January 21, 2018 Newsletter

The Year Ahead

City Council will meet to discuss and adopt the City’s big picture priorities for the upcoming year at its retreat on February 3. Housing will surely come away on top. And because it’s an election year, while it may not get much airtime at the retreat, for many residents a key priority will be public accountability.

It’s easy to say yes, I’m pro-housing, or anti-traffic. But as with all public policy, the devil is in the details. How will the City advance its priorities and how it will impact our daily lives? Will residents have an influential voice?

To help you keep track of where we’re headed as a city, and begin to consider how you might feel about it, in this issue we highlight some:

Click here for Notable Upcoming Action.

Public Accountability

Be on the lookout for results of Palo Alto’s 2017 National Citizens Survey, typically released in coordination with the Council retreat. Last year’s edition of this statistically valid survey indicated a continuing decline in the percentage of residents who rated Palo Alto’s quality of life as excellent/good. It also showed low satisfaction with the “Overall direction that Palo Alto is taking” (40% excellent/good) and that the City is “Generally acting in the best interest of the community” (44% excellent/good).

The City’s Code Enforcement Audit is also likely to be released early this year. Our October 10, 2017 Newsletter featured a primer on code enforcement and why it matters. Initiated largely due to low, yet seemingly contradictory ratings for the “Quality of code enforcement” in last year’s National Citizens Survey, it is hoped that the audit will offer insights into residents’ understanding and reporting of code violations and the impact of additional staffing and a new online reporting system on successful resolution of complaints. A survey associated with the Code Enforcement Audit also included several questions for residents about housing issues that will surely feed into policy discussions in the year ahead.

Finally, though the timing is uncertain, it seems likely that the State’s Fair Political Practices Commission will conclude its investigation into the campaign finance practices of Mayor Kniss’ 2016 re-election campaign.

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Policies and Strategies

In February (tentatively scheduled for February 5), Council will take up a housing work plan prompted by a Colleagues Memo from Councilmembers Fine, Kniss and Wolbach. The goals of the plan are to:

  1. Revise city rules to facilitate greater variety and quantity of both below market rate (BMR) and moderately-sized market-rate housing;
  2. Increase housing density near jobs, transit, and services; and
  3. Streamline approvals for new housing projects.

Key questions:

  • Will the City prioritize affordability or is it just driving toward “more”? Will it expand BMR (subsidized) housing beyond a token percentage required to be included with market rate units? Will it develop solutions for Palo Altans who can’t quality for BMR subsidies and can’t afford market rate housing?
  • What does “moderately-sized” mean? Will it meet the needs of families with kids and/or seniors or prioritize singles? Will it be accessible to Palo Alto’s existing middle income renters, or be snatched up by incoming workers with higher wages?
  • Will the City carefully target increased density based on existing conditions in specific neighborhoods? Or will it take a one-size fits all approach?
  • Will “streamlined approvals” eliminate neighborhood review? Design and compatibility guidelines? Impact analyses?

State mandates

As noted in our December 4 newsletter, the State’s 2017 housing laws created some new opportunities, but also major limitations on local flexibility and control.

Key questions:

  • Will the Council opt to revise our zoning code to preserve some local prerogatives impacted by 2017 State action?
  • Will the City take a formal position with regard to proposed State legislation in 2018 that seeks to further reduce local flexibility and control?

** Stay tuned for future coverage of State Senator Scott Weiner’s new housing bill, SB-827, that would override local zoning controls on height, density, parking and design review on all properties within a certain distance from public transit. The bill would allow 45-85 foot heights, including in R-1 (single family) zones.

Car-light Housing

Housing projects designed with less parking than currently required in order to reduce development costs and encourage tenants to forego car ownership in favor of a “car-light” lifestyle.

Key questions:

  • Does data show that access to alternatives results in lower car ownership rates? Will the City assess whether nearby transit services and alternate travel modes are sufficient to serve all tenant transportation needs, both for work commutes and personal travel (e.g., groceries, school, recreation, entertainment)? Or will tenants still own cars? If they do own cars, where will they park?
  • Unless market-rate housing prices drop, developers will enjoy significant cost savings. What proportion will be passed on in the form of reduced rents, transportation services, or community benefits? Will developers get a profit windfall?
  • If the project is located within a permit parking zone, will its tenants be entitled to street parking permits? How will this affect parking access in the surrounding neighborhood?

Inclusionary housing

Palo Alto currently requires for-sale housing developments of a certain size to provide 15 percent of their total units at below-market-rate (BMR) prices (or contribute to a BMR fund through in-lieu fees). That 15 percent set-aside is referred to as an inclusionary housing requirement.

Council will consider whether to increase the inclusionary housing requirement up to as much as 20 percent. In addition, a recent change in State law now allows cities to impose such requirements on rental housing developments as well. So Council will consider whether or not to do so, and at what inclusionary rate.

Key questions:

  • Naturally, developers will argue that it’s financially infeasible to exceed certain inclusionary rates. Yet BMR housing is one of our greatest needs. Will the City offer compelling evidence to demonstrate that it has set the inclusionary rate is as high as it reasonably can?
  • Does the in-lieu fee system adequately support the development of off-site BMR housing? Do the fees reflect the cost of land for building elsewhere? If not, should they? Should the City limit the availability of an in-lieu fee option?
  • Do other development incentives, such as density bonuses, create loopholes that weaken the impact of inclusionary housing requirements?

