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Senate Bill 50 could end single-family zoning citywide

Scripps Avenue - AFTER. This area is within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop. Development could be 45 feet tall with a maximum FAR of 2.5. If two lots were replaced

“Jobs-rich” designation extends impacts well beyond transit zones in Palo Alto

March 3, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

First Baptist Church N. California Avenue. The site is within 1/4 mile of the California Avenue Caltrain station, making it eligible for multifamily development up to 55 feet tall, with a maximum FAR of 3.25. This could result in a development with up to approximately 150 studio or one-bedroom units on the 0.85 acre site.

Since last year’s defeat of Senate Bill 827, State Senator Scott Weiner has returned to try his hand again at replacing local zoning control with one-size-fits-all, state mandated housing standards. SB-827 sought to encourage bigger, denser housing  projects near transit. This year’s version, Senate Bill 50, extends state mandates beyond transit corridors to include all residentially zoned parcels in “Jobs-Rich” areas. Whether a community is jobs-rich would be determined by proximity to jobs, area median income and public school quality. By those indicators, it seems inevitable that SB-50 impacts would reach all of Palo Alto.

SB-50 creates a tiered system of incentives designed to make dense housing projects more appealing to developers by requiring cities to waive or adjust local zoning rules regarding such things as density, parking, height and the size of a building relative to the size of the lot (known as Floor Area Ratio). Eligible projects also must be granted up to three additional density bonuses of their choosing (e.g., site coverage, setback, or daylight plane adjustments, even more height or FAR, etc.). Different sets of incentives apply based on the category of a project’s location:

Within a ¼ mile of a train station, for example, dense housing projects could be up to 55 feet high (rising to 75 feet with density bonuses), with building floor area of 3.25 times the size of the lot, and no on-site parking.

To help make SB-50 easier for people to understand, we partnered with the Embarcadero Institute, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, to commission a professional analysis and visual renderings of what SB-50 could mean, on-the-ground, for Palo Alto. The report explains SB-50’s system of tiered development incentives and maps out where each tier would apply in the city.

Click here to view the full report.

The report also calculates the theoretical maximum housing units that could be produced through SB-50 redevelopment, based on both SB50 incentives and underlying zoning. Those calculations take the very conservative approach of counting only transit rich areas (in the unlikely event that Palo Alto is not ultimately deemed jobs-rich) and not counting extra units that could be achieved through additional density bonuses that may be chosen by developers. Still the theoretical maximum comes to 58,000 units, more than three times the entire city’s current housing stock. Adding in the much larger jobs-rich area would yield a much higher number.

Projections regarding increased parking congestion due to the reduction or elimination of on-site parking requirements and new population growth were beyond the scope of the study. However it does note that car registrations per capita in Palo Alto have climbed by 14 percent in the last five years, reflecting car ownership trends across the Bay Area.

Finally, to show the look and feel of increased building density and intensity allowed under SB-50, the report includes before and after images at five Palo Alto locations showing possible projects if developers take advantage of the state mandated up-zoning. Again, a conservative approach was taken to exclude discretionary density bonuses, demonstrating only what could be built under the bill’s explicit provisions regarding elimination of unit density limits, increased height limits, and higher Floor Area Ratios (floor area relative to the size of the lot). 

Addison Avenue – BEFORE. Currently developed as single-family homes.
Addison Avenue – AFTER. This site is within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop. Development could be 45 feet tall with a maximum FAR of 2.5. This would allow a small apartment building to be built with up to 10 units (about a 16,000 square foot building), or larger apartments to be built if multiple lots were replatted.

Without local controls, developers decide

Surely some will cheer the potential housing growth under SB-50 and welcome a new look and feel for the city. Others will hate it. But don’t be fooled into thinking that “this could never happen in Palo Alto.” With the elimination of local controls under SB-50, the market-driven choices of individual developers and their “reasonable judgment” about zoning requirements will drive the outcome.

Recent studies have shown that up-zoning to increase density significantly increases land values, creating a substantial market incentive to buy up property for redevelopment. Once a site is acquired, developers will be entitled to take advantage of SB-50’s development incentives, whether the city or its voters like it or not. 

The only way the city could stop or constrain an eligible project is through a showing of significant adverse effect on public safety, the physical environment, or properties on the historic registry. In addition, thanks to changes to the state Housing Accountability Act enacted in 2017 (AB-678, SB-167, and AB-1515), courts must defer to the reasonable judgment of the developer rather than a local government’s planning department as to consistency with zoning requirements – without regard for the weight of evidence.

SB-50 is a no-turning-back proposition. Bigger and denser housing projects with little or no on-site parking could result in a radical shift, city-wide, from today’s detached-house development pattern to a townhouse and apartment development pattern. Over time, that may or may not lead to greater affordability or reduced car ownership. Either way, under SB-50’s mandates, it will be up to developers, not the city, to determine whether SB-50’s vision comes to fruition.

Click here to view full report

SB-50 has been referred to the Senate Housing Committee, chaired by State Senator Scott Weiner, and the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, chaired by State Senator Mike McGuire. Whether it will get amended and/or approved in committee and move forward to passage is still an open question. Let your local representatives know what you think about the bill: 

There will be a joint hearing of the Senate Housing and Governance and Finance Committees on March 5, at 1:30 pm focused on: “Addressing California’s Housing Shortage: How Can We Create Environments to Facilitate Housing Development?” Livestream video will be available here. Or you can view it in the media archive after the fact.

Assemblymember Berman will hold a public Open House on March 7, from 4  to 6 pm at his District Office, 5050 El Camino Real, Suite 117, Los Altos.

State Senator Hill will be meeting with mayors and city managers from across the district to discuss housing on March 15. 

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