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Palo Alto looks to revamp infamous zoning process

Original post made on Aug 13, 2014

Everyone agrees that Palo Alto's "planned community" zoning process is broken and needs to be fixed. On Wednesday, the city's planning commissioners offered varying and at times competing visions for what this reform should entail.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, August 13, 2014, 11:03 PM

Comments (19)

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Posted by T Tierney
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 13, 2014 at 11:52 pm

From the story, it looks like the commissioners want to keep the power they have, but the other citizens want to limit that power to invalidate the regulations for unforseen circumstances.

It seems hard to believe that the city cannot create regulations that are forceful, inviolate, and contain the experience of past years so they reflect our feelings today. Let's constrain exceptions. If a future generation wishes to allow a different ethic, they can change the zoning then.


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Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:25 am

If the public benefit exchange is to continue, I'd like to see the developers have to ask the public in a vote whether to exceed zoning, except (100%) affordable housing projects, but there should be a limit on how much they can exceed.

I'd like to see consistency with the comp plan, but with an ethics investigation of city employees triggered if there is any evidence they are cherry picking the plan for developers, as the city mgr admitted they do. And consistency with the comp plan only if the employees who made ... difficult to justify as unwitting ... egregiously incorrect representations at Maybell are no longer in charge of the comp plan revision and anything they've done so far is taken out with the trash.

Sometimes good things are ruined by people who take advantage. When that happens, often there's no going back.


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Posted by No to PC's
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 14, 2014 at 10:32 am

Just say NO to PC zoning. There is no consensus of what public benefit is or was. Sure, there are a lot of advocates for BMR units Palo Altans have never voted on allowing these so called benefits while promoting densification and a takeaway of our views of the Foothills. The Planning Dept., CC have been hoodwinked and been taken advantage of so many times, that it is really awfully late now, to start reforming this process. Just say NO. Palo Alto is a built out City, there is no "low hanging fruit" just waiting to be developed. We aren't going to build any more schools, parks, large retail spots.......in fact by all these PC's are just a guise for more professional devt. and high cost housing. Look at all the retail that has disappeared.....while some pc's say they will provide retail (JJ&F, Alma Plaza), they are minimizing and hardly making a good faith effort to provide retail.
Also, so many PC's have not provided parking, any real public benefit and it is up to the citizenry to point this out. The Planning Dept., PTC and City Council should not have PC's if they are not going to police the compliance of their own agreements.


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Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 14, 2014 at 10:56 am

City staff should jump in and help the Planning Commission. One easy reform is to link enforcement to any and all developments. The easiest approach to link enforcement and financing is a conditional use permit. For example, the ARB has started initial review of a development at 411 Lytton. If that project (with full on-site parking?) actually creates any spillover parking into Downtown North neighborhood streets (already at capacity) or if that project negatively impacts commercial core public parking, then a CUP should kick in. Then the property owner can be quickly forced to remedy the negative impacts.


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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:25 pm

>Phyllis Cassel, who spent 13 years on the planning commission and reviewed 26 planned-community projects, argued that the zoning mechanism is a valuable tool because it allows creativity, particularly for small projects. One PC project, she noted, is a single house. Others added much needed below-market-rate units to the city's housing stock.

Phyllis has spoken the truth. Quite revealing. BMR units are a huge reason that PC zoning gets approved. Any such subsidized housing should be approved (secret vote) by the neighborhood that it is proposed to be placed in. That would be a democratic and transparent approach. Who could object to that?


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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2014 at 6:15 pm

Can someone provide a link to approved PC exceptions and their "public benefits?" This would be useful to determine whether PC zoning makes any sense.


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 14, 2014 at 6:50 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

PC zoning allows good judgment but that good judgment requires both experience and wisdom.
Without PC zoning you will see more conformity and less diversity.


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Posted by Eejitz
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 14, 2014 at 7:21 pm

What City Hall does not seem to understand is that they can NOT arbitrarily change zoning on their own to suit themselves--which is what they have been doing for years now. This is ILLEGAL as all get out, and it is amazing that there have not been lawsuits. Such a thing MUST go to the vote in Santa Clara County.

