As the Palo Alto City Council prepares to adopt the Comprehensive Plan, capping off one of the most long and complex planning processes in the city's history, one question remains unresolved: How will the city measure success?
The questions will be among those that the council will tackle Monday night, when it is scheduled to approve the new Comprehensive Plan, capping off a process that began more than a decade ago and that has gone through several resets and delays before regaining its momentum last year. Once adopted, the document will guide the city's land-use vision until 2035 and set the stage for new zoning rules and transportation policies.
Perhaps as importantly, the adoption will free up planning staff to work on zoning changes, coordinated area plans and other priorities that council members and residents have long been clamoring for.
For the council, the document and its accompanying environmental analysis tells a story of compromise. Its preferred planning scenario would create between 3,500 and 4,400 new housing units between now and 2035, somewhat higher than the status quo approach and yet far below the 10,000 that the city's housing advocates have been calling for.
It placates some critics of commercial growth by setting a citywide cap of 1.7 million square feet of new office development, not including the 1.3 million square feet that the city had already approved as part of the expansion of the Stanford University Medical Center. At the same time, it notably excludes an annual office cap -- a pacing mechanism that the council adopted two years ago to address anxieties about traffic and parking impacts caused by commercial development.
At the same time, the latest version of the Comprehensive Plan restores some of the policies that the council controversially stripped away in January in a series of 5-4 votes. The council walked back its earlier decision to remove all programs from the Comprehensive Plan -- a recommendation that drew fierce criticism from the Citizens Advisory Committee, a specially appointed group that had spent months developing the programs.
And on Oct. 30, in another sign of compromise, the council reconsidered its polarizing decision from January to strip from the plan a list of "community indicators": measures that track the city's progress in fighting traffic, creating housing and other goals.
The measures that the council plans to include in the new document include: vehicle miles traveled per capita; greenhouse gas emissions; the city's jobs-housing ratio; the number of below-market rate units constructed; and the city's progress toward meeting its regional obligations for all types of housing, as laid out in the Comprehensive Plan's Housing Element.
A new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment includes a menu of additional metrics that the council may choose to include in the document, including economic diversity, park acreage per capita and the rate of solo-occupant drivers.
During the council's Oct. 30 discussion, Mayor Greg Scharff alluded to the tortuous path that led the council to this point and cited numerous themes in the plan that won overriding consensus: protection for retail, restrictions on office growth and construction of affordable housing.
"Everyone on the council has been supportive of new housing," Scharff said. "I think there's some disagreements on how much -- some people have argued for 10,000 (units), some for less -- and I think we've come to a compromise on this council that we all feel good about."
The updated Land Use Element includes new policies that support the creation of affordable housing units for city and school district employees; preserve ground-floor retail; favor the creation of smaller housing units; prevent the conversion of residential uses to office or short-term rentals; and explore the creation of a "vibrant, innovation-oriented community" at Stanford Research Park, which would include residential uses, a commercial hotel, a conference center, retail, transit services and other amenities.
The new Transportation Element calls for an ordinance that would require new developments above a certain size threshold to prepare and implement transportation-demand management (TDM) plans, which would offer workers incentive to carpool or switch from cars to other modes of transportation. It also calls for "meaningful penalties" for developers whose plans don't meet traffic-reduction goals.
The TDM measures, according to the plan, should at a minimum achieve a 50 percent reduction in single-occupant vehicle trips during peak commute hours in the downtown area; a 35 percent reduction around California Avenue; a 30 percent reduction at Stanford Research Park and along El Camino Real; and a 20 percent reduction throughout the rest of the city.
Despite the recent convergence on the council, many residents aren't sold on the new document. Some have submitted emails calling for a complete moratorium on office development until the city solves its traffic problems. And at the council's Oct. 23 meeting, dozens of proponents of slow-growth policies wore "Save Palo Alto" buttons on their lapels to signify their displeasure with the plan's policies, particularly on commercial development.
Resident Jeff Levinsky argued that the document should have analyzed planning scenarios that would create fewer than the 1.7 million square feet of commercial growth. The Comprehensive Plan, he argued, "refuses to look honestly" at factors such as traffic, parking, school capacity, diversity and neighborhood protection.
"Instead, it shrugs its collective shoulders and suggests we keep doing what hasn't worked, such as rely on TDM," Levinsky said.
But Sandra Slater, a co-founder of the pro-housing group Palo Alto Forward, was more gung-ho about the new document. Though she said her group would have liked to have seen more housing units, she noted that the plan includes many ideas her organization supports, most notably a renewed commitment to below-market housing and to traffic-reduction efforts. It's time, she told the council on Oct. 30, to adopt the document.
"It's 10 years of thinking and meeting and discussing and compromising and massaging, and we now feel it's time to ratify it and to roll up our sleeves and get working on its implementation," Slater said.