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. 

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.

North Palo Alto residents ramp up traffic battle

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.

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.”

D.C. residents take their battle over airplane noise to federal court

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.

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.

Meeting set for Tuesday on Stanford expansion

Public comment period winding down for university’s large-scale expansion plan

Palo Alto Weekly – by Gennady Sheyner / January 18, 2018

Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian will host a public meeting on Tuesday regarding Stanford University’s 2018 General Use Permit (GUP) application. As the public comment period is ending Feb. 2, the meeting will be one of the last opportunities for residents to make verbal public comments regarding the GUP.

If the permit is approved, the permit will allow Stanford University to build up to 2.275 million square feet in academic space, 3,150 housing units and 40,000 square feet of child care space and other supporting facilities between 2018 and 2035.

Palo Alto prepares for massive downtown ‘upgrade’

City’s plan to replace utility and water mains, add street improvements to launch this spring

Palo Alto Weekly – by Gennady Sheyner / January 18, 2018

The streets of downtown Palo Alto will transform into a hive of construction activity this spring, when the city launches an ambitious, yearslong plan to replace utility pipes, upgrade traffic equipment, widen sidewalks and expand its fiber-optics network.

The construction frenzy is set to launch in April and May and crawl block-by-block along University Avenue and surrounding streets, where roads will be torn up to accommodate new pipes, cables and equipment relating to traffic signals and utilities.

San Mateo: Citizens group urging height, density limits before measure ends

San Mateo City Council asked for ballot measure ahead of general plan update

The Daily Journal – by Samantha Weigel / January 15, 2018

As communities across the Bay Area strive to balance disparate viewpoints while navigating the effects of growth, the impassioned debate over height and density restrictions in San Mateo may reach a critical point sooner than some anticipated.

A citizens group that originally spurred San Mateo’s voter-approved limits more than 25 years ago has returned. Members are now urging the City Council to place a measure on the ballot that would keep in place 5-story height limits in most parts of the city, and restrict how dense housing and commercial developers can build.

While the city is about to initiate an extensive community outreach effort for its General Plan update — the most comprehensive land use and zoning document in San Mateo — concerns have arisen about Measure P sunsetting at the end of 2020.

Cupertino: Citizens group fears new laws could open door for Vallco developer

Mercury News – by Keith Menconi / January 12, 2018

As Cupertino begins a new planning round for the 58-acre Vallco Shopping Mall site, some residents are warning that the state’s recently enacted housing legislation could lead to a skirting of city reviews and pave the way for “massive development.”

A Change.org petition by citizen advocacy group Better Cupertino, which has collected more than 1,000 signatures, calls on the city to examine the consequences of the new laws and create “clearer objective standards” for the city’s General Plan.

The new laws aim to tackle the state’s housing crisis, in part by limiting the ability of local governments to reject housing development applications–including projects that are mixed with non-residential uses–that comply with all “objective” local standards, according to a legal analysis prepared for the city by attorneys from Goldfarb & Lipman LLP.