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)

In early 2017, Council voted to exceed new state requirements in loosening zoning rules (set-backs, parking, lot size, design standards, etc) to encourage more ADUs in residential neighborhoods. This year they plan to revisit the ordinance informed by experience from the first year. In addition, many questions raised by the community persist.

Key questions:

  • Will the City establish monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to prevent use of ADUs as short-term vacation rentals?
  • Without on-site parking requirements, how will parking be managed? Will it hasten the expansion of residential permit parking (RPP) programs? In RPP zones, how will double allotment of on-street permits for ADU properties impact parking access for other permit holders and short-term parkers?
  • Are ADUs produced under the new law adding to the housing supply as intended (as opposed to being used as home gyms, offices, etc)? How will we know? Should there be a registry to inform future ADU policy?

Our December 13 Newsletter outlined potential amendments to the 2017 ADU ordinance that were presented to the Planning Commission for consideration. The potential changes put forth by staff raise additional questions, such as:

  • Should ADUs be allowed in front yards?
  • Should they be allowed to cover more than 50% of back yards?
  • Should owners be required to occupy one of the units on the property?

Transportation Demand Management (TDM)

TDM programs typically provide education and incentives to encourage people to reduce their reliance on single occupancy vehicles. City Council will explore reducing residential parking requirements for projects that provide “effective TDM programs”.

Key questions:

  • The City has required TDM programs for several development projects over the years, but transparency about program elements and performance is sorely lacking and public parking congestion has continued to intensify. How will the City ensure improved transparency and accountability?
  • What will the City deem “effective” for a TDM program in advance of the project? How will it evaluate success once the project is occupied? Will it rely on quantitative or anecdotal data? Will it correlate claimed TDM numbers with public parking numbers? With number of building occupants?
  • What if an “effective TDM program” ends up failing? What incentives/disincentives will be put in place to motivate continued efforts at TDM improvement (when the project has already reaped the benefit of reduced on-site parking rules)?

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Grassroots spotlight

Grassroots efforts continue around Stanford’s expansion (note: Council will discuss and approve the City’s formal comments on Stanford GUP impact report (DEIR) on Monday, January 22. See staff report here), airplane noise, groundwater, Castilleja and more. Residents are also increasingly speaking up about the following other issues.

Residential Preferred Permit Parking (RPP)

Residents are again raising their pitchforks around public inclusion in Residential Permit Parking decisions. Having pulled controversial plans to expand commercial permits in Evergreen Park/Mayfield and Southgate off the consent calendar, Council will consider staff’s proposed changes on Monday, January 29. Here are the staff reports for Evergreen Park/Mayfield and for Southgate.

For a quick summary of Palo Alto’s RPP program from the perspective of resident activists John Guislin and Neilson Buchanan, click the powerpoint below.

RPP – Why Palo Alto has it and how it has worked.

Bike Boulevards

The traffic calming measures and “road furniture” being installed to convert Ross Road into a bike boulevard is causing widespread consternation, particularly around the safety of bicycles squeezed into several narrow roadway sections along with cars.

The designation of Ross Road as a bike boulevard came from a lengthy public process for the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan, adopted in July 2012, followed by approval of final designs in May, 2016. Now that it’s being constructed, many residents are surprised and concerned about the deployment of intensive traffic calming measures, (curb bulb-outs, median islands, traffic circles, raised intersections, speed humps, etc), with some calling for cancellation or re-design of the project. Other neighbors and bicyclists are enthusiastic about the project and urge a wait and see attitude until work is complete and can begin to demonstrate benefits.

Not surprisingly, the City is in the latter camp. In response to neighborhood confusion and concerns, City staff recently participated in a video interview with Palo Alto Online to explain the outreach process and design of the project. The City also has stepped up neighborhood outreach and launched a dedicated website and an FAQ page to help residents understand the goals and rationale behind the design, as well as to provide easy access to detailed information about the Ross Road project and other bicycle/pedestrian improvements in the pipeline.

Some critics of the Ross Road project fear that the same treatments will be applied to the beloved Bryant Street bike boulevard. According to the City’s new website, an upcoming renovation of the Bryant Street Boulevard will include several traffic circles and two raised intersections, but none of the mid-block curb bulb-outs.

Cell Towers

For several months a group of residents calling themselves United Neighbors, have been calling on the City to reject a Verizon Wireless plan to install up to 125 cell antennas in Palo Alto neighborhoods. According to the group, in response to resident objections, Verizon has withdrawn its plan to install noisy back-up batteries adjacent to the antennas.

Minutes are not yet available, but United Neighbors indicated that on December 7, 2017 Palo Alto’s Architectural Review Board directed the company to install bulky equipment underground (staff report). Verizon has resubmitted plans for a cluster of installations at 15 sites in the Midtown and Town and Country areas, but claims that undergrounding of equipment is, or may be, infeasible at many of those sites.

The ARB is expected to review the resubmitted plans sometime in February.

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