December 8, 2018 Newsletter

Updated December 9, 2018

In this issue:

Controversial housing issues dominate the public agenda in an end-of-year push by policy-makers — from new state housing mandates that could target every residential and mixed-use property in Palo Alto, to a seemingly trivial zoning provision with big implications for the President Hotel Apartments, to a city-wide overhaul of local development standards. 

Get up to speed:

  • Plot thickens around President Hotel.
  • Housing ordinance may roll over to next year.
  • Affordable housing project advances.
  • More wireless cell nodes on tap.
  • Council chambers audio/visual upgrades get Finance nod.
  • Deal struck for animal shelter.
  • New interests weigh in on Stanford expansion.

Calendar of Notable Upcoming Action: In a flurry of last minute agenda changes, council rescheduled its consideration of a five-year contract to outsource management of the Rinconada Pool, including the Rinconada Masters swim program, to December 10

With SB-50, State Senator Weiner targets high quality school districts in renewed effort to limit local control over housing

Following the defeat of SB-827 in the 2018 legislative session, State Senator Scott Weiner circled the wagons and returned this month with a new proposal, SB-50, that adds some protections for existing rental housing sites and temporarily preserves local control for “sensitive communities” that are particularly vulnerable to displacement pressures. At the same time, however, SB-50 reaches far beyond the “transit-rich corridors” targeted for state mandates under SB-827.

SB-50 would require local governments to grant housing developers an “equitable communities incentive” not only for housing projects within a half mile of a major transit stop (rail station or ferry terminal) or a quarter mile of a stop on a high quality bus corridor, but also ANYWHERE that housing is allowed in an area deemed “job-rich” based on indicators such as “proximity to jobs, high area median income relative to the relevant region, and high-quality public schools.”  

At a minimum, the equitable communities incentive must include waivers of parking requirements greater than 0.5 spots per unit and any maximum density controls, as well as up to three additional incentives and concessions available under the existing State Density Bonus law. Those additional concessions include such things as increased height, site coverage, and Floor Area Ratio limits; reduced side- and rear- setback requirements; and reduced daylight plane requirements.

Projects that are also close to transit and include a minimum, unspecified percentage of affordable units are then entitled to additional waivers as follows:

  • Within 1/2 mile, but more than 1/4 mile from a major transit stop: no height limits less than 45 feet, no Floor Area Ratio limits less than 2.5, and no parking requirements.
  • Within 1/4 mile of a major transit stop: no height limits less than 55 feet, no FAR limit less than 3.25, and no parking requirements.

The new, greater unit densities enabled by the waivers will form the baseline for calculating available additional concessions under the State Density Bonus law. 

SB-50 has only just been introduced and is likely to undergo some amendment before coming to a vote. However, if passed in its current form it would likely apply to all residential, mixed use, and commercial zones in Palo Alto, including every single-family neighborhood. Council members have already begun to weigh in with differing perspectives. On one hand Councilmember Adrian Fine expressed general support, saying “we need the state to step in … [l]ocal councils and the idolatry around local control are not going to solve our housing issues.” In contrast, Councilmember Eric Filseth said the bill was “horrible for voters” because it ignores that addressing the housing crisis depends on paying for all the infrastructure necessary to sustain regional growth. SB-50 “skips all that.” Whether City Council will take a position on SB-50 remains to be seen.

Get Up To Speed

The plot thickens around the President Hotel

Investigative reporting by the Palo Alto Weekly has shed troubling new light on behind the scenes interactions that may have led to the city’s surprise rush to enable the elimination of 75 housing units at the President Hotel Apartments. Communications secured through a Public Records Act request depicted an intensive lobbying campaign by AJ Capital Ventures, the new owners of the President Hotel building. AJ’s efforts included threat of litigation, side communications with a sitting council member, use of former senior-level city staff to gain access, a private agreement with tenants to silence their opposition to the project, and notably, a proposal to extend significant short term benefits to remaining tenants if the city acts, by a certain date, to make the zoning changes needed to enable conversion of the building to a hotel. 

Against the backdrop of overwhelming community support for preserving housing at the President, in late November, the city added two action items to its end-of-year calendar that could eliminate regulatory barriers to conversion of the building, just in time to meet the deadlines in AJ’s proposal. One of those is a “grandfathering” rule that will be taken up on December 10. The provision prevents remodeling of an oversized building associated with a change from its grandfathered use (e.g. housing to hotel). The agenda item makes no reference to the President Hotel and the staff report describes the code change as correction of a mere “administrative error,” yet contends that it must be made in advance of the normally required Planning Commission review in order to “preserve the public health, safety and welfare.”  

