SB-827 height overlay map

February 15, 2018 Newsletter

In this issue:

  • Multi-family housing near transit: Sounds good right? Well here it comes. Is this what you wanted/expected?
  • Get up to speed: Citizens Survey results; parking pains; traffic impact fees; Housing Work Plan; and death of Bus Rapid Transit
  • Look ahead: North Ventura/Frys’ site Coordinated Area Plan; Infrastructure gaps; Housing; Downtown RPP revisited; Animal Shelter contract.

Click here for Notable Upcoming Action.

Senate Bill 827: What “transit rich” multi-family housing might mean for Palo Alto.

State Senator Scott Weiner (D-11th District), the author of last year’s “By-right Housing” law, (SB-35), has a pair of new “go-big” proposals. Designed to incentivize construction of dense, multi-family housing near transit, SB-827 would “up zone” all parcels, statewide, within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop or within 1/4 mile of a high quality transit corridor. Residential development projects in those “transit rich” areas would receive a “transit-rich housing bonus” exempting them from local rules regarding density, parking, floor area limits and design standards. Height limits would be set between 45 feet and 85 feet, depending on location. SB-827 does not specify any affordability requirements or minimum residential component.

Following on the heels of new State penalties for failure to meet regional housing allocations (RHNA), Senator Weiner’s second proposal, SB-828, would effectively double the RHNA requirements for all local jurisdictions, requiring that they “plan and accommodate for 200 percent of the local housing allocation for every income category in its housing element.”

So what would SB-827 mean for Palo Alto? More than a third of the city’s built environment would be eligible for conversion to dense “housing developments” up to as much as 85 feet high: approximately 6,000 parcels (out of 18,050 total parcels in the city), including 3,694 parcels currently zoned for single family homes and 1,416 zoned for multi-family residential (which currently have height limits of 30 to 40 feet). As written, SB-827 appears to apply across all zoning categories.

Click the image below for a story map with multiple tabs analyzing the impacts of SB-827 on Palo Alto (created by AnimaDesigncourtesy of the Embarcadero Institute, 501(c)3).

The zoomable map shows the new maximum building heights in the areas impacted by the Weiner proposal. Yellow = maximum height of 45 feet, Orange = maximum height of 55 feet, and Red = maximum height of 85 feet. If the project is eligible for another “state density bonus,” heights could go up to 105 feet. On site parking, area wide, will be left entirely to the discretion of the developer.

What do 55 foot and 85 foot buildings look like?

It is widely agreed that passage of SB-827 would substantially curtail the decision-making powers of local government, but community advocates are lining up both for and against the bill. Many avid housing proponents see less local control as a good thing, but it does raise some thorny questions.

Will it disrupt carefully crafted area plans, such as SOFA I/II and the soon to kick off North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan or the local balance and distribution of schools, parks and other community facilities? How will it impact the local economy when all commercial uses within the transit-rich area have to compete with more highly entitled housing developments (akin to government incentives for office growth in recent years)? Will they have to move farther from transit? Will it promote displacement of low and moderate income residents from older, more affordable housing stock? What happens if transit routes change? Will it deter the creation of new transit routes? What will be the likely service demands and fiscal impacts on the City?

The City of Palo Alto announced its opposition to the bill in a letter signed by Mayor Kniss on February 13. The League of California Cities also opposes SB-827. On the other side of the debate, in an unusual departure from Mayor Kniss, Councilmember Adrian Fine plans to actively support the bill. The California YIMBY Tech Network recently gathered signatures from 130 tech leaders on a letter of support.

Whether SB-827 will move out of committee and forward to passage is still an open question. Let your local representatives know what you think about the bill: City Council, County Supervisor Joe Simitian, State Assemblymember Marc Berman, and State Senator Jerry Hill.

Assemblymember Berman will hold a community open house on February 22 from 4:00-6:00 pm at his District Office in Los Altos, and will join Menlo Park Mayor, Peter Ohtaki for a community coffee on February 26, 8:00-9:30 am in Menlo Park.

Get Up to Speed

2017 Citizens Survey:

Congestion joins housing affordability as top concerns; public confidence remains low, and particular concern shown in some “transit rich” areas.

In contrast to the many things we love about Palo Alto, the 2017 National Citizens Survey also makes abundantly clear both that we need to expand our affordable housing stock and that efforts to mitigate local congestion remain insufficient. Overall confidence in local government sits below 50% and “transit rich” areas of the city show satisfaction below the norm on a number of key indicators.

