After more than a year of hibernation, Palo Alto's most controversial zoning process is preparing to roar back to life.
The City Council will consider on Monday proposed reforms to the city's controversial "planned community" (PC) zoning process, which allows developers to barter with the city over zoning regulations. Specifically, the designation allows developers to propose projects that exceed local zoning rules in exchange for "public benefits" -- a vague catch-all term that has encompassed everything from sculptures and plazas to supermarkets and a new police headquarters.
In February 2014, the council voted to take a "time out" on planned community projects, with Marc Berman acknowledging that the process is "broken and needs to be fixed" and Greg Scharff citing the need to "rebuild faith in the community." Since then, planning staff and the planning commission have been pondering how to make the process more transparent and predictable.
So what's new in the proposal? For one thing, the process would now involve more steps, including a pre-screening hearing in front of the council before a formal application is submitted, followed by formal hearings on the application by the Planning and Transportation Commission and the council. Applications would have to include an "enforcement and monitoring plan," along with funding for enforcement; and an economic analysis that would weigh the value of both zoning exceptions and the offered benefits.
One thing that the proposal does not include is a menu of specific benefits that the city desires, an idea that was initially considered but then discarded by planning staff. This means developers will maintain their right to propose any type of benefit in exchange for zoning exemptions.
The ordinance would now include, for the first time, a definition -- albeit broad -- of public benefits: "Specific improvements or amenities for Palo Alto by the developer in exchange for uses, densities, and/or a development configuration specific to the PC district that would be unattainable in general zoning districts or combining districts."
The proposal that will go in front of the council incorporates some, but not all, of the suggestions from the planning commission. It supports one of the commission's most controversial recommendations: to continue the practice of allowing developers to include cash as a public benefit. At its March 11 meeting, Commissioner Michael Alcheck argued that developers should have the flexibility to offer anything they want, given that the city can always turn them down.
"We want to welcome an opportunity for people to think outside the box," Alcheck said. "We know what we want and we've zoned for it, but we're also smart enough to know that we don't know everything we want. There's a world out there of things we haven't yet realized we might want and we should let somebody make a case for it."
This should include, Alcheck argued, the opportunity to contribute money to the city for things like infrastructure improvement.
The majority of the commission agreed that planned-community projects shouldn't have to be inherently beneficial (by including community services like affordable housing or senior housing, for example), as long as they provide "extrinsic" benefits. Most members also agreed that these extrinsic benefits could include cash.
Commissioner Eric Rosenblum, the lone dissenter, said he was uncomfortable with the notion of cash constituting a public benefit, which he called "the definition of zoning for sale."
"This isn't out of the box," Rosenblum said. "This is a cash payment in exchange for zoning exception. It's an old practice and we know what this is."
Though the reforms are unlikely to appease the critics of the planned-community process, a new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment argues that the proposed changes, including the new pre-screening requirement, introduce "greater transparency and predictability to the review and decision making."
"Together, changes to these chapters are intended to ameliorate uncertainty in the community about the future use of the PC and pre-screening regulations," the report states.