Guest Commentary

Please Help Protect the President Hotel Apartments and Residents Citywide

March 29, 2019 – By PAN (Palo Alto Neighborhoods) Committee on Development, Zoning, and Enforcement 

The City Council will decide Monday night whether to remove a 2016 law that currently prevents the President Hotel Apartments and similar buildings from becoming hotels or offices.

The impact on tenants in downtown apartment buildings could be devastating.  Already, occupants of the 75-unit lower-rent President Hotel Apartments have had to leave because the building’s recent buyer, AJ Capital, aims to convert the property into a luxury hotel.  Other tenants downtown may be affected too if the city removes the 2016 law, which is blocking conversions from any use to another in so-called “grandfathered” or oversized buildings.

The city claims the 2016 law was actually an unintended cut-and-paste error and seeks to replace it by a narrower ordinance that limits just the conversion of housing in oversized Downtown buildings to other uses or fewer units.  However, city staff fear that AJ Capital or perhaps other owners will challenge the narrower law in court and prevail.  So the proposal on Monday night also includes a controversial “waiver” process that allows the City Council to exempt a developer from other zoning laws, thinking this might lead to a compromise that would avoid a court battle.

The City’s approach is insufficient and very worrisome.  Instead of just protecting residents in specific Downtown buildings, the Council should enact a city-wide law to prevent all conversions of residences into commercial space, akin to its ban on groundfloor retail and similar uses converting into offices.  Such a law could benefit thousands of renters across town and also potentially be easier to defend.

The waiver process is itself problematic.  The proposal has no guarantee that apartment tenants will be notified when their landlord applies for a waiver.  Without that, they could wake up one morning to discover the City Council has granted their building generous exemptions the night before and that the residents must all move out when their leases end.  Instead, every tenant should receive notice of any waiver hearing for their building well in advance.

The waiver proposal also empowers a slim majority of four councilmembers to grant benefits worth tens of millions of dollars to a developer by placing no limit on how many zoning rules are eliminated or watered down.  For example, a council majority could respond to a waiver request by granting rights to build an office tower with no parking.  Nothing in our municipal code currently gives councilmembers so much unchecked power for a specific site.

When the seven-member Planning and Transportation Commission reviewed the waiver proposal in January, they unanimously recommended against it.  They further advised the Council to obtain outside legal advice after expressing concerns that the waiver process might not even be necessary.  Their votes reflected concerns raised by many residents who spoke and wrote to them.

From the beginning of the President Hotel Apartment tragedy, our city has failed to protect tenants and preserve rental units, despite repeated proclamations that housing is a top priority.  That can change Monday night if we insist that the Council:

  • insure that any waiver process fully protects tenants, 
  • limits developer exemptions to the very minimum required by law, 
  • consider the unanimous Planning Commission recommendation to eliminate the waiver, and
  • look at adopting a city-wide residential preservation ordinance.

We encourage you to send an email in your own words to the City Council at City.Council@CityofPaloAlto.org.  You can also attend Monday’s Council meeting to speak or support others on this issue.  

Links:

City Staff Report Advocating the Law Changes, Including the Waiver:https://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/70005

Agenda for Monday’s Council Meeting: https://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/69999

Palo Alto Weekly Article About the December 2018 Council Vote on the Waiver:https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2018/12/11/proposed-law-would-prevent-president-hotel-conversion

Palo Alto Weekly Article about the January 2019 Planning Commission Vote to Eliminate the Waiver:https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2019/01/31/zone-change-creates-hurdle-for-president-hotel-conversion

Editorial: Caution on teacher housing

Palo Alto Weekly – by Palo Alto Weekly editorial board / January 26, 2018

Simitian vision for subsidized teacher housing has long road to travel

Every organization in Palo Alto — business, nonprofit and government — is struggling with the lack of affordable housing and the resulting employee-recruiting and commute challenges. So before letting teacher housing become the sole focus, we’d like to see clear evidence of need and demand and a policy discussion about whether and why teacher housing should be a higher priority than other subsidized housing when considering the re-purposing of limited public property.

The value of teachers living within the community may very well be worth making it the priority for the use of this county property, but the public deserves a lot more analysis showing such a plan will actually result in the desired outcome before reaching that policy decision.

Editorial: The risks of secrecy

Palo Alto Weekly – by PA Weekly editorial board / December 8, 2017

School board splits on whether and how to accept large anonymous donations

When developing a new public policy, a sure warning sign should be when the policy has to thread a needle to avoid violating existing laws and, in doing so, becomes convoluted and irrational.

