News

City may scrap downtown cap on commercial growth

Planning commission to review council's proposal to eliminate 350,000-square-foot limit on downtown non-residential growth

The simmering community debate over how much office space Palo Alto should accommodate is set to flare up again Wednesday night, when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission will consider abolishing a policy that limits new non-residential development in downtown.

The proposal to scrap the cap was prompted by the City Council's 5-4 vote in January 2017 to amend the city's policies for office growth as part of the city's Comprehensive Plan update, which was completed in November of that year. At the time, the five council members who are more amenable to growth -- Liz Kniss, Greg Scharff, Adrian Fine, Greg Tanaka and Cory Wolbach -- all voted to abolish the 350,000-square-foot limit on downtown non-residential development, arguing that the policy is no longer necessary given the other restrictions on commercial growth that are already in place.

Palo Alto already has a citywide limit of 1.7 million new square feet of office and research-and-development growth. A citizen initiative to reduce that limit to 850,000 square feet will be on the November ballot.

The council has also recently adopted the annual 50,000-square-foot cap on office development in downtown, around California Avenue and along El Camino Real, which intends to meter the pace of growth.

Even so, the proposal to remove the downtown cap proved deeply polarizing at the January 2017 meeting. Wolbach and Scharff led the charge on removing the policy, with each arguing that downtown's transit options make it more suitable for commercial growth than other parts of the city.

"If we're going have further office development or research-and-development in the future, downtown is probably still one of the smartest places to put it," Wolbach said at that meeting.

The four members who are more cautious about growth -- Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou -- all supported keeping the policy and argued that scrapping it would be irresponsible, given community concerns about parking, traffic and a growing sense that the city is going in the wrong direction.

"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 and more vibrant."

DuBois, who like Wolbach and Filseth is seeking a second council term in November, agreed and vehemently opposed the abolition of the cap.

"I think it's pretty radical to just blow away the cap and say we're not going to have any cap when we recognize all the issues we've been dealing with downtown," DuBois said.

With the majority prevailing by a single vote in 2017, the council scrapped the downtown cap from the updated Comprehensive Plan, a broad policy document that lays the foundation for the city's zoning laws and other policies.

The policy also required the city to study growth impacts when downtown hits about 235,000 square feet (Palo Alto reached that threshold in 2013).

Now, the city is moving ahead with actually implementing that policy change by removing the downtown cap from the zoning code.

Not everyone is happy about the shift. Members of the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, which favors slow-growth policies, issued an email blast Tuesday making the case for not repealing the policy, which the group argues is an "important protection for Downtown residents whose buildings might otherwise be converted to commercial space" (they give as an example the proposed conversion of President Hotel from an apartment building to a hotel).

Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning also argued that the main reasons for the downtown cap -- namely, traffic and parking impacts -- remain relevant today as they were in 1998, when the cap was included in the newly adopted Comprehensive Plan.

"Rush hour traffic is creating enormous problems for nearby neighborhoods," the group's email stated. "Parking has become a nightmare, thanks to numerous exemptions from parking laws granted to developers and to more workers being packed into existing buildings."

These problems, the group argued, are far worse than they were in 1986 (the baseline year that was used to establish the downtown cap). Furthermore, allowing more office space downtown will take away opportunity for housing, the email stated. Rather than eliminate the cap, the city should make it permanent, which would "benefit housing enormously by prioritizing residential development," the group stated.

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Comments

72 people like this
Posted by Becky Sanders
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 24, 2018 at 10:31 am

Becky Sanders is a registered user.

A Council majority spearheaded by Cory Wolbach may well have voted to scrap the cap from the Comp Plan, but it's still on the books. So that's what's giving commercial developers and their agents a migraine right now.

The Downtown Development Cap is part of the municipal code - it's a law that can't be wished away. Hastily adding the Downtown Development Cap to the PTC meeting agenda tomorrow night is a clear signal that the City knows that future downtown development is toast because for all intents and purposes the CAP has already been hit. (City's count appears to exclude parking and public spaces in commercial development square foot count.)

Particularly the President Hotel Apartments have no standing for conversion to commercial use under the CAP. Plus there are some other legal factors which were nicely outlined in a previous Weekly Article.

Web Link

This Cap gives us a chance to take stock and wait a year before continuing to "build baby build" downtown. It's not like we're saying forever.

I live in Ventura and we're experiencing traffic, congestion, cut through speeding traffic,pollution, public safety concerns related to relaxed standards rampant in new projects coming on line as well as a lack of code enforcement in some of our commercial spaces where too many employees are packed in to a workspace designed for older office models. With so many new projects in the pipeline all over the city. it can only get worse. I support downtown residents and neighbors in adjacent neighborhoods as neighborhood leaders advocate on their behalf to retain and enforce the CAP.


