Editorial: Unworthy PC 'reforms' | News | Palo Alto Online |


Editorial: Unworthy PC 'reforms'

Proposed changes to special 'planned community' zoning should be firmly rejected

A year and a half after putting a temporary halt to any further negotiated development projects that exceed the existing zoning, proposed revisions to be considered Monday by the Palo Alto City Council do virtually nothing to prevent the abuses and controversies that led to the moratorium in the first place.

The proposed changes, developed by the city planning staff with input from the Planning & Transportation Commission, are so disconnected from the angst expressed by the community about the use of PC zones that it is hard to believe they were developed by people in touch with mainstream political thinking in Palo Alto.

It's as if the city staff figured the issue had faded enough to resurrect a deeply flawed system with only marginal improvements. Developers should be delighted by the proposal and by the prospect of being able to resume negotiations with city staff over new PC projects. We are not.

For years, citizens have complained about Palo Alto's practice of allowing developers to exceed zoning limits by offering "public benefits" that often don't live up to promises and about the lack of transparency and enforcement.

Last February, with a council election approaching and under intense political pressure, the City Council voted not to accept or approve any new planned-community proposals until it could figure out how to reform the system or dump it entirely.

This "time out" for any new PC projects was particularly well-timed for the re-election bid of Councilman Greg Scharff, who used the campaign to speak out for reforms and even suggested the elimination of PCs or a requirement that all proposed PCs to go to the voters for approval.

With an election that shifted the council majority toward more constrained growth, Monday's meeting should be the most significant test yet of where this new council stands on the development policies and practices that have most irked the community.

The staff's proposed changes to the PC process nibble at the problem by making changes to the process of how planned-community proposals are reviewed by the city, requiring more formal public benefit agreements, establishing monitoring and enforcement policies and requiring an independent economic analysis.

But the proposal does nothing to address the biggest problems with the PC process, including the private negotiations that take place between a developer and the city staff, leading to an agreement on the outlines of a plan for public benefits and zoning exceptions before either the public or the council is involved, and the lack of clear guidelines and limits on what constitutes a public benefit.

Nothing in the proposal fixes the underlying problem of every project being subject to individual negotiations -- and with every conceivable public benefit, including outright cash payments, being on the table for horse-trading.

The newly proposed requirement that an independent economic analysis be done was already implemented by City Manager Jim Keene and was a miserable failure in its first major use for the now-withdrawn Jay Paul Company project on Park Boulevard. It will take more than ordinance language to fix that.

The original concept behind the creation of the planned-community zone was to provide the opportunity for a developer to propose a project that was so beneficial to the community that it was deemed worthy of exceeding the zoning limits. By creating flexibility for these occasional special developments, we might enable some exceptional projects that would otherwise never happen.

While a few good examples of this exist, such as the Opportunity Center, the vast majority of PC projects have not provided the hoped-for benefits or the benefits weren't at all commensurate with what the developer received. It has been a failed program.

The staff proposal tilts toward fewer restrictions at every opportunity. It would allow monetary payments as public benefits. It would not restrict the public benefits to those intrinsic to the development itself. It sets no limits on how much additional development a PC project might get.

In short, adoption of this new PC ordinance would put us right back to where we were prior to the temporary halt early last year.

We hope the council rejects the "new" PC policy and directs the staff to take a fresh approach. We'd like to see, for example, consideration of a process that invites property owners interested in redeveloping property to approach the city without a plan and, through a public process, explore what development the community wants in exchange for granting exceptions to the zoning. But the days of developers guessing what "benefits" might get them extra square footage should be permanently put behind us.

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36 people like this
Posted by Jim
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 21, 2015 at 7:17 am

I looked at the online council packet about this item and was honestly surprised by how little meaningful and substantial reform was included by staff. It was as if developers had written it then got staff to submit it.

PC reform was and is a major issue for residents because we were usually on the extremely short end of any benefits promised by developers and the city. It was a big reason why change was demanded by voters in the last council election.

The Weekly is right - what is proposed is unworthy. Council must make right what is so wrong with PC zoning - we have not forgotten and we are watching you.

45 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 21, 2015 at 10:47 am

Thank you PA weekly! this editorial is spot on;couldn't agree more!

6 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 21, 2015 at 10:57 am

Who governs this town? City stuff?

