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About this blog: I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to the area in 1963 when I started graduate school at Stanford. Nancy and I were married in 1977 and we lived for nearly 30 years in the Duveneck school area. Our children went to Paly. We moved ...  (More)

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A proposal for Monday Night's Office Cap Discussion

Uploaded: Feb 28, 2015
The parking and traffic challenges being experienced in Palo Alto are real and reflect trends going on throughout the region.

In Monday night's discussion about addressing these challenges I encourage the Council to ask staff to explore the following alternatives

1) To address parking and traffic through approaches that dramatically limit auto trips associated with new and existing development, for example a "no net new trip" initiative

2) If staff is asked to explore an office development cap, part of that motion be to ask staff to

--a) explore how projects in the development pipeline are treated

--b) explore alternatives for how the cap would sunset

--c) explore the legal issues associated with implementing a cap

3) That all direction to staff be to explore issues and questions in the context of the Comp Plan update

There are two primary reasons for the first proposal

--a) available partial data suggests strongly that additional office space growth has not and would not be a primary driver of parking and traffic challenges at least downtown. I believe that full data will show that the primary drivers of this growth have been a) adding employees to existing space, b) the increase in the number of eating and drinking customers and employees, c) service workers and d) contributions from PAMF and Stanford related activities and overflow parking related to Caltrain

--b) the "no net new trip" movement is accelerating. Last Thursday night I heard a presentation from Gil Friend of the city staff on ideas for and the importance of moving toward dramatic reduction of single vehicle trips. Today in the paper there are stories about how Google proposes to do this for their new campus. We all know of the great success that Stanford has had in reducing car traffic and parking need. And I understand that city manager Jim Keene has talked to you about his recent meetings re auto trip reduction.

There are two primary reasons for the third proposal--to study options in the Comp Plan update process

--a) staff, especially senior staff is stretched thin with many projects already on their list. Johnathan Lait made that clear to the PTC in their last meeting showing the ongoing projects, many of which like the Comp Plan update need immediate attention.

--b) the council will shortly get a great deal of important and relevant new data and information. Staff is looking to get outside expertise on the retail and fiscal issues related to the Comp Plan update and many initiatives like the RPP will provide initial data in time to be integrated into the Comp Plan discussions.

The final suggestion comes from my experience working with public agencies like the state Energy Commission and Air Resources Board whose actions affect large private companies with access to significant consultant and legal resources. The public agency in these cases needs to have both a good case on the data and an airtight case on the law.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by John, a resident of College Terrace,
on Feb 28, 2015 at 7:18 pm

"No new net trips" at Stanford pushed parking on College Terrace. We finally organized and developed our RPPP, which has been effective. However, my question is: Where are those cars parking now?

Posted by Counterclockwise, a resident of University South,
on Mar 1, 2015 at 7:40 pm

No net new trips. OK.

Note that key word "net." If there are a gazillion new trips inbound, and exactly the same number of new trips outbound, we got no net new trips. Mission accomplished, slogan fulfilled, even though we also got humongous net new traffic jams.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Mar 1, 2015 at 7:58 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.


That is an incorrect interpretation of "net".

Net means, as with the Stanford case, that if car trips are added from an expansion of employees, car trips from existing employees must be reduced by at least the amount of the increase so total car trips are not increased.

Google in its planned expansion in Mountain View has a goal of no net new (i.e., additional) car trips.

So for a company in downtown, for example, that wanted to expand square footage for more employees, the concept would be to find ways to reduce car trips from existing employees to offset trips from additional employees.

This goal works to control car traffic and parking by bringing entire operations into play rather than dealing just the square footage expansion portion that is small in relation to downtown parking and traffic, most of which is not caused by recent new office workers.

Posted by Counterclockwise, a resident of University South,
on Mar 1, 2015 at 8:31 pm

That may be the well-intentioned intent, but the real outcome has historically been more smoke and mirrors illusions than the advertised result. Consider Stanford's vaunted depot shuttle. It cuts commute trips onto campus by shifting a bunch of them into nearby Palo Alto neighborhoods.

