March 30, 2019 Newsletter

In this issue:

Guest Commentary: Residents call for more robust and transparent approval process for small cell wireless antennas – by Tina Chow

Get Up To Speed:

  • Council to grapple again with rules impacting President Hotel Apartments
  • Slim vote advances Baylands car dealerships to council
  • County staff stakes out position on Stanford expansion
  • Other news

Notable Upcoming Action: The city agenda changes often. Bookmark our Calendar page and check back regularly for updates.

Guest Commentary

Palo Alto residents call for more robust and transparent approval process for  small cell antennas

March 30, 2019 – by Tina Chow

Palo Altans are up in arms over the installation of cell antennas on utility poles in front of homes and schools throughout the city. Residents have many concerns about these “small cell towers” including aesthetics, noise, health effects, property value, and fire risk, among others. Furthering resident concerns, city staff are taking actions to codify controversial federal rules that streamline the cell tower approval process, limit public input, and hence reduce transparency. Other cities are doing more for their residents, and Palo Altans should demand nothing less. Speak up now before City Council takes action on April 15, 2019!

New FCC rules have opened the floodgates 

A new order from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is enabling a flood of small cell towers by forcing rapid approval of applications. This FCC 18-133 ruling went into effect on Jan 14, 2019 and shortens the “shot clock” for application review to 60 days. It also requires that aesthetic standards be objective, non-discriminatory, and published in advance.

Palo Alto has already received over 150 applications for such “small wireless facilities.” With 4 major carriers and no requirement for consolidated or shared equipment siting, there could be hundreds more.

Wireless carriers say they are building small cell networks to enable transition to 5G (5th generation) service, which will operate at much higher frequencies and faster speeds to support gaming, self-driving cars, and the Internet of Things. The FCC severely restricts the fees that cities can charge for these smaller cells. A macro cell tower often earns a city roughly $30,000/year and the wireless provider assumes liability. In contrast, rental fees for small cells on utility poles are limited to about $270/year and the city has liability, creating additional financial advantages for carriers to create small cell networks that intrude further into neighborhoods. 

Resident Concerns

Residents argue that these small cell towers are unsightly and unnecessary, and that they put the safety and welfare of our community at risk. Radio-frequency radiation has been shown to create adverse biological and health effects including cancer. In 2018, the National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health concluded that long-term exposure to radio-frequency radiation from 3G and 4G cellular emissions causes brain and heart cancer in rats (Lin et al. 2018). This definitive and large-scale government study was replicated by the Ramazzini Institute, which used even lower radiation exposure levels. Dr. Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, states that “many hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have found evidence of biologic and health effects from low level exposures to cell phone radiation. Hence, the FCC’s exposure guidelines must be re-assessed as they are likely inadequate to protect human health.” 

Putting so many cell towers in such close proximity to resident homes (~20 feet) and schools means human exposures and hence adverse health effects will increase, especially for more vulnerable children and those with electro-sensitivity. 

In addition, power lines and overburdened utility poles are implicated in the recent extreme wildfire events in California. Small cell towers would add hundreds of pounds of equipment hanging off already aging utility and light poles. Another concern is that property values have been shown to go down by 20 percent in some areas with new towers. 

Proposed ordinance would reduce transparency and fail to mitigate key resident concerns

City staff in Palo Alto now want to update the wireless ordinance to streamline the approval process by creating a ‘menu’ of pre-approved designs and removing valuable public input from the process. This ‘menu’ would serve as an objective standard that would take the place of the City’s architectural review findings. Currently, the Architectural Review Board (ARB) evaluates the aesthetics of the proposed cell towers to make the required findings and make a recommendation to the Director of Planning.

With the plan to use a menu of options, decisions would be made solely by the Director of Planning. This means that in the future there would be no public hearing, public record, transparency, or meaningful public participation at all except through formal appeal of a decision to City Council – which is costly for residents and arguably more time consuming than an ARB hearing.

Staff claim that these changes are necessary under the FCC ruling which requires objective standards to be published by April 15, 2019. Remarkably, April 15 is also the date on which City Council is scheduled to consider these changes – with staff pressuring them to decide in favor or else lose the ability to reject applications until alternate standards are approved.