31 people like this
Posted by Thanks Weekly!
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 21, 2015 at 11:17 am

Showing your perfect judgment again, you endorsed Greg Scharff. [Portion removed.] Scharff was to blame for pretty much every bad thing that happened in the last Council but you endorsed him, let Shephard take the fall, and now are bemoaning the results of your own poor political judgment.

16 people like this
Posted by another resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 21, 2015 at 11:21 am

The last election was a big clue that we don't want the developers in charge of planning.

Another clue:
The National Citizens Survey where only 43% said they approve of the city's
"Land use, planning and zoning" 43%
Web Link

Another clue: the Maybell project vote.

37 people like this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 21, 2015 at 11:25 am

Slow Down is a registered user.

@resident - To start, it would be helpful to get a new city manager, it is pretty clear James Keene is more aligned with developers and powerful downtown businesses like Palantir than the citizens of the city.

30 people like this
Posted by Allen Edwards
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 21, 2015 at 11:27 am

Public benefits:
1) Discount market where you can get your rotten produce
2) Plaza on California that looks a lot more like outdoor seating for the development. It looks like if I sat at my public plaza park without buying food, I would be asked to leave.
3) A closed market off Embarcadero near 101.
4) The unused park behind the old Miki's

I am sure there are more.

Seems to me zoning should set what is built and PC building should be restricted to use once per decade for some truly noteworthy projects. Something where there really is a public benefit.

39 people like this
Posted by Thrown Under the Bus AGAIN!
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 21, 2015 at 11:31 am

Thank you Palo Alto Weekly for staying on top of this issue and sharing how poorly the city staff and the city government serve its residences. We pay these people to ignore clear and explicit direction on PC approvals and come up with proposals to remove the few protections that exist??? Are the developers that much in control? This must stop! Is a voter initiative required to stop the greed and abuse?

31 people like this
Posted by Jeff Keller
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 21, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Jeff Keller is a registered user.

The cost to the developer shouldn't be the consideration, the costs and benefits to Palo Alto's residents and businesses AS A WHOLE, should be what a project is judged by.

None of this "it's such a pretty building they shouldn't have to provide parking". Both residents and nearby businesses suffer for the life of the building. The specific developer is the only one who gains.

22 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 21, 2015 at 2:13 pm

Re parking, don't forget that with our new garbage rules requiring that the cans be placed IN the street, all 3 cans need 2 feet between them and another 5 feet from the nearest parked cars.

Can't wait to see how well that works when the residential parking permits go into effect and/or some bicyclist gets sideswiped when they swerve into traffic trying to avoid the trash cans.

Who thinks up this nonsense?

First we cave to developers and now and now the trash removal company!

Like this comment
Posted by spike
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Aug 21, 2015 at 2:39 pm

What's a "PC?"

29 people like this
Posted by Who is being paid off?
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 21, 2015 at 5:00 pm

When is Planning Director Gittelman and City Manager Keene going to be fired? The city council has the ability to fire them.

14 people like this
Posted by lose lose
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2015 at 7:51 pm

The City first needs a complete overhaul of its zoning, the FAR's,setback requirements,etc.in commercial and residential areas.The City is being destroyed under the existing zoning code.So even banning PC's will not save the City, if the existing zoning is the fallback position. In fact what is happening is in comparison to an outrageous PC the existing zoning has been made to look acceptable. In the face of outrageous PC's residents
are clamoring for adherence to existing zoning. It's a win-win for
developers and a lose-lose for the residents and those who want to preserve
some of the qualities of Palo Alto.

24 people like this
Posted by Noise and disruption
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 21, 2015 at 8:46 pm

Palo Alto has been ruined and the residents know it. PA has become an office park with overpriced housing that is being purchased by foreign investors. This seems like a good time to sell and get out if town before outsiders realize PA is overrated and overpriced.

29 people like this
Posted by Sergi
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 21, 2015 at 9:22 pm

Any one surprised that city staff is once again bending over backwards to support developers at the expense, literally, or everyone else? The Planned Communities I'm aware of are over bloated shrines to developer greed, and absolute stupidity on the part of those in city Govt who approved them. The common theme with all is that the developer asks for extensive violations of existing code, offers the city; a bench, goofy door trim, 'public' space that's immediately taken over for exclusive use by a business on the premises, promises of retail that has no hope of success, a 'community' room that no one knows where it is, and the list goes on. In exchange, the developer pockets many hundreds of thousands, probably millions of dollars of profit they otherwise would not have made. WTF?! who exactly does Palo Alto city staff work for?

