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By Steve Levy

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About this blog: I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to the area in 1963 when I started graduate school at Stanford. Nancy and I were married in 1977 and we lived for nearly 30 years in the Duveneck school area. Our children went to Paly. We moved ...  (More)

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Smart Growth Principles ARE Smart

Uploaded: Jun 13, 2014
The term smart growth is used to describe a perspective on how our region's growth, particularly the housing growth, should be located. It is separate from the discussion of how much growth to expect or how much growth residents desire so this blog is not a place to debate the amount of housing growth in the city or region.

Although I don't usually use the term "smart growth", I do agree with the principles. I agree that the growth in Bay Area housing is best located near at least two of the following three activities—1) close to activities that people regularly use like shopping, restaurants, and medical facilities; 2) in areas where more trips can be done by walking or bicycling for local activities and close to transportation options for commuting and 3) close to jobs.

By implication this means directing the growth in new housing away from the middle of existing single family neighborhoods. Nearly all new housing being built up and down the Peninsula is in multi-unit and multi-story buildings, which also argues for not putting growth in the midst of existing single family neighborhoods.

Earlier this week Palo Alto convened a meeting relative to the Comp Plan update. The attendees split into four groups and each selected where they thought new housing in Palo Alto would best be located. All groups identified three areas—downtown, Cal Avenue and parts of El Camino. But there were some interesting additional suggestions.

A resident from midtown at the table I attended suggested growth in his area around the shopping area would be good but only if there were easy access (perhaps a regular shuttle) to the Cal Ave/Caltrain area. Another idea was in the Fabian Way area close to the large job growth in nearby Mt. View and shopping as well as highway 101. Many suggested using parking lots but with the idea of undergrounding parking and building housing on top—perhaps in parts of Stanford near the shopping center and medical center and in the downtown or Cal Ave areas.

Another idea was to work with employers to incorporate housing in/near the Stanford Research Park area. Within the residential areas, there was a lot of interest in making it easier to add second units on existing properties.

Why are these locations "smart"? I will give my example. We live in a condo on Forest behind the farmers' market area. We are close to shopping, close to restaurants, close to our dentists and medical providers, close to parks and public facilities. Regardless of where we work our car travel needs are greatly diminished as most non work trips are in walking distance. So for us, "smart" means convenient. For the broader community, our location downtown reduces traffic and parking as we walk everywhere—downtown, T&C, Palo Alto Medical Center, and can access Stanford facilities with the shuttle.

For me there are added bonuses. I don't drive so this location increases my independence. In addition CalTrain and the Stanford shuttle are short walks away and I use them for many trips that would be difficult otherwise.

But our location is also popular with families with young children. There is a neighborhood school within easy walking distance and we are close to lots of family activities. And we have a few retired residents for which this is a very convenient location close to services and amenities.

I know there are a group of residents who 1) wish that Palo Alto would not grow very much and 2) think most people want to live in single family homes. The second point is clearly false as it denies the reality of the great variety of people who are bidding up prices and rents in downtown PA, in downtown Redwood City, in downtown Mountain View and up and down the Peninsula. This is true even those these residents have the choice of living in cheaper single family homes and commuting long distances. Some make that choice but many others make the "smart" choice.

But even if you wish Palo Alto would not grow, which is difficult given the large amount of development allowed under current zoning, it is hard to argue that providing for a large part of the Peninsula's housing growth near shopping, near amenities, near transportation and near jobs is not the smart approach. Nearly all the new housing built today on the Peninsula is apartments, condos and townhouses. It seems smart to me to put them in "smart" locations and not in the midst of single family detached housing neighborhoods.

I have a couple of final thoughts. One is that if you want to build up the family oriented retail in Palo Alto, say in downtown, you might want to consider adding customers by adding housing. Whatever goes downtown will be expensive given the rents but the argument that we need more retail but don't want more development (i.e. potential customers) is unlikely to persuade many retail owners.

Finally, my neighborhood is a smart place for subsidized housing for low income households for the same reasons it is a smart location for me and the variety of households that live in our building.
Thoughts?

Comments

Posted by Justin, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jun 13, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Great post, I'm glad not everyone in Palo Alto is against smarter growth. One thing I would like to see is some less expensive options. Of course, nothing is really going to be "cheap," but we can do better than "gourmet" American food ($15 burgers and $5 scoops of ice cream) that I see popping up all over Mountain View and Palo Alto whenever I'm home. In a similar vein, it would be nice to have some less luxurious condo/housing development that at least will be slightly more affordable. I feel that converting Buena Vista to luxury condos is not smart growth at all.