112 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 24, 2018 at 10:37 am

Hard to believe that the pro-growth elements on council and planning commission can propose further office growth with a straight face. Given the terrible traffic and parking situation caused by office development that has already taken place, and given that Palo Alto has one of the highest office to hosing ratios in the world, it is manifest that PALO ALTO DOES NOT NEED A SINGLE NEW OFFICE! The "cap" should be ZERO.


56 people like this
Posted by Jerome
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Jul 24, 2018 at 10:56 am

The pro- development Council group did a Trumpian move.

Be wary of endorsements by the local and regional Democratic parties. Why are they even involved in a “supposedly” non-partian body unless these is propaganda the party is pushing?


101 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 24, 2018 at 11:22 am

Annette is a registered user.

Scrapping the cap would be nuts. And, arguably, hostile to the community b/c we should not, at this point, be paving the way for even more of the type of development that exacerbates the jobs:housing imbalance and the myriad problems attendant to that.

Everyone who is concerned about the direction this City is going and the "leadership" we are seeing out of Staff and Council should make it a priority to attend tomorrow's Planning Commission meeting as well as the City Council meeting on the 30th. NO ONE is calling for zero development; this is not about anti-growth. This is about having a fighting chance at not making the housing problem worse by aggressively adding buildings that house jobs that increase the demand we so obviously cannot meet. We need to take the first steps towards improving the imbalance issue and curbing office growth, at least for a while. This is a necessary first step.

If it helps to personalize the problem, just think about the tenants of the President Hotel and imagine that YOU are losing YOUR housing.

And if that doesn't do it for you, think about the crazy traffic on every main artery and each of our highways. Things have gotten to the point that people strategize about when they try to drive anywhere. That's ridiculous NOW and it could get worse if we keep adding offices at an unsustainable rate. Imagine THAT.

Grab a cap and attend tomorrow's meeting. 6:00. Council Chambers.


59 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 24, 2018 at 11:25 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Whatever happened to the "live where you work" mantra? What will replace it with this new rush to turn downtown into an office park, thus hurting local businesses and pushing up housing prices?

And is this a cynical way to circumvent the grassroots ballot initiative to curb office growth before the November election? Perhaps the silly city-funded push polls distorting the ballot initiative showed voters overwhelmingly supported the move to curb office growth and this is their response.

All city council candidates should weigh in on this issue so we know exactly where they stand.


66 people like this
Posted by In sheep's clothing
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2018 at 1:31 pm

I hope the above is not be a preview of coming attractions for the Cory Wolbach campaign in his bid to be re-elected to City Council. The reporter lays it out that Wolbach walks (votes) very differently than how he talks. He insists in taking up large amounts of Council time to convince us that he is a champion of housing and renters, yet in fact he repeatedly champions development which undermines both - as we see in this well reported article. He is a trickle-down housing supply-sider, and just as we saw with trickle down supply-side economics of the 1980's, it is fantasy and disaster.

The point now is for the City to turn off the spigot of more office development downtown which results in increased demand for housing. Many of those new offices, if allowed to be built, will house tech workers, and as the BMR housing developer, Palo Alto Housing, points out, each tech worker brings with them 5 additional support jobs, further exacerbating the housing crunch. Yet Wolbach voted against the office cap and instead exacerbated the need for more housing because he loves office more than housing development.

I predict this - for the election, Wolbach will try to change his stripes and convince voters that he has been all about renters (ie, his recent concern with the Hotel President) and against renter displacement (though he voted against even discussing more renter protections in the council Policy and Services committee), and is really really really for the people who actually can't afford housing, and not just those who are privileged enough who already can afford it.

My message to Cory - Don't try to don sheep's clothing in your campaign - voters won't buy it because you have a record this time and we know what it is.



53 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 24, 2018 at 1:59 pm

margaret heath is a registered user.

This has the appearance of an almost under the radar, sneaky last minute move, at the behest of at least one developer. An opportunity to quickly get rid of the cap by those who do not represent the interests of residents who rent but represent the interests of commercial property owners at the expense of residents.

Watch carefully to see who votes to get rid of the downtown office cap. One single vote will determine not only the existence of a large number of downtown housing units at the Presidents Hotel. It will also set a precedence for the conversion to more profitable commercial uses of other downtown rental units, such as the Laning Chateau at 664 Gilman.

