April 8, 2018 Newsletter

April 9 promises impassioned public comment as affordable housing and airplane noise take center stage at City Council. On other fronts, community voices recently prompted city response on traffic patrol, controversial bike boulevard design elements, and employee parking permits in the downtown RPP. Get up to speed on what the city is up to and make sure your opinion is part of the mix.

In this issue:

  • Affordable Housing: PTC sharply divided as action moves to City Council.
  • Get up to speed: Voluntary Eichler design guidelines approved. City polls for possible infrastructure tax measure. $2 million City Hall tech upgrade in the works.
  • Looking ahead: affordable housing ordinance; airplane noise; First Baptist Church; Golf Course; annual office limit; grade separations.
  • Grassroots spotlight: bike boulevard project; downtown RPP may get revised again; wireless antennas approved; worries about solar panels at Paly.

Click here for Calendar of Notable Upcoming Action.

In rush to pass housing legislation, will it get us what we want?

PTC sharply divided over affordable housing ordinance as action moves to City Council on April 9.

Twice in two weeks, the Planning and Transportation Commission was asked for same-day endorsement of complex new housing laws that would grant major exceptions to development standards with potentially substantial neighborhood impacts. The commission reluctantly approved a Workforce Housing (WH) overlay on January 31 (6-1, Summa dissenting) to accommodate a time-sensitive, 57-unit project planned for the VTA parking lot at Page Mill Road and El Camino Real. But when staff returned two weeks later with a farther reaching 100 percent Affordable Housing (AH) overlay, a PTC majority (Guardias, Lauing, Summa and Waldfogel) pushed back, declining to rubber stamp the staff proposal. No detailed project was presented in February, but staff indicated that the overlay was designed to accommodate a potential project on Wilton Court being considered by Palo Alto Housing.

Arguing that the staff report provided insufficient data and analysis to clarify the issues, let alone bear out staff’s recommendations, the PTC empaneled an ad hoc committee to consult with experts and residents, identify key questions and return for more substantive discussion at the following meeting. Commissioners Alcheck, Monk and Riggs opposed the move, favoring deference to staff’s recommendations in order to advance the proposed ordinance to Council as swiftly as possible.

Competing philosophies

That fundamental difference of opinion about how the PTC should approach its work persisted at the March 14 PTC meeting. Discussion was dominated by debate over whether the commission should move something (anything!) in the form of an AH overlay forward to Council right away or whether it should take the time to design an ordinance more likely to attract below market rate (BMR) development while also engaging impacted neighbors around appropriate compromises.

It was suggested, for example, that the commission further explore retail exceptions, extra heights in certain circumstances, greater geographic reach, and city financing partnerships that could bridge the gap between developer and neighborhood interests. It was also posited that a combining district/zoning overlay that requires additional legislative hurdles for each project fails to address the greatest barrier to affordable housing: certainty about what will be allowed before developers invest in the costly design and review process.

The PTC ultimately voted 4-3 (Alcheck, Monk and Riggs dissenting) to adopt the latter approach. Instead of voting on the staff recommended overlay, they endorsed the ad hoc committee’s recommendations to pursue a development agreement via a Planned Community (PC) zone (thereby allowing the Wilton Court concept to move forward without an AH overlay), while work continued to develop an effective AH ordinance. Commissioner Waldfogel described the process and findings of the ad hoc committee:

“What counts as affordable,” staff revisions and minority report

In addition to identifying areas for further review of appropriate standards and strategies, the ad hoc committee raised questions about the appropriate income categories to include in a 100 percent affordable housing ordinance. They heard from multiple affordable housing developers that financing opportunities create a sharp distinction between projects serving incomes at or below 60 percent of area median income (AMI) and those that include units for higher income levels.

