Senate Bill 50 could end single-family zoning citywide

“Jobs-rich” designation extends impacts well beyond transit zones in Palo Alto

March 3, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

First Baptist Church
First Baptist Church N. California Avenue. The site is within 1/4 mile of the California Avenue Caltrain station, making it eligible for multifamily development up to 55 feet tall, with a maximum FAR of 3.25. This could result in a development with up to approximately 150 studio or one-bedroom units on the 0.85 acre site.

Since last year’s defeat of Senate Bill 827, State Senator Scott Weiner has returned to try his hand again at replacing local zoning control with one-size-fits-all, state mandated housing standards. SB-827 sought to encourage bigger, denser housing  projects near transit. This year’s version, Senate Bill 50, extends state mandates beyond transit corridors to include all residentially zoned parcels in “Jobs-Rich” areas. Whether a community is jobs-rich would be determined by proximity to jobs, area median income and public school quality. By those indicators, it seems inevitable that SB-50 impacts would reach all of Palo Alto.

SB-50 creates a tiered system of incentives designed to make dense housing projects more appealing to developers by requiring cities to waive or adjust local zoning rules regarding such things as density, parking, height and the size of a building relative to the size of the lot (known as Floor Area Ratio). Eligible projects also must be granted up to three additional density bonuses of their choosing (e.g., site coverage, setback, or daylight plane adjustments, even more height or FAR, etc.). Different sets of incentives apply based on the category of a project’s location:

  • In a Jobs-rich area or within ¼ mile of a high quality bus corridor.
  • Within ½ mile of a train station.
  • Within ¼ mile of a train station.

Within a ¼ mile of a train station, for example, dense housing projects could be up to 55 feet high (rising to 75 feet with density bonuses), with building floor area of 3.25 times the size of the lot, and no on-site parking.

To help make SB-50 easier for people to understand, we partnered with the Embarcadero Institute, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, to commission a professional analysis and visual renderings of what SB-50 could mean, on-the-ground, for Palo Alto. The report explains SB-50’s system of tiered development incentives and maps out where each tier would apply in the city.

Click here to view the full report.

The report also calculates the theoretical maximum housing units that could be produced through SB-50 redevelopment, based on both SB50 incentives and underlying zoning. Those calculations take the very conservative approach of counting only transit rich areas (in the unlikely event that Palo Alto is not ultimately deemed jobs-rich) and not counting extra units that could be achieved through additional density bonuses that may be chosen by developers. Still the theoretical maximum comes to 58,000 units, more than three times the entire city’s current housing stock. Adding in the much larger jobs-rich area would yield a much higher number.

Projections regarding increased parking congestion due to the reduction or elimination of on-site parking requirements and new population growth were beyond the scope of the study. However it does note that car registrations per capita in Palo Alto have climbed by 14 percent in the last five years, reflecting car ownership trends across the Bay Area.

Max Units by District

Finally, to show the look and feel of increased building density and intensity allowed under SB-50, the report includes before and after images at five Palo Alto locations showing possible projects if developers take advantage of the state mandated up-zoning. Again, a conservative approach was taken to exclude discretionary density bonuses, demonstrating only what could be built under the bill’s explicit provisions regarding elimination of unit density limits, increased height limits, and higher Floor Area Ratios (floor area relative to the size of the lot). 

Addison Ave - BEFORE
Addison Avenue – BEFORE. Currently developed as single-family homes.
Addison Ave - AFTER
Addison Avenue – AFTER. This site is within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop. Development could be 45 feet tall with a maximum FAR of 2.5. This would allow a small apartment building to be built with up to 10 units (about a 16,000 square foot building), or larger apartments to be built if multiple lots were replatted.

Without local controls, developers decide

Surely some will cheer the potential housing growth under SB-50 and welcome a new look and feel for the city. Others will hate it. But don’t be fooled into thinking that “this could never happen in Palo Alto.” With the elimination of local controls under SB-50, the market-driven choices of individual developers and their “reasonable judgment” about zoning requirements will drive the outcome.

Recent studies have shown that up-zoning to increase density significantly increases land values, creating a substantial market incentive to buy up property for redevelopment. Once a site is acquired, developers will be entitled to take advantage of SB-50’s development incentives, whether the city or its voters like it or not. 

The only way the city could stop or constrain an eligible project is through a showing of significant adverse effect on public safety, the physical environment, or properties on the historic registry. In addition, thanks to changes to the state Housing Accountability Act enacted in 2017 (AB-678, SB-167, and AB-1515), courts must defer to the reasonable judgment of the developer rather than a local government’s planning department as to consistency with zoning requirements – without regard for the weight of evidence.

