http://paloaltoonline.com/print/story/print/2013/04/12/balancing-benefits


Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 12, 2013

Balancing benefits

Palo Alto tries to tackle its most unruly planning problem

by Gennady Sheyner

Roaring drills and clanging hammers mixed with blaring rock music at Alma Village in Palo Alto on April 1 as workers in hard hats pounded nails and screws into the plywood skeletons of future homes. Once completed, the row of houses will signify the completion of a long-debated development at Alma Street near East Meadow Drive.

Across a paved parking lot from these houses, a very different story is unfolding. Miki's Farm Fresh Market, which last fall signified the revival of the defunct shopping center, was in the last gasp of its short-lived existence. About a dozen customers walked past the half-empty shelves and abandoned aisles inside the grocery store, taking advantage of the going-out-of-business sale. A few workers organized the remaining cans and jars; another one wiped down the empty, movable shelves in the barren Seafood section. The market, which was founded by former Berkeley Bowl manager Michael "Miki" Werness, aspired last year to be a smaller version of the venerable Berkeley grocer. It went out of business in less than six months.

Alma Village, formerly known as Alma Plaza, is perhaps Palo Alto's most famous, or infamous, example of "planned community" zoning, a designation that allows builders to bypass zoning regulations by giving "public benefits." What this means varies from project to project. In 2009, when the City Council approved the Alma development which includes a grocery store, 37 homes and 14 apartments the main public benefit was the grocery store. Despite heavy criticism from the surrounding community and a recommendation to reject the project from the Planning and Transportation Commission, the council green-lighted it in hopes that the new store would fill a vacancy left by Albertsons in 2005.

The project also exemplifies the changing nature of planned-community or PC projects in Palo Alto. The city introduced the zoning designation in 1951 as a way to foster valuable developments that would fill community needs and that would otherwise be impossible under existing regulations. Senior-housing developments such as Lytton Gardens, Palo Alto Commons and Channing House all relied on this designation, as have, more recently, the Opportunity Center, which provides services for the homeless, and the Tree House, which offers affordable housing in a city that sorely needs it.

A shift began in 1978, when the city revised its zoning code in the aftermath of a development boom and introduced the intentionally vague concept of "public benefits" that is, benefits that are not intrinsic to the project but that would be provided by the developer in exchange for zoning exemptions. That summer, developer Harold Hohbach became the first builder to pitch public art as a benefit for a large development a residential complex on Sheridan Avenue. In exchange for building at greater density, Hohbach proposed, among other things, having winged, angel-like sculptures grace the four corners of the building.

The angels idea didn't fly, though nearly two decades later, Hohbach finally got the zone change he needed after offering a list of benefits that included a public plaza with sculptures of Greek warriors. The most prominent of these is the 12-and-a-half-foot bronze statue called the "Body of the Urban Myth," which features a Grecian female lifting a spouting washing machine over her head. While the fountain is still around, the public plaza has essentially been appropriated by Caffe Riace for outdoor seating. For critics of the city's PC zoning, this Riace plaza is a prime example of disappearing public benefits and feeble enforcement by the city.

Past efforts to reform the process haven't gone very far. In the late 1990s, then-Vice Mayor Ron Andersen and Councilwoman Micki Schneider argued that PC zoning allows developers to benefit at the expense of the city. At the time, Andersen described it as "zoning for sale." But despite their arguments for a clearer definition of "public benefits," no major overhaul was undertaken.

That debate over benefits has escalated in recent years, as developers propose more planned-community projects. Judith Wasserman, who retired from the city's Architectural Review Board after more than a decade, wrote in a Weekly opinion piece last year that "nothing brings out Palo Alto citizens with the pitchforks as fast as a Planned Community application." The topic has become even more urgent since then, with land-use watchdogs now calling PC projects a "scam," council members demanding profit projections from developers and planning commissioners looking at more substantive changes to the planned-community process, including establishment of benefit "menus" for developers to use.

And land-use watchdogs aren't the only ones who argue that the process is failing. Councilwoman Liz Kniss said at a recent hearing that she shares the sense of many of her constituents that developers have been getting too much from these projects at the expense of the public. She called the "misuse" of the planned-community zone one of the top issues raised by constituents during last fall's council campaign.

"There were very few issues that we heard about more than the misuse of the PC and how it's been interpreted in such a way that developers have been advantaged," Kniss said.

The closure of Miki's adds even more fuel to a debate that has grown more critical with every giant proposal that arrives at the city's Development Center. This month, the council is set to consider the grandest and most controversial of these a proposal by developer John Arrillaga to build four tall office towers and a performing-arts theater at 27 University Ave., a site that currently includes MacArthur Park restaurant in the historic Hostess House. (Though no formal PC application has been submitted, the concept proposes major zoning exemptions in exchange for negotiated benefits.) And later this month, the Planning and Transportation Commission will grapple with a PC proposal from San Francisco-based developer Jay Paul, who last year approached the city about building two, 71-foot-tall office towers with 311,000 square feet of commercial space at 395 Page Mill Road, site of AOL's Silicon Valley headquarters.

At the same time, staff is trying to fix problems with planned-community projects that have already been approved. This includes both the sudden grocery-store vacancy at Alma Plaza and the renovation of Edgewood Plaza, where a construction company erroneously demolished a historic building whose restoration was listed as a public benefit. The city is also considering another PC project at the central and often congested intersection of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road.

