood Quality of Life:  grassroots organization of Castilleja neighbors 

Consent Calendars touch on controversial Mercedes/Audi dealership and cell equipment standards

August 3, 2019Palo Alto Matters

Mercedes/Audi rendering


Second vote on controversial Mercedes/Audi dealership coming up on consent August 5

On August 5, on second reading, council will vote up or down, without debate to confirm its approval of a new Mercedes/Audi dealership at the former Ming’s restaurant site at the corner of Embarcadero Road and East Bayshore Road. When first approved on June 24, the project stirred objections from the public about spot zoning, traffic, and environmental impacts at an already badly congested intersection in a sensitive area subject to the Baylands Master Plan. Residents also raised concerns about the accuracy and adequacy of the city’s analysis of the proposed project and recently submitted a letter demanding corrective action for alleged Brown Act violations, citing improper public notice and a lack of transparency whereby city council members had access to details that were not made available to the public prior to the vote. The Planning and Transportation Commission recommended approval on a narrow 4-3 vote.

For its part, the Architectural Review Board was unable over the course of three meetings to make the “Findings” required for them to recommend council approval. Rather than continue ARB deliberations, Planning Director Jonathan Lait opted to bring the project to council without the benefit of an ARB recommendation, citing a city preference for “streamlined” review limiting the ARB to three meetings. After lengthy debate on June 24, council voted 6-1 (Kou dissenting) to approve the zone change and site and design application, but also directed additional consideration by the ARB to further refine the Conditions of Approval, taking into account project lighting, trees, and consistency with the Baylands Master Plan in particular. 

City may allow taller Wireless Communications Facility designs

On April 2019 the City Council adopted objective standards to regulate the design and location of wireless cell equipment installations on streetlight and utility poles throughout the city. June 17, council added an interim standard requiring a 300 foot setback from public schools. The Wireless Communications Facility, or WCF, standards are now slated to be amended once again on August 12 when council will vote, via the Consent Calendar, on adjusting the standards to allow taller WCF installation designs.

The WCF standards currently limit streetlight WCFs to 3 feet or 6 feet above the height of “similar surrounding poles,” depending on the type of design used. However, due to an unforeseen conflict with the Public Works and Utilities departments’ streetlight replacement standards, staff anticipates that the April 2019 WCF standards could unintentionally preclude an applicant from building any of the WCF designs described in the standards. Under the city’s replacement streetlight standard, over time new streetlights will exceed the height of surrounding poles by at least 2 to 4 feet, leaving insufficient space for pole-top WCF antennae or other equipment. The proposed August 12 amendments would clarify that WCFs may not exceed 3- or 6-feet above the height of the “existing pole or replacement pole,” and eliminate the vague “similar surrounding poles” reference.

The city’s approval of a spate of new wireless equipment installations in the public right of way and recently adopted standards for wireless communications facilities have stirred significant public controversy as residents have sought greater protection from potential negative impacts arising from cell antennas close to homes and schools. However recent Federal Communications Commission regulations strictly limited local discretion to reject small cell antenna equipment installations, constraining the city’s regulatory authority to “aesthetics” and allowing controls only by way of “objective standards.” Although some favor the promise of improved wireless signals and argue that negative impacts are overestimated, residents consistently comment by the dozens objecting to health and safety, visual, and property value impacts from the proliferation of small cell antennas and their associated equipment.  


Amid drama, county staff takes firm positions on housing needs and open space protections related to Stanford’s expansion

June 18, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

Despite recent drama and uncertainty over whether Stanford and Santa Clara County will return to negotiations for a development agreement to govern the university’s expansion project, the County Planning Commission continues to move forward through the traditional review process for Stanford’s General Use Permit application. On May 23, county staff released detailed conditions of approval proposing requirements Stanford would have to meet to proceed with its project, along with associated amendments to the Stanford University Community Plan that provides a policy framework to guide Stanford’s growth.

The most notable element of the proposed conditions of approval is a requirement that Stanford build a minimum of 2,172 units of housing (not counting student beds), including 933 affordable units – far exceeding the 550 units proposed in Stanford’s application. 70 percent of the units in each income category must be constructed on campus. At a May 30 County Planning Commission hearing held in Palo Alto, housing dominated discussion and over 250 people turned out, most of whom urged support for the recommended conditions of approval. Stanford, for its part, opposes the proposed housing requirements and is seeking amendments to get credit for housing already in the pipeline and to eliminate the on-campus requirement by allowing 70% of market rate units to be constructed within 6 miles of campus “or along transit corridors.”

