Indicating what could be a major shift to limit future development in Palo Alto, some City Council members indicated Monday night that they might support sweeping changes to city policy on commercial growth.
As part of the city's ongoing work to revise its Comprehensive Plan -- the foundational document that guides planning and growth -- the City Council on Monday night directed staff and the Citizens Advisory Committee to consider new definitions of uses within zoning areas and what types and scale of commercial operations would be suitable for the downtown and the California Avenue retail districts.
At issue was a policy in the Comprehensive Plan's Land Use and Community Design Element, Policy L-8, crafted in 1989 to limit nonresidential development in specific areas, mainly in the city's retail locations.
The policy established nine areas to be monitored for growth where a cap of a total 3.2 million square feet of new development would be enforced: University Avenue/Downtown/South of Forest Avenue, Stanford Shopping Center, Stanford Research Park, Town & Country Village, California Avenue/Cal-Ventura, the South El Camino Real corridor, San Antonio Road/Bayshore Corridor, East Bayshore and Midtown Shopping Center.
As of December 2014, some 1.5 million square feet had been built.
But some members, particularly Councilman Eric Filseth and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, advocated for reinterpreting Policy L-8 such that it would cover developments already built that slipped through the count because they were not covered under the definitions of Policy L-8. The City Council expressly exempted Stanford Medical Center's expansion from the total count in 2011, for example.
But if developments outside of the capped areas were counted, the total would exceed the remaining 1.7 million square feet; the city would have already reached its growth cap, essentially giving the council a clean slate with no carryover from the past when considering further growth caps in the Comp Plan.
Filseth and Schmid seemed the most piqued at what they viewed as a shell game that allowed large nonresidential development outside of the zones designated in Policy L-8, developments that have contributed to the city's burdensome traffic, parking and housing problems.
"We're becoming a commuter city. We're No. 4 in the country. Policy L-8 is our best chance to define our community over the next 15 years. We have added 1.5 million square feet; there's also one million square feet of nonmonitored (development) that's not mentioned anywhere in the Comp Plan. We have voted 1.3 million square feet at Stanford Research Park. Added together, we've got 3.8 million. Look around us. Do we have traffic issues? L-8 is the most effective way for the council to make a clear statement," Schmid said.
The distinction of "monitored" versus "nonmonitored" areas was developed 20 years ago and seemingly has little relevance considering the overall intention at that time -- and now -- to rein in growth, Filseth said.
"If you look at the intent of the people who did this, I think we're at that cap," he said, which puts the council "in uncharted territory."
Councilman Pat Burt, although supportive of finding a solution to the jobs/homes imbalance, did not support reinterpreting the existing policy to count square footage outside of the monitored areas toward the cap, which he thought an unfair change of the rules.
Councilman Greg Scharff supported keeping the L-8 policy and applying what's left of the cap to count over the whole city.
The council ultimately deferred directing the CAC to examine revisions to the L-8 policy for now, pending the outcome of a Draft Environmental Impact Report done in advance of the Comp Plan's completion that will come before the council in January.
But they directed the CAC to look at "pacing" or mitigation mechanisms for office, medical office and research-and-development construction and their impact on jobs/housing balance. That pacing could limit how many square feet of nonresidential development would be built in a year. The motion passed 6-2 with Councilman Tom Dubois and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid voting no and Councilwoman Liz Kniss absent.
Councilman Tom Dubois introduced a motion, seconded by Burt, that included directing staff and the CAC to evaluate how the city defines its commercial zoning districts. The definitions might need to reflect changes in the tech sector and social networking businesses, the types and scale of commercial operations and development, and occupant densities.
The changes could be necessary to keep Palo Alto's downtown from becoming a one-company town dominated by one or two very large businesses that might then pull out when they grow too large for the spaces, he said.
The council as a whole was deeply concerned about the city's failure to provide adequate housing for anyone but the wealthy, a sentiment repeated over and over by the more than two dozen residents who spoke before the council. Councilman Cory Wolbach noted that the council should shift to focusing on "slowing down office development while we get our housing up to speed."
Residents, ranging from the city's teachers and psychologists to seniors, parents of developmentally disabled adult children and a prominent attorney, implored the council to do something about the city's failure to create diversified and affordable housing, turning Palo Alto from "paradise" to "paradise lost," as some residents said.
The city has been an enabler of many jobs, but it has pushed affordable housing onto other communities for too long, resident Edie Keating said. "I want to live in an ethical and moral city. Please favor housing over offices," she added.
A number of Citizens Advisory Commission members who spoke outside of their advisory roles also urged the council to direct them to consider limiting office space.
"Land use is not just about housing," CAC Co-chair Arthur Keller said, urging the council to consider limiting office space and the population growth that is coming without consideration of other impacts.
"We can build two-story schools but not two-story playing fields," he said.
The council approved, for the Land Use and Community Design Element, to:
A. Direct staff to update the existing vision statement with minor staff-initiated revisions for city council review.
B. Use the existing goals and organization with minor updates to include incorporation of climate protection, climate adaptation and sea level rise, two Concept Area plans (California Avenue and East Meadow), the Palo Alto Municipal Airport, Baylands Master Plan, and mixed-use guidelines.
C. Evaluate modern use definitions for commercial zoning districts. Suggest approaches council can use to specify what types and scale commercial operations, development, manufacturing, etc., are suitable for downtown or California Avenue.
D. Direct staff and CAC to evaluate policies and programs that control the occupant density of existing commercial uses.
E. Request staff to provide the CAC comparative impacts of restaurants versus other retail on traffic and parking.
F. Direct the CAC to develop language providing for Coordinated Area Plans to become a more frequently used city planning tool.
G. Direct staff and the CAC to explore policies and programs to support more housing for seniors, particularly units in walkable communities that allow easy access to services.
H. Develop policies and programs that provide greater incentives for mixed-use retail and small residential units with particular emphasis on University and California avenues.
I. Direct staff and CAC to maintain and strengthen existing language supporting housing supplies for diverse populations and families.
The council approved the motion unanimously with Kniss absent.