March 20, 2018 Newsletter

In this issue:

  • Narrowing of options for grade separation: Staff deems train tunnel “unworkable.”
  • Get up to speed: Parking; North Ventura (Fry’s site) Coordinated Area Plan; affordable housing ordinance; transparency in labor negotiations; Eichler design guidelines.
  • The latest fuss: controversy over Cool Blocks contract; growing petition over Ross Road traffic calming; ethics complaint against PTC commissioner;

Click here for Calendar of Notable Upcoming Action.

Railway Grade Separations

City staff deems tunneling of trains unworkable and begins to narrow options for railway grade separations. But substantial questions remain unanswered.

The City of Palo Alto anticipates that by the year 2025, the number of trains coming through Palo Alto during peak commute hours will double, resulting in mere two minute breaks between trains when bikes, pedestrians and vehicles can cross the tracks.

On March 21, the Rail Committee will hear a report on a March 6 community roundtable focused on tunnel and trench options to separate rail from road crossings and on staff’s initial screening of 34 ideas for grade-separation alternatives. The Committee will narrow the list by June 2018 to four to eight options for further study, and recommend a final alternative in December 2018.

Citing significant costs and challenges outlined in a recent technical study, city staff has deemed the long-favored goal of a trench or tunnel to underground the train tracks citywide a “practically unworkable” solution. The Council Rail Committee split at its February 21 meeting, with Councilmembers Wolbach and Scharff largely agreeing with staff, and Councilmember Fine seeking more analysis of “value capture” opportunities (selling development rights to pay for trench/tunnel) and better “due diligence in explaining why” before taking the options off the table, (Kou absent).

At a March 6 community roundtable focused on tunnel/trench feasibility, a standing-room only crowd also wanted more due diligence and explanation. Despite over a dozen hands still in the air, staff cut off questions after only 15 minutes to form small group discussions among attendees. In particular, attendees wanted more information about:

  • what could be done to overcome the obstacles to a tunnel or trench solution.
  • the relative costs, impacts and challenges of the range of options on the table. Many were frustrated when asked to prioritize alternatives for further study without context for comparison.
  • the impacts of a “shoofly” track that would close all or some of Alma Street during the multi-year construction project, and which design alternatives would require such a “shoofly.”
  • opportunities and obstacles to inter-city cooperation for regional design and economy of scale.
  • opportunities and obstacles to recapture land value above a tunnel.

Other takeaways: Considerable numbers continue to favor an underground tunnel for the train, arguing that the long term benefits to the community and avoiding the taking of people’s homes merit extraordinary efforts to overcome the challenges identified by staff. They also favor funding strategies that include sizable investment from the business community and Stanford appropriate to their reliance on rail transit and roadway infrastructure.

Now that the series of community roundtables is complete, further questions and comments from the public should be directed to the City Council Rail Committee (Councilmembers Fine, Kou, Scharff and Wolbach (chair)). The Rail Committee will next meet on March 21 from 8:00 am to 11:00 am in the Community Meeting Room next to the lobby at City Hall. 

Click here for staff memo and white paper/technical analysis on trench/tunnel options.

Click here for rail financing white paper.

Get up to speed

City lowers cap on employee parking permits for Downtown RPP and California Avenue garage moves towards approval.

Both downtown residents and California Avenue businesses recently received welcome news on the parking front. On February 26, City Council voted 7-1 (Kniss dissenting, Scharff recused) to lower the limit on employee parking permits sold in the “generally successful” Downtown Residential Preferred Parking Program (RPP) to 1,100. The number of employee permits purchased has declined by 22% over the past year, as permit fees have increased and the Downtown Transportation Management Association has ramped up efforts to support alternate employee travel modes. The number of downtown residential block faces with 85 percent parking occupancy has dropped to 40 (a reduction of over 70% in the three years since the programs inception). 1,090 employee permits were sold in the most recent purchase period, out of 1,400 allowed under the then existing cap.

In the California Avenue business district, merchants were pleased that the Architectural Review Board (ARB) approved (on a 4-1 vote) the design for a six story parking structure (two levels below ground) including recent adjustments that could accommodate a second exit in the future. The proposed garage will be located on the city-owned parking lot at 350 Sherman Avenue.

Council votes to develop North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan (NVCAP).

On March 5, City Council unanimously approved the goals, objectives and boundaries for the NVCAP and defined the makeup of a working group to deliberate over appropriate land uses for a 39-acre area surrounding the current Fry’s Electronics site in the Ventura neighborhood. Key considerations will include: housing; community facilities and infrastructure; transit, pedestrian and bike connections; and minimizing displacement of existing residents and small businesses, including start-ups. The staff report provides detailed information about the planning process for the NVCAP project.

The 14 member, council-appointed working group will include residents, businesses, property owners and city commissioners and will receive input from PAUSD, Stanford, the city’s Transportation Management Association, Palo Alto Housing, and others. All eligible community members are invited to apply.

Click here for the application and information about qualifications, and responsibilities. Applications are due by April 9, 2018. The working group is expected to meet monthly from June 2018 to December 2019.

Divided Planning Commission says proposed affordable housing zone isn’t properly defined to get us what we need.