The Palo Alto school board struggled Tuesday night trying to balance competing interests of transparency and donor privacy, and a bare majority (Ken Dauber, Jennifer DiBrienza, Terry Godfrey) approved a new policy that, in our opinion, skates on the edge of the law and brings an unacceptable level of secrecy.

accountability cartoon

What’s all the fuss about code enforcement?

Palo Alto Matters – October 10, 2017

Public trust and damaged community life.

Ask a typical Palo Altan what code enforcement is all about and odds are the first thing they’ll mention is gas-powered leaf blowers. But it also encompasses zoning and building compliance, Use and Occupancy permits, parking, signage, construction noise and more – complex, wonky, and sometimes seemingly nitpicky, issues that have both immediate and cumulative impacts on land use and quality of life. While most residents may not know a specific code violation when they see one, they experience the impacts of noncompliance and it feels unfair.

Immediate neighbors suffer from unabated violations. Worse, Palo Altans city-wide endure a double loss: they suffer lasting changes in the character of their neighborhoods and they feel abandoned, or even duped, by their city government. Supposedly protected retail converts to other uses; burdens on public parking increase unnecessarily; traffic safety in neighborhoods deteriorates; and businesses freely flout rules designed to protect residential quality of life. Rumblings rise about city bias favoring non-resident interests.

Guest Opinion: Exploring creative options for underground train tracks

Palo Alto Weekly – Guest Opinion by Tom DuBois / October 1, 2017 

City holding next grade separation workshop on Oct. 21

Palo Alto is planning perhaps the most critical infrastructure in its history: the separation of our roads from the rail line that bisects the city.

The desire from the community is clear. We need to exhaustively investigate creative approaches to put the train underground and evaluate whether it is possible to do it across town or across a portion of it. Past councils, past rail committees, past community groups and our current community engagement process have all shown a preference for this approach. We need to get serious about how to underground the train and how to pay for it.

Big changes coming to El Camino Real

Palo Alto Daily Post – Opinion by Editor, Dave Price / September 12, 2017

In Palo Alto, 2018 will be the year of El Camino Real.

City Councilwoman Lydia Kou recently rattled off a list of 11 projects that are in the works for the King’s Highway.

Most of these projects would result in more housing stacked up against the street, 50 feet tall (the city’s height limit). If Palo Alto isn’t careful, El Camino will become a canyon with a street on the bottom and 50-foot walls on either side.

Editorial: The shriveling office cap

Palo Alto Weekly – by the Palo Alto Weekly editorial board / September 8, 2017

Council’s split over office cap will surely return as an election issue next year

The irony and hypocrisy of this is that the same majority that voted Tuesday to make more commercial development easier has been advocating repeatedly for more housing. If there is one documentable result of the current office-cap restrictions, it is that it has led to more housing projects where office development would have otherwise been likely.

It is not hard to imagine voters becoming cynical about candidates who say their focus is on increasing the supply of housing while voting to make new commercial development, the major driver in demand for housing, easier.

How to avoid a train wreck – doing grade separations right

cartoon

Palo Alto Matters – Guest Commentary by Pat Burt / September 1, 2017

Former Mayor of Palo Alto

The city council is scheduled this Tuesday to decide on the process for designing railroad grade separations across Palo Alto, but the current plan for the decision-making runs a high risk of running the project off the tracks. While debate over “process” can make most folks eyes glaze over, how we come to agreement as a community on the design for this very complicated and expensive project is critical to its success.

Guest Opinion: A roadway Odyssey

Palo Alto Weekly – Guest Opinion by Evelyn Preston / August 18, 2017

Palo Alto-style A former teacher gives a glimpse into Palo Alto life by traveling around town

While some of my friends binge on their second safaris, cruise European canals or time-share in Hawaii, I consider a trip to downtown Palo Alto an equally grand adventure. For someone living in south Palo Alto, a crosstown sojourn requires strategic planning. Snail-like speed limits, packed parking and a rotating landscape of shops and restaurants present pioneer-like obstacles: The time it takes mirrors the forty-niners’ trek West; the lengthening queues of cars lined up at lights make their own modern wagon train.

Guest Opinion: A Palo Alto son asks: ‘Would I raise a family here?’

Palo Alto Weekly – by Aldis Petriceks / August 14, 2017

Recent college graduate says Silicon Valley culture is ‘placing blinders over our collective vision’

For many today, Palo Alto feels more cardboard than community; more ideal than reality. Silicon Valley’s culture is fixated on status, not service; on power, not people. We might benefit by pulling those blinders back. We might come together in unexpected ways, by engaging our community as much as we do our work — or, God forbid, our phones.