According to Danny Ross, Senior Development Manager for Palo Alto Housing, with federal tax credit financing only available to projects at or below that 60 percent AMI threshold, incomes between 60 and 120 percent AMI are primarily served through inclusionary housing in market-rate developments. He recently told a housing forum (sponsored by Palo Alto Forward and the League of Women Voters, Palo Alto) that his organization never builds projects above the 60 percent AMI threshold and he is unaware of any other affordable housing developers that do.

While the AH overlay ordinance proposed by staff on February 14 set income levels at up to 120 percent AMI, they revised the recommendation for the March PTC meeting to a 60 percent AMI limit. After the PTC declined to endorse the proposed overlay, however, staff restored the 120 percent limit for upcoming Council review on April 9.

Commissioners Alcheck, Monk and Riggs also want the threshold set at 120 percent AMI, and took the uncommon step of submitting a minority recommendation to Council in support of the February staff recommendation. They touted the proposed overlay as the “most promising tool our body has considered to address the enormous shortage of affordable housing in our City.” Even so, they urged Council to go beyond the staff recommendation and incorporate several changes. Notably, those changes fall squarely in areas the PTC ad hoc committee recommended for further study and deliberation: flexibility around retail requirements, geographic reach, and appropriate additional exceptions regarding height and density.  

With a lengthy to-do list under the City’s ambitious Housing Work Plan, and the Mayor’s determination to move things along, on Monday April 9, City Council will have the unenviable task of reconciling an overlay ordinance put forth by staff, a PTC recommendation, a PTC minority recommendation, and the views of the public.  For a summary of major changes to development standards proposed in the staff overlay, see the Looking Ahead section below.

Get up to speed

Council adopts voluntary Eichler design guidelines, with option to petition for mandatory overlay.

On April 2, City Council voted 7-1 (Holman dissenting, DuBois absent) to approve the Eichler Neighborhood Design Guidelines endorsed by the Historic Resources Board. The draft guidelines were  generally well-received as a tool for preserving Eichler character and limiting impacts on neighbors’ privacy. However, public comment suggested that they will not entirely put to rest longstanding conflicts between Eichler neighbors regarding remodels. Speakers were divided over whether the guidelines should be strictly voluntary or integrated into a mandatory design review process, with some concerned that the mere adoption of the guidelines, even if voluntary, could prove a slippery slope toward future mandates.

Ultimately, the Council opted to make the guidelines voluntary, but allow a supermajority within individual neighborhoods to petition for designation as an “Eichler Zone Combining District.” Two-story homes would be allowed in such a district, but they would have to comply with the new guidelines. While supportive of the guidelines, Councilmember Holman dissented due to an item in the council resolution that could exclude Eichlers from consideration as historic resources. Staff will continue public outreach and return to Council with an implementing ordinance. Click here for the staff report presented to Council.

Finance Committee kicks off poll for infrastructure tax measure on the November ballot.

Due primarily to steeply rising construction costs, the city’s Infrastructure Plan faces a funding gap upwards of $56 million. In addition, a growing list of new infrastructure projects has emerged since the Infrastructure Plan was established. The Council Finance Committee has begun work to reprioritize, reduce or defer projects and identify potential new funding sources including possible new taxes for the November ballot. On the recommendation of the Finance Committee, the city commissioned a poll to gauge voter support for various tax strategies. Councilmember DuBois (who is not on the Finance Committee) raised concerns that the polling strategy does not offer a business tax as a possible approach nor address funding for grade separations. The poll will conclude this week and the Council is tentatively scheduled to discuss results and consider a second round of polling at its April 30 meeting.

Meanwhile, a possible statewide ballot initiative to reclassify some local service fees as taxes and require two-thirds voter approval of all new taxes (including those passed in 2018) is gathering support. If approved, according to City Manager James Keene, the “measure would have significant fiscal impact in Palo Alto and require steep reductions in service levels.”

City to spend up to $2 million on City Hall technology upgrade.