The tidal wave of controversial PC developments and the recent mishaps involving planned-community projects are prompting a fresh evaluation by the city. In an unprecedented move, the city has just hired an economic analyst to evaluate the economic "private benefits" of the Jay Paul proposal so that the council can more easily gauge how much it should demand in public benefits. It's a procedure that City Manager James Keene said last December would become standard for large projects.

Planners have also become more diligent about enforcement, compiling a list of recent PC projects and performing regular inspections, according to Planning Director Curtis Williams. As a result, one violation has been corrected. And the Planning and Transportation Commission last month began what promises to be a long and complex conversation about ways to bring more clarity, transparency and quantifiable standards to the process. The result could be the biggest transformation of the "planned community" in more than three decades.

Last month, in a highly unusual step, three planning commissioners co-wrote a memo calling for major changes to planned-community zoning. In the first sentence of the memo, Chair Eduardo Martinez, Vice Chair Mark Michael and Commissioner Michael Alcheck call the existing process "the greatest challenge to land-use planning in Palo Alto today" and predict that the issue will become more pressing in the coming years.

"The forces for development in Palo Alto, the scarcity of available land, the impact of higher density land uses, and the infrastructure required to support existing and new development demand that we revisit this aspect of the 'Palo Alto Process,'" the memo states.

PC projects the city has around 150 of them were supposed to be exceptions: projects so laudable that they warrant bending or tossing aside standard zoning regulations. Instead, they have become the rule. Planning Commissioner Carl King observed at the March 27 discussion that developers these days are looking for "planned community" zoning for just about every major project. If he were a developer, King said, he'd do the same thing.

While developers still routinely talk about the benefits intrinsic to their proposals, that argument is getting harder to make in an era of lucrative office developments. Last May, the council approved the four-story "Lytton Gateway" building at the intersection of Alma Street and Lytton Avenue, a site formerly occupied by a Shell gas station. Developer Lund Smith said the project is meant to be a "beautiful, memorable building" that would greatly enhance a prominent entrance into the city for Caltrain commuters.

"I genuinely feel that is one of the public benefits," Smith said.

That argument didn't get much traction in the downtown neighborhoods, where residents have long complained about worsening traffic congestion and insufficient parking. The council approved the project only after debating the building's effects on parking in downtown neighborhoods, particularly in Downtown North. In this case, the developer agreed to contribute $2 million for future parking improvements, such as a new downtown garage, as a public benefit.

The irony of Palo Alto's planned-community projects is that they're usually neither planned nor communities. Other developments are forced to abide by the regulations in the city's zoning code, which includes restrictions on height, density and setbacks from adjacent properties. The zoning code, in turn, draws its logic from the Comprehensive Plan, the city's official land-use bible, which is developed and revised over many years and includes extensive feedback from city officials, staff planners and members of the wider community.

With planned-community projects, the zoning code effectively goes out the window as the city engages in ad hoc negotiations that combine elements of poker and auctioneering. Notes get passed at City Council meetings and projects have changed in the 11th hour without an opportunity for the public to review the latest changes. The council typically spends a few hours asking developers if they are willing to trim some square footage off the proposal, reduce the building's height, contribute more funds or add some public amenities parks, community rooms and so on. During the discussion of Lytton Gateway, Councilman Greg Schmid proposed upping the ante and requiring a greater financial contribution from the developers, prompting Councilman Pat Burt to say, "This is starting to feel like 'Squeeze the applicant until he screams "Uncle."'"

Usually, after a few revised pitches and several rounds of nodding and head-shaking by project applicants, the two sides come to a late-night agreement and the developer gets to build a project that is a bit smaller than initially proposed and a bit larger than residents and council members hoped it would be. In the end, most people are satisfied but few are thrilled, as befitting a compromise.

The ad hoc and largely reactive nature of the approval process has long rankled local watch-dogs. At a recent hearing on the Jay Paul proposal, Fred Balin, a College Terrace neighborhood resident who has long advocated for more transparency in the planning process, urged the council to give more weight to what should be appropriate for the site and less to what the developer is pitching.

"Zone for what you want not for what's presented to you ad hoc," Balin said.

Burt made a similar point at the September discussion of the Jay Paul project, which includes as one of its benefits the construction of a new police building for the city. Burt shared the view of most of his colleagues that the proposal while laudable in many ways is out of scale with the site. In this case, Burt said, it would take more than cosmetic changes to make it work.

"If we had a developer come and propose a doubling of existing zoning an additional 200,000 square feet ordinarily, our first reaction would be that we would say, 'Holy cow! That's a lot,'" Burt said. "Now, because they're proposing 300,000 square feet, we think we can nip and tuck and cut a little tiny bit.

"We need to take a step back as a council and say: 'What do we think would be an approximate reasonable amount of building for this site that would balance the interests?'"

The word "community" in the designation is also a bit of a misnomer these days. When PC-zoned projects were approved based on their intrinsic value, it was easy to call them communities or community-oriented. While the term can still apply to developments like Edgewood Plaza, Alma Village or the proposed senior complex at 567 Maybell Ave., it's a little harder to make it jibe with dense, office-heavy projects like Lytton Gateway, the College Terrace Centre on El Camino Real and the mammoth commercial proposals pitched by Jay Paul and Arrillaga.