However the staff-proposed ‘menu’ is inadequate to address community objections. Other objective standards, such as requirements for undergrounding, setbacks from homes, and size of equipment, would all go further to mitigate many resident concerns. There is also no reason why we could not maintain the ARB public hearings to consider resident input and preserve our transparent process. 

Other cities and lawsuits against the FCC

Other cities have interpreted the FCC ruling completely differently than Palo Alto city staff. In fact, the FCC order is currently being challenged by lawsuits brought forward by dozens of cities. These include such diverse cities as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Portland, Denver, San Jose, Hillsborough, Burlingame, Monterey and more. In addition, our own Congresswoman Anna Eshoo has introduced a bill to the U.S. House to overturn the FCC order. 

Within this complicated legal context, dozens of other cities are taking action to protect resident interests and prevent small cell tower installations in such close proximity to homes and schools. For example:

  • Petaluma, CA now requiresundergrounding of ancillary equipment, 1500 ft minimum spacing of the small cells, and setbacks from residences. 
  • Fairfax, CA passed an urgency ordinance putting a pause on cell tower installations and requiring setbacks from residences, schools, etc., and the city is pursuing a high-speed fiber-optic network.
  • Mill Valley, CA adopted an urgency ordinance to prohibit cell towers in residential zones, strengthen permitting requirements, set minimum distances and setbacks etc. 
  • Ripon, CA also has a new ordinance that requires setbacks from schools and residences. Ripon, by the way, is having a cell tower removed from a school site after a cancer cluster (with at least 3 teachers and 4 kids affected).
  • Marin County is updating its ordinance, joined the lawsuit against the FCC and held a public meeting to discuss 5G in Marin County. 

What can we do?

Residents must speak up now to preserve the health and safety of our community in Palo Alto. On April 15, City Council will vote on the Staff-proposed wireless ordinance changes, which would reduce public input and transparency while doing nothing to address public concerns.

Contact City Council now ( and attend the City Council meeting (April 15, evening) to tell them we need:

  1. A more robust set of objective standards that would include parameters such as setbacks from homes and schools, requirements for undergrounding, size of equipment, etc., informed by an inclusive public process.
  2. A short term resident task force to inform standards that better reflect community concerns and values, with quick turn around of a resolution to adopt them.
  3. Continued ARB review of applications to ensure public scrutiny and comment on proper application of the standards.

Tina Chow lives in Barron Park and is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley.

Get Up To Speed

Council to grapple again with rules impacting President Hotel Apartments

Those familiar with the ongoing saga regarding the conversion of the 75-unit President Hotel Apartments to a boutique hotel may recall that one of several barriers to conversion was an apparent administrative error in the zoning code that disallowed changing the use of “grandfathered” buildings (e.g., from residential to hotel use) that exceed current size restrictions. The apparent error also stands in the way of non-residential use conversions for grandfathered facilities, impacting several commercial properties, such as the Cheesecake Factory site where they hope to convert from restaurant to retail use.

In December 2018 City Council directed the Planning Commission to review and recommend a code amendment that would correct the error and also add new language specifically preventing a change from residential to commercial use. Staff proposed an exception or waiver process that would apply when applicants could demonstrate a conflict with State or Federal law. On January 30, the PTC recommended approval of the new protection from residential conversions, but rejected the waiver process, citing uncertainty about its legal necessity and concern, reflecting public comment, that the waiver created a poorly defined and non-transparent back door to get around intended tenant protections.

Staff will return to council on Monday night for approval of amendments that correct the error and add the protection against residential conversions, but also with a newly proposed version of a waiver process and a more detailed explanation of why it is recommended. The new waiver language vests waiver approval authority only in City Council and requires City Council to hold at least one noticed public hearing before taking action on a waiver request.

Community activists nonetheless remain leery of the waiver provision. They worry that without careful limitations on the range and magnitude of development exceptions that could be granted under a waiver, a slim council majority would be unfettered in granting new entitlements to an applicant challenging the residential conversion language. Furthermore, they think any waiver process must require ample notice to tenants that their landlord has requested a waiver and the process for review, well before any public hearing.

