Palo Alto's effort to triple its housing production got off to a promising start Monday night, when the City Council unanimously approved a work plan that includes more than a dozen policies aimed at spurring residential construction.
The Housing Work Plan, which the council adopted Monday after three public hearings, identifies a list of initiatives that city planners will be undertaking over the next two years to address one of the council's most urgent priorities. Its programs include changing the zoning code to provide more incentives for residential development; requiring housing projects to provide more below-market-rate units; and relaxing density requirements for housing projects in downtown, around California Avenue and along El Camino Real.
The goal of the plan is to produce about 300 units per year, thereby meeting the housing targets identified in the city's new Comprehensive Plan. The document, which the council finished updating last November, calls for between 3,545 and 4,420 units between 2015 and 2030.
But even as council members united in supporting the plan's broad goals, they squabbled over the details. Over the course of a wide-ranging and at times tense discussion, council members sparred over the best way to revise the city's "inclusionary zoning" laws; the merits of building housing on city-owned parking lots; and the need to find designated spaces for RVs to park in.
Council members made clear over the discussion that their support for new housing is by no means unconditional. One of the policies that the council removed upon urging from Vice Mayor Eric Filseth called for exploring opportunities for developing housing over parking on city-owned parking lots.
Filseth noted the breadth of the work plan, which he called "aspirational," and suggested that it take a more targeted approach toward housing, with a special focus on housing for low-income residents or those with special needs. Some policies, including the one targeting parking lots, go too far, he said.
"Once you build a building on top of it, it'll be there for the next 100 years," Filseth said.
Councilman Greg Scharff agreed and called public parking lots a valuable amenity that the city can ill afford to give up. He pointed to the city's decadeslong quest to find land for a new public-safety building -- a project that only became viable when the city agreed to use a public lot for the new facility.
"We can't buy land. We can't afford it," Scharff said.
Others vehemently disagreed. Councilman Cory Wolbach noted that the policy only calls for exploring new policies, not actually adopting them, and that housing will likely remain an important priority for decades to come.
"This is a multigenerational problem that we're trying to address and that we haven't addressed in several decades," Wolbach said.
Councilman Adrian Fine, who wrote the memo that spurred the creation of the Housing Work Plan, also argued in favor of keeping the policy. Leaving the parking lots as they are, Fine said, will both ensure that people continue to drive to the sites and preclude any opportunities to provide housing for needy populations.
"Do we want a great city to raise a car or a great city to raise a family?" Fine asked, moments before the council voted 6-3 to remove the policy (Wolbach and Mayor Liz Kniss joined him in dissent).
Another topic of contention was inclusionary zoning. The city currently requires market-rate developments to provide 15 percent of their units at below-market-rate levels. The work plan calls for increasing the percentage to 20 percent and to apply this rule to rental units (this is known as the "Palmer fix.")
Some council members said the city should consider an even higher percentage. Councilwomen Karen Holman and Lydia Kou both lobbied for 25 percent -- a proposal that ultimately passed by a 6-3 vote, with Fine, Filseth and Scharf dissenting. Those who opposed it argued that raising the requirement for subsidized housing may discourage development altogether.
Kou also argued that the Housing Work Plan should be complemented by a plan for measuring and enforcing "transportation-demand management" (TDM) plans that all major developments must now include. The plans typically include transit passes, bike service and other incentives for getting people out of cars.
She made a motion directing staff to identify clear guidelines and enforcement mechanisms for TDM plans. The motion passed by a 5-4 vote, with Kniss, Fine, Greg Tanaka and Wolbach dissenting.
Another narrow vote came over Councilman Tom DuBois' proposal to better define "affordable housing" and to set a quantifiable goal for below-market-rate units. That proposal fell by a 4-5 vote, with Filseth, Holman and Kou joining him.
The most contentious part of the discussion, however, involved a topic that wasn't in the work plan at all: recreational vehicles. Kou proposed exploring the use of a city-owned site for RV parking and recommended the Los Altos Treatment Plant site east of U.S. Highway 101 as a potential candidate. Wolbach blasted her proposal as an "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" approach.
"Instead of creating a ghetto for these people, we should provide additional services for them," Wolbach said, a characterization that DuBois said he found offensive.
Holman was ultimately the only council member who joined DuBois and Kou in proposing new policies for RV dwellers.
These disagreements notwithstanding, the council ultimately voted 9-0 to adopt the new plan, which also calls for the city to explore residential uses at Stanford Research Park, Stanford University Medical Center and Stanford Shopping Center; to eliminate limits on housing-dwelling densities; and to create a new "coordinated area plan" in the Ventura neighborhood.
Many of the zoning changes proposed in the plan will now be crafted by staff and vetted by the Planning and Transportation Commission before returning to the council for possible adoption later this year.
What's in the plan?
Palo Alto's new Housing Work Plan, which the City Council approved on Monday, has set a goal for the construction of about 300 residences per year. This goal was determined by the city's Comprehensive Plan, a vision document updated and approved last fall, which calls for between 3,545 and 4,420 housing units to be built between 2015 and 2030.
The Housing Work Plan includes programs such as:
• changing the city's zoning code to provide more incentives for residential development.
• requiring housing projects to provide more below-market-rate units.
• relaxing density requirements for housing projects in downtown, around California Avenue and along El Camino Real.
Members of the council on Monday disagreed about several strategies, including:
• the best way to revise the city's "inclusionary zoning" laws for producing affordable housing.
• the merits of building housing on city-owned parking lots.
Other ideas in the plan for stimulating housing development include:
• exploring allowing residences at Stanford Research Park, Stanford University Medical Center and Stanford Shopping Center.
• eliminating limits on housing densities.
• creating a new "coordinated area plan" in the Ventura neighborhood.
City staff will now work to flesh out the strategies and return to the council with action steps later this year.