The appearance of behind closed door dealings, the city’s efforts to play down implications for the President building, and the prospect that the city may take affirmative action to facilitate reduction of housing stock while conveying multi-million dollar benefits to AJ Capital have raised substantial concern in the community. It stimulated both a scathing editorial by the Palo Alto Weekly, and a call to action from Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) opposing any change to the “grandfathered facilities” law without the normally required vetting by the Planning Commission and urging that “any revision should continue to prevent residential uses from changing to commercial ones so as to preserve Downtown housing and protect tenants from being displaced.”

City Council will vote on the “grandfathered facilities” provision on Monday, December 10.

Race against the clock to approve housing ordinance before the new council takes over.

Draft Housing Work Plan Timeline

City Council kicked off consideration of a comprehensive new housing ordinance on November 26, hearing from dozens of residents and posing general questions about the findings and methodology of a parking study that underlies many elements of the ordinance. Because they did not get to any substantive deliberations, the agenda for December 3 was revised to make room for continued discussion. After protracted debate, complicated by multiple recusals for separate sections of the ordinance, the item was again continued, likely to return on December 17.

Council approved several sections of the ordinance on December 3, but the lengthy, convoluted debate created some confusion, even among council members and staff, about what specifically was addressed through formal motions. Council is likely to take up the remaining sections of the ordinance, focused on changes impacting the California Avenue area on December 17.

3705 El Camino Real at Wilton Avenue

Wilton Court affordable housing project gets green light from Architectural Review Board

On December 6, the Architectural Review Board gave its blessing to a proposed 100 percent affordable housing project at 3705 El Camino Real (at Wilton Avenue), clearing the way for council approval. The Wilton project, put forth by affordable housing developer Palo Alto Housing, is the first application seeking to take advantage of the city’s new Affordable Housing Combining District (indeed, the combining district was designed in consultation with Palo Alto Housing, with the specific goals of the Wilton project in mind). The four story project includes 59 units, deed restricted to serve low- and very low- income residents and including a set-aside of up to 15 units for adults with developmental disabilities.

The AH combining district created significant zoning concessions for 100 percent affordable housing projects near public transit. The first to be eligible for those concessions, the Wilton project will have a density of 127 units/acre as compared to the underlying limit of 15-20 units/acre. It will enjoy increased height and Floor Area Ratio (ratio of building square footage to lot size):  48 feet tall and 1.85 FAR, as compared with the underlying limits of 40 feet and 0.6 FAR. And it will provide 41 on-site parking spaces (.69 spaces/unit).

In order to address concerns about parking spillover into the surrounding neighborhood, Palo Alto Housing has proposed a multi-pronged Transportation Demand Management strategy designed to reduce car use and/or ownership among Wilton Court tenants. Like the “car-light” workforce housing project approved earlier this year for the VTA parking lot at Page Mill Road and El Camino Real, residents and city officials are expected to closely scrutinize the efficacy of residential TDM efforts for managing on-street parking impacts.

Wireless cell nodes in University South gain reluctant, conditional support from Architectural Review Board

This past May, over vehement public objection and despite seven separate appeals, Verizon wireless gained city approval to install wireless cell antennas on utility poles in multiple south Palo Alto neighborhoods. Now they’re back with applications for two new clusters of cell nodes – in University South and Downtown North.

On December 6, the Architectural Review Board held its first formal hearing on a new cluster of Verizon wireless cell antennas targeted for seven streetlight poles in the University South neighborhood. Staff recommended denial of four out of the seven proposed installations based on the size, impact, and location of the “faux mailbox” design proposed for required radio equipment. The ARB found the design of the proposed antennas acceptable, however they also objected to the design and placement of ancillary radio equipment. Ultimately the board voted 4-0-1 (Lew abstaining) to approve the proposed sites on the condition that radio equipment and associated wiring be located underground or completely concealed. Any above ground alternatives must come back to the ARB for further review. 

The Downtown North cluster consists of 6 cell nodes to be installed on wood utility poles. The ARB will take up the Downtown North cluster on December 20.

With minor cost reductions, upgrades to City Hall audio/visual system will return to council

In March 2018, city staff proposed $2,040,000 upgrade to the audio/visual system for the council chambers to replace obsolete and failing technology, comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and improve audio and video functionality for the community and other users of the facility. Although council agreed that improvements were overdue, they bristled at the cost and sent the proposal to the Finance Committee for further review, directing staff to identify opportunities for cost reductions and incremental implementation.

