Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 15, 2013

After Maybell defeat, city to rethink zoning policies

Palo Alto to delay hearings on other proposed developments

by Gennady Sheyner

Days after Palo Alto voters overwhelmingly shot down a proposed housing complex on Maybell Avenue, city leaders announced that they're hitting the brakes on two colossal rezoning proposals and launching a broad community discussion about future development.

The Tuesday announcement by Mayor Greg Scharff about the forthcoming "community dialogue about our city and where we should be going" came exactly a week after voters defeated Measure D, effectively killing a housing development that the City Council unanimously approved in June. The proposal included a 60-unit complex for low-income seniors and 12 market-rate homes.

Throughout the campaign, opponents of Measure D repeatedly framed the debate as a battle to preserve neighborhoods in the face of dense new development proposals that exceed zoning regulations. Opponents talked about the need to send a message to the council that residents don't want to see any more "planned community" developments (which toss aside zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated public benefits) in residential areas.

On Tuesday, Scharff acknowledged that the message was clearly received. In a surprise announcement, Scharff said that the City Council will postpone its scheduled review of two of the largest and most controversial proposals in the development pipeline: Jay Paul Company's "planned community" application for two large office buildings at 395 Page Mill Road and a new police station for the city; and John Arrillaga's concept for four office towers and a theater at 27 University Ave., the current site of the MacArthur Park Restaurant. Both projects were previously scheduled to go in front of the council in December.

Instead, the council will now hold a special session on Dec. 2 to discuss the myriad development issues that have been cropping up at council meetings in recent months and that were at the heart of Measure D's opposition campaign: the controversial "planned community" zoning process; the city's parking shortages and the traffic impacts of new developments in residential neighborhoods. The council also plans to discuss on Dec. 9 the city's future steps with the Maybell site, which was purchased by the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing Corporation with the help of a $5.8 million loan from the city.

In his announcement, Scharff stressed that the issues involving local development had been on the council's agenda long before the Maybell vote. Even so, the result of the Nov. 5 election, where more than 56 percent of the voters opposed Measure D, underscored the need to get the conversation rolling.

"This is not just in response to the Maybell project, though it obviously played a role," Scharff said, citing prior colleagues memos from council members and planning commissioners calling for reforms to PC zoning and upgraded design guidelines for new buildings.

"It is anticipated we will discuss topics form PC zoning, to the Comprehensive Plan to strong traffic and parking policies," Scharff said.

Scharff's announcement came near the beginning of the City Council's first meeting since the election, which occurred because of a successful referendum effort by opponents of the Maybell project. At the beginning of the meeting, Councilwoman Karen Holman alluded to the election results and made a plea for the council and residents to move forward together. The defeat of Measure D, she said, offers the council an opportunity to rethink its process for approving new developments.

"I think this will be a good opportunity to take a fresh look at how we review projects, what our criteria is and hopefully we can work together with the community and come forward with a more positive approach and more positive outcomes," Holman said.

The council also heard from several leaders of the "No on D" campaign, which started out in Barron Park but which ultimately ballooned to other neighborhoods. Joe Hirsch, a member of the steering committee for the newly formed citizens group, Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning, called the proposal to rethink the PC-zone process a "step in the right direction" and said his group will continue to "oppose high-density developments in residential neighborhoods," as well as those in commercial areas that "degrade the quality of life in Palo Alto."

"Residents need to be fully engaged before any new high-density projects are approved," Hirsch said. "We want a voice in our future."

Resident Ruth Lowy read a statement from the group's spokesperson, Cheryl Lilienstein, who urged the council to put a halt on rezoning proposals that allow density exemptions.

"Voters have said that we don't want more high-density rezoning and that we want to retain quality of life that has brought us here in the first place," Lilienstein said in the statement.

Before the Nov. 5 election, the council was scheduled to review the Arrillaga and Jay Paul proposals in early December. The city was scheduled to unveil on Dec. 2 its outreach plan for creation of a new "arts and innovation district" at 27 University Ave., a plan that would include several community meetings and an official grassroots "vision" for the prominent site near the border of Stanford University and downtown Palo Alto. The initial concept, which caused a major community backlash, included four office towers, each more than 100 feet in height.

The Jay Paul proposal, meanwhile, continues to slog through the city's development process despite an effort by the council's Infrastructure Committee to accelerate the review. The plan, which includes 311,000 square feet of office space, is scheduled to be reviewed by the council next year.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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