Where the hell does this city get off on overriding its citizens???


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Posted by Julian Gomez
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 14, 2014 at 8:30 pm

Since this process has never even once resulted in something that actually was a public benefit, it's a fundamentally flawed concept, which makes the answer easy: toss it.


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 14, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Since this process has never even once resulted in something that actually was a public benefit,"

Wrong, in the early years after PC zoning was added to the General Plan in 1976 a number of unique projects were approved under this authority. Over time the Planning Commission and the City Council gradually lowered the standards to which a PC project was held. Don't blame a powerful and useful tool but rather those who did not know how to properly use that tool.


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Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 14, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Julian Gomez, a resident of Midtown

"Since this process has never even once resulted in something that actually was a public benefit..."

The article points out that, "Since the designation came about in 1951, Palo Alto has approved about 100 planned-community projects, many of which were senior- and affordable-housing developments."

I disagree with your contention that projects that contribute to creating and sustaining economic diversity in Palo Alto are not a public benefit. If planned community developments are the only way to guarantee that our community has housing stock for other than the rich we must retain that option in city statutes order to be a healthy community, not just an enclave for the wealthy.





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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 14, 2014 at 9:14 pm

>Don't blame a powerful and useful tool but rather those who did not know how to properly use that tool.

Peter, in principle, I agree with you. However, in your opinion, what would be some proper PC exemptions? Please be specific.


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Posted by Thinking
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2014 at 9:47 pm

How about this for the only "BMR" exemption: to get x% of increased Floor Area Ratio (FAR), setbacks, and/or height in a zone allowing any residential use the proposed structure must include an equal percentage of studio and/or one bedroom units to be allowed a maximum of 20% greater FAR, setbacks and/or height than otherwise allowed or up to 35% if within 10 blocks of a pre-designated pedestrian mass transit node. Make all PC exemptions reduced down to mathematical formulas and maps based on the priorities in the comprehensive plan. Eliminate subjective decisions. Make it all objective.


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 15, 2014 at 7:40 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

To maximize the PUBLIC value of the PC tool the emphasis must be on exceptional cases which, by definition, cannot be quantified.

If something desirable can be quantified then write that into the zoning ordinance but preserve the PC zone for something truly exceptional.

Perhaps the best way to ensure a high standard for such PC projects would be to require a unanimous recommendation by the Planning Commission and at least 8 yes votes by the Council.


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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 15, 2014 at 9:50 am

"The Planning Dept., CC have been hoodwinked and been taken advantage of so many times..."

Any experienced observer knows they are often very eager victims.


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Posted by Commissioner Alcheck should be fired
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 15, 2014 at 11:25 am

He is the most lopsided pro-developer, anti-resident commissioner by far. His shameless shilling of the Maybell project was just business as usual for him. When presented with potential mitigations to make the project neighborhood friendly, he took the PAHC line and insisted that the full for-profit upzoning happen.

I hope the new council fires this guy.


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Posted by Stephen B.
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 15, 2014 at 5:02 pm

One thing you can say for sure is that Com. Alcheck isn't a flip flopper. His voice consistently supports the development of more housing, which in many instances is not the right call. But I find myself actually agreeing with him here. It was always zoning for sale. Which is a practice we should end. That said, if we are going to continue to have zoning for sale, I for once agree with Alcheck, let's at least get a fair price.


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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2014 at 9:08 pm

Would be interesting to ask the Atherton Planning Department how many affordable housig units there are in Atherton, and how one would go about building a hundred, or so, a year in that town.


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Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 17, 2014 at 2:39 am

@ Joe,
It would be interesting to know if Atherton residents realize some of the same people who brought all the overdevelopment to Palo Alto are now in Redwood City (head of planning) ready to do the same thing there right on the Atherton border. I wonder if so-called affordable housing advocates will do the same thing there as in Palo Alto, hang their hats on the overdevelopment crowd while it pushes out real low-income residents through high-density high-cost gentrification.


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