December 4, 2017 Newsletter

In this issue:

  • What’s the fuss? Stanford GUP, grade separation roundtables, local implications of new State housing laws, and frustration over controversial items on Council’s consent calendar.
  • Get up to speed: Traffic frustration mounts; Comp Plan adopted; Colleagues memo on new housing moves forward; Grade separation roundtables; Speed limits; and Rooftop decks.
  • Keep track of notable upcoming city action: Stanford expansion; Council reaction to new State housing laws; extra employee permits for RPPs; New dewatering rules.

What’s the fuss?

Although Palo Alto’s legislative year is wrapping up and the holidays are upon us, resident oversight of local government matters remains in high gear.

As the local implications of Stanford’s growth plans, Caltrain’s expansion, and new State restrictions on city authority begin to come to light, residents bristle at a lack of timely City leadership and communication. In addition, they are dismayed that despite recognized public interest and concern about permit parking and dewatering for below ground construction, the City has placed new policies in those areas on the Council consent calendar, bypassing public deliberation.

While in principle, most Palo Altans support Stanford’s continued success, greater train capacity, more affordable housing, and shorter City Council meetings, the details matter. As local quality of life has diminished and forecasted future impacts mount, residents are asking hard questions and demanding representation and transparency to ensure that those goals don’t come at intolerable expense to community well-being.

Stanford Expansion Plans

Hot on the heels of Palo Alto’s Comprehensive Plan debate about the pace, intensity, and impacts of local growth, Stanford is seeking a General Use Permit (GUP) from Santa Clara County for ambitious campus growth over the next 15 years. The Stanford GUP proposes adding 3.5 million square feet of new development to Stanford campus (roughly equivalent in size to two and a half Stanford Shopping Centers), including 3,100 new housing units/beds and anticipated on-campus population growth of 8,574. The DEIR forecasts that such growth will:

  • create new demand for 2,425 off-campus housing units;
  • significantly worsen traffic congestion on several freeway segments and at 21 local intersections;
  • create significant unavoidable noise impacts; and
  • generate significant new PAUSD school enrollment.

Unfortunately, City Council scheduled its discussion of the GUP’s impacts for December 4, the final day of the 60-day public comment period. In the absence of timely City leadership, residents were left to sift through the voluminous DEIR on their own, without the benefit of professional insights or Council perspective. Nonetheless, at the urging of County Supervisor Joe Simitian, the community did their homework and mobilized to speak up (at public hearings coordinated by the County Planning Department and by Supervisor Simitian, through letters, and via petition). Hundreds of public commenters highlighted concern about insufficiencies in Stanford’s impact analyses and inadequacies in proposed mitigations.

The cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, Stanford’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, residents, and local interest groups asked the Santa Clara County Planning Director to extend the comment period to allow the public a fuller opportunity to understand and comment on the DEIR analysis. However, before the County issued a decision on the request, Mayor Scharff muddied the water by personally contacting the County Planning Director and, contrary to the City’s formal request, conveying uncertainty about the need for an extension. News of that communication raised red flags about the propriety of individual influence by the Mayor and heightened concern that an extension would not be granted.

Ultimately, on November 30, the County granted an extension of the public comment period to February 2, 2018. City Council will review draft City comments on the GUP on December 4, beginning at 8:15 pm. The draft comments are clear and informative and offer a good starting point for residents interested in submitting individual comments to the County.

You can now submit comments on the GUP DEIR up until February 2 via phone, letter or email (Stanford must respond to all submitted comments in the Final EIR):

County of Santa Clara
Department of Planning and Development
Attention: David Rader
County Government Center
70 West Hedding Street, San Jose, CA 95110
Phone: (408) 299-5779
Email: David Rader

Grade Separation Roundtables

Having changed course in its approach to stakeholder inclusion around grade separation design by opting against a diverse, empowered stakeholder group that is typical of Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS), the City has hosted a series of informal community roundtables to collect resident input on the Charleston and Arastradero, Churchill, and Palo Alto Avenue rail crossings.

Public turnout has exceeded expectations, but participants report frustration that, because of their open-house nature, each roundtable starts at ground zero, failing to exploit the learning curve advanced in prior community workshops and limiting the quality and depth of discussion. Worse, several attendees report feeling pressured to advance design alternatives they don’t actually support in order to comply with the roundtable format, raising suspicion that resident input will be vulnerable to distortion.

