“Young guns” out of step with community – Editorial

Palo Alto Matters – May 13, 2017

Councilmembers Wolbach, Tanaka and Fine have stretched their wings as part of the new Council majority with policy proposals that would worsen the city’s jobs/housing imbalance and shift parking and traffic burdens to residents. Along the way, they have employed tactics that sidestep City staff, exclude public input and forego opportunities for compromise, undermining public trust and repeatedly raising widespread and vocal community concern.

More housing, but even more jobs

Wolbach and Fine proudly tout their commitment to increasing housing supply. Yet rather than preserve existing housing or reap the affordability benefits of an improved jobs/housing balance, they have joined Tanaka in seeking to grow jobs at the expense of housing, and at an even faster pace.

Soon after winning a divisive battle to expand the number of second homes (Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs) city-wide, Councilmembers Fine and Wolbach joined Tanaka in seeking to allow conversion of homes from residential to office use so that start-up companies can set up shop in residential neighborhoods. Tanaka’s start-ups proposal would have invited commercial competition for ADUs, and indeed all housing stock, with no limits on the size or nature of the business operation.

Though housing costs in Palo Alto have long been high and inelastic, it is widely believed that the worsening imbalance of jobs and housing is helping drive demand, rents and real-estate prices to astronomical levels. Yet on March 20, Fine and Tanaka (unsuccessfully) urged land use planning that would add jobs at up to three and a half times the rate of housing growth. On March 27, led by Wolbach and Fine, the Council majority lowered fees (approved by the last Council) that commercial developers must contribute to below-market-rate housing.

Despite heavy public funding for parking and traffic management, Council majority lets private sector off the hook for meeting new demand.

The City is investing in two new parking structures; funding the lion’s share of the Downtown Transportation Management Association (TMA); and investing staff and resources to develop a new paid parking program and manage and expand Residential Parking Permit (RPP) programs in and around Downtown and California Avenue. Citing staff resources, the City has now delayed consideration of a business tax to help fund traffic management solutions, potentially extending cost burdens on the City’s General Fund.

Despite those substantial and growing public investments, this year’s Council has let businesses, developers and property owners off the hook. The City has provided the  lion’s share of funding for the Downtown TMA to reduce single occupancy vehicle commutes to and from local businesses. Significant contributions from employers have not materialized, so the City is looking to revenue from a possible metered parking program to fund ongoing investments. In discussing whether to delay plans for a business tax to support efforts like the TMA, Councilmembers Fine and Scharff urged delay, calling the business tax “a solution looking for a problem.”

Thanks to a newly adopted Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance and Comprehensive Plan amendments, developers and property owners no longer have to provide parking to meet the demand they create. While property owners can reap financial gain from larger second units, neighbors will suffer the fallout from increased competition for fixed on-street parking and the public will bear the staff cost of managing new RPPs. Under Wolbach and Fine’s ADU amendments, no parking is required for second homes city-wide (well beyond the transit zones mandated by the state). Council looks to more RPPs as a solution if demand for street parking becomes a problem, but staff indicated that each ADU in RPP zones would likely be eligible for a full allotment of parking permits, doubling the on-street parking allowance to 8 permits for a single property.

On May 1, Mayor Scharff and Councilmembers Fine, with Wolbach’s support, secured a Comprehensive Plan revision that relieves developers of the obligation to “meet” parking demand generated by new projects, instead, requiring only that they “manage“ it. While a boon to developers, who can build on land previously required for parking, that vague, unenforceable standard could substantially increase parking problems – with residents and neighborhoods bearing the cost and impact of the overflow.

Rejection of community input in favor of unbalanced policies leads to mistrust

Finally, rather than partnering with the community to develop balanced policy solutions, the Council majority has repeatedly made sweeping policy changes without staff analysis of their impacts or opportunity for public comment. On two recent occasions, those last minute policy shifts rejected recommendations based on years-long public engagement and consensus building. Advanced by Wolbach and Fine, both triggered widespread public confusion, anger and outcry leading to Council reversal and reconsideration.

On January 30, Wolbach and Fine secured a 5-4 vote to remove all Land Use programs (implementation strategies) from the Comprehensive Plan. In doing so they upended a multi-year public process culminating in consensus from the Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC), opting instead to sideline that community compromise. There was no prior notice to staff or residents, no opportunity for public comment, and no consultation with staff or the CAC Co-Chair regarding likely impacts. Widespread public outcry followed, and the implementation programs were subsequently restored, with Wolbach issuing a mea culpa.

Undaunted, on March 7, Wolbach and Fine again led a Council majority to reject publicly vetted recommendations with the new ADU ordinance. Abandoning the years-long work of staff and the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) to develop a balanced approach to expand second units while managing neighborhood impacts, Council again approved Wolbach and Fine’s last minute policy shift, without consulting staff, the PTC or the community. By rejecting the publicly vetted recommendations, a Council majority abandoned a golden opportunity to enact a popular expansion of ADUs that minimized neighborhood impacts, in favor of go big approach to maximize numbers and size regardless of impacts. Again, only after widespread public outcry did Council leadership concede to reopen Council discussion.

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