With financially lucrative office buildings on the rise and the concept of "intrinsic benefit" on the wane, it's extrinsic public benefits sculptures, road improvements, grocery stores, bike lanes and contributions to the city's housing and parking funds that now dominate the conversation. Local law offers little guidance. The zoning code specifies that planned-community zoning is "intended for unified, comprehensively planned developments which are of substantial public benefit" and that these developments "will result in public benefits not otherwise attainable by application of regulations of general districts or combining districts." What exactly this means is anyone's guess. Nor does the code say anything about the challenge of sustaining ephemeral public benefits like Miki's Farm Fresh Market benefits that disappear after a few months, leaving the city with a vacant space and a housing project that no one on the council or in the surrounding community really wanted.

Wasserman, who had reviewed a myriad of PC projects while serving on the architectural board, blames the ordinance's vagueness for fostering public rancor. In her opinion piece, she presented three possible solutions to eliminate the confusion: eliminate the PC zone altogether; specify that public benefits refer only to things outside the project itself; or do the opposite and limit the definition of the term to the project itself a throwback, in a sense, to the 1950s.

The three planning commissioners proposed in their memo three categories of public benefits: those intrinsic to the project, those that come from enhancement of the project and those that contribute to the city's overall need. Yet even with the categorization, the memo states, "the definition of a public benefit remains elusive."

"Without a precise definition, measuring a public benefit and determining whether it meets the general purpose and intent of a PC-zone designation is cumbersome and unpredictable," the memo states.

The memo proposes, as a possible solution, a menu of benefits that could be "expanded or tailored to meet our unique priorities and concerns." The commissioners cite the example of Santa Monica, which in 2010 adopted a system that provides developers with five categories of benefits (traffic management, affordable housing, physical improvements, cultural facilities and historic preservation) and allows them to earn points based on these elements. If a developer proposes a certain amount of benefits, the project becomes eligible for a second zoning "tier," which allows greater height and density. Those who provide even more benefits become eligible for "Tier 3," which grants even greater height and density exemptions. But the system has its own problems. Since Santa Monica adopted its land-use plan in July 2010, the number of development-agreement applications has skyrocketed, prompting city planners to request in December a slowdown in application processing. At least a dozen of these applications are for Tier 2 or Tier 3 projects, according to a recent report from Santa Monica's planning director.

The memo from Palo Alto planning commissioners also cites other cities, including Portland, Seattle, Berkeley and Chicago, that have adopted incentive-zoning programs similar to Santa Monica's.

A menu of benefits could bring a little more clarity and transparency to Palo Alto's public-benefits discussion, but even this would come at a cost. The existing process gives the City Council complete discretion for negotiating benefits. A menu-based system would limit this discretion and effectively allow developers to automatically get density bonuses and other exemptions if they offer a menu item as a benefit. It's also not a given that a menu would eliminate the ambiguities in the public-benefit discussion.

"They've got a pretty long list," Williams said, referring to Santa Monica's system. "It probably covers almost anything you can come up with."

Palo Alto is still a long way from solving the problem, but some changes have already been made. During recent hearings on planned-community projects, various council members talked about the need to get more information about the economic impacts of the proposed projects, both for the developer and for the city. Citizen critics of the PC process, including Bob Moss and Winter Dellenbach, have consistently urged officials to get financial data from developers and then demand the same level in public benefits.

"The benefits to the public should approximate the increased value that the developer derives by being granted a PC zoning change," Dellenbach, a Barron Park neighborhood resident who spent three years investigating public-benefit violations, told the planning commission on March 27. "So figure out the gazillion dollars more that the developer will derive from getting a PC-zone change, and you would have a very rational yardstick about the value that public benefits should equal."

The city is unlikely to go that far. Some benefits, including historic preservation, are hard to measure. And some projects, including affordable-housing projects like 567 Maybell, truly fill a deep city need. Who can argue that the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, the nonprofit seeking PC zoning for the Maybell development for seniors, should be forced to commission sculptures or construct bike lanes? And for some council members, at least, even major commercial projects could have intrinsic benefits.

In February, when the council was considering a PC zone for a property on the central intersection of El Camino Real and Page Mill, Councilman Larry Klein made the argument that the building, if done properly, would be a great benefit in itself. The corner is currently occupied by an empty lot that until recently was used by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. The city, Klein said, "missed the boat" with the other three corners of the busy intersection (which feature AT&T's retail store, soccer fields and the northern parking lot of the sprawling Palo Alto Square complex).

"My public benefit I expect this to be the best building you've designed in your career," Klein told project architect Ken Hayes. "If the city asks for less in terms of public benefits that's fine by me."

Not everyone bought this argument. Most council members agreed that the application should be revised and that more benefits should be added.

"There's the public benefit and the developer benefit and I think they're out of whack at the moment," Councilman Marc Berman said, reflecting the view of the majority.

But even if the city doesn't require the two columns to be equal in every scenario, it plans to at least be more informed in future negotiations with developers. Williams said in an interview last week that the city has recently hired the consulting firm Applied Development Economics to evaluate the economic impacts of the Jay Paul proposal, which is undergoing revisions. If the information proves useful, the firm (which also worked with the city on evaluating the economic impacts of the recent Stanford Hospital expansion) would also be retained to evaluate the proposal for the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) lot at El Camino and Page Mill.

It remains to be seen whether these evaluations will become a regular part of the planned-community rezoning process. At the council's meeting last Dec. 3, Keene said he's directed staff to hire an independent analyst to assess the development value and public benefits for each large project before the city, information that would help the council reach its decisions.