As the city has ramped up efforts to get people out of their cars, satisfaction with public transportation in PA has plummeted to 29% from a high of 71% as recently as 2012.

  • Satisfaction with traffic flow on major streets sits at a dismal 33% and ease of travel by car has dropped by 24% since 2010.
  • Ease of public parking has declined steadily since first surveyed in 2014 to a new low of 32% satisfaction.

Yet every forward-looking analysis, including the recent Comprehensive Plan and Stanford GUP Environmental Impact Reports, say that with currently planned growth, congestion is going to get significantly worse. Meanwhile, new code enforcement complaints (key to oversight of allowable land uses) increased by 134 percent over 2016.

A little mentioned detail revealed by the Survey is how resident satisfaction in different areas of the city compare to overall perceptions. “Transit rich” Area 5, for example, (Southgate, Evergreen Park, College Terrace, Stanford Research Park) is a recurring outlier. By margins of 9 to 20 points, Area 5 is less satisfied than residents overall with the quality of Palo Alto as a place to raise children or retire, as well as city government’s honesty, fair treatment of residents, action in the best interest of the community, and the value of services for taxes paid.

Area 4 (from Ventura to points south and west), another “transit rich” area, reports satisfaction below the norm with the ability to get where they need to go (including by walking), and the quality of new development. And Area 3 (Palo Verde to Greenmeadow) rates public transportation the lowest in the entire city, at 14%. Area-specific data suggests that localized conditions in specific areas may require targeted attention as the City strives to add new housing, manage congestion, and enhance public confidence.

Parking and Traffic

Southgate and Evergreen Park/Mayfield RPPs revisited; Cal Ave garage to retain two basement levels; Transportation Impact Fees may face overhaul.

Southgate RPP may see future expansion: On January 29, City Council declined to add more employee permits to the Southgate RPP, opting instead to let the pilot run its course for a full six months before considering adjustments. In the meantime, out-of-luck employers will purchase day pass permits and staff will pursue authorization from Caltrans to add a section of the east side of El Camino Real to the RPP accommodate a small future increase in employee permits.

Evergreen Park/Mayfield RPP revised and locked in: At the one year point for the Evergreen Park/Mayfield RPP pilot, Council voted 8-0 (Kniss recused) on February 5 to add zones to the RPP to better disperse parking, add 40 new employee permits and make the program permanent. In addition, as with Southgate’s RPP, the city will seek approval to add portions of with east side of El Camino to the RPP in order to move the added permit volume there. Showing some mutual support, stakeholders voiced frustration that the City had not effectively convened them to broker a policy solution when the first-come, first-served employee permit sales resulted in large companies maxing out permits and left smaller businesses with no access to the program. On a motion by Councilmember DuBois (6-2, Fine and Scharff dissenting), Council directed staff to explore ways to prioritize retail and neighborhood serving businesses for employee permits.

Cal Ave Parking Garage will not shrink: More than 30 property owners, managers and merchants co-signed a letter opposing a staff recommendation to eliminate a second underground level for the proposed parking structure due to steeply escalating construction costs. They characterized the potential loss of about 100 parking spaces as a broken promise. Several residents joined in the call to maximize parking capacity in the structure, while others, including supporters of Carbon Free Palo Alto, urged the Council to abandon the garage in favor of traffic reduction initiatives like bike projects and transit passes. In the end, Council opted 8-1 (Fine dissenting) to move forward with the two underground parking levels.

Transportation Impact Fees may rise: On February 5, the Council Finance Committee unanimously endorsed a proposal to consolidate multiple Transportation Impact Fees paid by new developments into a single, city-wide fee of $8,093 for every net new, evening peak hour, car trip the building is expected to produce. The Fees are used to offset the costs of local transportation investments. Although Stanford is likely to enjoy a fee reduction, the consolidated fee will represent a significant increase for most projects, creating additional incentive for developments to advance Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs.


Housing Work Plan adopted; PTC considers  Workforce and Affordable Housing overlays and car-light project at former VTA lot at Page Mill Road; Supervisor Simitian makes pitch for teacher housing.


Housing Work Plan approved: On February 12, City Council unanimously approved an ambitious work plan to spur construction of 300+ housing units a year. Among other things, the City will pursue several changes to the zoning code to incentivize housing development (such as changes in parking, densities, heights, and other development standards) and consider expanding requirements for inclusion of below market rate units in housing projects.

