Green Acres I may have to self-fund keeping their electric utilities equipment underground
Under a program started in 1965, 33 districts in Palo Alto had their utility wires undergrounded, with transformers and other equipment placed in subsurface vaults. As utilities standards have changed over the years, most of those subsurface vaults have been converted to above-ground, pad-mounted installations, but nine districts still enjoy fully underground electric utilities in their neighborhood. One of those, Green Acres I, is due for a system rebuild. Citing aesthetics, safety and property values, many residents want to keep their system fully undergrounded.
City of Palo Alto Utilities says meeting current functional and safety requirements while keeping the infrastructure fully underground would require costly and extensive new subsurface construction. So if the neighborhood wants to avoid the switch to pad-mounted, above ground equipment boxes, city staff and the Utilities Advisory Commission recommend making the neighborhood responsible for raising funds and paying up front for the cost difference.
A resolution going to City Council for a vote on September 16, would amend city regulations to allow a community to keep the equipment underground if they pay both the incremental installation costs and ongoing ownership costs for undergrounding. CPAU roughly estimates that for the Green Acres I project, property owners would have to prepay a total of about $475,000. The remaining eight districts that have not already been converted to above ground equipment boxes would also have access to the self-funding option when their area comes due for a system rebuild.
To initiate subsurface installation under the proposed self-funding option, a proponent would have 45 days to collect signatures from owners of at least 60 percent of the affected parcels and gather funds sufficient to cover the cost of developing a cost estimate for non-standard, subsurface improvements. CPAU would then prepare a cost estimate for the installation and the neighborhood would have 90 days to collect and prepay the difference between the planned standard installation and the fully subsurface installation (including the net present value of the higher continuing ownership costs).
Council discussion will begin at 7:00 pm on September 16. For more information about the thinking behind the self-fund option, read the staff report.
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
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.
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.
The Cubberley Community Center Master Plan offers an example of the tensions and trade-offs involved in an all out push to build housing supply — in particular, whether limited publicly-owned land should be committed to long-term residential use or dedicated to the community services and facilities necessary to support a growing population.
On May 9, city consultants will convene the fourth and final community engagement session on a master plan to redevelop the Cubberley site. Anticipated as a wrap-up of the community co-design process, the consultants recently announced, based on discussions with City Council and the School Board, that the final meeting will also cover four brand new housing scenarios for the site. The scope and magnitude of the new housing concepts have not yet been released. But to the extent they impinge significantly on the priorities developed throughout the seven-month community “co-design” process, they could meet with some pushback.
The first community meeting focused on identifying the kinds of programming/uses participants hoped to see on the consolidated 43-acre site (Cubberley plus Greendell School plus PAUSD owned property at 525 San Antonio Road). The second meeting focused on prioritizing those uses. Affordable housing registered as desirable to some in both meetings, but in both instances was heavily outweighed by other priorities. The third meeting presented a draft concept plan that introduced potential teacher housing on the PAUSD property at 525 San Antonio, but focused primarily on site organization, massing, circulation, parking, and architecture and landscape styles. After that meeting, 73 percent of participants agreed or strongly agreed that “The Cubberley Master Plan is on the right track.”
One of the five priorities in the city’s 2018 Housing Work Plan included “engag[ing] in community conversations about the use of publicly-owned land for affordable housing.” With no city action on that goal to date, the introduction of new housing concepts at the final meeting of the Cubberley design process may demonstrate that the “conversation” is past due.
Palo Alto residents call for more robust and transparent approval process for small cell antennas
March 30, 2019 – by Tina Chow
Palo Altans are up in arms over the installation of cell antennas on utility poles in front of homes and schools throughout the city. Residents have many concerns about these “small cell towers” including aesthetics, noise, health effects, property value, and fire risk, among others. Furthering resident concerns, city staff are taking actions to codify controversial federal rules that streamline the cell tower approval process, limit public input, and hence reduce transparency. Other cities are doing more for their residents, and Palo Altans should demand nothing less. Speak up now before City Council takes action on April 15, 2019!
New FCC rules have opened the floodgates
A new order from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is enabling a flood of small cell towers by forcing rapid approval of applications. This FCC 18-133 ruling went into effect on Jan 14, 2019 and shortens the “shot clock” for application review to 60 days. It also requires that aesthetic standards be objective, non-discriminatory, and published in advance.
Palo Alto has already received over 150 applications for such “small wireless facilities.” With 4 major carriers and no requirement for consolidated or shared equipment siting, there could be hundreds more.
Wireless carriers say they are building small cell networks to enable transition to 5G (5th generation) service, which will operate at much higher frequencies and faster speeds to support gaming, self-driving cars, and the Internet of Things. The FCC severely restricts the fees that cities can charge for these smaller cells. A macro cell tower often earns a city roughly $30,000/year and the wireless provider assumes liability. In contrast, rental fees for small cells on utility poles are limited to about $270/year and the city has liability, creating additional financial advantages for carriers to create small cell networks that intrude further into neighborhoods.
Residents argue that these small cell towers are unsightly and unnecessary, and that they put the safety and welfare of our community at risk. Radio-frequency radiation has been shown to create adverse biological and health effects including cancer. In 2018, the National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health concluded that long-term exposure to radio-frequency radiation from 3G and 4G cellular emissions causes brain and heart cancer in rats (Lin et al. 2018). This definitive and large-scale government study was replicated by the Ramazzini Institute, which used even lower radiation exposure levels. Dr. Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, states that “many hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have found evidence of biologic and health effects from low level exposures to cell phone radiation. Hence, the FCC’s exposure guidelines must be re-assessed as they are likely inadequate to protect human health.”
