Palo Alto braces for battle against housing mandates

New city committee to scrutinize projections, identify growth areas

If one believes regional projections, Palo Alto will have to build 12,500 new homes by 2035 to accommodate job growth and meet California's ambitious green goals.

Count the City Council among the skeptics.

Over the past two years, city officials have been pushing back against the planning scenarios put forth by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), the agencies charged with implementing in the Bay Area the state's landmark greenhouse-gas-reduction law, Senate Bill 375. The agencies' aim is to comply with SB 375's lofty goal of achieving a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions between 2005 and 2035. A key part of the plan is encouraging cities to build housing near jobs and transit corridors, thereby reducing traffic.

But what if the state's population projections are way off? And what about cities that don't have the land or resources to plan for the required housing? Palo Alto officials have been asking these questions for months and have yet to receive answers that satisfy them. They have challenged ABAG and MTC's growth estimates and, last month, requested that growth projections by the state Department of Finance undergo a peer review.

The regional agencies are relying on state projections showing that the Bay Area will need to accommodate an additional 903,000 housing units and 1.2 million jobs between 2010 and 2035. The agencies have released three alternative scenarios, two of which would require Palo Alto to plan for more than 12,000 housing units, while the third one, known as the "outward growth scenario," transfers more burden to smaller cities and pegs the Palo Alto number at about 6,100.

The projections have irked council members, however. Councilman Greg Schmid, an economist with a penchant for strategic planning, has emerged as the council's staunchest skeptic. In November, Schmid surveyed a variety of growth projections made before 2005, including ones from UC Berkeley academics and from UCLA's Anderson School of Accounting, and found many of them (including the Department of Finance's) to be far too optimistic about growth rates. He cited a report from the Public Policy Institute of California that included population projections of all key demographic forecasters. The consensus forecast from this group, he noted, was 40 percent higher than the actual outcome.

Schmid also noted in his report that the Department of Finance used projections that are far higher than those used by the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Even as late as the end of 2009, on the eve of the decennial census, estimates by the California Dept. of Finance (the organization responsible for the numbers that are used for all state allocation formulas) remained strikingly high at 14.1 percent, which was 1.5 million or 44.7 percent above the contemporaneous and more accurate Census Bureau's Current Population Estimates," Schmid wrote.

The dispute is more than an academic debate over statistics. Though ABAG and MTC can't force cities to accept their projections, they can withhold transportation grants from those agencies that don't comply. Palo Alto officials have been cooperating with the agencies by identifying areas of the city that could accommodate growth. Much of the new housing would cluster around California Avenue, Palo Alto's designated "priority development area." Other transit-friendly parts of the city, including portions of downtown and around El Camino Real, are also seen as ripe for growth and the council is scheduled to consider in the coming weeks whether to designate them priority development areas as well.

Under the regional proposal, development of these areas would be bolstered by state grants. The agencies plan to allocate about $66 million in grants to Santa Clara County, with 70 percent going to "priority development areas." Palo Alto, which seeks to upgrade its biking network and renovate the streetscape at California Avenue, is banking on grants to make its vision a reality. At the Dec. 5 council meeting, Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd said she doesn't want to "walk away from transportation dollars because we desperately need them."

But while the council has been working on identifying growth-friendly areas, members have consistently argued that Palo Alto has nowhere near the capacity for new housing that the agencies require to meet the goals outlined in their Initial Vision Scenario.

The council's dilemma may sound familiar to those who followed the city's three-year battle against high-speed rail -- another project that members supported in principle but then turned against because of concerns about how it's being implemented. Much like with high-speed rail, the council formed a new committee last month to focus on regional housing allocations. The committee is scheduled to hold its first meeting Thursday, at which point it will consider whether to designate El Camino Real and downtown "priority development areas," making them eligible for transportation-grant funds.

In a recent interview with the Weekly, City Manager James Keene predicted that Palo Alto would take the lead in the regional conversation over housing allocation, much as it had in taking a skeptical stance toward the increasingly controversial rail system.

Shepherd also compared her frustration with ABAG's statistics to her experiences with the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

"I'm worn down with high-speed rail already with trying to come up with reasonable questions, with trying to put together clear data and trying to get people to respond ... to a lack of credibility with the numbers we're using," Shepherd said at the Dec. 5 meeting. "And it sounds like we're walking right back into this again with these ABAG numbers."

At the same meeting, Councilman Larry Klein was one of several members who said the city should demand a better explanation of how the Department of Finance had come up with its numbers. The projections, he argued, need to be subject to more public scrutiny.