Williams noted in a recent interview, however, that in many cases the information simply would not be pertinent.

"Sometimes, it's relevant how much a developer is making versus how much the developer is giving," Williams said.

"At other times, it's much more intangible and not quantifiable," he added, citing the Maybell development.

The city's drive toward requiring more economic data is also catching the attention of developers. Jim Baer, who consulted on Lytton Gateway and who is now working on the VTA-lot proposal, offered for the latter project a meta-benefit of sorts. In addition to the usual things like road improvements and a public easement for the corner property, Baer offered the city a methodology for evaluating benefits of planned-community projects.

"We'd come into a study session ... and say, 'Here's a methodology on how you analyze what the applicant gets, what it costs the applicant to derive that and how we're managing public benefit,'" Baer said.

Most planning commissioners agreed during their March 27 discussion that economic data could be valuable, citing the old adage: "You can't manage what you can't measure." For Martinez, things were a bit more complicated. Martinez, who grew up in Los Angeles, invoked the example of the Century Plaza Hotel, an iconic building that went up in the 1960s and that hosted numerous dignitaries and civic functions (it was also featured in the first "Die Hard" movie). Over the next few decades, the hotel fell into disrepair and the developer was looking to demolish it. The building was saved only after a heavy push from historic preservationists and an agreement by the city to allow incentive zoning at the site, which enabled construction of two commercial buildings next to the hotel and conversion of some rooms to condominiums.

"The Century Plaza Hotel has been restored to its previous glory, and it's a beautiful building and a symbol of L.A. but you can't measure the public benefit of that," Martinez said. "You can't say that it was a win-win because I'm sure the developer won 10 times as much.

"But nevertheless, this historic building is still there. It's part of the L.A. landscape. It lives on for another generation or two who knows? And it's an example of a public benefit in a development of this site that is immeasurable."

Figuring out the level of public benefits isn't the only issue that the city is wrestling with when it comes to planned-community projects. Enforcement is another hot topic. While Caffe Riace remains a poster child for planned-community critics, it isn't the only example. A small plaza that the city approved as a public benefit for the 800 High St. development in 2003 transformed five years later into an outdoor seating area for Saint Michael's Alley, a restaurant on High and Homer Avenue. For critics like Dellenbach, the two projects have become synonymous with lax enforcement. During her investigation, Dellenbach said, she had found numerous instances of public benefits not materializing or being transformed into other uses.

"Enforcement is absolutely critical," she said.

From Williams' perspective, the problem is a bit overstated. The overwhelming majority of public benefits, he said in a recent interview, get delivered as promised and do not require enforcement. For things like road enhancements, grocery stores and community facilities, once construction is completed, they are there for good. In his view, two most-often cited examples Caffe Riace and the plaza near Saint Michael's Alley are glaring exceptions but certainly not the rule. In fact, the public plaza near Saint Michael's Alley was almost never used before the restaurant took it over, he said.

About a year ago, Williams said, the planning department put together a list of all planned-community projects that the city had approved over the past decade, including Alma Village, the Campus for Jewish Life, and 800 High St., and began inspecting them for compliance with public-benefit approvals. In the case of the Campus for Jewish Life and the Tree House (an affordable-housing development at 388 W. Charleston Road), this means checking to see whether the projects are meeting their traffic-management goals. For other projects, this means making sure the promised public art or public plazas are where they should be. Most comply, though city inspectors found one project on Lytton Avenue that had blocked off what was supposed to be a public-access road. The city got the public access reopened, Williams said.

Checking every PC project may be next to impossible, given the sheer number of them, but the city is trying to be "more systematic" about enforcement, Williams said. In addition to the projects on the list (which get checked either annually, biennially or every three years, depending on the project), the city also performs inspections based on complaints.

Sometimes, the problem sprouts from the individual PC ordinance. In the case of Caffe Riace, the ordinance creating the planned community doesn't prohibit the restaurant from setting up tables outside its establishment. It only calls for a "plaza which will be accessible to the public" and which includes "a water feature, benches and landscaping." The city has been checking periodically to make sure the conditions are met. In 2010, after complaints from Dellenbach and others, planners directed the cafe to relocate its furnishings and create more space for the public near the fountain.

The often-cited cases of Caffe Riace and Saint Michael's Alley may be exceptions, but they offer a valuable lesson, Williams said. When the city approves public plazas as "benefits," it needs to make sure they are designed in such a way that they cannot be taken over by adjacent businesses.

"There are a very small portion of public benefits that have been a problem, in that respect," Williams said. "But those are good lessons. When we designate outdoor areas to be specific to the public, we need to do that with eyes wide open."

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

Comments

Posted by End-PC-Zoning, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2013 at 10:14 am

The solution is simple--just terminate PC Zoning. Set up a variance process, and negotiate any variances in accordance with the published variance procedures.