Click here for a call-to-action from the Palo Alto Neighborhood (PAN) Committee on Development, Zoning and Enforcement.

Slim vote advances Baylands car dealerships to council

The Planning and Transportation Commission on Wednesday divided over zoning changes and impacts in the sensitive Baylands location as they voted 4-3 (Lauing, Summa, Templeton dissenting) to recommend accommodating a 48 foot tall, combined Mercedes and Audi car dealership in at 1700 and 1730 Embarcadero Road. The prospect of tax revenues from car sales seemed to carry the day, despite concern that the proposed project was far “out of scale” with the surrounding area and incompatible with the Baylands Master Plan.

The former Mings Restaurant site at 1700 Embarcadero had been previously up-zoned to allow a proposed hotel, introducing much more lenient development standards regarding height and density to the area. Although the hotel plan fell through, the new underlying zoning for that individual site remained, allowing the new owners to seek a similar intensity of use, still inconsistent with the surrounding area. The current application then sought to extend the more lenient zoning to an additional parcel to facilitate the combined Mercedes/Audi project.

Former PTC Chair Lauing encouraged his colleagues to resist doubling down on the controversial practice of project by project re-zoning and stay true to long established policy to maintain compatibility with other development across the surrounding area. Instead, the PTC majority relied on the existing, up-zoned Ming’s site to justify extending the zone to the neighboring parcel as “generally consistent” with area zoning.

Other concerns included both ecological and traffic impacts. The PTC voted to recommend conditions of approval to ensure that night-time lighting did not exceed that of other area properties and require that construction impacts on migratory birds would be mitigated. As for traffic, the adjacent intersection at Embarcadero and East Bayshore Roads is deemed one of the worst congested in the city. However, even with a requirement that the project pay a fair share of traffic mitigations associated with its impact, short term mitigations will be insufficient to manage the new traffic load and long term mitigations remain years away.

County staff stakes out position on Stanford expansion

As negotiations between Santa Clara County and Stanford regarding Stanford’s plan to add 2.3 million square feet of new academic space have ramped up in recent months, so has scrutiny by the city, the school district and local residents of the plan’s local impacts. In early February the City of Palo Alto sent a letter to the County asking them to require millions of dollars in new contributions from Stanford to support affordable housing and transportation infrastructure investments to offset Palo Alto’s costs to manage the impacts of Stanford’s growth. For its part, the school district asked the County to require contributions of both land and money to accommodate PAUSD student growth from the expansion, and in February the school board sought attorneys’ advice about options for legal action to secure mitigation of Stanford’s impacts. Earlier this month, parents, students, school staff and administrators joined the fray, organizing a rally to demand “full mitigation” of Stanford impacts.

Immediately following the rally, County Supervisor Joe Simitian held a town hall meeting to discuss a county staff proposal outlining recommended conditions of approval for Stanford’s General Use Permit application as well as recommended updates to Stanford’s Community Plan. The conditions of approval are intended to mitigate local impacts while the community plan amendments would convey local public benefits. If approved by the Board of Supervisors, the staff proposal would lay the groundwork for final negotiation of a development agreement that would let Stanford’s plans move forward.

Key conditions proposed by county staff to mitigate Stanford’s impacts include:

  • Housing: Stanford would have to build four times more housing units than it had proposed (2,172 new units instead of 550). 70 percent of market-rate units and 40 percent of affordable units would be constructed on-campus. Off-campus units would have to be constructed within a six mile radius of the university.
  • Transportation: Stanford’s “no net new car trips” standard would still apply, but instead of tying compliance to trips measured during a single peak hour, Stanford would have to count during a three hour peak period; set and not exceed a baseline for reverse commute trips during the peak hour and peak period; and limit growth in average daily traffic, year round.
  • Development Rate: Require phased development of the new 2.3 million square feet with academic development to be considered for approval in 25 percent increments and not more frequently than once every five years.

