City Council set to pick preferred growth vision | News | Palo Alto Online |


City Council set to pick preferred growth vision

Members to choose between six scenarios for city's development

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.


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78 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 17, 2017 at 7:00 pm

Here is the fundamental fact: Palo Alto does not need a single new office. Not one. The current office-to-housing ratio is one of the highest anywhere in the world. Sure, there may be parcels where owners have current rights to put in office space, and if they have that right, I'm not saying we should go against that. But there should be no exceptions made, such as for parking requirements or maximum building height, to make it easier to put in a new office development. There should be no tolerance for converting retail or other zoned uses to office use when that right is not clearly already existing for that parcel. There should be no "Planned Community" or "mixed use developments" that build more office space. If there is an office development proposal that comes before council, and there is any aspect of it that needs to obtain some exception to the zoning rules, whether under an objective criterion or a subjective design guideline, the default should be to say "No."

59 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 17, 2017 at 7:19 pm

We certainly don't need more offices. We have a commuter population that more than triples our current population and creates parking problems and transportation problems, stressing our resources.

And then we get ridiculous proposals to spend $1,000,000 to buy these commuters $3,142 bikes and a myriad of expensive programs demanding we cut traffic while we continue to run a deficit.

Enough already.

At the very least, we shouldn't have City Council members alleged to be in the pockets of the developers making these decisions until the investigations are over.
They should recuse themselves and/or this discussion should be tabled until the allegations of campaign finance irregularities are resolved.

And isn't Fry's one of our biggest retailers? Why the rush to get rid of it and its sales tax revenues when we're running a deficit?

6 people like this
Posted by PAF pushing hard for #6
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 18, 2017 at 5:51 pm

I just got the following email from PAF, which is advocating for building 6000 new homes in Palo Alto. If a bunch of PAF members simply click as directed, Fine/Tanaka/Kniss can claim that many Palo Alto residents want the highest density growth option:
"This Monday, March 20th the city council is holding a public hearing on the various Comp Plan scenarios.

Take 2 mins now to tell council to go big on housing and support Scenario 6 which calls for 6,000 new housing units over a 15 year planning period. Moreover, it calls for using a performance-based approach to address the impacts of growth.

Click here to send the below letter to council or you can write an email to

Make your voice heard, Palo Alto!

Go Big on Housing: Support 6000 New Homes in Comp Plan Scenario 6"

25 people like this
Posted by AB
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 18, 2017 at 6:29 pm

@PAF pushing hard for #6 - I did not get that email. Might be because I had sent the city council an email earlier expressing disapproval for ADU proposal. Who exactly are they sending this to? Maybe selectively to those that have not expressed disapproval for Pro-growth policies? If so, that is deceptive.

Why not send ballots to all PA residents, like with the storm water proposal? Let's have a fair vote, and not game it. And don't send out just to apartment dwellers in PA, send to homeowners too.

29 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 18, 2017 at 6:46 pm

I just wrote to the City Council opposing more office buildings and demanding that the council members suspected of campaign abuses recuse themselves on all future votes concerning development until the investigations are done.

You, too, should make yourselves heard.

Alleged conflict of interest forced Tom Dubois to recuse himself from a vote simply because his wife work(ed) at Stanford.

These current allegations are much more serious so the Fine, Tanaka and Kniss should certainly recuse themselves.

28 people like this
Posted by densely
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 19, 2017 at 10:42 am

Adding more jobs to parts of the city that already have shortages of parking space for workers should be a non-starter. The city needs to go back to making developers and business owners responsible for making sure that there's parking to support their uses.

The city also needs to plan parking and transit options for the ways people actually use them, not for the ways planners wish they would use them. It's great to add high-density housing near transit centers, but it's unrealistic to expect that all residents of this housing will always be able to commute by public transit.

32 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 19, 2017 at 3:41 pm

Why the rush to engrave in concrete a growth plan that triples our growth for the next 12 years -- until 2030 -- when no one has had time to understand the impact of the various scenarios on traffic, water, the environment, schools, parking, the related impact of Stanford's propose growth etc etc?

All the work on the Comp Plan was unceremoniously thrown out. 2 possible 3 City Council members are under investigation and should probably recuse themselves from discussions of development.

What's the rush to push this through without understanding the impact?

28 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 19, 2017 at 5:05 pm

Kniss, Tanaka and Fine will never recuse themselves from voting on development/growth projects, because they are on a council to enable and serve the interest of the buiding industry. The same applies of course to Wolbach and Scharff. A couple of years ago, Scharff wouldn't recuse himself from a vote on a development that would have impacted a downtown building he is part of owner of. The conflict of interests, along with the lack of ethics by the developer lobby on the council is mind boggling. [Portion removed.]