On March 26, City Council voted 7-1 (Tanaka dissenting, Scharff absent) to move forward on a technology revamp for City Hall, including an updated voting system and audio-visual broadcasting and projection equipment. Staff indicated that it would be impossible to broadcast or stream meetings within a year without the upgrade and clarified that funding was already approved in the budget and would come from dedicated technology funds. Nonetheless, several Councilmember objected to the price tag, with Tanaka ultimately casting a “no” vote on what he deemed “a vanity project” in light of the City’s infrastructure funding gap. The item was referred to the Finance Committee with direction to staff to continue value engineering to reduce costs. Click here for details of the upgrade.


  • Water rates: On April 3, the Finance Committee threw cold water on a Utilities Department proposal to raise water rates by 4 percent this July and by 7 percent in each of the next two years. The Committee directed staff to explore ways to minimize needed rate hikes, including revising expenditure priorities and scaling back an upcoming transition to smart meters.
  • Traffic patrol: Police Chief Robert Jonsen recently announced that he will bring back a traffic unit to patrol city streets beginning in June. Initially there will be one designated officer on the job, with strategic support from parking enforcement officers. The traffic unit will grow over time, eventually up to four officers.
  • Council election: Councilmember Cory Wolbach and community volunteer Alison Cormack announce plans to run for City Council in November.

Looking Ahead

Airplane noise will both kick-off and conclude Council’s April 9 agenda.

On Monday, April 9, City Council will  consider possible litigation and the Council Policy and Services Committee’s recommended next steps for other city action regarding airplane noise. A local grassroots group, Sky Posse Palo Alto, has led the charge in navigating the complexities and implications of aircraft management and urging local action. The Policy and Services Committee recommendations endorse and incorporate several proposals advanced by members of the public. For the latest update and call-to-action from Sky Posse Palo Alto, click here.

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration announced slight changes to a San Francisco Airport arrival route (now known as SERFR3). It is not yet clear whether the new SERFR3 route will notably mitigate local airplane noise, but its announcement may have triggered a 60 day window to petition for review.

Note: public comment on the litigation item will be heard at 5:00 pm, before Council begins the closed session. Public comment on the Policy and Services Committee recommendations is scheduled to be heard at 9:30 pm, upon conclusion of the affordable housing discussion.

Affordable housing ordinance before Council on April 9 includes major changes in development standards.

Beginning at 7:15 pm, City Council will consider an Affordable Housing (AH) Combining District ordinance inviting housing developers to build projects serving people with up to 120 percent of area median income ($89,280 per year for an individual) that don’t comply with underlying zoning standards. To qualify, 100 percent of the housing units must meet the income limit and the project must be located within a commercial zone (CN, CC, CS) and within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop or 1/4 mile of a high frequency transit corridor (including all of El Camino Real). Proposed exceptions to the underlying development/zoning standards would allow:

  • A parking ratio of 0.5 on-site parking spaces per unit or bedroom, whichever is greater.
  • No limit on maximum density.
  • Building heights up to 50 feet within 50 feet of residential districts. (Note: existing height limit in neighborhood commercial (CN) zones is 25 feet and two stories, other commercial zones range from 37 to 50 feet. Existing rules also require a transition zone in which building height is limited to 35 feet within 150 feet of residential districts).
  • Floor Area Ratio (square footage of building relative to the square footage of the lot) up to 2:1. (Note: existing FAR limit in CN and Service Commercial (CS) zones is 0.4:1).
  • Reduction or waiver of the amount of retail required under the city’s retail protection ordinance.

Planning Commission to take up First Baptist Church “community center” application on April 11.

A highly publicized code enforcement action in July 2017 determined that 11 organizations renting space at First Baptist Church, 305 N. California Avenue, were not allowed in that residential district. The news pitted neighbors who had long suffered excessive noise, traffic and parking impacts against valued tenants. Neighbors and church tenants got together in early March to better understand each other’s interests and work toward resolution. At city staff’s suggestion, the church is now pursuing a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to allow “community center” uses at the site. Such an approach is thought by staff to avoid precedent-setting action that would impact other religious organizations in the city. Click here for staff report.