Key public benefits sought by county staff by way of updates to Stanford’s Community Plan:

  • Protect the foothills from development: Extend the duration of the Academic Growth Boundary from 25 years to 99 years and require a four-fifths vote by the Board of Supervisors for any modification to the boundary during the 99 year period.
  • Community Services Study: Determine the types and service levels of community (including municipal) services required to serve the population associated with campus development.
  • Jobs/Housing balance: Ensure that housing development matches ongoing job growth within the Community Plan, addressing affordable housing needs.
  • Schools: Relocate public school site designation from the east side of campus to the west side of campus to be in closer proximity to campus population centers.

Summary of Major Stanford University Community Plan Amendments and General Use Permit Conditions of Approval Recommended by the Department of Planning and Development, County of Santa Clara, as of March 12, 2019 and Subject to Changes. To view the document, click here:

Videotape of Supervisor Simitian’s 3/14/19 Town Hall regarding Stanford University’s General Use Permit Application. To view the recording, click here:

Other news:

  • City Council will vote on the consent calendar April 1 (up or down vote, no discussion) to approve a $900,000 contract for long-awaited valet parking services to optimize space in Palo Alto garages and surface lots. The consent calendar also includes enactment of the recently approved housing ordinance amending the zoning code to incentivize new housing development. If enacted, the zoning changes will take effect in 31 days.
  • Resident petitions have been submitted to create Residential Preferential Parking zones in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood near the California Avenue pedestrian underpass and in the Green Acres neighborhood near Gunn High School. On March 27, the Planning and Transportation Commission recommended prioritizing the Old Palo Alto petition and concluded that the Green Acres situation needed to be solved, but that a full RPP was not the best tool. They recommended that Green Acres petitioners seek other solutions from council.

The city is recruiting volunteers to serve on the Architectural Review Board, the Human Relations Commission, the Library Advisory Commission, The Storm Water Management Oversight Committee and the Utilities Advisory Commission. Applications are due by 4:30 pm on April 2, 2019. Click here for more information.

Notable Upcoming Action

April 1, 2019

Valet Parking Contract: Council will vote on the consent calendar (up or down vote, no debate) to approve a $900,000 contract for long-awaited valet parking services in Palo Alto garages and surface lots. Beginning at 6:45 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

Housing Ordinance: Council will vote on the consent calendar (up or down vote, no debate) to enact the recently approved housing ordinance amending the zoning code city-wide to incentivize new residential development. If passed, the zoning changes will take effect in 31 days. Beginning at 6:45 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

Hotel Parmani: Council will vote on elimination of a 50-foot special setback on Hansen Way to accommodate a new Hotel at 3200 El Camino Real. Beginning at 6:50 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

Grandfathered Downtown Projects: An apparent error in the zoning code was recently revealed due to scrutiny of the proposed conversion of the downtown President Hotel Apartments. Council will vote on revisions to the Grandfathered Uses and Facilities section of the zoning code to correct the apparent error and add an amendment designed to prevent conversion of residential uses unless a waiver is granted. Beginning at 8:15 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

April 2, 2019

Deadline for Board and Commission Applications: The city is accepting applications from volunteers to serve on the Architectural Review Board, the Human Relations Commission, the Library Advisory Commission, The Storm Water Management Oversight Committee and the Utilities Advisory Commission. Applications are due by 4:30 pm on April 2, 2019. Click here for recruitment flyer.

April 8, 2019

Council will consider whether to sell the former City Manager’s property at 335 Webster Street or pursue the right to purchase his 33.8 percent interest in the property. Beginning at 8:40 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

April 15, 2019 – (Tentative)

Council is tentatively scheduled to consider adopting an ordinance to incorporate recent FCC regulations regarding wireless cell facilities, approve a zone change to allow a duplex at 2321 Wellesley Street, and authorize a four-unit condo and two unit office project on a single parcel at 190 Channing Avenue.

April 16, 2019 – (Tentative)

Utility Rate Increases: The Council Finance Committee is tentatively scheduled to consider a 4.5 percent increase in Storm Water Management Fees, a one percent increase in Water Rates, a 7 percent increase in Wastewater Rates, and approval of the FY2020 Wastewater Collection Financial Plan.

April 22, 2019 – (Tentative)

Council is tentatively set to hold a study session on the proposed Fiscal Year 2019/2020 Budget, consider funding for the Wilton Court affordable housing project, and discuss airplane noise and environmental impacts