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Jun 14, 2014 at 10:07 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

Thanks Justin.

One challenge for housing is that the best locations are usually the most expensive. So one reason much new housing is in the south part of Palo Alto is that the land there is usually less expensive than similar sized parcels in downtown or around Cal Ave.

One solution to cost is to allow smaller units. If given the chance, some buyers or renters will be happy to get a good location with a smaller sized unit because that fits their needs and cost parameters.

Another solution to the cost challenge is to allow residential building of more than five stories.

None of these solutions will make PA housing inexpensive but they could help make new housing more affordable to some.

As to less expensive retail/dining choices, that too is a challenge in an area with 1) mostly higher income families and 2) expensive land costs/rents.

As I said above, increasing housing and job density in a neighborhood will increase the market for retail activities.


Posted by Garrett , a resident of another community,
on Jun 14, 2014 at 11:05 am

Driving has always suited me as a profession, but my personal choice of how I want to live. Walk places, be able to take transit plus own a car. I am single, living in a unit or cottage interests me, yes I know this.doesn't interests other people. Agree we are different .

So between the high rise and the single family home we can't design different styles of housing that would be smart and blend in.


Posted by About Buena Vista, a resident of South of Midtown,
on Jun 15, 2014 at 5:21 pm

I know you advocate for housing for the non-wealthy. I wonder if you have expressed any opinion about the project on the Buena Vista site. Apologies if I missed it.


Posted by iconoclast, a resident of University South,
on Jun 15, 2014 at 5:36 pm

"if you want to build up the family oriented retail in Palo Alto, say in downtown, you might want to consider adding customers by adding housing."

There are loads of customers living in and near Downtown right now. Where is that retail?

Long gone, or fading fast.

Thirty years ago there were fewer customers and much more family oriented retail Downtown: Norms Starlite Super[market], Liddicoats Grocery, Shirley Cobb's Bookstore, a pet shop, University Cafe, the Varsity and Bijou Theaters, tire stores, a Western Auto variety store, and many more.

But the Downtown family oriented retail disappeared even as the proximate population and potential market, grew. Today the few survivors vanish with dreary regularity as their (often absentee) landlords raise the rent to "market" levels. Norm's is a bank, Liddicoat's is the Apple Store; the rest have disappeared anonymously into the Yuppie theme park that downtown Palo Alto is today, and that Cal Ave is inevitably becoming.

Downtown Palo Alto is by no stretch a retail-service resource for families. To get even the most basic of those -- affordably-priced groceries -- you have to drive elsewhere.

The premise that the mere existence of a market will bring business to supply it works only if the return on supplying that market is comparable to the highest and best option available. In Palo Alto, that is office and high-end services. Ask any economist familiar with market viability.



Posted by Jerry Underdal, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 15, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

I felt I learned a lot from my table's discussion about growth management at the meeting Steve Levy describes. Hearing ideas from people who were familiar with different parts of the city was a useful corrective to my south Palo Alto focus.

What struck me was how little fundamental disagreement there was about what kind of growth was desired. I don't recall anyone proposing locations for large increases in office space. No one argued against it, it just didn't come up. We were all busy considering where more housing and retail could be placed to best advantage and how to do it.

If I recall correctly, none of the four table group reporters spoke of plans that came up in their discussions for office expansion beyond mention of mixed use at a few locations--ground floor retail, second floor office and third floor housing.

I think that says a lot about what troubles Palo Altans most about the prospect of rapid growth. The consensus seemed to be that If PA must grow, let it be for more and better housing and retail, not massive office expansion.

---
Next session: Alternative Futures–Tues., June 24 at 6 p.m.–8:30 p,m. Elks Lodge, 4249 El Camino Real. Join the discussion.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 15, 2014 at 9:38 pm

>Nearly all new housing being built up and down the Peninsula is in multi-unit and multi-story buildings, which also argues for not putting growth in the midst of existing single family neighborhoods.

I respectfully dissent.

Why not scatter hi-rise population-growth centers throughout our obsolescent single family neighborhoods? That's where our least efficient land use is. That's where land is least expensive. If the goal is to promote local population growth to the max, can we afford not to utilize that underutilized suburban R-1 real estate to its max?

I think not.

Transit? Easy. VTA buses can be routed anywhere, even in Old Palo Alto or Crescent Park.

Retail and services? There is more community-serving, non-frivolous retail in Midtown than in all of downtown. Doesn't it therefore make sense to concentrate high-density housing there?

