Guest Commentary

Please Help Protect the President Hotel Apartments and Residents Citywide

March 29, 2019 – By PAN (Palo Alto Neighborhoods) Committee on Development, Zoning, and Enforcement 

The City Council will decide Monday night whether to remove a 2016 law that currently prevents the President Hotel Apartments and similar buildings from becoming hotels or offices.

The impact on tenants in downtown apartment buildings could be devastating.  Already, occupants of the 75-unit lower-rent President Hotel Apartments have had to leave because the building’s recent buyer, AJ Capital, aims to convert the property into a luxury hotel.  Other tenants downtown may be affected too if the city removes the 2016 law, which is blocking conversions from any use to another in so-called “grandfathered” or oversized buildings.

The city claims the 2016 law was actually an unintended cut-and-paste error and seeks to replace it by a narrower ordinance that limits just the conversion of housing in oversized Downtown buildings to other uses or fewer units.  However, city staff fear that AJ Capital or perhaps other owners will challenge the narrower law in court and prevail.  So the proposal on Monday night also includes a controversial “waiver” process that allows the City Council to exempt a developer from other zoning laws, thinking this might lead to a compromise that would avoid a court battle.

The City’s approach is insufficient and very worrisome.  Instead of just protecting residents in specific Downtown buildings, the Council should enact a city-wide law to prevent all conversions of residences into commercial space, akin to its ban on groundfloor retail and similar uses converting into offices.  Such a law could benefit thousands of renters across town and also potentially be easier to defend.

The waiver process is itself problematic.  The proposal has no guarantee that apartment tenants will be notified when their landlord applies for a waiver.  Without that, they could wake up one morning to discover the City Council has granted their building generous exemptions the night before and that the residents must all move out when their leases end.  Instead, every tenant should receive notice of any waiver hearing for their building well in advance.

The waiver proposal also empowers a slim majority of four councilmembers to grant benefits worth tens of millions of dollars to a developer by placing no limit on how many zoning rules are eliminated or watered down.  For example, a council majority could respond to a waiver request by granting rights to build an office tower with no parking.  Nothing in our municipal code currently gives councilmembers so much unchecked power for a specific site.

When the seven-member Planning and Transportation Commission reviewed the waiver proposal in January, they unanimously recommended against it.  They further advised the Council to obtain outside legal advice after expressing concerns that the waiver process might not even be necessary.  Their votes reflected concerns raised by many residents who spoke and wrote to them.

From the beginning of the President Hotel Apartment tragedy, our city has failed to protect tenants and preserve rental units, despite repeated proclamations that housing is a top priority.  That can change Monday night if we insist that the Council:

  • insure that any waiver process fully protects tenants, 
  • limits developer exemptions to the very minimum required by law, 
  • consider the unanimous Planning Commission recommendation to eliminate the waiver, and
  • look at adopting a city-wide residential preservation ordinance.

We encourage you to send an email in your own words to the City Council at City.Council@CityofPaloAlto.org.  You can also attend Monday’s Council meeting to speak or support others on this issue.  

Links:

City Staff Report Advocating the Law Changes, Including the Waiver:https://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/70005

Agenda for Monday’s Council Meeting: https://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/69999

Palo Alto Weekly Article About the December 2018 Council Vote on the Waiver:https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2018/12/11/proposed-law-would-prevent-president-hotel-conversion

Palo Alto Weekly Article about the January 2019 Planning Commission Vote to Eliminate the Waiver:https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2019/01/31/zone-change-creates-hurdle-for-president-hotel-conversion

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