City requires 300-foot setback from public schools for wireless equipment installations

June 18, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

On June 17, City Council took a first step in responding to community concerns about the public impacts of wireless cell equipment installations in the public right of way. Under time pressure from the Federal Communications Commission, in April 2019 the city adopted objective standards to regulate the design and location of wireless cell equipment installations on light and utility poles throughout the city. Recognizing strong interest in the community for tighter controls, City Council directed staff to return within a year with an updated ordinance that could reduce perceived impacts on nearby homes and schools. Staff are in the process of analyzing additional standards to meet that timeline. Meanwhile, due to the urgency of public demands for setbacks from public schools, on June 17, staff proposed an interim standard that would require wireless equipment installations to be located at least 300 feet from any land parcel containing a public school. Paragraph

Most public comments Monday night generally favored setback requirements but, citing standards in other communities, they sought a 1,500-foot setback from any school (not just public schools) as well as a 300-foot setback from residences. A motion by Councilmember Kou to require a 1,000-foot setback from any k-12 school and a 300-foot setback from residences failed for lack of a second and staff indicated that more research was necessary to determine the maximum setbacks that would be appropriate in Palo Alto. Ultimately council voted 6-1 (Kou dissenting) to adopt the staff-proposed 300-foot setback from public schools. Staff was encouraged to bring forward additional standards as they are identified rather than waiting for a complete package of new standards.

City’s Fiscal Year 2020 Budget features operating cuts and a slew of utilities rate hikes

June 18, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

On June 17, City Council voted 6-1 (Tanaka dissenting) to adopt the city’s Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Ordinance. The final budget recommended by the Council Finance Committee reflects a 2.8 percent increase ($19.4 million) over the proposed budget presented in April, primarily due to reappropriations to continue ongoing capital projects. However, the FY 2020 Budget also imposes a multi- million dollar reduction in the city’s operating budget, marking the second year of continued reductions in the General Fund necessitated in large part by council’s decision to proactively fund the City’s long-term pension obligations.

Other notable elements of the adopted FY 2020 Budget include:

  • Increased city investment of $270,000 in the Transportation Management Association (TMA) to shift commuters out of single occupancy vehicle modes ($180,000 derived from increasing parking fees by 7.5 percent and $90,000 from the University Avenue Fund), bringing the city’s 2020 investment to $750,000;
  • Addition of an Automated Parking Guidance System as part of the city’s priority Infrastructure Plan (replacing the sidelined Downtown Parking Garage);
  • Dedication of new hotel Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) revenues and voter approved TOT rate increase revenues towards funding the Infrastructure Plan.

Click here for the staff report on the FY 2020 City Budget.

Also on June 17, the council approved the Fiscal Year 2020 Utility Financial Plans and adopted customer rate increases across the utilities system, including electric, gas, wastewater, water, and storm water and surface water drainage. Each of those rate changes received the recommendation of both the Utilities Advisory Commission and the Council Finance Committee and were included in the assumptions underlying the city’s FY 2020 Budget. Here’s how the rate increases break down:

  • Electric: Total increase of 8 percent across electric rates, including an approximate 4 percent increase for residential customers. Additional annual rate increases of 4 percent are projected through FY 2023.
  • Gas: Gas distribution-related rates will rise by an average of 8 percent (following 6 percent increase in July, 2018), including a 13.25 percent hike for residential customers. When combined with supply-related rates, the overall system rate increase for natural gas will be 5 percent, with 8.1 percent attributed to residential customers. Additional annual rate increases of four to eight percent are projected through 2024.
  • Wastewater: 7 percent increase in wastewater collection rates for 2020, with projected additional increases of 6 percent annually through FY 2024.
  • Water: Water costs are projected to rise by an average of 3 to 4 percent annually over next several years. Proposed overall rate increase of one percent in FY2020, followed by annual increases of 2 to 6 percent in later years. On average, residential customers will see an increase of 2 percent.
  • Storm Drain: Storm water and surface water drainage rates will rise by 4.5 percent, consistent with the annual Consumer Price Index adjustment approved by ballot measure in April 2017.