38 people like this
Posted by Concerned homewoner
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 20, 2017 at 8:52 am

It is important for homeowners to show up in numbers at the City Council meeting today. I know it is inconvenient with our busy jobs, but we have to make the effort to show up and prevent the developer interests from destroying Palo Alto quality of life. Also please using the city council email in the earlier post and express your voice.

12 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 20, 2017 at 9:03 am

I wonder if all these people who decry development ever stop themselves from going to or frequenting the developments they are so opposed to. For example, all people who decried Miki's should now be banned from utilizing Grocery Outlet, etc.

Anyways, one thing occurred to me while driving along Alma over the weekend. If ever there was a place to put housing, it's along Alma between Embarcadero and East Meadow. What an eye sore and waste of space those buildings are (for the most part).

I for one do not buy the hype of a housing crunch in the Bay Area. I can't help but wonder what happens exactly at the moment the tech industry takes a dive. Palo Altans who love driving without traffic will be delighted to their hearts content, and all these new apartment buildings will become vacant. Something doesn't seem to add up to me about this hyped housing shortage. Maybe what they are really trying to say is that there's an affordability shortage.

35 people like this
Posted by Charade
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 20, 2017 at 11:29 am

Charade is a registered user.

6000 units?! That means at least 18,000 more population (63,820 right now), and 12,000 more cars in the city of Palo Alto, and crowded classroom in the schools of Palo Alto ...

34 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 20, 2017 at 11:50 am

So the various scenarios call for between 2,720 and 6,000 housing units and between 12,755 and 15,480 new JOBS.

Hello! That's still between 2 or 3 times more JOBS/commuters than housing units.

How will this help fix the housing shortage and reduce demand/prices when you're proposing twice or triple as many JOBS (NEW workers/commuters) as new housing units?

Don't the advocates of increased density keep claiming that increased density will bring DOWN housing prices and rents? Don't they keep blaming "residentialists" for wanting to restrict supply to keep prices high?

30 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 20, 2017 at 12:07 pm

It seems to me that for various reasons ( ie branding and proximity to Stanford included ) that the business world has decided to sacrifice Palo Alto as a town for the people and to make it a business park where people are barely tolerated and the quality of life is not a priority, nor is what the people want a priority either.

These outside interests seem to want to push Palo Alto past the point of no return in various ways so at some point the people will just give up or make the whole effort seem hopeless to all but those who can afford to move here from afar.

I think Norman Beamer has some good points from earlier:
- no exceptions made
- no exceptions for parking requirements
- no exceptions for maximum building height
- do not make it easier to put in a new office development.
- zero tolerance for converting retail or other zoned uses to office use
- no "Planned Community" or "mixed use developments" that build more office space.
- the default position to exceptions for office space should be no.

Additionally, there should be some thought given to who the city wants to work with. As in Sand Hill Development has messed this city around multiple times, and has a reputation for "customer (city) dissatisfaction" around the area. Why do they keep getting contracts, business and exceptions, and why does the city keep reinforcing this relationship without stronger restrictions? I am serious ... I would like a real answer to that? Does Sand Hill have incriminating pictures of the City Council in Russian Hotels ... kidding. Palo Alto seems to be in an abusive relationship that it cannot end with Sand Hill?

21 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 20, 2017 at 12:58 pm

Annette is a registered user.

I am not aligned with PASZ or PAF. I favor reality based planning. What concerns me is the post above that PAF has rigged a system that logs clicks that Kniss, Tanaka, and Fine can reference as proof of support for high density planning.

Never mind that Kniss and Tanaka are under investigation, now the Council on which they sit is poised to possibly adopt the highest density goal based on presumed support based on what - clicks?

When does reason enter into consideration? When does our CC face the fact that it is absurd to engage in planning for the future until we fix the problems of the present? Or at least start.

14 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 20, 2017 at 1:27 pm

I will be watching tonight until I fall asleep. I side for no more job growth and office space growth until current housing needs catch up, if they ever can, and scenario #6 is the worst of options. Insanity! Definitely not a proposal to support quality of life or improving it in 'my town'. Just spending so much time at council meetings, debating the scenarios, is a waste of time. They are all in the unknown 'twilight' zone arena. My bet is, that, whichever one they choose won't work out the way they expected it to. And 'no' the current majority of CC members feel empowered by the last election and feel their constituents, and the electorate at large, are in favor of their pro growth ideas. They might want to rethink that assessment before the next election cycle.