Commuters are people. People are not the programmable robots that these Utopian schemes presume and require. They are much cleverer than robots, maddeningly casually cleverer. And good for them.

Why not do something realistic, like limiting the net new office development that generates net new automobile trips? We got plenty of office space in Palo Alto now.

Why should we hog the boom? I bet other towns, say, Richmond, would very much like to be cut in on the action.

Posted by Downtown worker, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Mar 1, 2015 at 9:29 pm

Why stop at "no net trips"? The tech companies downtown have only a minority (40% or less) of commuters driving to work. We could get 2500 cars out of downtown if we could convince the other companies to break their driving habits in the same way.

Despite the perceptions, though, new office construction has been only 0.3% per year since 1995. Traffic and parking have gotten a lot worse with the boom of the last five years, though. It's just not plausible that all this traffic is from new construction.

How does a "no net trips" goal for new construction address the real problem, which is all the cars that are coming through existing buildings? Wouldn't it make more sense to just require existing companies to do something about the traffic they are generating?

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Mar 1, 2015 at 9:40 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

@ downtown worker

You are correct. My first request to council was

"To address parking and traffic through approaches that dramatically limit auto trips associated with new and existing development, for example a "no net new trip" initiative"

So a no net additional trips from any expansion would be combined with programs/incentives to reduce the far larger number of car trips from existing workers.

The no additional trips from expansions was to decouple positive expansions from increases in car trips.

So it is a "do both" proposal.

Thanks for emphasizing the importance of dealing with the far larger number of trips from existing workers, many of whom are not even office workers.

Posted by Dreaming, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Mar 2, 2015 at 12:10 am

Companies can plan and promise anything, but driving is a freedom all licensed drivers have. The great ideas for "no net trips" are completely unenforceable. Buying into this concept of "growth with no negative impact" is simply drinking the developers' kool-aid.

(Portion deleted) not related to blog topic

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Mar 2, 2015 at 7:25 am

mauricio is a registered user.

There is no such thing as growth without heavier traffic. Palo Alto does not need any additional office development, especially not downtown, nor does it need any additional start ups, downtown or anywhere else. Palo Alto is experiencing an unprecedented boom, while other communities around the country and even nearby, think Richmond or Vallejo for example, are experiencing serious economic hardship. That's where new companies and new office development should go.

Posted by A voice of reason, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 2, 2015 at 9:27 am

This is an eminently reasonable proposal. Thank you for making it.

I would add that if Council is going to direct staff to take on a major project, they would be better served by directing staff to take on the collection of the underlying data set to make future decision-making easier. Some of the data will come from the business registry, but there is still a lot of data around parking use and availability, trip origins and destinations, etc., that will make life much easier for both citizens and Council Members.

Measuring and controlling for traffic and parking is the right approach. A blanket cap seems to miss the point.

Posted by Rainer, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Mar 2, 2015 at 12:07 pm

Rainer is a registered user.

This is an eminently unreasonable proposal, the building industry will thank Mr. Levy from the bottom of their purse.

Because, here we go again: study and delay, the Palo Alto way. What a devious proposal. Just count all the study proposals with an infinite capacity to NOT get any action for a long time, judging from past experience.

But as guidance, this is a very good Anti-Proposal: just do the opposite of most things Mr. Levy proposes. The latter will enable the staff to concentrate on urgent needs, especially helping residents in the appeal of untoward developments, instead of focusing on getting projects approved at any cost to the neighborhood.

In slight variation of what @Dreaming had to say above:
-----Companies will promise anything, but driving is a freedom all licensed drivers have. The great ideas for "no net trips" are completely unenforceable. Buying into this concept of "growth with no negative impact" is simply drinking the developers' kool-aid.

The underlying here theme is: ?don?t do anything now, study it, wait for the comprehensive plan.? Oh, and if you do anything make sure it sunsets ? soon.

My short proposal to the City Council is:

a) Put the Retail Protection back in the minimum legally required time, maybe that is today, because it is a modification of an existing ordinance?
b) Put in a reasonable office cap of approximately 30,000 sqft, until the developers form an association and come up with a traffic plan and a parking plan with teeth.