"I think we have to really not accept it (the state projection on future jobs) and say, 'Let's have some public discussion of where the numbers come from," Klein said.

Shepherd joined Klein in praising Schmid's report and said the numbers used by the regional agencies give her "great concern" because the city is asked to do a lot of work to accommodate the housing projections.

Curtis Williams, the city's planning director, highlighted a number of concerns in a report last month. Economic projections, he wrote, "appear to be substantially overstated" and the regional housing projections are too high and are "driven by unrealistic employment projections."

"The basic goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not well-served by overstating projections, which then require even more extensive resources and more dramatic land use and transportation changes than would be required with more realistic estimates," Williams wrote.

The city's challenge to ABAG is expected to intensify in the coming months as the regional agencies proceed with choosing a preferred "Sustainable Community Strategy" alternative for the Bay Area. The regional agencies plan to perform an environmental analysis on the strategic document over the coming year and adopt it by April 2013.

Williams noted that under regional projections, all three scenarios would achieve roughly the same greenhouse gas reductions (about 8 percent for the first two, slightly below 8 percent for the "outward growth scenario"). But the implications of which scenario is chosen would be very significant for cities like Palo Alto.

"We're probably going to make the point that doing all this heavy concentration is a burden to cities like Palo Alto and it's unrealistic," Williams said. "At the same time, the increment of improvement in greenhouse-gas emissions isn't that significant and that perhaps it would be better to leave some flexibility for the cities to do something else to reduce greenhouse gases."


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2012 at 4:12 pm

12,500 homes mean approximately 25,000 more students in our schools. Where we should put these students in our overflowing schools is a big question.

And as for transportation grants, VTA looks on Palo Alto as the place to make cuts in service, not additional service. We very nearly lost bus service to Gunn high school and Paly is not served well by VTA from areas where most of its students reside.

ABAG can make a lot of noise about housing, but the reality is that we are stretched as it is. If they want us to build the houses, then they must provide us with the money to provide the schools and get VTA to improve service in Palo Alto.

Posted by Facebookie, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Kicking employers and jobs out of town (like Facebook) should reduce the demand for housing in the city. Which other employers are undesirable troublemakers?

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Jan 22, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The most hated and resented employer in Palo Alto is Stanford - fortunately Stanford shows no signs of leaving.

Posted by Will, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 22, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Is it the case that in exchange for cramming an additional 12,000 housing units somewhere in Palo Alto, the city may get a piece of the $66M grants program some how controlled by ABAG? It's unlikely Palo Alto will get much from ABAG in exchange for turning the city into an over crowded mess.

Does Palo Alto really need to participate in ABAG, and who exactly is behind the curtain calling the shots at ABAG? What's really in it for Palo Alto? It seems that ABAG's demands are probably not very popular anywhere, why to cities participate?

Posted by Henry, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 22, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Peter- I believe that the City of Palo Alto is the biggest employer in the city. I think that was spelled out in a PA Weekly insert last year. If that is in fact the case, there is something very very wrong when in an area like this with so many large employers, that the bulging city govt come out #1

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2012 at 8:20 pm

> I believe that the City of Palo Alto is the biggest employer
> in the city

When the University, and the Hospital's staff are added together .. this number is much larger than the City's roughly 1100 staff (Full Time). Staford's lands are leased out to a goodly number of businesses, which increases the traffic, and property tax, generated by Stanford (and "friends".

Posted by Green goals smokescreen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2012 at 1:07 am

Facebookie just repeats the mindless statement that Palo Alto pushed Facebook out of town. Facebook purchased a 1-million-square-foot, 11-building campus, PLUS two lots on Constitution Drive.
Their plans for expansion are beyond any space in Palo Alto. They are replacing the space used by Sun/Oracle -- large companies.
Please stop repeating nonsense and hateful remarks based in your imagination.
The Green goals are "greenwashing." It's developers looking for some greenbacks.

Posted by Mike, a resident of University South
on Jan 23, 2012 at 7:06 am

Some Stanford employee's work address is in Menlo Park.

Posted by Frank, a resident of Ventura
on Jan 23, 2012 at 8:41 am

I think this is not a case of "if you build it they will come" and much more a case of they are coming you better get ready.

Sure we could not build any new housing -- have you seem 101 and 280 at rush hour these days? The Palo Alto Caltrain Station is the 3rd or 4th busiest on the line (SF is first, SJ is second and Mountain View and Palo Alto switch 3 and 4).