Click here for the staff report on utilities rate increases.

Council to weigh in on Mercedes/Audi Dealership adjacent to Baylands

June 18, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

On June 24, City Council is set to change the underlying zoning district and authorize demolition of the former Ming’s Restaurant and current Audi Dealership (located at 1700 and 1730 Embarcadero Road) to allow construction of a new two-story 84,900 square foot combined Mercedes/Audi auto dealership. The proposed project offers potential to increase the city’s sales tax revenues, but has traveled a bumpy road through the city’s commission review process.

On March 27 after lengthy deliberations, the Planning and Transportation Commission narrowly recommended approval of the project on a 4-3 vote (Lauing, Summa, Templeton dissenting). Cited concerns included ecological and traffic impacts due to proximity to the Baylands and the badly congested intersection of Embarcadero and East Bayshore Roads. In addition, multiple commissioners found the project incompatible with other development in the area and objected to the extension of perceived “spot zoning” at the Ming’s site (to accommodate a hotel that never came to fruition) to the adjacent Audi parcel.

The Architectural Review Board, despite having held three hearings on the project, has not yet offered a recommendation for approval and as recently as June 6 was unable to make a number of required “Findings” that would be necessary for an affirmative recommendation. Staff asserts that the ARB’s outstanding concerns do not have a significant impact on the overall building mass or design. Therefore, in the interest of streamlined review, staff has opted to advance the project to City Council with a condition of approval that would require return to the ARB to resolve the outstanding issues after council takes action on the application.

City just adopted new rules for disposable food ware and construction materials – Next up: refuse collection

June 18, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

Pursuant to Palo Alto’s Zero Waste Plan, City Council adopted new rules on June 10 to regulate the use of disposable food ware, including restricting the use of plastic straws, cutlery, beverage stirrers, etc., reducing printed receipts at food service establishments and limiting the retail use of plastic produce and meat bags, including at grocery stores and farmers markets. In addition, council approved new rules regarding management of deconstruction and construction materials to maximize the salvage for reuse, increase diversion of recyclable materials, and reduce the amount of landfilled waste.

On June 24 council will turn its attention to refuse disposal and collection with new rules related to the storage, sorting, collection and removal of refuse to make waste sorting more effective and facilitate monitoring. Some proposed changes include requiring commercial facilities to use clear bags for garbage, blue-tinted clear bags for recycling, and green-tinted clear, compostable bags for compost. All users (including residential) will be required to break down cardboard boxes, and containers may only stay in the public right-of-way for 24 hours before or after being serviced. 

City to explore business tax to help fund transportation improvements

May 5, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

After several fits and starts in the past ten years, City Council voted 6-1 (Tanaka dissenting) on April 22 to begin laying the groundwork for a business tax to be placed on the ballot in 2020. The approved work plan presents an iterative approach to outreach, analysis, and refinement featuring frequent check-ins with council, the business community and the general public.

Initial thinking is for the revenue measure to support a variety of transportation improvements, including grade separations. The approved work plan calls for a decision this October on which type of revenue generating model to pursue, followed by polling and additional outreach and analysis, and culminating in draft ballot language by June 2020.

New grade separation work plan calls for new working group and decision by October

May 5, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

An effort to eliminate the popular, but complex and expensive citywide tunnel option for rail grade separations failed on a 3-2 (Kou, Tanaka dissenting) vote on April 22. (Because Councilmembers Filseth and Kniss are recused from grade separation decisions, four out of the remaining five votes are required for a motion to pass.) Along with retaining the citywide tunnel option, the council approved an updated work plan targeting adoption of a preferred grade separation alternative this October and including steps to engage the business community in planning for a potential ballot measure to raise revenues.

Council also agreed to a new 18-member working group, to be appointed by the City Manager, to help guide progress toward a final decision. The group will include the 12 members of the current Community Advisory Panel plus one representative each from Stanford University, Stanford Research Park, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, the Palo Alto Unified School District and the Friends of Caltrain board. The final member will be a representative from either Stanford Health or Stanford Shopping Center.