SB-50 is a no-turning-back proposition. Bigger and denser housing projects with little or no on-site parking could result in a radical shift, city-wide, from today’s detached-house development pattern to a townhouse and apartment development pattern. Over time, that may or may not lead to greater affordability or reduced car ownership. Either way, under SB-50’s mandates, it will be up to developers, not the city, to determine whether SB-50’s vision comes to fruition.

Click here to view full report

SB-50 has been referred to the Senate Housing Committee, chaired by State Senator Scott Weiner, and the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, chaired by State Senator Mike McGuire. Whether it will get amended and/or approved in committee and move forward to passage is still an open question. Let your local representatives know what you think about the bill: 

There will be a joint hearing of the Senate Housing and Governance and Finance Committees on March 5, at 1:30 pm focused on: “Addressing California’s Housing Shortage: How Can We Create Environments to Facilitate Housing Development?” Livestream video will be available here. Or you can view it in the media archive after the fact.

Assemblymember Berman will hold a public Open House on March 7, from 4  to 6 pm at his District Office, 5050 El Camino Real, Suite 117, Los Altos.

State Senator Hill will be meeting with mayors and city managers from across the district to discuss housing on March 15. 

SB-50 targets high quality school districts in renewed effort to limit local control over housing

Palo Alto Matters – December 8, 2018

Following the defeat of SB-827 in the 2018 legislative session, State Senator Scott Weiner circled the wagons and returned this month with a new proposal, SB-50, that adds some protections for existing rental housing sites and temporarily preserves local control for “sensitive communities” that are particularly vulnerable to displacement pressures. At the same time, however, SB-50 reaches far beyond the “transit-rich corridors” targeted for state mandates under SB-827.

SB-50 would require local governments to grant housing developers an “equitable communities incentive” not only for housing projects within a half mile of a major transit stop (rail station or ferry terminal) or a quarter mile of a stop on a high quality bus corridor, but also ANYWHERE that housing is allowed in an area deemed “job-rich” based on indicators such as “proximity to jobs, high area median income relative to the relevant region, and high-quality public schools.”  

At a minimum, the equitable communities incentive must include waivers of parking requirements greater than 0.5 spots per unit and any maximum density controls, as well as up to three additional incentives and concessions available under the existing State Density Bonus law. Those additional concessions include such things as increased height, site coverage, and Floor Area Ratio limits; reduced side- and rear- setback requirements; and reduced daylight plane requirements. 

Projects that are also close to transit and include a minimum, unspecified percentage of affordable units are then entitled to additional waivers as follows:

  • Within 1/2 mile, but more than 1/4 mile from a major transit stop: no height limits less than 45 feet, no Floor Area Ratio limits less than 2.5, and no parking requirements.
  • Within 1/4 mile of a major transit stop: no height limits less than 55 feet, no FAR limit less than 3.25, and no parking requirements.

The new, greater unit densities enabled by the waivers will form the baseline for calculating available additional concessions under the State Density Bonus law. 

SB-50 has only just been introduced and is likely to undergo some amendment before coming to a vote. However, if passed in its current form it would likely apply to all residential, mixed use, and commercial zones in Palo Alto, including every single-family neighborhood. Council members have already begun to weigh in with differing perspectives. On one hand Councilmember Adrian Fine expressed general support, saying “we need the state to step in … [l]ocal councils and the idolatry around local control are not going to solve our housing issues.” In contrast, Councilmember Eric Filseth said the bill was “horrible for voters” because it ignores that addressing the housing crisis depends on paying for all the infrastructure necessary to sustain regional growth. SB-50 “skips all that.” Whether City Council will take a position on SB-50 remains to be seen.

Palo Alto: Southgate parking permit trial already under fire

Mercury News – by Kevin Kelly / February 1, 2018

Southgate residents want office employees off their streets, while city looks to add permits to El Camino

Some Southgate neighborhood residents are upset that Palo Alto officials are already talking about changing an experiment designed to make it easier for them to find street parking in front of their homes.

But the council unanimously decided to revisit the trial in June. If Caltrans, which owns and operates El Camino Real, meanwhile agrees to allow permitted parking on the west side, the council indicated it will issue the additional 15 permits to businesses with the intention that they park on El Camino.

On Monday, the council is to consider modifying a parking permit program in the adjacent Evergreen Park/Mayfield neighborhoods. Staff is suggesting that the trial phase there be made permanent.

Changes eyed for Southgate’s parking program

Palo Alto Weekly – by Gennady Sheyner / January 30, 2018

To assist area employees, City Council looks to add portion of El Camino Real to Residential Preferential Parking district

For residents, Southgate’s new Residential Preferential Parking program is a huge success and should be continued as is. For nearby businesses, the picture is starkly different.