When it comes time to elect council members, a vote to remove the downtown cap will expose whether it is the interests of developers or residents who happen to be renters that is being represented.


5 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 24, 2018 at 3:37 pm

"Palo Alto already has a citywide limit of 1.7 million new square feet of office and research-and-development growth. A citizen initiative to reduce that limit to 850,000 square feet will be on the November ballot."

What's the difference between a limit and a cap?

Nothing. It's a distinction without a difference.

Language matters. Why one is not called a cap and another is not is purposefully tilting the conversation.


6 people like this
Posted by Homeowner
a resident of University South
on Jul 24, 2018 at 4:26 pm

The best place to put offices in Palo Alto is downtown, right across from the most frequently served Caltrain station outside of San Francisco, not in Stanford Research Park, which is mostly accessible by driving. The city study showed that only 35% of downtown tech workers drive, compared to something like 80% for Stanford Research Park.

So, given that there's a city-wide cap that no one is messing with, why keep the downtown cap that pushes more of that office growth into SRP? I don't get it. This just seems like good policy. There's some weird messaging about "developer interest" vs. "resident interests", but some developer is going to make a lot of money either way until the city-wide cap is reached.

Shouldn't we try to plan the office space to reduce the impact on residents by reducing traffic? That's what this does.


32 people like this
Posted by Another Giveaway
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2018 at 4:47 pm

In the last election real-estate developers made heavy contributions to the election campaigns of certain city council members. Those contributions need to be re-payed or the developers may be so generous in the next election.


42 people like this
Posted by Another Giveaway
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2018 at 4:49 pm

Grrr...

In the last election real-estate developers made heavy contributions to the election campaigns of certain city council members. Those contributions need to be re-payed or the developers may NOT be so generous in the next election.


18 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 24, 2018 at 5:18 pm

margaret heath is a registered user.

@ Homeowner, "right across from the most frequently served Caltrain station"

Assuming there will be more train capacity. But, with Stanford's new campus expansion plan they are claiming that so many of their new campus employees commute by train and not drive through Palo Alto the trains will be at capacity, and that's assuming more frequent and longer trains. Although not all the peninsula station platforms are long enough to accommodate longer trains.

Not forgetting that additional and longer trains every three or four minutes during the commute hours will produce gridlock at the grade level crossings, pushing more traffic onto Page Mill and Embarcadero. At least until such time as there is grade separation at those points.


13 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 24, 2018 at 6:14 pm

Their next move in the progression is to declare that further elections are no longer necessary.
Then they call themselves “The Progressives”.


10 people like this
Posted by ABC
a resident of Stanford
on Jul 24, 2018 at 8:32 pm

Palo Alto is not a Farm anymore.
Accept it. The World is changing (including PA)
Too many ppl from allover the world wannabe in PA


1 person likes this
Posted by Homeowner
a resident of University South
on Jul 24, 2018 at 10:01 pm

@margaret - yes, there are downsides to the expansion that Caltrain is doing in the next few years. It will have many more trains, and they will clog traffic. As a train commuter, I'm happy about this, but I can see why others are unhappy.

On the other hand, Caltrain is expanding train service whether Palo Alto puts its new offices near the train station or out on Page Mill Rd., so we're going to have to live with the consequences either way. We might as well plan our office growth to take advantage of the benefits of that service - lower carbon emissions and lower traffic.


25 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 25, 2018 at 12:40 am

margaret heath is a registered user.

There are only so many trains that can run per hour and the length of each train is limited to the length of the platforms. Stanford has already calculated their expanded workforce will fill the additional trains to capacity.


24 people like this
Posted by Good Government?
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 25, 2018 at 10:43 am

Why was this added to the agenda at the last minute? Who decided to do so? What is the purpose? Who benefits? Shouldn't staff disclose this so we can all judge whether or not our City government is being effectively managed? Shouldn't our City government be transparent?


6 people like this
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2018 at 11:34 am

First: We must convert all grade level crossings to separate, no excuses, get on with it. Yes, it will be expensive. Yes some who live near there will need to move. It must be done. One of the biggest benefits is that it would decrease the suicide-by-train problem. It would have been far more affordable if it had been done 30 years ago instead of talking about it forever. Just accept that it needs to be done.
Second: Are you trying to create a second NYC in downtown PA? It won't work. WE do not have the longstanding cultural infrastructure, starting with a decent local public transportation system that covers all areas of the city. The arts culture is not there. Nor is the restaurant culture. What we have are mostly noisy and over priced. We need good restaurants in ALL price ranges. WE also need locally run shops that sell useful merchandise within the shopping area. Instead we have driven out all the small places that sell items people need for day to day living.