Posted by Mike Sabina, a resident of University South
on Apr 12, 2013 at 10:24 am

I agree with Mr. Williams that the spaces designated for the benefit of the public need to be designed that way from the beginning. We are happy to be able to use the patio outside of St. Michael's Alley while we are open, as allowed by the original building ordinance. However, if we were to remove the tables while closed, the "plaza" would be completely useless. In fact for three years before we opened the restaurant, I did not see a single person use it for anything. Now, at least, we often see folks in the mornings drinking coffee, and on the weekends with laptops, or just sitting at the tables and talking. We are always happy to see that people are taking advantage of this. Furthermore, it is actually the "public" who can't wait to eat out there on warm summer and fall nights. Yes, we benefit from it as well, but it is certainly being enjoyed by the public. Mike Sabina, St. Michael's Alley


Posted by Bob , a resident of Community Center
on Apr 12, 2013 at 10:54 am

Mr. Sabina, where does one park to enjoy this park-public benefit? If I want to work on my laptop or read a book, will I get booted in favor of one of your customers if by a miracle I can find a place to park? Will I have to buy something to stay?


Posted by Howard, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2013 at 11:12 am

To Bob: I don't get your point about parking. Whether the restaurant uses the space or not, if you need to drive to that location, then you need to park. I would think that the public benefit aspect of that space is targeted for those who live close enough so they can walk to it.


Posted by Judith , a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 12, 2013 at 11:42 am

There is public parking under the building that was also part of the public benefit. The idea was that you could get to the parking under the low-income housing on Alma by going under 800 High.


Posted by End-PC-Zoning, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2013 at 11:49 am

> The idea was that you could get to the parking under the
> low-income housing on Alma by going under 800 High.

While technically true, how well documented was this public parking that was associated with the PC zoning variances? People who are not local would have no idea about these spots being available to the public, would they?


Posted by Bum Deal, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm

PC Zoning is a failure because the City does not have the personnel to Police it. One example the JCC was allowed to build over the 50 ft height limit by an additional 12 ft which allowed them to add an additional story onto their buildings.

In exchange for this PC zoning the JCC agreed to provide jitney buses for the seniors living there. They have never provided the buses and they got away with it because there is no one at City Hall policing what developers promise for a PC.


Posted by Noah, a resident of Professorville
on Apr 12, 2013 at 4:06 pm

The Jewish Community Center is another example of the disasterous building "process" in Palo Alto. The JCC pulled a fast one on our ineffectual city leaders. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Jane, a resident of Southgate
on Apr 12, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I'd be affraid to sit inside the Starbucks at Alma Plaza. It's practically on the street. I'm just waiting or a car to drive through the establishment and kill someone.


Posted by a planning student, a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Dellenbach for Council and Sheyner for a Pulitzer. How insulting that Larry Klein would believe that the development itself, done well is the public benefit! What else should the residents expect, a mediocre development. If only the Menlo Park Council had understood the concept of horse trading with developers, the Menlo Park council would not be faced with the task of revising their $1.5 million dollar specific plan. There's so much to learn and this article is instructive. Thanks


Posted by City Can't be Trusted with PCs, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Gennady Sheyner's comprehensive history of PCs here, punctuated by Pat Burt's ludicrous comment that the PC process is are unfair to developers, is just depressing.

End-PC-Zoning above has it exactly right: no council can be trusted to use PC zoning wisely. They (and we) get taken by the developers every time. We have to get rid of PC.

Barring an unheard-of growth of spine on the council's part, such a thing will take a ballot measure: say a ten-year requirement that all PC's and other zoning-law end-runs pass a public referendum.

I am willing to finance it. Who out there knows how to draft it?


Posted by homeless , a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2013 at 6:40 pm

PC; Planned Community and public benefits benefit everyone. Locals and visitors regardless of race, sex, gender, age , national origin, familiar status or economic status. I need to be welcomed as well without having to look at signs: no loitering ; private property etc. simple solution: eliminate those terrible signs, so I can be there as well regardless of how many bags or shopping carts I'm hauling around. I should feel welcomed. Maybe I need to rest for a while? Feel safe? PC welcomes everyone regardless of whoever is setting the benchmark for the community in question. City should simply eliminate postings of the signs . There should also be a designated corner for smokers in PC with ash trays and enough garbage as well as an acces to public bathrooms without having to pay for natural needs. The most important public benefit would be to be able to sit down, read a news paper with a cup of coffee and to take a nap in safe PC for us senior citizens, many who are homeless or just about to become homeless . Don't forget us.


Posted by Long tern resident of Palo Alto, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Palo Alto is being ruined by developers! Please stop the approval process NOW including those in the works. Step back, if Palo Alto needs something it can afford to obtain it. Let's plan and spend on just what we need. There is no free lunch.


Posted by homeless , a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2013 at 7:41 pm

@ Long term resident of Palo Alto

Good point! Yet t why you say is Palo Alto is being ruined by developers?


Posted by registered user, Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 12, 2013 at 10:54 pm

800 High "plaza" : it was predicted from the very beginning that it would not be used by the public, both because of its location and configuration. What happened was also predicted: That it would be co-opted with the "excuse" that it wasn't being used. The Caffe Riace example was cited repeatedly. However, Council debate showed that the majority wasn't actually interested in public benefits, but an excuse to give the developer what he wanted.

My favorite is 195 Page Mill (Hohbach): He, with staff support, proposed that the City DONATE to him land adjacent to his property for parking for his tenants, and on a small portion of his he would create a basketball court (for his tenants) and this would be a public benefit justifying his overbuilding of the property.


Posted by Henry, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2013 at 11:05 pm

I think the City should just simply insist projects to comply with our planning guidelines. It seems all the big projects always exceed these guidelines and offer some benefits to the City in exchange. These benefits are too subjective and too often benefit to just a handfull of people. It seems the developers always get what they wanted in the expanse of the vast majority of the residents. Let's stop giving the big developers exemptions at the expanse of the residents.