The tussle between residents and businesses created a dilemma for the council. On the one hand, council members sympathized with the workers and deemed their concerns reasonable. On the other, the city didn’t start fully enforcing the one-year pilot program until December. Most residents at Monday’s meeting argued that changing it so early in the process is counterproductive.

The council balked at making any immediate changes. Instead, council members opted to wait another six months before reassessing the program. But in a nod to the employees, the council also supported expanding the Residential Preferential Permit district to the west side of El Camino Real, with the idea of making those parking spots available for area employees.

Changes on the way for residential parking programs

Palo Alto Weekly – by Gennady Sheyner / January 24, 2018

New plans calls for adding employee permits to Residential Preferential Parking programs in Evergreen Park and Southgate

Some residents voiced concerns about the process. Christian Pease, who lives in Evergreen Park, said that when the program was implemented, residents were assured that there would be a one-year trial, after which time the program would be revisited for possible modifications. Instead, staff appears to be “pushing forward” with modifications without input from residents and commissioners, he said at the Jan. 10 meeting of the Planning and Transportation Commission.

“We’re wondering what happened to the process,” Pease said. “The process has not been smooth and entirely friendly.”

Some in Southgate have similar feedback. There, staff is proposing to raise the number of employee permits from 10 to 25. Another proposal is to establish a two-hour parking limit along two segments of El Camino Real, near Churchill Avenue and near Park Avenue.

Rising costs won’t shrink California Avenue garage

Despite escalating budget, City Council votes to stick with the plan for a six-level garage

Palo Alto Weekly – by Gennady Sheyner, January 23, 2018

California Avenue merchants scored a political victory Monday night when Palo Alto officials reaffirmed their plan to construct a garage with two basement levels and more than 600 parking stalls on a Sherman Avenue lot.

By an 8-1 vote, with Adrian Fine dissenting, the City Council voted to reject a staff recommendation to eliminate one of the basement levels as part of a strategy to contain the project’s rapidly rising costs.

California Avenue merchants called the proposed reduction “nothing less than a breach of faith with the business community that has worked collaboratively with the City for so many years on this project.”

As costs grow, city may scale back garage plan

Palo Alto considers eliminating one of the basement levels at planned garage near California Avenue

Palo Alto Weekly – by Gennady Sheyner / January 19, 2018

With cost estimates rising dramatically, Palo Alto is considering scaling back its plans for the California Avenue area parking garage by removing one of the two planned underground levels.

The revision, which is proposed in a new report from the Public Works Department, would reduce the cost of the garage by between $6 million and $8 million at a time when the city’s overall infrastructure plan is facing a funding gap of about $50 million.

Combo parking structure and theater likely to move up on Menlo Park’s priority list

Palo Alto Daily Post – by Emily Mibach / January 18, 2018

A parking garage with an entertainment center — such as a movie theater — may be catapulted up the Menlo Park City Council’s to do list.

Polling released to the city on Tuesday revealed that 74% of polled residents would support seeing a three-story “multi-use parking structure” downtown. City Councilman Ray Mueller, has been calling for a structure like this since 2014 and said he was excited to see the poll results.

City braces for impacts of new housing laws

Palo Alto Weekly – by Gennady Sheyner / December 5, 2017

Palo Alto council members, planning staff say recently passed bills could reduce local control, spur major change

For Palo Alto’s housing advocates, the broad package of bills that Sacramento lawmakers signed into law this fall are exactly the type of disruption that the city needs after years of sluggish residential construction and a deepening crisis of affordable housing.

But for the Palo Alto City Council, which has made housing one of its top priorities for the year, the Sacramento-administered medicine comes with a host of unpredictable side effects. The new laws could upend the city’s policies on everything from parking requirements to architectural reviews. And with the new laws kicking in on Jan. 1, City Hall staff are scrambling to understand the implications and come up with new procedures and policies to address them.

Palo Alto may ease parking rules to spur housing

Palo Alto Weekly – by Gennady Sheyner / October 29, 2017

Three council members propose eliminating off-street parking requirements for ‘car-light’ projects

In the latest effort to combat Palo Alto’s housing crisis, three council members are proposing significant revisions to the city’s parking regulations, including eliminating parking requirements altogether for “car-light” developments that offer transit amenities to their tenants.

The proposals in the memo target a wide range of disparate regulations — including ones relating to floor area ratio (FAR), building heights and expanded “pedestrian transit-oriented development” zones, which give developers near transit nodes more flexibility on density and parking. One recommendation would establish “housing minimums” for new developments in residential zones so that a project would be required to provide at least 80 percent of the units that its land use designation can accommodate.