Human Relations Commission to weigh in on police body camera policy on April 12.

The commission will meet at 7:00 pm to discuss concerns about privacy, transparency and public access to body camera recordings under the police department’s draft Field-Based Video policy.

City Council to act on golf course and annual office limit on April 16.

City Council will approve 39-month management and restaurant contracts totaling $9,008,000 for the newly renovated golf course and consider new greens fees and equipment rentals with dynamic pricing (higher fees during high use periods). Click here for staff report.

Council will also adopt a proposed ordinance to extend and modify the interim 50,000 square foot annual limit on new office/R&D. Per Council’s direction last year, the new ordinance will replace the “beauty contest” with a first-come, first-served process for new projects and allow year to year roll-over of unallocated square footage. Click here for staff report.

Narrowing of grade separation options on April 18.

With a series of community roundtables completed, the Council Rail Committee now enters center stage as the forum for public input. On April 18 the Rail Committee is expected to hear from the public and reduce the options under consideration for grade separations. The city’s goal is to settle on 4-6 alternatives for further study by the summer and choose a preferred approach by the end of the year. Staff report and agenda will become available on April 12 and can then be found on our Calendar page.

Grassroots Spotlight

Critics of Ross Road traffic calming stimulate city response.

A petition citing concerns about safety on the new Ross Road bike boulevard has gathered over 800 signatures and Chief Transportation Officer Josh Mello says the city has “heard the community loud and clear.” In response, the city plans to expand public outreach, take a phased approach to remaining installations, use temporary markings to help residents anticipate upcoming changes, and get independent engineering review of roundabout designs, making adjustments “if appropriate and feasible.”

Downtown RPP revisions pulled from consent calendar as dentists rally opposition.

City Council voted 7-1 (Kniss dissenting, Scharff recused) in February to lower the limit on employee parking permits sold in the “generally successful” Downtown Residential Preferred Parking Program (RPP) to 1,100. Employee permit purchases over the past year had declined by 22 percent and only 1,090 out of 1400 were sold in the most recent purchase period.

However, according to Christopher Joy, president of the local dentists association, when a new purchase period began on March 5, employee permits sold out within two weeks. Mr. Joy started an online petition asking Council to restore the previous 1,400 permit cap, and within a week had gathered over 780 signatures. The reduced limit was scheduled for a second reading and up-or-down vote on April 2, so there was no Council discussion, but on a motion by Mayor Kniss and Councilmembers Fine and Tanaka, the item was pulled from Council’s consent calendar to be discussed at a future date.

City records indicate that as of March 29, 234 permits remained unsold in the downtown RPP (plus 100 held in reserve). Furthermore, the reduced employee permit cap did not impact the number of permits offered in zones closest to the dentists. Downtown parking stakeholders have argued for years that the city must develop a priority system to help small, community serving businesses compete for permits in high demand zones. To date no action has been taken on that front.


Architectural Review Board splits over approval of wireless antennas.

Despite strong and concerted opposition from grassroots group United Neighbors, on March 15, the ARB voted 3-2 (Baltay and Gooyer dissenting) to approve a Verizon Wireless plan to install antennas and radio equipment on 11 utility poles in Midtown, Palo Verde and St. Claire Gardens. Verizon hopes to eventually gain approval for similar installations on a total of 93 utility poles in the city based on this precedent set by the ARB. Opponents of the decision can appeal to City Council.

Plan for solar panels at Paly stirs controversy.

According to members of Paly’s Facilities Committee, neither they nor the existing landscape plan were consulted in designing a solar project to be installed this summer in the Paly parking lot. Concerned that the panels will obstruct views of the historic Tower Building and disrupt the existing landscape, Facilities Committee members brought their concerns to PAUSD and reached out to Paly alumni and others in the community for support.

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