27 people like this
Posted by Midtowners
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 20, 2017 at 1:29 pm

Several on the thread have asked "what's the rush?"

Simple, it's money.

Developers are sitting on property, waiting to develop 20 story office buildings and high-end condos. That costs money, and now that they have their election they want immediate results.

So hurry up City Council and jam through a plan that exacerbates our already overwhelming jobs/residents imbalance. And without taking time to understand how that will affect our schools, traffic, parking and general quality of life.

Because that's what your "constituents" want.

16 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 20, 2017 at 2:04 pm


Well said. All these hair brained ideas floating about, for more housing, more office space, more employees, more retail...are incompatible, and never address the infrastructure, traffic, parking, school impact issues. Very shallow one sided thinking on a very important issue. I don't think our CC majority members fully grasp that. And we elected them, who we thought were very intelligent people, to council. We thought they would serve the interests of the community at large, improve the quality of lie, not take it away. Sounds like special interest groups and their prime campaign supporters have taken that away and get most of their attention. That's normal in the political arenas at the state and national levels, but it's not right for my town.

I'm happy to watch and wait. If I don't like what I see now I'll vote a lot differently in the next cycle.

23 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 20, 2017 at 2:27 pm

We do not have a housing crisis but we do have an affordability crisis. Should we be subsidizing housing for well paid Facebook, Google & Palantir employees and give zoning exemptions and expansions so they can get a better deal on a desirable apartment. No. Should we be providing subsidized housing for local workers who contribute to our community in order to help keep it socio economically diverse. Yes. The challenge is the pro-growth council majority is focused on maximizing large property holders returns to help pay them back for their recent campaign contributions and ensure they can raise money next time they run for elected office. Money wins and socio economically disadvantaged lose, even in "progressive" Palo Alto.

Posted by Facts wanted
a resident of Downtown North

on Mar 20, 2017 at 2:46 pm

Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.

20 people like this
Posted by Let CC know where you stand
a resident of Mayfield
on Mar 20, 2017 at 2:55 pm

Those in favor of more reasonable growth options need to let the CC where they stand to counter the organized email and Facebook campaign of PAF. Please email asap:

31 people like this
Posted by Midtowners
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 20, 2017 at 3:02 pm


I don't think your patient watchfulness is justified. Between all the investigations of campaign finance fraud and the disemboweling of the Comp Plan, it seems pretty clear CC is doing whatever they personally want to do, not what the electorate wants.

I'm concerned that by the time I get to vote again I won't be able to see the sun over the canyons of buildings this group has waved through.

And then the toothpaste is out of the tube, because no future CC is going to be able to go back and remove all/any of the mistakes. Lot of damage can be done in just a few short months.

2 people like this
Posted by HMMM
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 20, 2017 at 4:18 pm

Looks like one City Council Member has already made up his mind (and so has his fiancé).

Check Adrian Fine's twitter feed: Web Link

23 people like this
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 20, 2017 at 5:23 pm

Before making rash decisions about adding 2-6,000 housing spaces shouldn't we require an evaluation of all city services such as schools, traffic, water, sewers, density and its' affect on quality of life and house value. This push for so much more housing seems like a freight train destine for terrible things in our future. Already the discussion about increasing granny houses has overlooked the important home value and privacy of neighbors. We are having to make cuts in school budgets, yet how many more kids would be added to the community with such a quick and vast increase in housing. We could use smart ways of slowly increasing housing on Alma, and near transportation hubs, but this push to vastly increase density in our community is a heartbreak.

Please consider the impact of these decisions!!!!!

12 people like this
Posted by Wow
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 20, 2017 at 6:57 pm


@HMMM posted above:

Looks like one City Council Member has already made up his mind (and so has his fiancé).

Check Adrian Fine's twitter feed: Web Link

Clicking on the link takes you to Adrian Fine’s public twitter account where he retweeted his fiancée’s post:

“Please tell @cityofpaloalto City Council to
support 6000 new homes in CompPlan Scenario 6 tonight! Email”

And then Adrian answered his fiancée’s tweet with:

"If pillow talk doesn't influence #housing policy, what will?"

Councilmember Fine has now notified all of the councilmembers of his intention to vote for scenario 6. Doesn’t this public posting constitute a serial meeting that is prohibited by the Brown Act? If so, is the remedy for Fine to recuse himself from this vote?

12 people like this
Posted by Samuel L.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 20, 2017 at 10:08 pm

Samuel L. is a registered user.

Would be interesting to hear Max McGee's plan on where these new residents might attend school given that he doesn't plan on opening a new school any time soon...

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