Despite a growing budget, housing, infrastructure and transportation needs outpace resources. With resident satisfaction on the decline, City eyes hotel and sugary drink taxes and residents launch ballot initiative to constrain citywide office growth.
In this issue:
- Consider the Community Before Creating a Community Center – by Sarah Burgess
- Council relaxes office growth limits while residents seek stricter controls.
- FY2019 budget season kicks off as local, regional and state tax ballot measures loom.
- Residents mobilize around roadway safety issues.
- Affordable housing overlay approved.
- Council designates next steps on airplane noise.
- City to share water allocation with East Palo Alto.
- May 14 – First Baptist Church community center and elimination of rail crossing options
- May 21 – Downtown RPP modifications and Wireless Cell Antenna appeal.
Click here for Calendar of Notable Upcoming Action
Consider the Community Before Creating a Community Center
Guest Opinion by Sarah Burgess
I have lived in Palo Alto for almost 40 years. I have taken our local government for granted, confident I could just vote for the best candidates, and they would do the rest. Recent events in my neighborhood have changed that view. I live within 600 feet of the First Baptist Church (FBC) on North California Avenue. On May 14, the City Council will consider the application of FBC to become a community center. If the council follows the recommendation of the Planning and Transportation Commission, FBC will be allowed to operate both as both a church and a community center with longer hours than our underused city-run community centers, without the parking required by current zoning, or any restrictions upon who can use it.
Several years ago, FBC began illegally renting out its space to non-religious commercial tenants. At one point, a Google search included over 40 organizations listing their address as 305 N. California Avenue, FBC. FBC acts as a church in an area zoned R-1, residential use only. It was founded before any zoning requirements, so its use is grandfathered in. If it were to apply for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to operate as a church today, its available parking would be insufficient by 63 spaces.
Neighbors began to complain when faced with hundreds of additional cars traveling to FBC each day, speeding cars racing to drop children off for lessons and practices, children running across the street through traffic, and cars parked in front of hydrants and even on sidewalks. Because of FBC’s location on the corner of two major bike routes, on the Safe Routes to School for Jordan and Paly, these traffic issues were extremely hazardous.
As a result of these complaints, New Mozart School of Music applied for a CUP to operate at FBC, which ultimately was denied. In the process, the city determined that there were many other non-permitted uses taking place at FBC. Notices of noncompliance were issued, and many vacated FBC. FBC responded by filing a request for the issuance of a CUP for it to operate as a community center.
What does this mean?
If the City Council next Monday were to enact the Planning Commission’s motion, FBC could begin renting to anyone – Palantir, a medical clinic or any organization. As long as they claim to be engaged in a fraternal, social, or recreational activity, any rental, including for-profit/commercial, would be allowed. The CUP requested is for the FBC, not for iSing, nor any of FBC’s other tenants. The worthiness and needs of current tenants is irrelevant, for if the CUP were granted in the form recommended by the Planning Commission, FBC could evict all current tenants tomorrow. FBC could have 120 occupants from 9 am until 10 pm 5 days a week, and until 11 pm on week- ends. With uses such as the hour-long classes currently taking place at FBC, that means an additional 2640 daily car trips to and from FBC on weekdays, and more on weekends, could travel through our neighborhood and the school traffic, and still be in compliance with the CUP.
The issuance of a CUP for FBC to operate as a community center will set a precedent for other churches, in other neighborhoods, to do the same. One church has already expressed a desire to do so, despite having even fewer parking spaces. FBC does not have sufficient parking to operate as a community center – the city is “grandfathering in” the parking allowed to FBC in violation of the Municipal Code section 18.12.150.
Disregard for neighborhood impacts erodes community
Palo Alto is at a crossroads. Right now the city is taking actions that are at odds with what its citizens, and voters, want. A multi-million dollar bike lane program has caused such an uproar that it is currently on hold. Castilleja, long a fixture of our city, has been determined to be out of compliance with its CUP for years, and its neighbors have fruitlessly sought enforcement of its conditions. The situation has deteriorated to the point where our city is peppered with signs, using phrases that demonize supporters of the other side. No one wants that.