After a spirited February meeting at which residents argued that a newly proposed Affordable Housing (AH) ordinance went both too far and not far enough to incentivize below-market rate housing development, the PTC assigned an ad hoc committee to look further into the viability of the proposed AH overlay zone. After interviewing affordable and market-rate housing developers and community members, the ad hoc committee concluded that the AH ordinance needed improvement. They recommended consideration of separate development standards for housing serving incomes below 60 percent of area median income (AMI) and that serving up to 120 percent AMI due to different financing constraints for development of those housing types. They also recommended more discussion on retail, parking and transitional heights (adjacent to residential districts) in order to justify development standards and hopefully gain broader community support. Click here for staff report and ad hoc recommendations.

Not wanting to hold up a 100 percent affordable Palo Alto Housing project in the works for Wilton Court on El Camino Real, the ad hoc group recommended moving forward immediately on that project by way of a site-specific Development Agreement and/or a Planned Community (PC) zoning designation. Meanwhile, the city should continue work to meaningfully refine an AH ordinance that would apply to and successfully incentivize future 100 percent below-market rate projects.

Commissioner Riggs proposed approving the ordinance as is and leaving it to City Council to decide the merits of the ad hoc recommendations. Commissioners Monk and Alcheck joined him, emphasizing that speedy enactment of an ordinance was more important than its specific content. Ultimately, however, the ad hoc recommendation carried the day with a 4-3 vote (Alcheck, Monk, and Riggs dissenting) to recommend negotiation of a PC for the Wilton project and further work on the AH Ordinance.

Council supports Colleagues Memo to increase transparency around labor negotiations.

City Council voted 9-0 to support a Colleagues Memo calling for check points in the contract process whereby the public can review and comment on fiscal impacts before negotiations are concluded. The Memo’s authors, Vice Mayor Filseth and Councilmembers DuBois, Scharff and Tanaka, argued that the fiscal impacts of labor contracts” are public concerns which will be borne by the community for decades, and merit meaningful public review.” Instead, they are “currently reached through essentially private negotiations, without meaningful opportunity for public examination.”

Among other things, the Memo calls for publication of written proposals and responses exchanged during contract negotiations between the city and bargaining units, along with a fiscal analysis including pension and retiree benefits liability. The Colleagues Memo recommendations have been referred to the Council Finance Committee for refinement after which agreement will be sought from the various bargaining units.

Historic Resources Board approves voluntary guidelines for construction and renovation in Eichler neighborhoods.

Appropriate limits on the design and construction of homes and additions in Eichler neighborhoods have long been a source of contention, particularly around second stories and, more recently, the impacts of backyard second units (ADUs). While the guidelines recommended by the Historic Resources Board on February 22 attempt to mitigate concerns about privacy and architectural compatibility, residents disagree as to whether they go too far or not far enough. In addition, concerns remain about the enforceability of the guidelines and their interaction with the existing Individual Review process for 2-story homes. City Council is tentatively scheduled to take up the Eichler Guidelines on April 2, 2018.


What’s the Fuss?

Local Controversies

Resident files ethics complaint against PTC Commissioner

In a formal complaint, filed with the City on March 5, College Terrace resident Fred Balin alleged that Planning Commissioner Michael Alcheck failed to disclose a material interest in matters before the commission and that his participation in related deliberations created an appearance of impropriety. Specifically, while personally exploiting an apparent loophole in regulations controlling contextual garage placement, Commissioner Alcheck is alleged to have argued against PTC action to close the loophole at multiple PTC meetings. The complaint further contends that a finding of conflict of interest should void any tainted PTC action at those meetings. Although the City Attorney has not commented on the complaint, City Council took unanimous action to close the loophole in question on March 19, with several indicating that the Alcheck controversy was on their minds.

“Privatization” of volunteerism stirs controversy over popular Cool Blocks program.

A proposed $100,000 contract to fund a “Cool Blocks” community engagement program around sustainability and emergency preparedness has spurred questions about redundancy, accountability and future costs. To date, the Cool Blocks pilot has been a popular, all volunteer, neighborhood sustainability effort touted by participants as a strong community-building influence. However, the proposed Cool Blocks’ contract has raised eyebrows among other community volunteers. Some are concerned about overlapping and inconsistent emergency prep instruction or increased demands on the established, city-wide network of trained emergency prep volunteers. Others think city funding going to a program manager for a single program undervalues other extensive, coordinated and impactful, volunteer efforts.

City Manager Keene removed the contract from Council’s consent calendar (which would entail an up or down vote without debate) on March 5 and tentatively scheduled the Cool Blocks contract for Council deliberation on April 2.

Neighbors take action opposing traffic calming on Ross Road.

Controversy continues over roundabouts and curb bulb-outs as the Ross Road bike boulevard begins to take shape. While many residents support and/or are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the traffic calming measures, opponents have gathered over 700 signatures on a petition to stop implementation and remove the traffic circle at East Meadow. Similar roundabouts are planned throughout the city’s 7-mile Neighborhood Traffic Safety and Bicycle Boulevard Project.

The City for its part is encouraging folks to learn about the rationale behind the design and give it a chance to demonstrate promised benefits. Staff 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 created a FAQ page to help residents understand the purpose of the design. A dedicated website provides access to detailed information about the Ross Road project and other bicycle/pedestrian improvements in the pipeline.