Forget building more housing downtown. Boomtown market economics forbid it. Your condo, constructed in fits and starts in the laid-back eighties, could never be built today. Offices are a far more profitable use for downtown real estate. The office building to be built on Waverley Street, practically next door to your condo, makes my point.

Land prices might favor building housing downtown when this techie boomlet is over. But at that time there will be no need for more housing anywhere in Palo Alto because everybody will be moving away looking for work.

Ironic, huh?

Bottom line: Do we preach fanciful "smart" growth, or do we commit to achieving feasible fact-based land-use management?


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jun 15, 2014 at 10:28 pm

The stake holders who live in R1 neighborhoods would lawsuit the living you know what out of any attempt to change the zoning. Way too much money involved in terms of property values.

Steve, I appreciate your thorough report. But I did notice that you snuck in the suggestion that multi-housing should be allowed to exceed current height limits. This comes down to one of the passionate issues in PA...over development, no matter if commercial or residential. My POV is that high rises belong in city centers...San Francisco or San Jose. Not here.

The existing 5+ story buildings are so out of scale with everything else in the area. All mistakes.

I am curious...if you add SF county, San Mateo County and Santa Clara County together...what is the total job/housing ratio?


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 9:36 am

"...R1 neighborhoods would lawsuit the living you know what out of any attempt to change the zoning ... multi-housing should be allowed to exceed current height limits. This comes down to one of the passionate issues in PA...over development, no matter if commercial or residential."

New Urbanism requires us to trade our old sacred cows for new ones.


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 11:38 am

That's only if the homeowners agree to trade...and that is a big "if".

Without compensation, it won't happen. We're talking millions and millions of dollars in compensation. If you own a home in a neighborhood that has comps of $3mil+ and the city tries to implement a zoning change allowing a 6-story apartment building next door...

Well first, it won't happen. No one in their right mind will try that. The political fallout would be devastating. But even before that, all of the surrounding homeowners would sue. And they would win. And don't forget the almighty environmental impact report. The attempt would never survive that.

I'm not going to say any more on this because it's so out there and so highly improbable. You can have the last word all you want - but you and I both know it won't happen.


Posted by R1, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 12:26 pm

The Menlo Park City Council is about to put the Kabosh on R-1 zoning in the guise of the misnamed Granny Unit Ordinance.


Posted by Garrett , a resident of another community,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 2:03 pm

I agree with Crescent Park Dad, large buildings won't be built in the middle of R-1, but granny units are fine in the right places. I don't see major transit routes full of 4 plus story buildings on every available or future property.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Why all the fuss? Multi-story apart5ment/condo buildings are perfectly compatible with single-family homes in R-1. Just drive around my neighborhood for examples.

R-1 is the only place we have enough underutilized real estate to meet ABAG's mandates. Last time I looked, which was this morning, every downtown square inch is built up or being built up.


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 2:44 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

[Web Link click here]

This is the Housing Element update website.

Readers can see that the staff has identified sufficient sites to meet the regional planning targets without including multi-story housing in the midst of single family neighborhoods. All of these sites have current zoning so building those units is feasible from a zoning perspective.

As I mentioned in the blog participants in the recent city convening identified a variety of other potential sites none of which are in the midst of R1 areas.

I and most folks at the table where I was thought the city could do better with our sites than the ones in the draft element adopted by the council--fewer units in south Palo Alto and more around downtown, Cal Ave, the research park and the other sites mentioned in the blog.

There is no need to scare people thinking PA is going to be like a Chinese factory city or even like SF by building units that are already approved for multi-story housing.

Are the proponents of "never ever change any zoning" now proposing to change zoning and take away people's property rights so the already zoned for housing sites can't be built on? That would bring some lawsuits.


Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 2:51 pm

So how about this: what about purchasing, in the event of Fry's locating to cheaper and smaller brick-and-mortar site, in Palo Alto or elsewhere nearby for us, the land and turning it into a park, a large park, on the order of our investment, to marvelous effect, of Foothills Park (saving that from the developers at the time) or Arastradero Preserve? Wouldn't a large park in the Ventura neighborhood help the gradual, organic, inevitable gentrification of that neighborhood, where average home is something like $1 million less than the average in our fair city? Isn't that a better idea than letting large regional developer make their nut according to their, I can only imagine, pragmatic game-theory-computer-alogorithm? Of course it would involve a nearly unprecedented political will of citizens (portion deleted) standing up to the developers, unprecedented as in every 30 or 40 years -- no one remembers the last victory outside of Tom Jordan, Emily Rentzel and Enid Pearson.

