The housing crunch may be an official Palo Alto priority, but City Hall wasn't cheering last week when Gov. Jerry Brown signed 15 bills that aim to encourage residential development.
State Senate Bill 35, which was sponsored by Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, is among the most significant components in a package of housing bills that the Legislature approved in late September and that Brown subsequently signed into law on Sept. 29. The bill creates a "streamlined" approval process for housing developers whose projects meet "objective" planning standards and include below-market-rate housing.
It is also the only housing bill that Palo Alto formally opposed.
The letter that the city submitted to Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon alleges that requiring cities to "streamline" housing approval by eliminating opportunities for public review is "contrary to the principles of local democracy and public engagement."
It also alleges that the streamlining would pre-empt local land-use authority, bypass the California Environmental Quality Act and public-hearing process and "impose upon our city burdensome and potentially unworkable parking restrictions."
"While frustrating for some (developers) to address neighborhood concerns about traffic, parking and other development impacts, those (people) directly affected by such projects have a right to be heard," the letter states. "Public engagement also often leads to better projects; reducing or eliminating the public voice increases public distrust in government."
At the City Council's Aug. 28 meeting, Mayor Greg Scharff framed the legislation as an attack on local control and argued that it could worsen the city's parking problems. (The Weiner bill prohibits cities from imposing parking standards for "streamlined" multi-family projects if these developments are near public transit, inside historic districts, have a nearby car-share service, or in districts requiring on-street parking permits that are not going to be offered to development tenants.)
Some of the new housing laws will undoubtedly be welcomed by city leaders. Assembly Bill 1505, for example, affirms a city's ability to require new housing developments to devote a portion of their rental units to affordable housing (an area in which the city had faced litigation in the past). Senate Bill 2, which imposes a fee on real-estate transactions to raise money for affordable housing, allocates half of the revenues to local governments -- money that Palo Alto will not be turning down.
But other bills pose a planning challenge. Senate Bill 166 and Assembly Bill 1397 both add some teeth to the state-mandated Housing Element, a document that every city has to adopt that includes plans to meet regional housing goals and an inventory of potential housing sites. The Senate bill bars a city from taking action that would keep the city from meeting its allocation for lower and moderate-income households. For example, if the city were to reduce the density allowed on a site on its housing inventory, it would have to find another site elsewhere to compensate.
Assembly Bill 1397, meanwhile, requires the cities' housing inventories to list sites that aren't just "suitable" but actually "available for residential development." Cities also are now required to consider each site's ability to accommodate the housing needs of different income groups.
These bills could affect Palo Alto's evolving plans for what's known as the "Fry's Electronics site" in the Ventura neighborhood. Palo Alto is preparing to start a coordinated-area plan to lay out a vision for the sprawling, underdeveloped land around 340 Portage Ave., and the city's Housing Element allocates 221 new housing units to the area. Senate Bill 166 effectively makes it harder for the city to plan for fewer than that.
Senate Bill 35, meanwhile, bars local governments from adopting new requirements, such as fees or additional inclusionary-housing requirements, that would create hurdles for projects that qualify for streamlining.
Palo Alto Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said staff is analyzing all of the newly passed housing bills and their applicability to the city. She plans to have a report out to council in a few weeks, with a possible study session or a briefing scheduled shortly thereafter.
When it comes to Senate Bill 35, she noted that developers have to meet a list of conditions to be eligible for the "streamlined" process, including paying prevailing wage for construction.
"It'll take some time to figure out where in the city the applicants will be able to meet these conditions and where we will likely to see proposals, given the economic realities," Gitelman told the Weekly. "We're going to have to think about all of our different zoning districts and where we can have projects that can meet all these standards."
Senate Bill 35 isn't the only piece of legislation that Palo Alto took a stance against. The city had also sent a letter opposing Senate Bill 649, which creates a streamlined approval process for wireless-telecommunication equipment that companies seek to install on city-owned utility poles. The bill has already cleared the Legislature but had not been signed by Brown as of Wednesday.
With wireless equipment emerging as a hot-button community topic, Palo Alto's elected leaders are hoping for a Brown veto. A letter from the city signed by Scharff argues that the bill is a "legislative overstep that will harm our city and set a precedent for catering to private industries at the expense of public interests."
The letter also claims that the bill allows "extremely large equipment to be installed when the technology is there for smaller and more discreet designs."