News

Palo Alto council opts to keep 'planned-community' zoning

Despite recent notoriety, process should be retained and fixed, officials say

Acknowledging that the city's notorious "planned-community" process is flawed, Palo Alto officials signaled on Monday that they would rather fix it than scrap it altogether.

The process, which allows developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated public benefits, has been on the books since the early 1950s and has enabled about 100 local developments, including affordable-housing projects such as the Treehouse on Charleston Road; mixed-use developments like Alma Plaza and mostly commercial projects such as 101 Lytton Ave.

The latest planned-community project to win approval -- a housing development on Maybell Avenue -- was overturned by residents during last year's election, prompting the council to put a moratorium on the process and to consider reforms.

On Monday, seven of the eight council members present (Larry Klein was absent) agreed that despite its flaws, the planned community should remain on the books. Members and planning staff touted the fact that it gives the council the flexibility to pursue valuable projects that officials may not have been able to foresee when they adopted the zoning code. But, as city planner Consuelo Hernandez told the council, the public "has expressed concerns about the ad hoc nature of each individual transaction, the inadequacy of public benefits and how they've been monitored."

Bob Moss, a frequent critic of the process, called the process "racket" and cited on Monday the recent benefits that never materialized, including the now infamous "public plaza" on Sheridan Avenue, an approved public benefit that was ultimately appropriated for outdoor dining by Cafe Riace. The city, he argued, has to do a better job making sure that the public gets the promised benefits.

"The first thing we've got to do is get staff to actually enforce the public benefits, and fine the property owner or developer significantly if the public benefits fail to be maintained or provided," Moss said.

While Councilman Greg Scharff argued that the process should be abolished entirely, the rest of the council generally agreed on the types of reforms that need to be made, including better enforcement, more clarity of the rules and more initiative by the council in soliciting benefits.

Councilman Greg Schmid noted that while this zoning designation was originally used for things like affordable housing (staff estimates that about 1,000 units of affordable housing were constructed under planned-community zoning), that hasn't been the case lately. Many recent developments, including 101 Lytton and the College Terrace Centre at 2180 El Camino Real, have consisted largely of office space. Schmid observed that over the past six years, only 83 units of affordable housing were built under planned-community zoning.

"It's not working," Schmid said. "It is working in a sense that it's drawing in ideas ... but it's not providing us affordable housing, which we're looking the hardest for."

Karen Holman, who is a vocal critic of dense new developments, shared Schmid's concerns but nevertheless made a case for keeping the planned-community process in place. The council should declare, she said, what public benefit they'd like to see and then consider the concessions that could be offered, rather than the other way around, which is the current practice.

"I think we had this upside down for a good long while and I think that's the push-back we've seen from the community," Holman said.

Councilman Pat Burt was struck by the fact that both Schmid and Holman, two outspoken opponents of planned-community projects, were in favor of reforming, rather than striking down, the mechanism that made these projects possible. He shared their sentiment.

"We don't want to have a council reaction that's basically, 'Save us from ourselves. We haven't been able to show proper discretion on what types of PC projects we'd approve and therefore let's throw out the entire process.' I'm not sure that's wise, temperate decision-making," Burt said.

He agreed with most of the proposed reforms, including better clarity on what types of public benefits and zoning exceptions are appropriate and more enforcement. These reforms, he said, "aren't changes on the margin, they are the most substantive changes we've had in 50 years on the PC (planned-community) process."

"They'd drastically improve the process," Burt said.

Councilwoman Gail Price was the most bullish on planned-community projects, saying she has always seen them "as an opportunity, not a threat." The city, she said, needs to engage in "more successful negotiations and be more assertive and clear about the goal of any PC that comes before us and make sure we have something that's tangible and meaningful for the community and results in a really excellent project."

Scharff disagreed and argued that it's time to pull the plug on the planned community. Residents have lost confidence in the process, he said, and simply tweaking it won't suffice.

"I think it's completely broken in the community," Scharff said. "I think people don't have any faith in the process."