The developers always say they need to exceed our planning guidelines to make the project profitable. Why does the City always give in to these developers and make their projects profitable? If a project is not doable within our established guidelines, then I think the project should be scraped. Let's not let the developers run our city.


Posted by registered user, Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 12, 2013 at 11:22 pm

> "Who can argue that the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, the nonprofit seeking PC zoning for the Maybell development for seniors, should be forced to commission sculptures or construct bike lanes?"

This furthers the misconception that the PC zoning is about offsets that are in essence the developer "bribing" the City for exceptions by funding work that doesn't have to go through the normal budget, thus allowing various interests to get their causes and hobbies funded off-budget.

In this case, the PC process is being used to put density in a highly controversial location: Maybell Avenue is a designated "Safe Route to Schools" (Gunn, Terman, Juana Briones) and had serious safety problems before the Arastradero Restriping pushed even more traffic onto it (how much more is controversial). The project is not just housing for lower-income seniors, but market-rate single-family houses whose sale is intended to help finance the senior housing.

The primary controversy on this PC is shaping up to be how to balance the benefit of senior housing against the cost of decreased safety for school children: both how to quantify and prioritize the two.

As difficult as this choice is likely to be, this is an example of one of the legitimate uses of the PC process (deciding whether the benefits to the community outweigh the costs).


Posted by But wait, there's more, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2013 at 12:59 am

Excellent article on a complex subject. Good historic context.
Just some additional factors. The staff manipulations with the developer. For example Arrillaga said he originally proposed a much smaller project for 27 University but the staff (Steve Emslie?) encouraged him to make it bigger.
Developer Jim Baer knows how to play the staff like an expert. He is involved in many of these PCs, including Alma Plaza, Lytton Gateway, Edgewood Plaza, even 800 High. Part of his style is to overwhelm his audience with facts and documents and detail so they eventually give up and say ok.

Campaign donations and other less visible favors of course play a role too.


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Gennady Sheyner is to be congratulated for another excellent piece of work. "Balancing benefits" aka "Zone defense" is extremely well-researched, well-thought-out and well-written.

This article is a much-needed summation of the many problems inherent in PC zoning and so-called public benefits.

It's good to know serious journalism is alive and well in Palo Alto.


Posted by It's our land, a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 13, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Mike Sabina took over the public plaza at 800 High St. and thinks he has done us a favor. Having converted the public's land to his restaurant use, he says the public enjoys it. Mr. Sabina, we were supposed to enjoy it without having to buy your food.
The city could have put out a few chairs and small tables and that would have been just as pleasant. Anyone who wanted to buy your coffee could have done so. But you stole the public land and put concrete planters around it to keep the private ambiance.
Was that a deal you made with the developer or with the city, or did you just do a land grab?
Please give us back OUR land.


Posted by longtime resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2013 at 12:20 am

In the Maybell project, the city loaned the PAHC millions to buy the property, on the proviso that they pay it back through the sale of high-density homes on Maybell and Clemo, which the developer couldn't currently build to that density under the current zoning. The city created a conflict of interest, and gives the impression that the rezoning and the project will once again be for the sake of the developer no matter what problems it causes for existing neighbors, even safety problems.

And why would it be a good idea to put a senior apartment there? it's not going to be a senior CENTER, there won't be any walkable services, residents will have to drive for medical care, groceries, entertainment, everything, and those visiting and helping them will bring cars in. It will be low-income, so even if places open up for people in the neighborhood, anyone who owns a home and sells it will be instantly ineligible -- in other words, it's going to be for people from outside the area, it's not going to be for neighbors here, who pretty much choose to stay in their homes until they die. Instead, it's going to attract people from elsewhere to break up their families so they can pay less to bring grandkids with them to Gunn HS. Anyone who thinks that isn't going to happen doesn't know this area. And that's not even dealing with the significant safety issues of putting density right at that location in this neighborhood.

Designating that as senior housing just comes across as another smokescreen for density, regardless of how inappropriate. It would make so much more sense for senior housing to go nearer to Stanford and downtown, where medical, Avenidas, etc., are walkable.

If we were thinking about quality of life, we should be using the opportunity to turn that lot into a playing field for this side of town, instead of planning to put fields way out by the Baylands where the kids will have to be driven, let's face it. A field at the Maybell location would be right across from the existing park and allow kids from several school areas as well as those who could take the bike path that runs behind Green Acres to walk and bike there -- just the advantage of giving kids that independence would be such a boon to quality of life here for families. But no, there is no money for things like open space, families, quality of life, the only thing the city cares about is packing in more units anywhere they can, even if they have to rezone/carve away single family residential areas out of small, cohesive neighbors.

I agree with the above, rezoning willy nilly has got to stop. The whole point of zoning is so that people who invest a million, two million dollars to live in single-family shoe boxes at least know what to expect around them in the future. (location, location, and location goes out the window if city lack of respect for zoning means the location could become high density no matter what it's zoned for when people buy)


Posted by registered user, Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 14, 2013 at 10:34 am

Another important and well-researched piece by the Weekly on Palo Alto's "over-development" in general and abuse of the PC process specifically.

Time is short to halt the cascade of zone-busting projects that have already degraded quality of life and portend much worse.