The final roundtable, to be scheduled for early 2018, will focus on the details of the broadly favored, but high cost, trench or tunnel design. Informed by recent draft studies, including a Rail Corridor Circulation Study White Paper and a Rail Financing White Paper, that meeting holds potential to tie together and apply insights from the crossing-specific roundtables, assure the public that their feedback has been heard and create a stronger perception that we’re moving toward informed consensus.

New State Housing Laws

A “housing package” of 15 bills signed by Governor Brown in September will take effect on January 1, 2018. While the City formally weighed in on some elements, such as opposing the By-Right Housing law (SB 35), the City did little to educate the public about the proposals before they were enacted and local impacts of the entire package are only beginning to come to light. On December 4, City Council will hear a presentation on the implications of those laws for Palo Alto. The staff report provides a general summary along with some background data on housing production in Palo Alto in recent years.

In many cases, the City may need or want to revise local land use and planning ordinances to address the new legislative landscape. Residents would be well served to understand, at least generally, the opportunities and constraints that drive those potentially controversial revisions. That public awareness will be vital to facilitating productive, community-friendly solutions as Council implements the new Comp Plan and takes up the new housing proposals in the recently approved Colleagues’ Memo from Councilmembers Fine, Kniss and Wolbach (see Get Up To Speed, below).

If you’re not able to watch on December 4, a video recording of the Council presentation and discussion will be available within a few days by clicking on “video” for the December 4 Council meeting here.

“Housing package” elements of particular note include:

1.  The By-Right Housing Bill (SB35) provides for expedited (90 days) and streamlined approval of housing and mixed use projects that comply with zoning rules and meet certain objective criteria. In addition:

  • On-site parking requirements will be reduced or eliminated for such projects if they are within 1⁄2 mile of public transit; one block of a car share vehicle location; an area where on‐street parking permits are required but not offered to the development occupants; or an architecturally or historically significant historic district.
  • While zoning compliance would be required for projects to be eligible for streamlined review, the City’s current requirements for a use permit, for site and design approval, and for compliance with subjective Architectural Review Board (ARB) findings regarding design and compatibility will not be enforceable under the new law.

2.  Changes to the Housing Accountability Act (AB 678, SB 167, and AB 1515) increase cities’ vulnerability to law suits and liability for attorney’s fees. Key features:

  • Expands the definition of what counts as a “Housing Development Project” to include mixed use projects;
  • Makes it much more difficult for a city to justify disapproval of such a project or require a lower density than the max allowed; and
  • Reverses the legal burden of proof, requiring courts to defer to the reasonable judgment of the applicant rather than a local government’s planning department as to consistency with zoning requirements, without regard for the weight of evidence.

3.  The Palmer “Fix” will allow local governments to create inclusionary housing rules (requirements that housing projects include a minimum percentage of units deed restricted for affordability) for rental properties. A 2009 California Court of Appeals decision, called the Palmer case, had limited such deed restrictions to for-sale units. Current Palo Alto law requires 15% of units in for-sale housing projects to be affordable units.

Controversial items on Council consent calendar

In a year notable for heightened public turnout and controversy over actions that exclude or reject public input, community advocates were disappointed to see two more items of significant public interest appear on City Council’s upcoming consent calendar (for up or down votes without deliberation) for December 11.

Additional employee parking permits for Evergreen-Mayfield and Southgate RPPs

It came as a surprise to many supporters of the Evergreen-Mayfield and Southgate Residential Preferential Parking programs (RPPs) to see a proposed ordinance allotting additional employee parking permits for those two RPPs. The 41 additional employee permits proposed for Evergreen-Mayfield represent a 33% and 32% increase in zones A and B, respectively. The 15 additional employee permits proposed for Southgate amount to a 150% increase.

The original allotments were adopted after negotiation with both resident and business stakeholders and review and recommendation by the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC). Although the staff report indicates that staff met with Evergreen-Mayfield residents and stakeholders on November 2 to “get RPP program feedback and share preliminary occupancy data,” resident stakeholders were surprised to learn of the proposed ordinance only after it appeared on the Council consent calendar and without PTC review.

RPP advocates continue to contend that rather than adjusting the rules on an ad hoc basis to accommodate more permits when supply doesn’t meet demand, the City should develop a policy driven allocation method for when permits get scarce.

Dewatering from below-ground construction 

Groundwater depletion from below-ground construction is another area of intense public interest. City staff and local advocates seem to have a good working relationship and a 2017 ordinance to regulate dewatering was mostly well-received with promises of updates for 2018. Unfortunately, because all current year projects were grandfathered under the old rules, there is no data reflecting the impact of the 2017 regulations.

