Palo Alto's polarizing debate over future growth will resurface Monday night, when the City Council is scheduled to select its preferred scenario for long-term development.
In what promises to be a long, spirited and divisive discussion, the council will consider six different planning scenarios, each with a different blend of housing production, office restrictions and transportation improvements. Four of these scenarios had been undergoing analysis for well over a year as part of the city's Environmental Impact Report for the Comprehensive Plan Update. The other two were added to the list last August by the council, which has since seen a change in three seats and which now has a considerably more pro-growth majority.
The exercise of picking scenarios reflects, perhaps more than any other, the council's ideological differences. Last year, with a growing coalition of residents calling for more housing, the council decided to add to the analysis an alternative known as "Scenario 6," which would include 6,000 housing units between now and 2035 – far more than in any other scenario.
This scenario would focus housing in downtown and in the area around Fry's Electronics, as well as on El Camino Real-fronting portions of Stanford Research Park and Stanford Shopping Center.
The council had also requested at that time that staff evaluate another alternative – known as "Scenario 5" – that would restrict job growth more severely than any other option, with the goal of lowering the city's jobs-housing imbalance.
Also on the menu are the four scenarios that staff had unveiled last year and that staff and consultants have been analyzing as part of a February 2016 Draft Environmental Impact Report. The first – often referred to as as "business as usual" -- would keep all existing growth-management policies in place. According to the city's projections, it would result in 2,720 new housing units and 15,480 new jobs between now and 2030. The second scenario (known as "slowing growth") would have just as many housing units but would include more stringent restrictions office development, resulting in 9,850 new jobs.
The third scenario (called "housing tested") would encourage more housing than the first two (3,545 new units), with a focus on downtown and California Avenue. It would also include grade separation along the Caltrain tracks, with local streets running above a trenched rail line. This scenario would result in 12,755 jobs.
Scenario 4, known as "sustainability tested," would feature more housing growth and would focus more heavily on sustainability measures. It would result in 4,420 new housing units and 15,480 new jobs, same as in the "business as usual" scenario. This scenario would allow more density but require new developments to have stringent standards for achieving sustainability goals (including a "no net new car trips" requirement for new office developments).
Now, faced with these six alternatives, the council is tasked with either picking among the six scenarios or mix-and-matching their way to a "hybrid" alternative. And if recent history is any guide, the debate should feature plenty of competing motions and differences of opinion.
On Jan. 30, the council's last discussion of the Comprehensive Plan, members clashed over both the format of the document and the policies it would contain. Its most controversial action at that time was an abrupt removal of all programs in the Comprehensive Plans's critical Land Use Element – an shift that was roundly criticized by the Citizens Advisory Committee, a group of stakeholders that has been helping the council craft the updated document. In other close votes, the council agreed to raise the allowed density for hotels, remove the existing 50,000-square-foot cap on non-residential development downtown and remove any reference to the city's 50-foot height limit from the Comprehensive Plan (while retaining the height limit in a zoning ordinance, which could be scrapped or amended more easily).
To date, those council members with more slow-growth tendencies have opposed removing the downtown office cap and have generally been more skeptical about basing development approvals on performance standards. During the Jan. 30 discussion, Councilwoman Karen Holman said she is concerned about the city relying too much on performance-based "mitigation" in nullifying the impacts of new developments on the community.
"If everything we look at requires mitigations, I think we're going down the wrong path," Holman said. "We may be looking at too much happening here in terms of change."
And while council members generally agree that new development should be focused in areas with the most transit options and shopping amenities, Councilman Eric Filseth was one of four members (along with Holman, Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou) who opposed removing the downtown cap. Filseth pointed to the recent National Citizens Survey that showed growing concern among local residents about traffic and parking issues, as well as a growing sentiment that the council isn't acting in their best interests. The public's disillusionment, he suggested, is "probably not because we let Facebook get away and we haven't densified fast enough."
"I think the downtown area is about as vibrant as it needs to be," Filseth said. "I think it's in a good space right now. I don't think it needs to be much denser or more vibrant."
Those favoring more growth urged having fewer restrictions and more flexibility in the Comprehensive Plan. Council members Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka both supported removing Stanford Research Park from the citywide cap on non-residential development (a proposal that did not win any additional support). Mayor Greg Scharff supported increasing density for downtown hotels and spoke in favor of removing the height limit from the Comprehensive Plan. The community, he said, is in the midst of an "interesting" conversation about the height limit and that encoding the 50-foot limit in the Comprehensive Plan would be premature.
"I do think that not putting it in the Comprehensive Plan and leaving it in the ordinance allows those conversations to take place over time and I think that's something that's really important for the community," Scharff said.
The council hopes to adopt the updated Comprehensive Plan by the end of the year.