It is time for the City Council to look not only at the situation as it is today, but at the future effect of any zoning variance granted to FBC. Look at what the neighbors, your voting citizens, wanted when they purchased their property – what they believe make us a stronger community. We bought houses in a quiet residential neighborhood – with a lovely church that was a good neighbor. We did not buy homes next to a commercial enterprise masquerading as a “community center.” If you think residential neighborhoods should not have businesses in their midst, make your feelings known. Come to the City Council meeting on May 14, and tell the council how you feel – what you value in your neighborhood, and your home. Because if you don’t, it may not be there for you tomorrow. And in the November City Council election, remember who has or hasn’t been looking out for your interests.
Get up to speed
City Council adopts relaxed annual office limit. Citizen ballot initiative seeks more far-reaching controls.
On April 30, City Council adopted an ordinance (5-4, DuBois, Fine, Holman, Kou dissenting) to perpetuate a 50,000 square foot limit on commercial office development in Downtown, the California Avenue area and the El Camino Real corridor. In doing so, however, they also perpetuated significant community friction over the role office growth plays in the city’s 3 to 1 jobs/housing imbalance and associated negative community impacts.
The April 30 action converts the previously interim law to a permanent ordinance, and incorporates two controversial changes that loosen the original limits. It also added a new requirement to revisit the ordinance in two to four years (bringing into question its “permanent” nature). First, the new ordinance allows unallocated square footage to roll-over from one year to the next, creating potential for up to 100,000 square feet of office development in a single year. Second, it calls for approving new projects on a first-come, first-served basis, rejecting the original competitive review process that prioritized projects based on such things as sustainable design, mitigation of traffic impacts and the inclusion of public benefits like affordable housing. The sharp division among Councilmembers regarding those two modifications remained unchanged from last fall with Fine, Kniss, Scharff, Tanaka, and Wolbach again supporting them and DuBois, Filseth, Holman and Kou opposed.
Residents fed up with spiking rents, increasing congestion, and growing taxes want to take the issue of office growth into their own hands. Taking aim at a Comprehensive Plan policy that allows double the historic average rate of 58,000 square feet of new office space per year, they are collecting signatures for a November ballot initiative that would cap citywide office growth at 850,000 square feet over the 15 year life of the Comprehensive Plan (2015-2030). While such a cap will not turn back the tide of impacts, initiative supporters argue that allowing double the historic office growth, as the Comp Plan does, virtually guarantees that housing, infrastructure, and community supports won’t be able to catch up.
Volunteers will be collecting signatures through May 21 at the following locations (those who prefer that a volunteer come to them can contact Ceci Kettendorf at (650) 493-0804):
- California Ave. Farmers Market, (next to Bank of the West) on Sundays, 9am to 1pm
- Downtown Farmers Market on Saturdays, 8am to 12pm
- 3719 Grove Avenue (off East Meadow, near Middlefield), during daytime hours
Questions about the initiative can be directed to Greg Schmid, former Vice-Mayor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (650) 799-7976.
Rising capital costs and pension obligations strain the city budget. Voters may face higher utilities rates and five new tax measures.
On March 15, the Council Finance Committee will kick off a series of all-day hearings on the Fiscal Year 2019 Budget.
“Continued healthy growth,” including a 4.9 percent increase ($5.8 million) in revenues from major tax categories, is not proving sufficient to offset rising construction, pension, and benefits costs. Despite a proposed increase of $32 million in the city’s capital budget, a gap of $76 million remains to fully fund the 2014 Infrastructure Plan (including a $20 million contingency for rising costs). Beyond the 2014 Plan, additional funding needs include support for the Transportation Management Association, parking management, and community engagement, as well as major capital costs for the Junior Museum and Zoo, the Animal Shelter, and Parks Master Plan projects, not to mention massive investments in grade separations. The budget is also heavily constrained by near term pension costs, let alone huge unfunded future pension and benefits liabilities, that squeeze out desired community investments.
City eyes utilities rate hike, and infrastructure and soda tax.
The bottom line? Our aspirations are bigger than our pocketbook. Last month, the Finance Committee resisted hikes in utilities rates of 4 percent in July, followed by 7 percent in each of the next two years. Although Council has not yet weighed in on utilities rates, the proposed FY2019 Budget accounts for an average rate increase of 4.7 percent.
In addition, the City Council continues to contemplate a ballot measure in November to raise revenue for the Infrastructure gap. An initial poll to gauge public support for four possible tax vehicles, showed tepid enthusiasm and garnered criticism from the dais as well as the public for not exploring interest in a business tax. Nonetheless, on April 30 the Council voted 7-1 (Tanaka dissenting, Kou absent) to further explore a 2 percent increase in the Transit Occupancy Tax (Hotel tax) and a $1.10 per $1,000 increase in the Real Estate Transfer Tax as well as a newly proposed sugar sweetened beverage tax of 1 to 2 cents per ounce.