7 people like this
Posted by lose lose
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2015 at 7:10 am

The stock market crash may change the game. The money flow to start-ups
will be curtailed as VC's will be looking more to cash out where they can
instead of putting more in as the psychology changes. So the local developers with their new wave of oversized and underparked projects Downtown in our faces subsidized by the City and residents and rubber-stamped by the staff at everybody else's expense may not be the financial
bonanza they looked like just a few weeks ago. Maybe this is the way the
insanity in Palo Alto ends, not by a proactive informed government acting in the public interest but by the market itself.

4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 22, 2015 at 3:48 pm

"The Planned Communities I'm aware of are over bloated shrines to developer greed, and absolute stupidity on the part of those in city Govt who approved them."

Though this seem stupidity, yet there be method in it.

For city staff: Never attribute to stupidity what can be explained by laziness or malice.

For city councilmembers: Never attribute to stupidity what can be explained by campaign contributions.

19 people like this
Posted by Jim Colton
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 22, 2015 at 5:43 pm

PC zoning has clearly been abused in the past. Developers have paid for zoning exceptions, none of which I can think of are in the residents' interests. The benefits have also not generally provided real benefits to the residents. Why would we want to bring PC zoning back especially with the provision that the benefit not be geographically near the zoning exception. It could easily allow a zoning exception in the South with the benefit in the North. Let's close the books on PC for good.

Jim Colton

9 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 23, 2015 at 10:18 am

mauricio is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2015 at 11:38 am

[Post removed due to deletion of referenced comment.]

5 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 24, 2015 at 10:44 am

If Palo Alto is going to have any PC zoning, those projects with PC zoning should be required to pass a city wide referendum. Otherwise, just kill the PC zoning process altogether. It's fraught with abuse and corruption and no nibbling reforms will fit it.

8 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 24, 2015 at 4:24 pm

Planned Community building should be banned forever. It is basically an excuse to buy zoning. All of the past approved building are oversized and in most cases the "benefit" to the city is laughable. The city staff is completely out maneuvered when it comes to negotiating with developers and their lawyers. Further, the process is just unfair. We have zoning laws - follow them. No one should be allowed to buy bigger zoning laws.

Regarding city staff. Yes City Manager Jim Keene and Planning director Gittleman are very pro-development. It would be great to get rid of them, as well as dismantle the planning and transportation commission and the architectural review board but the reality is that there are still to many pro-growth city council members to get any substantial changes made towards curbing development in the city. The next election is key since the current pro resident council members are fighting to to keep things from getting worse and frequently are not able to hold staff and pro-growthers at bay.

13 people like this
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 24, 2015 at 6:15 pm

The City should immediately eliminate all possible PC zoning and exceptions to zoning and planning requirements.
The current situation is driving the best shops and restaurants out of the two downtown areas of Palo Alto out.
Stop all exemptions to zoning rules that allow larger or more dense developments.

7 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 24, 2015 at 11:43 pm

PC zoning to my understanding was never a quid pro quo to violate zoning wholesale in exchange for a payment to the City in any form. I thought it existed to allow for some flexibility in large developments where the literal application of the zoning code would have made the community plan impossible for nonsensical reasons. This is not the same as allowing more density in exchange for cash or perks, originally the PC zones mostly adhered to the spirit of the zoning. It was never intended as a back door out of legal zoning, as the previous City Council to this one treated it.

I am unhappy with this codifying of Zoning or Sale, and I don't just mean for cash, I think the Council should go back to the original purpose of PC zoning and clarify that purpose. End of story. Unless they do, they face the possibility of citizens simply doing away with PC zoning altogether, which has been seriously discussed.

7 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 25, 2015 at 6:06 am

mauricio is a registered user.

The change must start at the ballot. All pro development council members must lose their seats. Then, a new council can dismiss the overtly developer friendly city manager and his staff, clean up, or hopefully even eliminate, the planning&transportation commission and the architectural review board. This is the only hope I still hold for Palo Alto's future.

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