Study and delay, the Palo Alto way, and how many unique retail establishments including restaurants have we lost to offices only last year?

In 2009, in their infinite wisdom to supplement Obamas stimulus plan, the City Council decided to have their own stimulus plan and remove the ordinance disallowing retail-office conversions. NO SUNSET. If that sounds just as intelligent as the removal of a ground floor equivalent area from parking requirement in 1986, it is. NO SUNSET either, and it was in effect until last year.

On Jan. 22, 2014, 13 months ago, I asked Greg Scharff the following:

------I read that you, correctly, bemoaned closing of Rudy's Pub as a loss for University Avenue vibrancy, and if replicated, setting a bad example.

------Google quickly told me, that originally the property, 117 University Ave., was in the Ground Floor (GF) Combining District (115-119 University Avenue---APN 120-26-108) and as such would not have been able to be converted into Office space.

------From experience with several cities in 3 countries, and 2 US states, I know that the vibrancy of a downtown district stands and falls with window-shopping Pedestrians using retail and food and drink establishments and therefore the loss of Rudy's is .... a loss.

------Therefore, it is commendable that Palo Alto has a Ground Floor (GF) Combining District to prevent conversion of retails etc. space into offices. So I would be interested to learn when, and on who's decision or application, the zoning was changed.

Greg answered, concisely as he usually does:

-----It was changed in 2009 before I got on the council. I wrote a colleagues memo with several other council members to try and change it back. We got protections for Emerson street and thus saved that street from becoming office, ie., where Tacolicious is, but it was a 5-4 for broader retail protections in the downtown and then Yiaway changed his vote to agree as compromise that broader protections would be studies as part of the downtown cap study.

Really? As my teenage daughters used to say: OMG.

The only good thing, judging from the material the British Traffic Institute has collected, is that the traffic problem will solve itself when the travel time becomes twice as long as public transportation time. Using simple exponential extrapolation: Soon!

Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 2, 2015 at 12:11 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I would prefer a moratorium on all new development near University and California until the massive buildings in the pipeline are complete and real data is available. I also think many of the people not parking on Stanford campus are still parking nearby in Palo Alto neighborhoods, further worsening the parking deficit. Until we have data about what is really happening, from the business registry and other data collection, I don't think a reasonable solution can be implemented.

I had one conversation with a low paid retail employee on where he parked. When nearby parking was restricted, he just parked further away. He was able to find an all day parking place within 3 blocks of University. He was totally unaware of the low priced permits for low paid retail employees.

I have been sadly disappointed in the TMA. What sounded like a good idea has instead been used to justify further deficits in parking for new buildings. I don't see why future and unknown benefits should be a reason to reduce Palo Alto's inadequate requirements for office buildings. I hope the city will change the TMA agreement so that belonging to it will reduce the existing known parking deficit, not decrease the parking to employee ratio. Any company that has an excess of parking as a result of their successful policies, can always make more money by renting out excess spots.

As others have stated, Palo Alto's worker/resident ratio is one of the worst if the the worst in the Nation, just based on census data. With ABAG requiring more and more housing, I think the only development that should be encouraged with zoning variances should be low-income housing, and only if the number of people housed far exceeds any workers associated with the same development. When ABAG decides Palo Alto has sufficient housing, Palo Alto can then consider encouraging more development - in other words, when pigs fly.

Palo Alto should require more parking for all development as a price to be paid to make up for the existing parking deficit. When the intersection of El Camino and University, which I believe is rated F today (before the addition of 3000 more employees for the new Stanford Hospital), is upgraded as a result of the TMA or any other of the measures being considered, then increased development can be considered. What a concept - make decisions based on current data, not projections based on overly hopeful "no net new trips" proposals with absolutely no data as to whether they will work. Even if 30% of new Stanford employees don't drive in single cars and park on campus, that leaves 70%, or 2.100 people who will.

Posted by Really?, a resident of Stanford,
on Mar 2, 2015 at 9:10 pm

Parking and traffic is the tail of the dog. Or tale, as it happens.

The real problem is that we are growing faster than either our infrastructure or our culture can absorb.