Sure we'll need to plan it out - schools, roads, zoning, and how's our infrastructure? And I'm not saying build everything that gets proposed - but we need to allow more dense housing and infill.

Posted by Democratic Dogs, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2012 at 9:40 am

ABAG is the quintessence of big-government feel good Democratic party-sponsored overreach. The arrogance of some outside agency telling Palo Alto or any city, that it is required to build massive amounts of additional housing, regardless of the wishes of the city's residents, is breathtaking.

I can't believe that even 10% of city residents would support this idiocy. So why do they keep electing politicians who do?

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:02 am

"…we need to allow more dense housing and infill."


There is a powerful mythology that (1) people will live in the same city where they work, so will walk or bike to their jobs and (2) people who live in dense housing, aka transit-oriented housing, will not use cars.

Posted by Frugal, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:15 am

Re Facebook: For once, Palo Alto will suffer from the development decisions made by Menlo Park. Now you know how it feels Palo Alto?

Posted by ticked off at abag, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:19 am

Actually, the city does not build any housing. What the city would be required to do, should it let abag have its way, is designate areas where housing can be built - that is, monkey with the zoning. You measure the acreage of the "correctly" zoned areas and multiply by the allowed density (40/acre, for example) and add it all up - it's supposed to add up to the number abag says.

But it never will. Not unless the parking requirements change. Oh no mr. bill!

Posted by Eva, a resident of Ventura
on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:26 am

Facebookie, I am taking your comment
"Kicking employers and jobs out of town (like Facebook) should reduce the demand for housing in the city. Which other employers are undesirable troublemakers?"

with it's hopefully intended tongue-in-cheek.

I really hope that no one in our community is really suggesting kicking out Stanford or other businesses that provide jobs to our residents.

Although Facebook did need larger space, it's neighbors made it feel very unwelcome during it's tenancy and that is really unfortunate.

I'm very proud to live in a city where companies like HP, Facebook, Groupon and VMware want to be. That's what makes Palo Alto cool still.

As for the point of the article, I have no idea where you could place 12,500 homes. That seems absurd.

Posted by Frank, a resident of Ventura
on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:37 am

> There is a powerful mythology that (1) people will live in the same city where they work, so will walk or bike to their jobs and (2) people who live in dense housing, aka transit-oriented housing, will not use cars.

It's not a myth - I bike to work essentially all the time (not when it's raining) and I have taken jobs that I can bike / caltrain to over those I could not. While not everyone is willing to do this many are; and more would be if these options are available.

People will use their cars less when there are good options as alternatives and when the cost of using their car gets high (price of gas, dealing with traffic, hassle parking) look at New York, Tokyo, London - not that those cities should be our goal - but that idea is not a myth.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:40 am

> ABAG is the quintessence of big-government feel good
> Democratic party-sponsored overreach.

Most likely true. It's long past time for a complete audit of the ABAG "thingy" to find out who is pulling the strings, and just how much power these folks really have.

As important as long-term regionalization is to controlling costs in government—ABAG clearly is putting a bad taste in people's mouths.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:44 am

> There is a powerful mythology that (1) people will live in
> the same city where they work

Cities are sometimes required to conduct "Nexus" studies before they are allowed to create impact fees. While there are not a lot of these studies to review, it's not hard to learn that between 14% and 19% of a city's residents live, and work, in the same town.

That leaves 80%-85% who choose to/have to work in other towns. This is not a myth--it's reality.

Posted by A, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:46 am

This issue and as well as high speed rail make it clear that the construction lobby is a huge corrupting influence on the state government.

Other things to consider in planning: People buying new condos do NOT fit the age demographic of the rest of town. Every single new condo has a family with at least two kids that need a place in the schools.

The other bad planning assumption is that there is only 1 car per new condo. Everyone knows that every family in PA has at least two cars and often more.

Traffic during the morning rush hour is already intolerable mainly due to the rush to get to school. School buses (perhaps paid for by users directly) would greatly help this congestion.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:51 am

> As for the point of the article, I have no idea where you
> could place 12,500 homes

Over the past decade, the City has commissioned consultants to draw up new zoning which would, in fact, allow for thousands of new homes. While these studies have not been released, there were a couple outreaches involving the Planning Commission and the City Council. Some of the ideas involved creating "transit zones" which would then permit multi-family housing to be built within the transit zone. Given how small Palo Alto is, and every major road/street became the center of a "transit zone" that could be as much as 1000 feet on both sides of the street/road.

South Palo Alto's Eichler neighborhoods are believed to be the target of rezoning that would allow a large number of multi-family dwellings to replace the single-family homes.