This week, the Finance Committee weighed in on a revised proposal that slightly reduced the price tag and recommended phased funding over two years based on priority needs and the efficiency of completing related components together. The Finance Committee generally agreed with staff about the needed upgrades, but they opted to forego adding A/V broadcasting links to libraries and the media center and opposed the recommended elimination of the KZSU radio booth. The Committee voted 2-1 to recommend moving forward with the whole project at once, with Council member Filseth favoring a phased approach that would allow the city to balance significant A/V investments against other city priorities in each year. 

Animal Shelter

After two years of protracted negotiations, on November 26, City Council unanimously approved a five-year contract and $3.4 million in capital improvements to enable nonprofit Pets In Need to take over operation of the Palo Alto Animal Shelter. The shelter’s long term future came into doubt in 2012 when the City of Mountain View ended its partnership and withdrew $400,000 in annual funding. Subsequently, a scathing city audit in 2015 highlighted substantial physical deficiencies and concluded that the shelter “did not meet the modern standard of animal care.” 

The new plan will enable the shelter to occupy a bigger footprint with significantly improved facilities, return to regular operating hours and restore and expand services. Meanwhile, Pets In Need will spearhead a multi-year fundraising campaign for future construction of an improved, permanent facility.

PAUSD parents and wage workers’ interests join the debate over Stanford’s proposed expansion

Stanford University and Santa Clara County have begun efforts to negotiate a Development Agreement that would allow Stanford to add 2.3 million square feet of academic space by the year 2035. Under the typical General Use Permit application process, developers are required to comply with existing regulations and mitigate the impacts of their project based on formal environmental reviews.  In contrast, development agreements allow the parties to negotiate the terms of approval with fewer constraints about what is offered and accepted. They are voluntary contracts that can result in the applicant providing community benefits outside of the regulatory process in exchange for the public agency agreeing to “freeze” the development standards applicable to the project for the term of the agreement.

On November 29, the County held a public meeting to solicit input about what kinds of community benefits should be considered in a potential development agreement with Stanford. Public comments sometimes blurred the lines between what was sought as mitigation for new impacts and what were deemed potential public benefits that would make the trade-offs worthwhile. Nonetheless, major areas of interest coalesced around schools, traffic and sustainability, housing, and open space protections. 

Notably, the school community turned out in force to ask that Stanford do its fair share in terms of land and spending to support the school district. Largely silent prior to the School Board’s November resolution seeking school impact mitigations from Stanford, parents emphasized that although new students are very welcome, without greater contributions from Stanford the quality of our shared school system would be at risk.

The prospect of a negotiated development agreement also opened the door to advocacy for Stanford’s wage workers. Students with SCOPE 2035, (Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035) argued that in addition to full mitigation of environmental impacts, the development agreement should include improved conditions, benefits and representation for Stanford’s non-salaried workforce. SEIU organizer Stewart Highland, argued for housing benefits targeted to wage workers.

The County has created a dedicated website for the County-Stanford development agreement. You can submit comments and ideas through the website as well as find more information about the process and timeline. A second public input meeting is anticipated in January 2019 and development agreement negotiations are expected to wrap up by the end of February 2019. 

Notable Upcoming Action

December 10, 2018

Rinconada Pool Outsourcing: City Council will vote on approval of a Five-Year Operating and Revenue Sharing Agreement with Team Sheeper for Operations of Rinconada Pool, including change in management of the Rinconada Masters swim program. Beginning at 6:20 pm (City Hall). Continued from November 26, 2018. Click here for staff report.

California Avenue Parking Garage: Council will vote to approve a $39 million construction contract for the California Avenue parking garage and to authorize negotiation of related easements and short term leases for the project. Beginning at 8:00 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

President Hotel: Council is tentatively scheduled to amend Section 18.18.120 of the zoning code, Grandfathered Use and Facilities, that formed the basis of the city’s conclusion that the President Hotel could not legally be converted from residential to hotel use. Beginning at 9:00 pm (City Hall). Continued from November 26, 2018. Click here for staff report.

December 17, 2018 – (Tentative)

Council will likely try to wrap up the Housing Ordinance and is tentatively scheduled to hear updates on the Roth Building (Palo Alto History Museum) and Grade Separations. Agenda and packet will be available on December 13.

December 18, 2018 – January 4, 2019

City Council will be on winter recess.

December 20, 2018

Wireless Cell Antennas: The Architectural Review Board will consider a new cluster of six cell nodes proposed for utility poles in the Downtown North neighborhood. Meeting begins at 8:30 am (City Hall). Continued from December 6, 2018. Click here for staff report.

January 7, 2019

City Council will hold its annual reorganization meeting to elect a new mayor and vice-mayor.