Faced with growing concerns about too much traffic and not enough housing, Palo Alto officials agreed on Monday to retain their annual limit on office growth and to explore new sites for residential development -- including Stanford Research Park.
Yet in a radical departure from their prior discussions on the Comprehensive Plan, the City Council voted 5-4 to exclude from the land-use document every single program that has been proposed for achieving these goals.
The council's votes came during a long and wide-ranging discussion of the city's Comprehensive Plan, the city's land-use bible that is now undergoing a update and that will guide the city's growth policies until 2030. The update process began in 2008 and went through a series of fits and starts since then. The council hopes to adopt it later this year.
The Monday discussion both laid bare the deep political divisions and highlighted the areas of consensus on the council. It also underscored the impact of the November election, which saw three new members get elected, shifting the majority away from the slow-growth "residentialist" side.
On some issues, there was little disagreement. Council members generally supported retaining the city's office cap, which was adopted in 2015 on an interim basis, and its 50-foot height limit for new buildings. At the same time, council members disagreed on whether the height limit should be explicitly called out in the Comprehensive Plan or mandated through a zoning ordinance crafted outside the land-use document.
Ultimately, they chose the latter, as proposed by Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Cory Wolbach.
Though Kniss said she supports keeping the height restriction, she also argued that omitting it from the new Comprehensive Plan will give the council "more flexibility" to revisit the subject in the future. Wolbach also said that while he isn't looking to change the restriction, he doesn't want to "foreclose the conversation."
"What the community is telling us about this issue has changed, I think, very dramatically in the last few months," Wolbach said, alluding to the growing number of housing advocates calling for higher buildings in transit-rich areas. "I don't think now would be an appropriate time to say, 'No. We won't have that conversation.'"
While Kniss and Wolbach talked about their desire to keep the height limit, the motion they spearheaded ensured that it would not be mentioned in the Comprehensive Plan. Councilwoman Karen Holman vehemently disagreed and argued that the height limit, which was adopted in the 1970s, should be included in the document (the current Comprehensive Plan doesn't list the height limit as a specific policy, though it refers to it in the narrative portion).
"If our policy is to retain the 50-foot height limit, then it belongs in the Comprehensive Plan," Holman said.
Her proposal to mention the height limit ultimately fizzled, with fellow "residentialists" Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou joining her.
The council also split sharply over Wolbach's proposal to simply remove all the programs in the Land Use element, a change that he argued would create a "cleaner, simpler and more direct document."
Under the new format, the Comprehensive Plan would consist exclusively of high-level goals and policies for achieving these goals (today's includes goals, policies and programs). The change is a significant break from both the existing Comprehensive Plan, which was adopted in 1998, and from the council's prior direction on the updated version.
The proposal also brought about a sharp rebuke from Holman, who said she was "truly gobsmacked" by the abrupt change in direction so late in the game. She noted that city staff, citizen volunteers and consultants had spent many months crafting the dozens programs and said it's not prudent to simply omit them.
DuBois was more blunt, calling the decision to strip out the programs a "huge failure in oversight."
"It's truly a slap in the face to the Citizens Advisory Committee," DuBois said, referring to the citizens panel that has been working on the new document since 2015. "It's changing the rules two years into a process that all these people spent a lot of time and effort on."
Proponents of the change argued that the work is far from wasted and that the programs will be evaluated as part of an "implementation plan" that would be reviewed apart from the Comprehensive Plan. Wolbach said he would like to see the plan function more like the U.S. Constitution, with high-level policies laying out the city's land-use vision. He and others noted that the current plan has dozens of programs, many of which aren't being implemented.
Mayor Greg Scharff agreed and argued that the list of policies is "not being thrown away."
"It's not being deleted. It's being put aside and we're saying (that) as these implementations become feasible with staff time, we'll move forward on them, assuming the council wants to," Scharff said.
The controversial decision to strip away all the programs followed a similarly divisive debate about whether to include in the new plan a list of "development standards" that new projects would have to meet to win approval and a list of "community indicators" -- measurements that show the impacts of planning decision on community livability.
Both concepts have been discussed in-depth and partly embraced by the Citizen Advisory Committee. But the council voted 5-4 on Monday not to include them in the plan. Councilman Adrian Fine, a former planning commissioner who served on the advisory committee before getting elected to council last November, argued that the topic needs more discussion before the city adopts it.
"I don't think we're ready to bake them into the Comp Plan," Fine said.
The council didn't entirely abandon the idea of pursuing these standards and measurements. Holman recommended broadly mentioning them in the Comprehensive Plan, even if the details haven't yet been worked out. Again, her proposal fell by a 5-4 vote, with DuBois, Eric Filseth and Kou supporting her.
Not every proposal proved as divisive. The council largely approved of a new policy that would explore housing sites at Stanford Research Park. Members were encouraged by Stanford officials, who on Monday indicated that they would be willing to consider this notion. Tiffany Griego, managing director of asset management at Stanford Research Park, said Stanford has been hearing "the cry for housing from our own companies as well."
"They struggle to recruit and retain top talent largely because of lack of housing at entry-level price points in Palo Alto," Griego said. "We can envision a future in Stanford Research Park where we can weave in a vibrant work place as well as living place."
Yet in a nod to those worried about too much growth diminishing their quality of life, the City Council also abandoned the idea of exploring housing at Town and Country Village. In a rare shift in the council's political alliances, Scharff and Kniss joined Holman, Filseth and Kou in scrapping this idea. Scharff and Kniss both argued that the shopping center is hugely successful as is and that adding housing would further exacerbate its parking and traffic problems.
"I do feel that Town and Country is a special place," Scharff said. "It's one of the last places that has this 'History of Palo Alto' feel to it. It's been redeveloped in a really great way and I don't want to see housing there that would take character away from that."