Obviously, the ABAG demands for new housing calls for the destruction of Palo Alto as we know it.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2012 at 11:34 am

The only way to get changes to ABAG housing allocations is through the state legislature. These periodic housing allocation issues have been ongoing for at least 6 years. Where are our state legislators (Simitian & Gordon) in representing their districts?

Missing in Action - unwilling to go against the special interests. Just like High Speed Rail. These guys don't deserve our votes in November.

Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 23, 2012 at 2:25 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

ABAG, like CARB, are good at pulling figures out of their ( collective ) butts...

Palo Alto's designated "priority development area."

Change the word priority to minority and the reasoning gets pretty clear.

The town just South of the Palo Alto " border " has become a magnet. With their " don't ask and don't cooperate with ICE " mentality in their labor pool and the Santa Claus County reputation have created the numbers that ABAG is using.

These are the facts. I know that is an unpleasant set of facts. That is what needs to be dealt with.

The usefulness of ABAG and CARB is debatable, since the FEDS have been dictating policy recently.

Cities USED to set policy. Now the reliance on FEDERAL HANDOUTS means that implementing FEDERAL mandates will get the money...TANSTAAFL.

Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 23, 2012 at 6:19 pm

I remember when the initial formation of ABAG came before the Assembly. And I am sure that Joe Simitian was in the Assembly then for his first term. I am almost sure how he voted but I can't find it on-line Will he tell us? Can someone check on this?

Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 23, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Except for the shopping center and the Stanford hospitals, Stanford University et al is in Santa Clara County. Palo Alto has jurisdiction over the hospitals and the Shopping Center, but for the most part, it can't touch Stanford - and Stanford knows it.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2012 at 10:25 am

"It's not a myth - I bike to work essentially all the time (not when it's raining) and I have taken jobs that I can bike / caltrain to over those I could not."

Frank, using your personal experience to prove a point is not convincing. And not many people are as fortunate as you are to be able to pick and choose what job they will take depending on location. Many are desperate to find work anywhere.

As for where new housing would be built, California Ave. is also a target area because of the train station: transit-oriented, aka dense, housing. Yet the traffic study done last year -- to "prove" that lane reduction would not impact traffic flow -- did not take this into account.

Posted by Karen White, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 24, 2012 at 11:09 am

Well, they've let the cat out of the bag. Check this out, in an ABAG memo discussing Projections 2009. Here's the link - Web Link

"Local governments often ask about the accuracy of projections.....Conveying to local governments our track record on the accuracy of the regional land-use forecast, in the short-term, may be helpful.


Furthermore, there is no measure to determine the accuracy of projections, in the latter years, against local plans."

I say we either challenge ABAG or push for its dissolution. The organization's emphases are on rewarding builders / packing in density (of course, land is worth more $$ if it's up-zoned) and to justify increased funding for public transit. We don't need to yield to ABAG's "authority."

Posted by Karen White, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 24, 2012 at 11:25 am

Responding directly to the 12,500 housing units ABAG is requesting by 2035, I agree that their numbers are way, way off.

According to the Census, population in the state increased ballpark 10% from 2000 to 2010 and roughly the same percent in Palo Alto. So if we're talking about twenty years of growth until 2035, one might figure we'd need 20% more housing units. We now have around 28,000 housing units; so adding on 20% would mean an additional 5,600 units rather than ABAG's puffed-up figure.

Posted by Confused, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 24, 2012 at 12:06 pm

If building this housing is really about greenhouse gasses, why aren't locally employed teachers, firefighters, and other professionals preferred for these housing units? Many of the units are taken by employees who commute to San Jose, defeating the purpose.

Posted by Virgina, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 24, 2012 at 12:34 pm

In what universe is constructing 12,000 more housing units in Palo Alto (the only community I have ever lived in with new housing constructed in people's back yards!) a "green" solution?

The burden of the construction effort coupled with the social problems of high density and loss of quality of life seem to me to negate any gain. Not to mention that people will choose to live here and commute to jobs out of town.

Thank you Karen White for uncovering the memo revealing that the ABAG strategy is to push communities toward increased growth instead of serving a demand that already exists.

I think that whatever grants we could get from ABAG, their leverage, cannot possibly compensate for the cost to the community.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2012 at 2:23 pm

"…why aren't locally employed teachers, firefighters, and other professionals preferred for these housing units?"

