Get Up to Speed on Council’s First 100 Days
New City Council charges ahead on housing, retail, parking and more amid community unease and campaign finance investigations.
After a divisive election season marked by widespread community concern over skyrocketing housing costs and diminishing quality of life, a new City Council majority took the reins with a densely packed first quarter agenda.
Mixed message on housing affordability: a divided Council moves to encourage more “granny units” but reduces required developer contributions to below-market-rate housing.
City Council voted 6-2 to make it easier and more appealing for home owners to build second units (ADUs) in single family residential neighborhoods. The new rules increase the allowable square footage of the units, allow them on any size lot, and eliminate on-site parking requirements. Many applaud the potential for more small, naturally more affordable housing units, while others worry about substantial new demand for street parking city-wide, reduced privacy, and the lure of short-term, Airbnb-type rentals.
The new Council majority took bold action to lower the fees charged to commercial developers to support below market rate housing from those passed in December 2016. Most notably, the fee schedule approved in December would have charged office and R&D projects $60/sq. ft. in affordable housing fees while the newly revised version sets the fee at $35/sq. ft.
Palo Alto retains retail protections. Unanimous support for a traffic safety “road diet” and alternative transportation pilot projects.
Despite strong opposition from developers and the Chamber of commerce, City Council voted 6-3 to make permanent the 2015 “emergency” ordinance protecting ground floor retail from conversion to office use. It approved a one-year pilot program to test safety improvements for a section of North Middlefield Road that serves as a key commute arterial but is plagued by accidents. Council also dedicated an additional $200,000 to support pilot projects spearheaded by the Downtown Transportation Management Association (TMA) to reduce the use of single occupancy vehicles (SOVs). The TMA has struggled to establish a strong footing, including funding from local businesses.
City drives forward with new parking structures, residential permit parking programs and consideration of metered parking Downtown.
In addition to supporting new parking structures both Downtown and on California Avenue, the City is trying to balance the interest of businesses with the quality of life impacts on nearby residents in the battle over fixed parking supply. Amid high anxiety on all sides of the debate, Palo Alto made permanent the Downtown Residential Permit Parking program (RPP) and began consideration of a similar program for the California Avenue area. On Tuesday April 11, City Council will begin to consider charging for public parking Downtown and will approve next steps on the new Downtown parking structure.
Campaign finance irregularities cast shadow over first 100 days.
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Council members Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka came under scrutiny for substantial post-election campaign contributions. The California Fair Political Practices Commission opened investigations into possible campaign finance reporting violations by Vice Mayor Kniss and Council Member Tanaka.
COMPREHENSIVE PLAN UPDATE
Council reverses course amid community uproar over displacement of citizen input into Palo Alto’s long term plan, but charges ahead on housing and jobs growth despite public concern about school impacts and fewer controls on commercial development.
The City’s Comprehensive Plan Update, currently underway, is the first major revision since 1998 to the City’s fundamental long term planning document. the “Comp Plan” lays out the goals, policies and programs that guide all City decision-making, including land use strategies to encourage or constrain new office and housing development.
After unanimously reversing a widely criticized January vote, by a slim majority, to sideline all programs recommended by the Citizen Advisory Committee, Council opted (with a different 5-4 majority) for a land use planning scenario expected to result in 3,545 to 4,420 new multi-family housing units by the year 2030 along with 9,850 to 11,500 new jobs.
Graphic provided by Todd Collins
School impacts from new housing questioned
Several in attendance raised concerns about the impact of new housing on school enrollment as well as the exclusion of Stanford housing expansion data from the City’s school impact analysis. Among them, PAUSD School Board member, Todd Collins (speaking only as a resident because the Board has not yet weighed in), criticized a lack of coordination between the City, Stanford and the School District regarding school impact forecasts and estimated that enrollment impacts will significantly exceed the City’s conservative forecasts and may severely stretch school capacity. Staff is expected to report back from further discussion with school officials.
Divided Council loosens limits on development and declines to impose performance measures.
In a series of confusing and contentious votes, City council voted 7-2 to remove all reference to the City’s longstanding 50-foot height limit from the Comprehensive Plan. without such reference, future City Council’s can more easily amend City law to allow buildings taller than four stories. In addition, a 5-4 majority eliminated the longstanding cumulative cap on new non-residential square footage Downtown that was designed to ensure a mix of commercial and housing development. Finally, Council voted 8-1 to reject proposals to develop performance measures designed to hold new projects accountable for such things as limiting the number of solo car trips generated by a project.
Work on the comprehensive Plan will continue into the summer, so it’s not too late to tell City council what you think. Final approval of the entire Update is expected in the early fall of this year.
Grassroots Spotlight – Neighbors Taking Action
Save Palo Alto’s Groundwater
Last year alone, over 140 million gallons of groundwater was wasted to build eight residential basements.
Led by Save Palo Alto’s Groundwater, over a hundred residents turned out at city Hall last month to successfully promote strategies to reduce dewatering due to underground construction.
Edgewood Plaza Grocery
The Fresh Market’s closure in March 2015 violated Edgewood Plaza’s Planned community (PC) zoning requiring an operating grocery store as one of the center’s public benefits. The developer, Sand Hill Properties, was allowed to build $30million worth of market rate homes on the site in exchange for the public benefits. Sand Hill continues to receive full rent payments from Fresh Market and City Hall did little to enforce the requirement until residents stepped in.
Seeing no incentive for compliance, community members demanded a fine for the PC violation. And last November residents flooded City Hall to insist the fines rise from $1,000 to $5,000 per day, which the City Council unanimously enacted.
Last week, an administrative judge rejected Sand Hill’s appeal of the fines, ensuring continued financial pressure on the developer to comply with its obligation to provide a replacement grocery store.