While a number of potential course corrections are under way within city hall (e.g., Planning Commission hearings on what is a proper public benefit; city manager's commitment to PC public benefit analysis, etc), I am far from confident that they will break the structural nature of the problem.

That answer, however, can come from the public via a citizens' initiative.

Bob Moss and his successful private streets initiative is the model here. Within 6 months of the January 2009 Alma Plaza approval -- yet another large housing development with very narrow internal streets -- he had collected sufficient signatures on an initiative that would stop that loophole in future developments. The council then had the choice of approving this new zoning or placing it on the ballot. They choose the former.

It's time for another initiative, to either change zoning, or better yet, to amend the city charter.

Here's why:

1.) To Ensure that Zoning in Palo Alto is Consistent with the Comprehensive Plan

80% of California cities are referred to as "General Law" cities and are required by law to have their zoning ordinances be consistent with their General Plan (referred to as the Comprehensive Plan in Palo Alto).

Palo Alto, however, is among the 20% of the cities in California that has its own charter, i.e., it is a "Charter City." Zoning ordinances in charter cities are not required to be consistent with the General Plan.

While it is perfectly logical and correct for our zoning code to be consistent with the Comp Plan, the lack of legal requirement is often cited by city planners and city attorneys and helps grease the skids for PC approvals.

But citizens do not have to let matters remain this way. The city of San Marcos, a charter city of 80,000 strong in San Diego Country, successfully amended their charter at the ballot box in 2000 to require consistency. Web Link


2.) To Ensure that PCs Are Consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
If it is desirable to keep the PC option on the zoning books, then it is best to clearly state in the charter that they must also be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.


Such an initiative process puts the power and direction on this crucial issue in the hands of the citizenry.


Posted by observer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2013 at 10:03 pm

The effects of the permissive development policies in Palo Alto are
the resulting traffic and then the response of the City staff to plaster signs, yellow paint, ugly barriers all over the streets and neighborhoods to deal with the reality and fear of more traffic in
ways which have nothing to do with safety or traffic mitigation with the result that Palo Alto is becoming a very ugly, conjested and unsafe city and more is on the way folks unless there is a complete redirection of what we are doing.We are heading fast toward the bottom.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 15, 2013 at 10:48 am

PC needs to go away.


Posted by Zone for what you want., a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 15, 2013 at 11:41 am

Zone for what you want. The PC needs to go. It creates too much uncertainty, dissension, and conflict--and ends up delivering too many impacts on the community and too many goodies to developers who have now mastered the art of using PCs.

I am furious about a number of projects in south PA where developers have been given all kids of goodies on top of EXPERIMENTAL practises like tandem parking at the former Hyatt--what a mess.

The pocket park at the Alma Plaza is an embarassment. It is a postage stamp with fake grass which actually radiates heat so it is uncomfortable to be there on a hot day. Really, it could double as a miniature golf hole (all we need is a mini-windmill). Sidewalk access to the Alma Plaza stores and coffee shop is awful. The project is not friendly to ANY mode of transport. Sidewalks within the housing complex are so narrow as to be uncomfortable. The limited space for landscaping has been cheaply filled with few trees--workmanship of the buildings is shoddy. It is one of the worst projects Palo Alto has ever approved--even in south PA--which is saying something.

Every Council member should take a walk through the following projects and consider how this junk housing and pocket park differ from SOFA--East Meadow Circles (all three projects) former Hyatt (aka Arbor Real), hideous Summerhill townhouses behind the Elks facility. There has been a constant onslaught of these horrible projects for so long I can't remember when a time when there were no high density housing projects proposed. They keep getting approved. It's just awful. Particularly at East Meadow Circles and Alma Plaza, take a look at the amount of asphalt and cement and limited landscaping. Look at the poor workmanship of the buildings.

Infill requires disciplined application of all the principles of smart design. That is not evident in these sloppy developments.

We can do better.


Posted by But wait, theres more, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 15, 2013 at 12:16 pm

The city simply does not enforce the rules. They say they "monitor" PCs but they do not ENFORCE. They see violations and say tsk, tsk. Why isn't the blatantly visible violation on Homer and High getting FINED?
Who gave the secret OK? Then Planning Director Emslie? The developer, Doug Ross? the developer's lawyer McCown? the city manager?
This did not just happen. Someone asked for permission and someone gave permission. City staff pretended it didn't see what was right in front of them.


Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on Apr 15, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Been thinking about this PC zoning. It should just be given our, maybe certain guidelines on how and where.

Public benefits needs to be more public and enforce the rules.

Make developers work to get PC, then make them work to get their projects approved.


Posted by homeless , a resident of another community
on Apr 15, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Why all rules are needed and then posted on signs?If I may ask. Who is ruling who with following signs; no parking, no tresspassing, no loitering , no smoking, private property,
no squating, no public bathrooms, no littering, no stopping, etc. How about signs: no buildings and no hunting and no fishing? People should be in charge and not the government !


Posted by homeless , a resident of another community
on Apr 15, 2013 at 5:03 pm

This is all about investors in real estate and how developers can 'milk out' cash flow from residents and business owners in a long haul on expense of the end users. Whoever controls the $$$ controls the signs posted up! As long as those sigms are not posted, im ok about moving forward; improvement of living space. I just dont like to face security guards on public benefit land with my bags or have police to be called if Im simply sitting or sleeping there with no place to go ! To me there is little public benefit on this kind of planning. That's is why we have homeless . Someone needs to step in and do some changes and education about ' more is not always good,' in a long term.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 15, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Trying to persuade the City planning staff is a noble but wasted effort. Those folks simply don't care about residents -- we're an annoyance to them. They just fundamentally want to build Lots Of Big Stuff.