Maybe they don't want to live in Palo Alto. Maybe they don't want to live in a small apartment/condo. Maybe they can get more house for their money elsewhere. Maybe the spouse/partner works in another city.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 24, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Interesting, but not surprising, that South Palo Alto is targeted -- this has been apparent in the approval of current high-density projects, including the old Lucky's site on Alma, Hyatt Ricky's, JCC, low-income apartments on Charleston,and who knows what else. It is changing the face of Palo Alto by eroding the small-town feel, reducing neighbor-to-neighbor connections by creating a more "anonymous" type of living common in high density housing, increasing traffic, pollution, and noise, and overcrowding our schools. Who in their right mind would see this proposal for 12,000 units as a positive? This seems to be a case where we, as a community, are expected to pay the price of providing housing for Stanford's expansion, while Stanford continues to be an ugly neighbor. Sad.

Posted by JD, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jan 25, 2012 at 12:21 am

Is ABAG sponsored by large commercial developers? - i.e., special interests......i think liz kniss is in on ABAG.....check it out before you vote for her............

Posted by Larry, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 25, 2012 at 12:26 am

Yes, guarantee Firefighters live in other areas - because they can afford to.

Palo Alto is too crowded and has a lower standard of living than they are willing to put up with, so they live outside of town.....

Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 25, 2012 at 12:56 am

A letter to Joe Simitian:
Didn't you enthusiastically endorse ABAG when it came before the Assembly during your first term in the Assembly? And what is your stand now? Palo Alto will be ruined by these mandates. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT??? Will you continue to support this civic assault on Palo Alto and other cities being hit without their permission? Joe, just don't sit there - DO SOMETHING.

Posted by Thomas Paine IV, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jan 25, 2012 at 8:42 am

We can easily add 12,500 housing units by adding an 80-story condo building on top of the new 5,000 car parking garage demanded by the High Speed Rail Authority. Think of the efficiency of using the dead air space above our new 5-square block garage. Using the power of eminent domain the Rail Authority could demolish the two hotels at University and El Camino and then condemn the Medical Foundation and Town & Country. That gives us the footprint needed for the 5,000 car garage and new condo project. Just think of the auto traffic that would be eliminated by getting rid of T&C and the Clinic!

Posted by Parent, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 26, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Just out of curiosity where does ABAG get its money to dole out?

And who exactly IS ABAG - driven by big developers and construction unions - right?

ABAG needs to be GONE.
Sounds like the City Council has learned its lesson from the CHSRA, and are going to fight for some truth on this. GOOD. Lets hope they have the guts to stick to their guns.

Posted by Margie, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 27, 2012 at 10:33 am

Are people finally seeing what is gong on here?!! CIty tries to obtain for certain grants thus more housing. How convenient developers benefit while schools and roads are reduced! Perfect example, look at what they are trying to do on California Ave! Find a grant then proposal projects to fit those grants. In the meantime, bicycle groups run the City.

Posted by ThePelicanEye, a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Please read the article I published in 2009 about the housing allocation process in San Mateo County.

Unincorporated San Mateo County Housing Allocation Process: "There's got to be a better way"
LINK: Web Link

For more info on the C/CAG Policy Advisory Committee and the C/CAG Technical Advisory Committee: Web Link

Posted by Evan, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 30, 2012 at 11:36 am

My hometown is turning into a bunch of selfish, change-is-bad, Tea Partying nutbags. I fear for the future.

Meanwhile, I'll be raising my kids elsewhere.

Posted by HousingFraud, a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2012 at 12:52 am

Even, Can you afford to raise your kids in Palo Alto? New "low income" housing developments typically cost well over half a million dollars per unit in the Bay Area.

The state mandated housing allocation that ABAG administers is one big unsustainable ponzi scheme. People that support inflated housing allocation numbers include desperate bureaucrats looking to fund infrastructure projects, politicians, labor unions, bankers and developers. Infrastructure funding should be based on census population numbers, public transit needs, and the number of employment opportunities in an area. Obsessing over ways to jam more housing into areas that have reached maximum buildout is poor planning. When you fill in every possible patch of green space you are left with wall to wall development and very few parks, trails, and community gardens. The population in California may shrink as the cost of living continues to rise and wages stay the same, water resources become depleted, classroom sizes grow, school bus service is cut, higher education costs increase, jobs become harder to find, benefits are cut, healthcare costs rise, and food becomes more difficult to afford. Public funds should be allocated on the merits of a project not on the promise of future housing. California needs to break its economic dependence on new housing development. The bubble burst. Let's come up with Plan B.

Posted by educate don't over populate, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 31, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Building more housing for an ever increasing population is not an environmentally sound solution. Over population is a problem that needs to be addressed.

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