How much more effective is stimulus spending on giant park versus relatively self-contained cluster of too dense too expensive housing-easy way to riches?


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Mark raises a critical point: Where's the open space relief in these high-density schemes? Parks are minimal near downtown and Cal Ave, far short of Comprehensive Plan goals, and abundant in the R1 suburbs.


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 3:21 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

A couple of questions Mark. It is certainly a legitimate public function to buy open space or parkland but...

How are you going to pay for this? If you want to ask taxpayers to add to the infrastructure financing taxes to pay for additional park land or even to buy the Buena Vista site, please give an estimate of costs so readers know what you are asking of them.

Two, how do you connect your idea to the regional housing target where the sites including Fry's have been adopted for the draft new element..

If you have other sites that are feasible, tell us about them.

This blog and the people I reported on in the meeting were working hard to be smart about where housing growth is best located in PA.If you want to argue against adopting a legal Housing Element, this is not the blog for you.


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 3:39 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Readers have probably figured this out already but Curmudgeon is teasing with us. He or she has just argued passionately in another TS blog against putting high rise buildings in R1 areas.

In any event I stand by my position that my neighborhood and others like it are much smarter places for housing. It would be interesting for the city to enter discussions with Stanford about housing and amenities at the 27 University site.

As to the sometimes complaints about grocery stores and parks downtown, we actually have some and lots more in the area this side of Embarcadero.

In any event whether a neighborhood is suitable is up to prospective residents who seem willing to pay up in price and rent to be downtown.

Our building has five families with children, seven couples families, 4 single residents and one roommate arrangement. We see many around downtown and we see lots of children downtown with their parents.

If there are better locations/areas in PA than the ones I and the folks at the meeting identified, please weigh in.


Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

"Readers have probably figured this out already but Curmudgeon is teasing with us. He or she has just argued passionately in another TS blog against putting high rise buildings in R1 areas."

No teasing from this curmudgeon. I have always favored R1 sharing the housing burden equitably. The only viable counter argument is the dogged parochialism of R1 property owners, which I believe will someday be steamrolled by Sacramento.

You need to know that there are at least two of us using the curmudgeon moniker. If you want to hear from only one of us, require registration.


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 4:20 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

two curmudgeons from downtown north. For the curmudgeon above if you tell me that you did not do the post I cited from curmudgeon on the other blog, I retract my mistake that you were teasing.

You and CPD can work this out.

Thanks for the clarification.

Do you favor requiring registration by the way?


Posted by Don't sell us out, a resident of University South,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Stephen Levy is offering our neighborhood up for more housing. Stephen does not speak for anyone but himself about the neighborhood's views.
That he is happy with his lodgings is fine, but he jumps to the unwarranted conclusion that what is good for him is good for everyone.

My neighbors do not agree with you Stephen, please do not sell us out while wearing your Economist uniform. Your advocacy for housing is your own bias. Not expertise, just bias.


Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 5:07 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

"two curmudgeons from downtown north."

There are somewhat more of us here than that. Inhabiting Palo Alto's most densely populated neighborhood assures an abundance of all types. All have every right to use their identity and neighborhood.

"For the curmudgeon above if you tell me that you did not do the post I cited from curmudgeon on the other blog, I retract my mistake that you were teasing."

I don't know what post you refer to. I can only affirm my principle that the housing burden must be shared equitably by all of Palo Alto, high-rise, low-rise, however, and have not posted anything to the contrary.

Never mind the apology. Considering the circumstances, you made no mistake.

It's your call re registration. It would ensure which curmudgeon you are dealing with, but is that a good reason to lock out a bunch of other commenters?


Posted by Why?, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 8:22 pm

Why was my comment from earlier today deleted? The censorship here is intolerable. Not Smart at all.


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 8:51 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

@why

Your comment was deleted because it was disrespectful, full of put down statements and wild assertions about what other people think.

But you are free to post your own blog here, write a letter to local papers or the council, go to meetings and speak if you wish.

Comments about other people's honesty for example are regularly deleted by the TS
editor but to be clear I deleted your post today.


Posted by Why, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jun 16, 2014 at 10:08 pm

Levy... You deleted my posting because it was "disrespectful"? Frankly, I think your choice of deleting my entire comment was disrespectful of having a platform of free discourse. You could have simply responded to the issues I raised, but instead it was just a wholesale censorship.