He pointed to state laws that already provide density bonuses to developments as an incentive to include affordable housing, bonuses that were used in the development of 801 Alma St. Aside from affordable housing, which could be acquired through means such as the state law, Scharff said he couldn't think of any public benefits that have come out of the process and that the residents truly value. The process should be scrapped and replaced with a different zoning tool that the public approves of.

"I don't quite see how to tweak the process to get buy-in from the community to get people confident in the process," Scharff said. "I think we should scrap the PC process completely and start over and say, 'What are our goals here for the broad decisions? What do we want to accomplish as a community?'"

Most of the council, however, agreed with Vice Mayor Liz Kniss's proposal to "not throw out the baby with the bathwater this time."

"It's difficult, when we had a community that reacted so strongly to PCs," Kniss said.

The council will continue its discussion at a future date, once staff drafts a new planned-community ordinance incorporating the offered suggestions.

Comments

11 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2014 at 9:28 am

Whether Palo Alto should continue Planned Community Zoning should be on a city wide ballot. This question should not be decided by the very body which abused it.


1 person likes this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 7, 2014 at 9:40 am

If Scharff is correct, that the PC should be abolished because a minority of vocal residents have lost confidence in the PC, shouldn't the planning department and city council also be abolished? It's the council's job to fix things not just punt because 5% of the population is loud and organized.


1 person likes this
Posted by Adrian
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 7, 2014 at 10:34 am

While I know that the PC process has lost legitimacy within our community, zoning is a balance between codification and flexibility. Whether it is a zoning adjustment, an exception, or a PC project - we need methods for projects that do not fit into the typical zoning code... This encourages innovative development and can result in higher, more valuable (socially, financially, aesthetically) uses of land and resources.


6 people like this
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 7, 2014 at 11:14 am

"It's the council's job to fix things not just punt because 5% of the population is loud and organized."

That's exactly the position that King George III took against those revolting colonists in 1775.


7 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2014 at 11:19 am

PC zoning was never originally intended to be used as a way of skirting all zoning laws, as it has been. How can the very body that used PC zoning to basically trash local zoning be trusted to revise the code to improve it? ("Fix" is right.) It should have been scrapped.

I propose that a true public benefit wouldn't require any enforcement. An "open space" that is basically a patio for a restaurant will be used as a patio for a restaurant. The fault is not in the enforcement but in the ridiculous PC zoning exceptions being allowed.


4 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2014 at 11:24 am

Don't waste any more brain cycles on this one. Just referend every PC project at the developers expence. Problem solved.


5 people like this
Posted by Julian
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2014 at 11:49 am

What a bad idea. This city couldn't fix their way out of a paper bag.

Scrap the PC concept and also scrap the city council.


1 person likes this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2014 at 12:10 pm

> shouldn't the planning department and city council also be abolished?

Well .. maybe. One candidate for City Council a few years ago offered up that suggestion as his "claim to fame". He lost the election, however.

And we have had three different forms of government in this town, with a couple modifications--such as the hiring of a city manager.

We do have an opportunity to downsize the Council this election. We also have an opportunity to put any changes to city government we want on the ballot every couple of years, or so. All it takes is a clear vision of what is wanted, and some people willing to collect signatures, and make their case to the public.

Wonder if any of the current candidates have been able to make a case for what Palo Alto should look like in the coming days? Hard to see anyone of them doing much more than smiling, and speaking in riddles.


7 people like this
Posted by Cache a Czech
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Is what the city council is doing with zoning changes even legal? If it is, it should not be. It is at the very least unethical, certainly somewhat less than moral.

This is something that should be the decision of the voters who reside in Palo Alto, not council members with conflicts of interest. One a zone is established, they should not be able to change it to suit their developer "friends" and relatives!


Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

My takeaway from the meeting is that responsible politicians who have been elected to look at these issues in a non-ideological way all concluded that PC zoning to enable affordable (subsidized) housing is important to the well-being of the community.

Please note: the two fiercest foes of PC zoning abuse, Greg Scharff and Karen Holman were the first to step up in favor of reform, yes, but also of retaining the flexibility of PC accommodations to enable affordable (subsidized) housing to be built.

Sounds like it should be a major issue in the campaign judging from the comments here.


