For Palo Alto, the new Housing Element is at once an expansive vision document, a catalog of future housing sites and a homework assignment from hell.
Years overdue, this chapter of the city's Comprehensive Plan is the only one required by state law. It represents the city's response to a regional mandate to plan for 2,860 units of housing in the planning horizon between 2007 and 2014 -- a period for which planning is tricky because it's almost over. The document has undergone numerous reviews, delays and revisions as city officials tried to persuade the Association of Bay Area Governments to lower the mandate (it didn't) and scoured every nook within city borders in search for possible housing sites.
More revisions had to be made in the eleventh hour, after residents outraged about a proposed development on Maybell Avenue learned last month that city planners have included the yet-unapproved development in the in the Housing Element inventory.
So when the City Council unanimously voted Monday night to officially adopt the new housing vision, it did so with a sigh of relief rather than a cheer of celebration. Councilwoman Liz Kniss said she found the process "frustrating" and said the city will not be able to meet the regional predictions for needed housing "without actually going high-rise."
"It is for me just maddening that a state agency can absolutely impose on us and punish us in the end for not attaining the numbers that someone has come up with," Kniss said.
Councilwoman Karen Holman sounded a similar note and said the process is "anything but local control."
"This is definitely top down and not how I think good governance happens at local levels," Holman said.
Councilman Greg Schmid said "congratulations are in order." He then pointed out that the city is now in the seventh year of the plan's eight-year period and called the process of adopting the Housing Element a "long, hard slog," a phrase famously used by Donald Rumsfeld to describe the war in Iraq.
Such was the adoption ceremony for the Palo Alto's chief policy document for housing, one that lays out the city's vision with the ambitious and egalitarian statement, "Our housing and neighborhoods shall enhance the livable human environment for all residents, be accessible to civic and community services and sustain our natural resources."
The document includes incentives to encourage affordable housing; focus developments at sites near transit centers; encourage more mixed-use buildings featuring apartments and encourage development among sites currently underutilized. The Planning and Transportation Commission, which helped midwife the document through the long and difficult process, lauded it as "excellent" and "impressive" at a review last month before approving it by a 6-0 vote.
The council was far less sanguine on Monday night, having just experienced first-hand the challenge of building affordable housing in Palo Alto, where property values are among the highest in the nation. The vote on the Housing Element came just minutes after the council unanimously approved a zone change to enable a development for 567 Maybell Ave., which includes a 60-unit building for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes. The approval came after three crowded public hearings, hundreds of protest letters, threats of lawsuits, proposals for a referendum and a weekend summit that failed to bring project advocates and opponents to a mutually acceptable solution. The council ultimately approved the project after reducing the number of homes from 15 to 12 and attaching a list of conditions pertaining to the designs of homes.
In May, residents packed into a meeting of the council's Regional Housing Mandate Committee to protest the city's inclusion of the Maybell project in the Element among other projects in the pipeline. Including this development, they argued, essentially predetermines the outcome and rigs the game in favor of the developer, the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing Corporation. The committee subsequently directed staff to take out this project and find other sites in Palo Alto that could fill the resulting gap in housing -- a directive that further delayed the project.
On Monday night, Senior Planner Tim Wong told the council that staff had located 17 sites along San Antonio Road that could potentially accommodate the required housing. Staff's effort was largely in vain, however, given that the council had just approved the Maybell development, making it once again fair game for inclusion in the Housing Element.
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd pointed to the Maybell vote to illustrate the complexity of zoning for additional housing in Palo Alto and local resistance to housing mandates. She suggested that the council's Regional Housing Mandate Committee further consider the city's response to mandates and ways to communicate to residents the city's strategy for housing.
"I think this community would like to have a little more of a destiny with its own vision of how we want to incorporate our zoning and build for what we want," Shepherd said.
Councilman Larry Klein, a longtime critic of the regional housing-allocation process, lamented on Monday what he felt was a lot of wasted effort involved in putting the housing inventory together to meet regional projections. He said he felt sorry for whoever in Sacramento will be reviewing these documents for each California city and called California's housing program "misguided." Klein said he had considered not voting in protest against the process, but ultimately decided to go along with his colleagues.
"I will reluctantly vote for it because I don't think we have any choice," Klein said just before the vote.
The city's triumph, such as it is, isn't expected to last long. With the planning period almost over, Palo Alto is facing a deadline of December 2014 to have its next Housing Element completed.