Do you have a copy of my posting? I don't and do not feel like re typing it. Perhaps you could repost it and maybe snip out the part that you find so horribly offensive?


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 7:50 am

Any progress on determining the combined job:housing numbers for SF, SC & SM Counties?

I'll do the math if I can get a pointer to the data.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 10:56 am

"Any progress on determining the combined job:housing numbers for SF, SC & SM Counties?"

Try this: Web Link


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 11:01 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

working on it right now CPD--up in a few minutes


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 11:12 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

For the three Peninsula counties there are roughly 2,050,000 jobs and 1, 225,000 households or roughly 1.67 jobs per household.

The state average is 1.33 jobs per household.

The Peninsula ratio is higher because 1) we have a slightly higher share of residents with jobs, 2) some Peninsula workers commute from other counties and 3) new construction has lagged behind the large surge in Peninsula jobs since 2010.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 11:44 am

Steve

What database are you using? The US Census database I linked to above shows a combined 1,295,783 housing units (2013) and 1,750,972 private nonfarm employment (2012) in the three counties, which is a jobs:housing ratio of 1.35:1. Are there actually 2,050,000 - 1,750,972 = 299,028 farm and government jobs on the peninsula?


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 11:57 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

@ curmudgeon

Both sets of numbers are correct and come mostly from the same sources.

My jobs estimates are for 2013 not 2012 and include self employed jobs from the American Community Survey.

Your housing unit numbers are correct. I used 2014 numbers and compared jobs to households not housing units. Your 2013 housing unit estimate was revised a tiny bit last month but the comparable 2014 number for housing units is 1,299,300. There are roughly 75,000 vacant units in the three counties according to the Department of Finance estimates which tend to be high. The Peninsula vacancy rate is, as would be expected, below the state average.

I use the same databases as your source but the California Employment Development Department has 2013 estimates for metro area jobs and I used the American Community Survey


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 12:38 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

@ don't sell us out

I speak for myself, no one else. I also report on what I see and understand from studying Bay Area growth issues professionally.

I am not surprised that some neighbors would prefer to have no more growth near them. I think that is true in many communities. It is why the phrases "not in my backyard" NIMBY and "build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything" (BANANA) came to be used not as a personal insult but to describe a position on growth.

So you are absolutely entitled to your position.

You, on the other hand, have not voiced a solution to housing the growth in PA or the region. If not some of the new housing in our neighborhood, then where in PA is better.

You also do not speak for the people who want to live and work around downtown. I do not speak for them either except to note that there is high demand to live and work in our area and the people I know and see seem to be happy living here.

As a general principle, I am in favor of allowing people to live where they wish--here or in Tracy or in Texas. But we are a popular destination in a growing region and need to deal with those realities hopefully with some sense of connection to the future and to the region. I have said many times that previous generations allowed our family to move into PA and provided us with a wonderful community. I strive to maintain that heritage as we and the region grow and welcome new generations of Palo Altans.


Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Jackson Park,
on Jun 17, 2014 at 8:58 pm

Steve,

You actually speak for "everyone" because you have an ongoing tendency to delete comments that don't align with your worldview.

You can tell someone that they are entitled to their opinion, but you repeatedly do not let such opinions exist in the comment threads.

And yes, you will probably delete this comment as well.

I would be happy to see you live with your commentary if you let everyone else's exist as well, however you are a well-known censor and suppressor of individual opinion, particularly when it does not align with your beliefs.


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jun 18, 2014 at 11:10 am

Stephen and I may not agree on everything (or most things ;-) ), but I think he is very consistent with his blog/forum rules.

It's quite simple, don't get personal and don't throw up unsubstantiated allegations or accusations. Lastly, stick to the subject of the original post. Not difficult.

There is nothing stopping any individual from hosting their own blog or creating their own thread in "Town Square".


Posted by Censorship, a resident of another community,
on Jun 20, 2014 at 9:02 am

Founded allegation: Steve deletes postings he disagrees with and cannot defend against.


Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 20, 2014 at 10:40 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I think acronyms like NIMBY and BANANA do nothing to advance the discussion.


Posted by Smart, a resident of another community,
on Jun 20, 2014 at 10:43 am

"Smart" Growth doesn't help either, because the implication is that other positions are not "smart". Name calling like this is used by people who cannot support their points through facts.


Posted by Wrong, a resident of another community,
on Jun 20, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Once again, Levy has gotten it wrong. Paid consultant to ABAG, so why is he given a blog on this news site?


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