Workforce and car-light housing: On January 31, the Planning and Transportation Commission recommended approval of a workforce housing (WH) combining district for areas within 1/2 mile of fixed rail transit. A combining district is like an overlay that allows certain parcels within a geographic area to be eligible for different development standards than the underlying zoning under certain criteria.

The recommended WH overlay would apply to parcels zoned for public facilities and would reduce parking requirements, increase Floor Area Ratio (FAR, the allowable square feet of building relative to the size of the lot) and eliminate density limits for housing projects that deed-restrict at least 20 percent of the units for households earning from 120 to 150 percent of area median income (AMI) ($95,160 to $118,950 per year for an individual) and restrict unit size to 750 square feet.

Commissioners and the public expressed concern about potential loss of parcels designated for public facilities, the unknown impacts of on-site parking reductions, and meager affordability benefits. However, linkage of the ordinance to a specific car-light, small unit pilot project that had been favorably received by Council and the previous PTC, created an urgency to approve the ordinance in order to advance the project. In recommending approval, despite what some deemed abbreviated policy review, the PTC asked for monitoring and collection of specific data relative to the pilot project in order to test its assumptions about parking occupancy, trip generation and market conditions and inform future policy.

Affordable housing overlay: A mere two weeks later, the PTC was asked to recommend an affordable housing (AH) combining district to support 100 percent affordable (up to 120 percent AMI) housing projects. The AH overlay would apply to commercial districts and subdistricts in a much wider geographical area. Among other development incentives, the AH overlay sought to reduce parking requirements from the current standard of 1.25-2 spaces per unit (depending on size) to .5 spaces per unit (of any size), increase height limits, and more than double the FAR in most cases.

Without the urgency of a pending pilot before them, the PTC opted on a 4-3 vote (Alchek, Monk and Riggs dissenting) to take more time to evaluate the appropriateness of the proposed changes in development standards, both in terms of their impacts on surrounding properties and of their sufficiency to encourage potential non-profit housing developers. They will reconsider the proposal next month.

Teacher housing: On January 23, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved a proposal by Board President, Joe Simitian to partner with local school districts and cities to build a 60- to 120-unit affordable housing complex on County land at 231 Grant Road in Palo Alto. While expressing caution about financial feasibility, the PAUSD directed staff to begin collaborative discussions with the County about the project.

Looking Ahead

Infrastructure gap stirs talk of new taxes: On February 6, the Council Finance Committee reviewed the current status of Council’s Infrastructure Plan projects in light of a $56 million gap due to rising costs. In coming weeks, the City will focus its infrastructure priorities and consider additional funding strategies, including possible ballot measures. Key considerations could include voters’ tolerance for various funding mechanisms (sales or hotel tax increases, business licensing tax, etc.), whether to go big in order to pursue popular (as opposed to necessary) projects, and how grade separation costs will figure into the mix.

North Ventura/Frys’ site Coordinated Area Plan: Council was set to kick off discussion of preliminary goals and objectives, schedule and boundaries as well as recruitment of a community working group for a Coordinated Area Plan (CAP) covering the Frys’ Electronics site and surrounding area. After hearing public comment, the discussion was continued to a future spring date, TBD.

Upcoming agendas – Downtown RPP, Animal Shelter, Rail trench: Though agenda’s are not yet posted, it is anticipated that the Downtown RPP will return to City Council on February 26, along with a long-awaited contract with Pets in Need to operate the Animal Shelter. On February 21, the Council Rail Committee is likely to review a consultant’s report on the feasibility, including associated costs, of a trenching alternative.

Grassroots Spotlight

After several years of concerted effort, Sky Posse Palo Alto continues to press for representation of Palo Alto on regional airport committees, informed flight path design criteria, and enforcement of required environmental review. While progress has been arduous, Councilmember Kou now sits on a regional ad hoc committee considering noise impacts from San Jose Airport arrivals. Councilmember Scharff sits on another ad hoc committee trying to form a roundtable group for Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties.

On February 13, the Council Policy and Services Committee acknowledged continuing challenges, but endorsed staff recommendations to request temporary noise monitoring from SFO, lobby the Federal Aviation Administration to implement feasible design changes, and if necessary, pursue legal challenges.