The citywide tunnel question will return to City Council on May 13 when the council will decide whether to abandon it, refine the alternative to include a shortened tunnel from Channing Avenue to the southern city limit, or leave the alternative on the table as is. At that meeting the council will also consider an initial weighting scale for evaluation criteria in order to create a more dynamic model to guide discussion and decision making. The May 13 discussion will begin at 8:30 pm. Click here to view the staff report.

Council reluctantly approves new standards for wireless equipment installations

May 5, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

With their backs against the wall, on April 15 City Council adopted new, objective standards for approving wireless equipment installations in the public right of way. Under new Federal Communications Commission regulations, the city would have no authority to reject new applications unless objective standards were in place by that date. The new ordinance creates a menu of acceptable installation designs including underground vaults; cylindrical pole-mounted “shrouds”; boxy “sunshields” for radio equipment attached to the side of poles; and equipment that can hide behind existing street signs. 

Despite approval of the controversial new standards, the council heeded the pleas of dozens of residents seeking tighter controls. On a motion from Councilmember DuBois, they voted unanimously to direct staff to return within a year with an updated ordinance that considers minimum setbacks from homes and schools, minimum distances between cell antennas, and location preferences such as commercial vs. residential zones, arterial vs. neighborhood streets.

Meanwhile, the city budget keeps getting tighter

May 5, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

The Council Finance Committee will kick off three budget hearings on May 15. The city’s proposed Fiscal Year 2020 Budget anticipates healthy revenue growth from sales tax (9.9 percent), property tax (7.3 percent), and hotel tax (17 percent), but expects labor costs to rise by 9.2 percent – a costly increase when the city has so many infrastructure projects lined up. Taking that and the city’s growing pension and retiree benefit obligations into account, even with healthy revenue growth, the proposed budget calls for a reduction of the equivalent of 9.95 full time employees, phasing back of city investments in Project Safety Net (a community collaboration to promote youth well-being), and a “service inventory” to evaluate city programs and their costs, with an eye toward reducing ongoing costs and identifying areas that can be cut to provide $4 million in savings to put toward long term pension liabilities. 

“This budget reflects the very difficult straddle we have before us, in which we have continued cost escalation of everything in the Bay Area, the increase in demand for services and infrastructure as our community grows and our move to accurately recognize some of our cost structure, including our commitment to fund our long-term liabilities. Those things to some extent mutually exclude one another.”

– Mayor Eric Filseth

The May 15 budget hearing begins at 1:00 pm (Community Meeting Room, City Hall). Click here for agenda, including links (at top of page) for proposed capital and operating budgets. Subsequent hearings will take place on May 23 and May 28.

Stanford just drove a wedge between the county and PAUSD. Will the rift undermine shared community interests in the face of massive university growth?

May 5, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

Stanford’s proposed 2.3 million square foot academic expansion will have far reaching local impacts on housing, traffic, schools, open space and more. The city, school district and our county representative, Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Joe Simitian, have been mutually supportive throughout the process of assessing the impacts of the university’s General Use Permit application, known as the GUP, and identifying mitigations and community benefits that could offset them. All three agencies recently participated together in a rally calling for full mitigation of Stanford’s PAUSD enrollment impacts.

Last month, the county was poised to issue a list of demands in the form of conditions of approval and community benefits that would form the basis for negotiation of a development agreement to govern the Stanford project. Meanwhile, the school district met with Stanford to discuss school impacts and emerged with a ready-to-sign agreement whereby Stanford would partially offset the per-student cost of new Stanford kids from tax-exempt housing, build a $15 million “innovative space” to be shared with the school district, and provide $500,000 for school transportation improvements. In exchange, the district would drop its demands for a new elementary school site on Stanford land, give up its right to sue and agree not to oppose any development proposed in the GUP.