Putting so many cell towers in such close proximity to resident homes (~20 feet) and schools means human exposures and hence adverse health effects will increase, especially for more vulnerable children and those with electro-sensitivity.
In addition, power lines and overburdened utility poles are implicated in the recent extreme wildfire events in California. Small cell towers would add hundreds of pounds of equipment hanging off already aging utility and light poles. Another concern is that property values have been shown to go down by 20 percent in some areas with new towers.
Proposed ordinance would reduce transparency and fail to mitigate key resident concerns
City staff in Palo Alto now want to update the wireless ordinance to streamline the approval process by creating a ‘menu’ of pre-approved designs and removing valuable public input from the process. This ‘menu’ would serve as an objective standard that would take the place of the City’s architectural review findings. Currently, the Architectural Review Board (ARB) evaluates the aesthetics of the proposed cell towers to make the required findings and make a recommendation to the Director of Planning.
With the plan to use a menu of options, decisions would be made solely by the Director of Planning. This means that in the future there would be no public hearing, public record, transparency, or meaningful public participation at all except through formal appeal of a decision to City Council – which is costly for residents and arguably more time consuming than an ARB hearing.
Staff claim that these changes are necessary under the FCC ruling which requires objective standards to be published by April 15, 2019. Remarkably, April 15 is also the date on which City Council is scheduled to consider these changes – with staff pressuring them to decide in favor or else lose the ability to reject applications until alternate standards are approved.
However the staff-proposed ‘menu’ is inadequate to address community objections. Other objective standards, such as requirements for undergrounding, setbacks from homes, and size of equipment, would all go further to mitigate many resident concerns. There is also no reason why we could not maintain the ARB public hearings to consider resident input and preserve our transparent process.
Other cities and lawsuits against the FCC
Other cities have interpreted the FCC ruling completely differently than Palo Alto city staff. In fact, the FCC order is currently being challenged by lawsuits brought forward by dozens of cities. These include such diverse cities as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Portland, Denver, San Jose, Hillsborough, Burlingame, Monterey and more. In addition, our own Congresswoman Anna Eshoo has introduced a bill to the U.S. House to overturn the FCC order.
Within this complicated legal context, dozens of other cities are taking action to protect resident interests and prevent small cell tower installations in such close proximity to homes and schools. For example:
Petaluma, CA now requiresundergrounding of ancillary equipment, 1500 ft minimum spacing of the small cells, and setbacks from residences.
Fairfax, CA passed an urgency ordinance putting a pause on cell tower installations and requiring setbacks from residences, schools, etc., and the city is pursuing a high-speed fiber-optic network.
Mill Valley, CA adopted an urgency ordinance to prohibit cell towers in residential zones, strengthen permitting requirements, set minimum distances and setbacks etc.
Ripon, CA also has a new ordinance that requires setbacks from schools and residences. Ripon, by the way, is having a cell tower removed from a school site after a cancer cluster (with at least 3 teachers and 4 kids affected).
Marin County is updating its ordinance, joined the lawsuit against the FCC and held a public meeting to discuss 5G in Marin County.
What can we do?
Residents must speak up now to preserve the health and safety of our community in Palo Alto. On April 15, City Council will vote on the Staff-proposed wireless ordinance changes, which would reduce public input and transparency while doing nothing to address public concerns.
A more robust set of objective standards that would include parameters such as setbacks from homes and schools, requirements for undergrounding, size of equipment, etc., informed by an inclusive public process.
A short term resident task force to inform standards that better reflect community concerns and values, with quick turn around of a resolution to adopt them.
Continued ARB review of applications to ensure public scrutiny and comment on proper application of the standards.
Tina Chow lives in Barron Park and is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley.
“Jobs-rich” designation extends impacts well beyond transit zones in Palo Alto
March 3, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Palo Alto Weekly – by Sue Dremann / January 26, 2018
Neighborhood warms to new and creative activism to unclog residential streets
Riled by daily traffic snarls on their residential streets, about 70 Crescent Park residents met with Palo Alto police and transportation officials on Jan. 18 to discuss how to end commuters’ occupation of their neighborhood.
Greg Welch, a Center Drive resident, spearheaded the neighborhood advocacy.
“As our next steps, we will have almost weekly meetings and will be coordinating (with the city),” he said, noting they plan to form a stakeholder group to develop a pilot traffic-management program. The group would work with Palo Alto’s transportation department on creating the program.
The meeting, just the latest movement in a wave of neighborhood activism, covered the expected discussion of pavement markings, traffic circles and stop signs — but also ventured into the realm of politics, with residents talking about potential candidates to support during this year’s City Council election.
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.”
Washington Post – by Lori Aretani / January 22, 2018
The three-year battle between residents in Northwest Washington and the Federal Aviation Administration over noise from flights at Reagan National Airport is now in the hands of a federal appeals court.
The two sides presented their case to a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last week. A ruling, which could take several months, will be closely watched by communities across the country grappling with similar issues tied to the FAA’s efforts to modernize the nation’s air traffic system.