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.