Traffic and parking are symptoms, actually relatively minor if annoying symptoms. It is a siphon of resources and attention to think that if we try to address or mitigate traffic and parking issues things will be significantly better.

The problem is too much growth, too fast. The symptoms are legion.

Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community,
on Mar 2, 2015 at 9:50 pm

Capping office growth until road and tranist infrastruture catches up is fair but we haven't don't much in the way of road or transit infrastructure.

Capping the amount of space or how much a company can grow until it reaches its limio. Ban enough to have a business in California but telling them you have to cap on employees.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Mar 3, 2015 at 3:04 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Time to move beyond division and name calling to something we should all be able to agree on--

reducing the driving and parking demand from existing buildings, whether they be offices, restaurants or service providers.

Let's go for where the real numbers are, not spend a lot of time on a tiny piece represented by new office growth while downtown existing buildings, restaurants and stores see more customers. Let's try and really solve the problems of traffic and parking, not nibble around the edges.

Before the cap discussion there was a great discussion that started on shuttle options but broadened to think of mobility as a service, apps that help people find parking, services like Lyft and Uber (that could even be shared).

Posted by resident, a resident of Downtown North,
on Mar 5, 2015 at 11:40 am

It's ridiculous to tell people that they can't drive into and around Palo Alto. People will not stop driving, so again this fantasy should not be the basis for no office cap. Cap 1st, solution 2nd, implementation 3rd, results 4th. If the result is desirable then lift the cap.

There was no thought out urban planning to begin with and now we are dealing with a big mess in downtown and surrounding areas. More office space takes away from a retail shopping experience, a family place, and a visitor/tourist place in downtown. PAF is catering to the needs of only office workers. We need a balance of needs met for our downtown area. We already have plenty of office space. Stop pushing for more.

Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North,
on Mar 5, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Steve, my school teacher father with his masters degree in math was a 90-day wonder. At age 32 (1943) he joined the US Navy. 90-days later he was Naval Flight Officer teaching young flight officers navigation, LORAN and principles of radar. Shortly thereafter I was born.

Palo Alto can be a 90-day wonder too. All it takes is action by the downtown businesses. If Univ Ave businesses leaders exerted peer pressure for 100% registry participation by April 15, then Palo Alto's brand new business registry would be spewing out incredibly valuable data in exactly 90 days.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Mar 5, 2015 at 5:14 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Thanks Neilson.

I signed up yesterday and CCSCE has a new registry certificate.

Posted by heh, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Mar 5, 2015 at 9:14 pm

It IS ridiculous to tell people to stop driving. That's why NO ONE is proposing that and what you're writing here is a gross mischaracterization of everything PAF has ever said. What PAF HAS said is that an office cap doesn't undo any of our parking or traffic issues. They won't get better at all with a cap and in fact they'll keep growing, just slowly. What PAF HAS said is that if you want to really fix traffic and parking, then you need to make policies that apply to ALL buildings in Palo Alto, not just the tiny portion (about 1%) built per year. Create and institute policies that will ACTUALLY fix the problem and not just feel-good rhetoric which won't actually improve anything, ever.

The TMA and TDM can manage demand by incentivizing people to not drive - like offering shuttles, train passes for free, giving out lyft and uber credits, building better bike infrastructure, paying people to not drive, matching people to car pools and paying them for using them, etc. Businesses can and do offer employees incentives to not drive. That's why companies like SurveyMonkey and Palantir - only 40% of their employees drive. Google - only 50% of their employees drive. If we can get other companies to similarly cut down their SOV rates, that's what we need to see real improvements. If other companies could come close to that via their own programs, we'd see north of a 20% reduction in cars on our streets. Know what you will see with a cap? ZERO REDUCTION IN CARS ON OUR STREETS. You'll see more cars every single year with an office cap.

We CAN mandate SOV rates as conditions for development AND we can enforce it by only allowing them so many RPPP permits and only allowing them to build so many parking spaces. So if you don't have a spot and you don't have a permit, you get a big fat fine and you'll get towed.

It is very much possible to reduce our traffic and parking but we have to use our heads and multiple approaches instead of reaching for a bludgeon that just happens to be handy.

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