Nonetheless, several changes are proposed for the 2018 update, scheduled on Council’s consent calendar (without debate) for December 11. Advocates have received mixed messages from staff. Despite ongoing discussions in which several staff ideas were well received, many of those elements were not included in the final staff report and proposed ordinance.

Furthermore, in the absence of data about the impact of the 2017 ordinance, the newly proposed regulations create substantial discretion for the City Engineer to make individual exceptions to the rules, including year-round discharge of extracted groundwater into the storm drain system or special restrictions for large projects. Management of contaminated plumes are also largely to be handled on a case by case basis. Yet the proposed regulations lack performance standards or even guidelines to inform that discretion.

While advocates support the general framework of the new rules, passage on consent without the inclusion of more details and clearer guidance could undermine the City’s positive partnership with the community on this important issue.

Get Up to Speed

Traffic woes intensify in Crescent Park

Frustration over commuter traffic overflow into residential neighborhoods is reaching a fever pitch with safety taking center stage as streets become impassable during peak commute periods. Crescent Park residents are beginning to organize to seek both short and long term solutions to the daily gridlock from commuters trying to reach the freeway via University Avenue.  In Menlo Park’s Willows neighborhood, which faces similar challenges, NextDoor posters nearly resorted to pitchforks in their desperation to get city help to assure access to and from their homes.

Council adopts Comp Plan and seeks to pave way for new housing construction.

City Council adopted the long debated Comprehensive Plan on November 13, by a 7-2 vote (Holman and Kou dissenting). Despite Mayor Scharff’s call to avoid controversial issues in the final debate, strong disagreement arose about the adequacy of the City’s impact analysis and mitigations, what community indicators to include to assess progress, and whether to declaw Level of Service (LOS) intersection ratings in evaluating the localized traffic impacts of new developments.

On November 6, after rejecting (in the usual 5-4 split) a DuBois proposal to add housing retention strategies, such as regulation and enforcement of airbnbs and vacant investment homes and a Holman proposal to better define what the City means by “affordable market-rate housing,” Council voted unanimously to approve a Memo authored by Fine, Kniss and Wolbach to advance new housing construction. The Memo called for exploring changes in zoning and parking requirements and considering expanding the City’s inclusionary housing policy (currently requiring that 15% of units in for-sale residential projects be deed restricted for affordable housing).

City Tidbits

  • On November 7, by an 8-0 vote (DuBois absent), Council approved increased speed limits on East Bayshore and Deer Creek Roads along with reduced speeds and traffic calming in expanded school zones;
  • In a study session on November 27, Council divided on whether it would support a zoning change to allow rooftop decks downtown, with strong support from Scharff, Kniss and Fine and opposition by DuBois, Filseth, Holman, and Kou.

Notable Upcoming Action

Railway Grade Separations: The City will host a Community Roundtable to discuss Trench and Tunnel alternatives for grade separations, November 30, from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm (City Hall)Postponed to future date, TBD, early 2018. Click here for more info.

December 4, 2017

Stanford Expansion: City Council will consider draft City comments to be submitted in response to the DEIR for the Stanford GUP. December 4, beginning at 8:15 pm (City Hall). Click here for the staff report and draft City comments.

New State Housing Laws: City Council will hear a presentation regarding the 15 new State housing laws taking affect in January 2018. Council will consider local impacts and potential direction to staff. December 4, beginning at 9:00 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

December 5, 2017

Pension liabilities and City financial forecast: The Council Finance Committee will review the City’s FY18-FY28 General Fund Long Range Financial Forecast and provide direction to staff on the City’s pension liabilities. December 5, beginning at 7:00 pm (Community Meeting Room, City Hall). Click here for staff report.

December 11, 2017

Additional employee permits for Evergreen and Southgate Residential Permit Parking (RPP) Programs: Staff proposes allotting additional employee parking permits to the Evergreen and Southgate RPPs and imposing 2 hour parking limits on nearby segments of El Camino Real and Churchill Avenue. This item is on the consent calendar, so unless three Councilmembers vote to discuss it, the vote will proceed without debate. December 11, at 6:00 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

New rules for dewatering due to underground construction: Council will consider an ordinance revising the 2017 regulations for managing groundwater extraction. This item is on the consent calendar, so unless three Councilmembers vote to discuss it, the vote will proceed without debate. December 11, at 6:00 pm (City Hall)Click here for staff report.