1 person likes this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 7, 2014 at 5:35 pm

I agree (and disagree) with Jerry. Jerry supports subsidized housing, so he wants city council to support it. The CC, demonstrating their liberal guilt credentials (and pushed by the so-called 'affordable housing' activist groups), will support subsidized housing (Jerry is correct on this point). However, if the issue were to be put to a vote, directly, I think the outcome would be much different. As an example, the CC voted unanimously to support the Maybell subsidized housing, and they stuck to their guns...until the people's voices were heard through the ballot box.

The PC process exists for the primary reason of allowing the CC to built even more subsidized housing, period. Get rid of subsidized housing (and the PAHC), then PC will disappear overnight.

Put it to a vote via referendum. If it passes, the priority for subsidized housing will be ranked according to the affirmative vote in each neighborhood. I would bet the ranch that it would go down in flames! Care to take that bet, Jerry?


5 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2014 at 6:46 pm

I find it sad that all of this attention on new buildings for "affordable housing" does nothing at all for the existing residents displaced by all the developer giveaways this supposed public benefit is wrapped up with. The $30M in public money that would have been spent at Maybell would have done far more for affordable housing if it could have been spent to buy up the mobile home park at BV, paid back by the residents over time and with a regulatory agreement that kept the properties BMR on resale. The so-called advocates are advocating for buildings and the very policies creating the displacement of existing low-income residents. Shame on them for putting their ideology above the practical needs of real people in our community.


4 people like this
Posted by sal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Sadly, a predictable outcome.

Why would you want a comprehensive, well thought out zoning and building ordinance?

When the existing Planned Community fraud allows developers, with enthusiastic help from city govt and city council, to profit at residents expense.

Thanks to all the city council members who voted to ***** their neighbors. There is an election coming up, remember?


2 people like this
Posted by Dave
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2014 at 9:10 pm

"The PC process exists for the primary reason of allowing the CC to build even more subsidized housing, period. Get rid of subsidized housing (and the PAHC), then PC will disappear overnight."

Craig Laughton is exactly right.

Why is our city council still supporting subsidized housing? The majority of us don't want it.


Like this comment
Posted by MakesSense
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 7, 2014 at 9:52 pm

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2014 at 10:42 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Citizen

The idea of having the city buy the mobile home part at Buena Vista has gained no traction that I can tell. The crowd funding scheme has not produced any results that we're aware of. I don't see any options that would have the likely result of current residents of Buena Vista being able to continue living there in their mobile homes.

The residents should be fairly compensated for their homes if the mobile home park is closed and they're forced to move. You and I believe that adequate compensation would be far greater than that which the judge has ruled meets legal standards, but many disagree. I presume the ruling will be appealed, in which case the city council would decide the matter of adequate compensation for being forced to leave.

But why not take seriously the idea that it is the Buena Vista community, not the mobile homes, that are the asset for the community to sustain by government action? Why not look at providing affordable (subsidized) housing for those current residents who want to continue living there, paired as necessary with market rate units to make it work?


3 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 9, 2014 at 10:43 am

Annette is a registered user.

I think the fixing part needs to include a close look at City Hall b/c the culture of an organization is generally set by those in leadership positions. The Grand Jury report found Palo Alto seriously lacking in some key areas. Residents can contribute to the solution by voting wisely and our City Council can contribute by making clear that the City Manager and City Staff are accountable to them, not the other way around.


3 people like this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 9, 2014 at 11:05 am

Palo alto really needs to look at what is happening in Menlo Park with Measure M. It is impractical to fight every new bad PC development via referendum. We need one referendum that ends PC zoning forever, one referendum to limit growth, heigh, and density. One referendum to rule them all.


Like this comment
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2014 at 9:09 pm

@Jerry Underdal,
"But why not take seriously the idea that it is the Buena Vista community, not the mobile homes, that are the asset for the community to sustain by government action? Why not look at providing affordable (subsidized) housing for those current residents who want to continue living there, paired as necessary with market rate units to make it work?"

Why do you continue to nudge things around to prioritize development over what could be done to help existing residents? Anyway you parse it, those new subsidized schemes end up more expensive and more difficult if we are talking about serving existing residents facing displacement, which is what we should be prioritizing Big development subsidies fits really nicely with your ideology that seems to prioritize big subsidized buildings over people, but do you not see how that diminishes efforts to help existing residents?