The best hope for change is 2014, when 5 seats of the Council itself, which oversees the city staff, come up: Holman, Price, Shepherd, Klein and Scharff, none of whom is termed out.

The best case is that Scharff and especially Holman return, and Shepherd and Price -- who basically carry water for the developers and public employee unions -- get voted out and replaced with people who care about residents.

Unfortunately there's no guarantee that will happen. And in any case, the current City staff and council can still do a lot more damage between then and now.


Posted by disillusioned, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 15, 2013 at 9:46 pm

Special interests, political influence dictate the outcomes.The staff does not care about the residents or even understand or relate
to long-term values and is very limited in their experience and outlook so there is no counter weight to this. In fact the staff largely pursues it's own interests. This City is in free fall. Resident is right - only a drastic change in the City Council balance can change things, but it is probably too late.



Posted by homeless, a resident of another community
on Apr 15, 2013 at 9:51 pm

im going to study the gang: Holman, Price, Shepard, Klein and Scharff. What is their true identity? Where they come from. What generation and how they got to the position of ruining residents and make decisions about how tax payers money is spent. Based on constitution collecting taxes is illegal . Why the gang invest people's money on fixing the foundation; sewer lines, get rid of rats in Palo Alto? Building more on shaky foundation will leave in long term to disaster . Gotta take care of foundation first to see if zoning changes and building more can handle more crap: like AOL headquarters in down town. Who is AOL?


Posted by homeless, a resident of another community
on Apr 15, 2013 at 10:11 pm

when I was living in my vehicle, behind Cuberley Community center , I witnessed rats running around in day light!!!!! That tells me Palo Alto has rats! Sewer problem already. Focus should be on fixing the problem of rodents. Cubberly also have chipping paints all over , could be lead? Who knows ? Maybe the gang in charge can install better lights; how about mercury light bulbs? The gang has a ride off from the iinvestors? If so, that must be disclosed.


Posted by litebug, a resident of another community
on Apr 16, 2013 at 11:40 am

former resident 1970-2008

Glad to see so many others share the opinion that developers run rampant in Palo Alto. It seems they always win and the public always loses. When I moved to P.A., and for the first 15-20 years what a wonderful place it was. Unfortunately, it started going "wrong" at least a couple of decades ago, if not earlier. The "wrong" was the downgrading of quality of life and convenience of the citizens in favor of seemingly unbridled development, increasingly high density, increasingly UGLY and intrusive projects, no place to shop unless one is wealthy, so much destruction of ambience. 800 High was a big step in the wrong direction. The massively ugly JCC was just being finished when I left. OMG! I lived near Edgewood Plaza and what a fiasco that has been for many years now. It's like Detroit in reverse, in a way, the difference being P.A. has been ruined by success and hubris. Based on what it was like when I left, and what has happened since, I have no desire to even return for a visit as it would be just too upsetting to see how much worse it's gotten the past 5 years. It is really so sad. P.A. has gone from a model of how to be to a model for how not to be.


Posted by observer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 16, 2013 at 10:45 pm

The former resident has it exactly right- but even he would be shocked by the traffic congestion, over-building and decline and growing ugliness since he left- he cannot even imagine it. Nobody
could. If there was one event which was a warning signal to those
who cared about the City and its future but went unheeded, it was the approval by the ARB and staff of The Cheesecake Factory- a massive mall design prototype jammed unfettered on to University Ave ten years ago. All the underlying problems, which showed up in PC's, etc and a dysfunctional and unresponsive regulatory process were evident back then in that project.


Posted by disillusioned 2, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 15, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Interesting that the Councilmembers say such enlightened thing about PC zoning here, then vote in lock step with the developer on the Maybell project in exchange for the cash.

After it was revealed last Thursday that the City had loaned $7.3million to PAHC to purchase the property before rezoning it to a much higher density, half of the property for the benefit of PAHC's project, and half for the benefit of a market-rate developer, PAHC accounted for the $1.5million by saying it was from in lieu fees from the developer (as was most of the $5.8million the City had disclosed to the public).

It suddenly became clear why PAHC had been unwilling to consider less dense market-rate homes, or to auction the lots to high-end developers (the original proposal would have put in more than two homes for every one ranch home there now, the current provides for two tall skinny houses where currently there is one): When developers build more than 5 units, they have to contribute 15% to the BMR program. For 12-15 units, the builder has to put in two BMR units. So apparently, the builder is buying off one of them and paying PAHC $1.5million in lieu fees to avoid having to provide it for the BMR program, which PAHC in turn is borrowing from the City for its financing.

The City had to upzone the property for the market-rate developer to do this, so he could put in denser homes than could be built under the existing zoning or in the surrounding R-1 neighborhood. The City is basically creating cash for itself by using the PC zoning to upzone residential neighborhoods, using the affordable housing as the frontman. Neither PC zoning nor the BMR program were supposed to be used that way.

Alienation among voters in Greenacres and Barron Park, at least among those near the property, is extremely high.


Posted by why can the City loan devlopers $$, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 15, 2013 at 2:05 pm

It seems like loaning money to a developer - non-profit or not - should not be something that the City is allowed to do.