Key among the staff-proposed Stanford Community Plan amendments, is a requirement that Stanford refrain from development outside of the academic growth boundary (AGB) for 99 years. Established as part of Stanford’s 2000 GUP, the AGB essentially preserves Stanford land west of Junipero Serra Boulevard as open space, with development outside the boundary only permissible with support from four out the county’s five supervisors. The original AGB requirement is set to expire in 2025. A 2018 study commissioned by the county concluded that Stanford could triple its density, accommodating up to 44 million square feet of campus development, without breaching the AGB and still maintain a floor area ratio at the low end of the range at comparable universities.

Stanford and others continue to urge return to a development agreement process that allows negotiation of community benefits that cannot be mandated through the traditional, environmental review process. Chief among such benefits could be school mitigations that are strictly limited by the state under the traditional process. Ironically, a separate agreement announced in April between Stanford and the Palo Alto Unified School District is precisely what triggered suspension of negotiations because the school mitigations were conditioned on approval of a development agreement, seemingly contrary to established ground rules between the county and the university.

That apparent Stanford/PAUSD deal spurred new drama last month when the Palo Alto Weekly reported on emails, obtained through a Public Records Act request, that suggested Stanford and PAUSD had “worked together to circumvent county ground rules” and raised questions about the transparency of their discussions. Contemporaneously with that reporting, Stanford called a halt to further action on the tentative agreement with PAUSD and asked the county to delay public hearings on the GUP and return to development agreement negotiations. On May 14, the school board voted to suspend consideration of the tentative Stanford agreement. With the agreement suspended, recused board members Ken Dauber and Todd Collins both returned to the dais to comment on the agreement. Dauber sharply criticized County Supervisor Joe Simitian for having “killed” the agreement due to his objections to its constraints on the broader county negotiations.

Whether the parties will return to development agreement negotiations and the fate of the Stanford/PAUSD school mitigation agreement remain uncertain. However Deputy County Executive Sylvia Gallegos indicated at the May 30 Planning Commission meeting that “there are communications occurring between the county and the university about the conditions under which negotiations may resume.” Meanwhile, the County Planning Commission will continue its work along the traditional path, possibly making a recommendation at the final public hearing scheduled for June 27 at 1:30 pm in the Issac Newton Senter Auditorium at the County Government Center at 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose.

Housing options introduce new controversy into Cubberley Master Plan effort.

June 18, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

What had been widely lauded as a successful process to engage the community in planning for redevelopment of Cubberley took a turn toward controversy on May 9 with the introduction of new housing scenarios, including potential housing on public land and parcels zoned for Public Facilities. The housing concepts were perceived by many as a radical last minute change of direction that was inconsistent with the community priorities expressed throughout the process and threatened future service capacity. Others welcomed the housing concepts as a long overdue recognition of the benefits of housing near services. Approximately 75 percent of participants at the May 9 meeting rejected the housing concepts that might use city-owned land. Fewer objected to housing for PAUSD staff on school district-owned properties. Those willing to accommodate housing only on school-owned land heavily favored the 525 San Antonio Road location that is not already zoned for Public Facilities. Their comments generally argued that Public Facilities zoned land is needed for community use.

The Parks and Recreation Commission similarly did not take well to the prospect of committing limited city recreation land to housing use. On May 28, the Commission voted 5-1 (McDougall absent) to endorse a Colleagues’ Memo authored by Chair McDougall, Vice-Chair Greenfield, and Commissioner Moss, urging City Council not to include housing on city-owned land at Cubberley. The debate then moved to City Council on June 3, where dozens of residents wrote letters and turned out to speak.

Cubberley Housing Options

Click on the image above to enlarge

Council was slated to identify how much new housing should be included in an upcoming environmental analysis and business plan for the Cubberley redevelopment. The lengthy debate kicked off with a motion by Councilmember DuBois to explore higher density housing at 525 San Antonio at 32, 64, and 112 units for the environmental analysis. That motion was quickly replaced with a substitute motion by Councilmember Alison Cormack to evaluate up to 164 housing units across the entire site. Cormack’s substitute initially passed on a 4-3 vote (DuBois, Kou, and Tanaka dissenting) only to fail by the same margin when Mayor Filseth called a revote and changed his position. Ultimately council settled on direction to study 112 housing units, with up to 100 units on City land and up to 112 units on PAUSD land at 525 San Antonio and Greendell School.

The 6-1 vote (Tanaka dissenting) on June 3 also requested a joint study session with the School Board in August. Although the school district is the majority landowner at Cubberley, the Board of Education has not taken a position either on the need for or desirability of PAUSD staff housing as part of the Cubberley redesign. Individual board members had called for inclusion of concepts for more housing in the Cubberley plan, but the district indicates no sense of urgency to take a position anytime soon.