Unfortunately, the proposed agreement also came with a big catch: the benefits would only materialize if the county signed on to a development agreement to approve Stanford’s expansion. Citing violation of established ground rules that forbid third party negotiations pertaining to the development agreement, Simitian and county staff immediately suspended planned discussions with Stanford and put development agreement negotiations on indefinite hold.

While Simitian has long welcomed negotiations between Stanford and PAUSD, he has made clear that they must proceed independently of the development agreement. News of the proposed PAUSD agreement elicited an unusually strong reaction from him as he criticized Stanford for using kids and schools as a cynical political weapon to force county concessions regarding housing, traffic, open space and other critical impact areas – issues that are of shared concern to constituents of the school district, the city, and the county alike. 

The School Board gave the deal an initial enthusiastic reception, but it has not yet been agendized for approval. Supervisor Simitian says that development agreement negotiations will not resume unless Stanford modifies its deal with PAUSD to remove any conditions relating to county approval of the GUP. 

For now, Stanford’s GUP will continue to be processed on the traditional review track. The county will release Conditions of Approval in response to the project’s Final Environmental Impact Report on May 23 and the County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing at Palo Alto City Hall on May 30 at 6:00pm. The Conditions of Approval will be available on the County Planning Commission’s website as part of the packet for it’s May 30 meeting.

Can permit parking zones keep up with parking congestion in neighborhoods? Paid parking and outcome measures thought to be key.

May 5, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

The general, yet imperfect success of Palo Alto’s Residential Preferential Parking permit program has brought some relief to neighborhoods overrun by all day commuter parking, but not without considerable conflict, frustration, cost and effort. Pressure and pushback about gradual reduction of commuter permits has been steady across most RPP districts, complaints about the permit processing, monitoring, and enforcement system have been relentless, and staff turnover has been frequent, largely due to burnout and frustration.

Meanwhile, neighborhood demand for RPP protections continues to grow. A petition to evaluate an RPP district at the east end of the California Avenue underpass received the Planning Commission’s endorsement in late March and is likely get council’s green light on May 13. Another petition, from the Green Acres neighborhood, is waiting in the wings, as are requests to annex additional street parking into the Evergreen Park-Mayfield RPP district and to modify the days and hours that parking is controlled in both Evergreen Park-Mayfield and the Downtown RPP zones.

A newly released RPP study has produced a far reaching recommendation including 35 changes to the city’s parking services designed to make the overall RPP program “more effective, sustainable, and efficient.” The recommendations include council action to contract for an improved permit management system and a study of how to move from pre-paid permits to a system featuring dynamic monitoring and pricing, creation of a new city Parking Manager position, and a dedicated community engagement effort to consider modifications to the RPP program, either through the Planning and Transportation Commission or a small working group including both business and resident representatives. Nine specific issues have been teed up for consideration through that engagement effort.

Other recommendations target improved management, processing, payment mechanisms, enforcement, and user interface for parking permits both in RPPs and in city lots and garages. The study also calls for an evaluation of the policy, administrative, and legal implications of giving “neighborhood serving businesses” preference in getting employee parking permits.

Notably, the study’s recommendations seem to implicitly concede that RPPs alone are insufficient to manage the city’s parking congestion problems – a challenge that may well intensify due to recently reduced on-site parking requirements for new residential and mixed-use developments. Study recommendations that reach outside the box of parking permits include:

  • Develop a plan to initiate paid hourly parking in the city’s garages and parking lots.
  • Evaluate use of services like Uber and Lyft to reduce the demand for parking as well as the impact on traffic.
  • Use outcome-based measures to assess the effectiveness of Transportation Demand Management initiatives in reducing the number of commuters and business patrons who would otherwise need parking spaces.
  • Institute a performance-driven system based on user-perception to measure quality of service and identify areas where corrective action is needed.

On May 13, beginning at 6:45 pm, City Council will discuss the study, direct staff to develop a work plan, and identify the preferred mechanism for community engagement tasks outlined in the recommendations. Click here for the staff report.