I don't know about you, but I have advocated all along for directing the money that went to Maybell from our affordable housing fund to BV instead, when it could have helped them make a decent offer in totoal. Any way you look at it, helping residents to buy the property by offering loans is cheaper than buying it AND putting up expensive new buildings. Why the eagerness to put people in subsidized housing?

The residents of BV are longtime residents, and based at least on the people I know who have lived there, autonomy was an important part of their housing decisions. To the people out there who seem to regard the low-income like glorified human pets, there may not be a difference between subsidized housing and market-rate low-income housing, but to many people, there is.

As far as finding people homes as a last resort so they can stay here for the schools -- Many of us were asking during Maybell why there was empty housing in our BMR system for years that could have been filled (and was filled) when the terms were renegotiated. As I recall, we were roundly criticized by people like you for asking that we do a market study and first understand if there was another way to provide for the need first with existing empty housing stock, for example, shared multi-generational housing, or through direct subsidies.

The Maybell project would have cost $30M in taxpayer money, versus at BV where at least the same amount of taxpayer money could be paid back. Why do you continue to work so hard to push for development when the money could be better spent to help save people from displacement, arguably also diminishing rather than increasing resentment toward future affordable housing? It seems to me we should be taking up this issue with government so that the money is spent well and not just first serve development interests, then pat ourselves on the back because we care about "affordable housing", even as real people get the shaft.

You are pushing the developer side so hard, I have stopped asking myself why you can't see the conflict between your stated goals and what you are pushing. (Those were all rhetorical questions above, meant to give you food for thought, not to answer, I've already heard your view many, many times.)



Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 9, 2014 at 9:40 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@citizen

Before I respond, i will wait to see if your post is deleted or edited in a way that loses the full flavor of your argument.
Your voice has been an important one since the beginning of the Maybell uprising. I wish more people would take it seriously as they consider whether supporting the PASZ slate is a good idea. The individuals running with the support of PASZ are fine candidates who will work hard to make Palo Alto a better city if elected. I've considered voting for some of them, but am hesitant precisely because they are running as a slate.


Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 9, 2014 at 10:02 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Citizen

Rather than argue with me over Buena Vista, which I have refrained from commenting on until the judge's decision was final by the way, please try to convince property rights advocates that the city government should do anything to help Buena Vista residents. I've heard a lot of resistance to the idea, and not from supporters of the Maybell project.


Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 12, 2014 at 10:57 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Citizen

Far be it from me to stand in the way of a resolution to the Buena Vista displacement threat along the lines that you have mentioned. I'm skeptical of its chances, though, and do see advantages to development of the property with modern housing units that would remain "affordable" for over 50 years. Think of the number of families that would serve over time. I would consider city expenditures to be an investment in quality housing stock, available to people who aren't wealthy, not just an expense.

I don't see the same connection you do between the Maybell project and Buena Vista. You may have knowledge of a movement to put city funds into Buena Vista, politically significant enough to move policy, that was pushed aside in the rush to buy the Maybell/Clemo site, but I'm unaware of it.

<To the people out there who seem to regard the low-income like glorified human pets, there may not be a difference between subsidized housing and market-rate low-income housing, but to many people, there is.>

Since I don't know anyone who "regards the low-income like glorified human pets," I can't very well comment.

By the way, I have endorsed Tom Dubois for the city council. I think he will ably represent the residents who united to defeat the Maybell/Clemo project while working productively with the rest of the council to address the needs of the city going forward.





Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 13, 2014 at 10:53 am

Interesting strategy by the City of Palo Alto on the appeal process for Labadie's final decision about Buena Vista. The City's web page now includes an appeal form: Web Link

In addition to the form and a letter stating the reasons for the appeal, filing the appeal also requires payment of $406 ($136 appeal + $270 legal fees).

Up until now, I assumed that the public interest law firms representing the Buena Vista residents would file a single appeal. Given the phrasing of the City's appeal form, I wonder if that's possible.

It would an interesting trick if the City decided an aggregate appeal lacked legal standing, and thus didn't require any action by Council.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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