Possible $480 million bond measure to fund PAUSD 20-year facilities plan
The Board of Trustees has begun to discuss a $375 million to $480 million bond measure to replace the $378 million school facilities bond the voters approved in 2008. The bond would fund facilities improvements prioritized in the District’s 20-year Facilities Master Plan that is under development. Although Trustees asked for future enrollment growth to be considered in the Plan, staff demurred based on uncertainties in predicting growth and suggested, instead, that future Boards could reprioritize the bond projects if necessary. In initial polling, 63 percent of voters polled said they would vote for the $480 million bond.
Palo Alto opposes higher bar for new taxes and local leaders split on regional bridge toll
On April 16, Council voted 7-2 (Kou, Tanaka dissenting) to oppose the “Tax Fairness, Transparency and Accountability Act of 2018.” That state ballot measure, put forth by the California Business Roundtable, could severely impact local governments. Among other things, it would reclassify certain local government fees as taxes, require any new tax to gain approval from two-thirds of voters, and retroactively invalidate any voter-approved taxes imposed in 2018 that didn’t meet the two-thirds threshold. Click here for staff report.
On the June ballot, Regional Measure 3 (RM3) would raise $4.5 billion for transportation improvements by gradually raising bridge tolls by $3 over the next six years. Despite the widely recognized need for transportation improvements, local officials are divided about whether RM3 is an appropriate vehicle. RM3 enjoys the support of Mayor Kniss, State Senator Jerry Hill, and Representative Marc Berman. However other prominent officials, including Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and Mountain View Mayor Lenny Siegel oppose the measure. The League of Women Voters will hold a series of events outlining the pros and cons of RM3 and five other Propositions on the June ballot. Click here for event details.
City goes hi-tech to measure traffic while residents zone in on localized safety risks.
In addition to highly visible streetscape projects designed to create “complete streets” for all modes of travel, the city is ramping up use of automated tools to collect data and manage traffic flow. The newly released 2017 Traffic Safety and Operations Report outlines city plans for use of bluetooth traffic monitoring technologies, signal controls based on real-time traffic conditions, and electronic speed feedback signs.
Meanwhile, residents continue to fume over roadway safety and neighborhood impacts from major streetscape renovations. A petition to stop the “traffic calming” project on Ross Road in South Palo Alto has garnered almost 1,000 signatures, and nearby roadway changes on Louis Road have produced similarly critical neighborhood discussion on NextDoor. In North Palo Alto, Walter Hays Elementary School families are raising red flags about sidewalk renovations and traffic signal changes at the intersection of Middlefield and Embarcadero Road. To the west, Barron Park residents are organizing to engage city and school district staff to develop neighborhood friendly strategies to address safety concerns at particular road segments and intersections.
Opposition to the roadway changes is not universal, however. The Ross Road project, for example, enjoys the support of the Parent Teacher Association Council (PTAC) as well as its Traffic Safety Committee, and some road-users favorably note reduced car speeds since the renovations. The Ross Road changes are a part of Phase 1 of the city’s Neighborhood Traffic Safety and Bicycle Boulevard Project. Click here for an FAQ (with pictures) regarding Ross Road. Segments of Amarillo Avenue, Moreno Avenue, Bryant Street, Louis Road and Montrose Avenue will also see changes in Phase 1 of the Project. Phase 2, which is expected to start construction in late Fall 2018, includes segments of Bryant Street, Maybell Avenue, Stanford Avenue, Park Boulevard, and Wilkie Way.
- Affordable housing overlay approved: A new Affordable Housing (AH) Combining District that sharply divided the Planning Commission also drew competing views on the council dais and among public speakers on April 9. Ultimately adopted on a 7-2 vote (Holman, Kou dissenting), the AH zone will relax parking, height and density rules to encourage rental housing development near transit, serving populations earning up to 120 percent of area median income.
- Next steps on airplane noise: On May 7, City Council voted 8-0 (Scharff absent) to approve Policy and Services Committee next step recommendations regarding airplane noise. In addition, Council directed staff to develop a fast track strategy to support timely litigation within 60 days of FAA procedural changes that affect Palo Alto. The strategy should include building a multi-city legal alliance, defining a monitoring process, and evaluating use of outside technical and legal experts.
- City shares water allotment with East Palo Alto: Following up on a 2016 Colleagues Memo (Burt, DuBois, Filseth, Holman), on May 7, Council voted 7-1 (Tanaka dissenting, Scharff absent) to transfer 500,000 gallons a day to East Palo Alto. East Palo Alto is allocated only 2 million gallons a day from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (as compared to 17 million a day for Palo Alto). The resultant water shortage recently forced East Palo Alto to impose a moratorium on new development.
A July 2017 code enforcement action against First Baptist Church (FBC) kicked off a community controversy over what limits should apply to activities at a church located in a single-family residential district. Folks worried about the potential eviction of valued tenants and loss of revenue to the church lined up on one side and neighbors who suffer from increasing noise, traffic, parking and safety impacts from activities at the church on the other.
In November 2017, FBC requested a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) in order to continue non-church related programs. Staff met several times with interested parties, both together and separately and sought to bridge the divide by recommending approval of a CUP with conditions designed to address neighborhood concerns including limiting the hours of operation, and the number, frequency, and type of events, and limiting community center uses to non-profit meetings, events, and musical groups, and ancillary counseling and psychotherapy offices.
At the Planning and Transportation Commission’s April 11 hearing on the proposed CUP, members of the public argued both that the staff recommendation was too permissive and not permissive enough. The PTC favored the latter position. The commission voted 5-1 (Summa dissenting, Waldfogel recused) to amend the staff recommendation to:
- Remove the non-profit restrictions, (thus allowing any use permitted in other community centers) and allow unlimited therapy offices.
- Expand the hours of operation (to 9:00am-10:00pm Sunday through Thursday and 9:00am through 11:00pm Friday and Saturday);
- Expand the occupancy for daily community center events from 50 to 120 people;
- Increase the allowable annual special events from six to twelve; and
- Allow amplified music.
City Council will take up the PTC recommendation on May 14, beginning at 6:50 pm. Click here for the staff report.
On May 14, City Council will act on the Rail Committee’s recommendation to end consideration of all but ten ideas for grade separations and will decide whether to initiate polling to gauge public support among the ideas. Click here for a list and matrix of the ten recommended ideas.
At public roundtables over the past several months, majorities consistently opposed options that would force the taking of private homes and favored tunnel/trench options. Residents in North Old Palo Alto and Southgate have organized to specifically oppose rail over lowered roadway options due to threatened homes and major aesthetic and circulation impacts. Residents in South Palo Alto expressed similar concerns at a recent community information session presented by Californians Advocating for Responsible Rail Design (CARRD).
Following Council’s action, the Rail Committee will further narrow the options at its May 22 meeting.
On May 21, City Council is tentatively scheduled to reconsider its February vote to lower the limit on parking permits allotted to local employees. The new vote was scheduled in response to a petition from area dentists unable to secure parking permits in their preferred zone of the Downtown Residential Preferred Parking (RPP) program. Despite repeated requests from RPP stakeholders, the city has not developed a priority system to help small businesses compete for employee permits in high demand zones, instead favoring high program-wide limits and first come, first served access.
On May 21, City Council will hear several formal appeals seeking to reverse the Planning Director’s approval of Verizon’s application to install wireless equipment on 11 power poles in residential neighborhoods from: the Palo Alto grassroots group United Neighbors; individual effected neighbors; and a Sonoma-base group concerned about radiation exposure. If the approval stands, it is thought to create a precedent that will support Verizon’s plans for similar installations on up to 93 power poles throughout the city as well as applications from other wireless providers. According to United Neighbors, over 150 such installations are currently under review.
United Neighbors, which has long opposed the installations due to noise, safety and aesthetic impacts within a few feet of residences, asserts that Verizon’s claims that it cannot underground the bulky ancillary equipment (shown at the base of the pole) are not credible. The group argues that the Verizon applications should only be approved on the conditions that non-antenna equipment must be placed fully underground and that all equipment must comply with the city’s noise ordinances. United Neighbors is asking other concerned residents to write to City Council and come to the hearing at 5:45 pm on May 21 (City Hall) to support the appeals.
For questions or more information, contact United Neighbors at UNPaloAlto@gmail.com or call Jeanne at 650-325-5151.