14 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 25, 2018 at 11:44 am

Annette is a registered user.

There's a lot that's going on that isn't good. Many in this forum have been ringing alarm bells regarding housing, congestion, traffic, traffic calming "improvements" such as those on Ross Rd, etc. I don't know what psychologists call it, but there's no doubt a term for the phenomenon of learning lessons the hard way or too late.

There are lots of lessons to be learned from the President Hotel fiasco. The shame of it all is that dozens of Palo Altans stand to lose not just their current dwelling, but in all likelihood their hometown, too, because of our housing conundrum. As we heard last month at CC, the residents of the hotel are a unique group of people who contribute in various ways to this community. Each departure diminishes us. People come and go all the time, but rarely are so many displaced at once. This situation is unique - and uniquely bad.

I wonder how full our loss column has to get for our City Manager, Staff, Planning Commission, and Council Majority to regroup and reconsider the various policies and practices that have gotten us to this sorry place. And what it will take for the concerns and requirements of current residents to matter at least enough that we shift to a balanced, sustainable approach to growth.


19 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 25, 2018 at 12:20 pm

Pat Burt is a registered user.

The Downtown Cap was created over 30 years ago to put a long term limit of 350,000 additional office space in the University Ave area. The intention was that once the limit was hit the city would evaluate if a new should be set or whether the current cap should be all that could be built. A good summary can be read in the most recent edition of Palo Alto Matters,
Web Link.
During 2015 and 2016 the city council began to discuss how to address the Cap since office development was approaching the allowed limit. Last year, the new Council majority made the radical and abrupt decision to push through a complete elimination of the Cap on a 5-4 vote with little public input. This was a striking reversal of a 30 year old policy. In addition, the same majority criticized proposals by Tom DuBois and others to update the zoning of the Downtown area that would have clarified whether future large scale tech businesses would be allowed there rather than the Stanford Research Park. Instead of a thoughtful update to the Zoning Code, the Council majority eliminated any controls on the type and size of tech businesses in the Downtown. In recent years, a few big tech businesses have driven out our business support services and much of the start-up community from Downtown.
Housing development in the Downtown is also impacted by these actions. Office development gives higher investment returns than housing in Downtown. Consequently, eliminating the Cap largely prevents new housing in the Downtown, undermining the goals of the city's Housing Plan and the new Comp Plan which aim to have a major portion of our new housing occur in the University Ave and Cal Ave areas.
These changes are very important to the long term vitality and livability of our community. They should be considered thoughtfully and with full public input rather than pushed through the PTC by staff during the summer vacation and with little notice.


22 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 25, 2018 at 12:35 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

More offices hurt community-serving businesses as well as push up housing costs. It's gotten so bad that both Mountain View and San Francisco have banned big businesses like Facebook from having their own cafeterias and providing free food to employees since that's obviously hurting local restaurants as well as the stores that would have benefited from lunch-time shoppers.

For years Mountain View restaurants have been begging Google to let them serve food on campus. As per recent articles, Mountain View's had the no-free-food law on its books since 2014 but things have gotten so bad recently they've finally decided to impose it on the new Facebook campus on San Antonio.

Web Link

What are Palo Alto "leaders" doing to protect local community-serving businesses like restaurants, doctors, dentists, stores, etc.?


20 people like this
Posted by Tom DuBois
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 25, 2018 at 12:50 pm

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

I think it's very reasonable to ask what is the proper timing for reconsidering the downtown cap. A narrow council majority moved to remove the downtown cap which a large group of citizens that worked on the Comp Plan included in the new Comp Plan.

We don't implement everything in the Comprehensive Plan upfront at the beginning of the plan, and many policies make sense to do them in relation to other programs. I think the downtown cap is such an item.

The city wants to streamline the residential parking permit process, make improvements to how parking permits downtown are sold and enforced, and we have programs to improve finding empty parking spots downtown. We also have programs to encourage more residential development downtown as well as improve transportation demand management.

I would think it makes the most sense to start implementing those programs prior to removing the downtown cap, as it makes logical sense to ensure that staff is ready, enforcement is in place, and our zoning priorities are clear before we simply remove the cap.

I support delaying this discussion for 12 - 24 months until some of these other programs are underway.


14 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 25, 2018 at 12:52 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Thank you, Pat Burt, for what you wrote. Your last paragraph ("These changes are very important to the long term vitality and livability of our community. They should be considered thoughtfully and with full public input rather than pushed through the PTC by staff during the summer vacation and with little notice.") is of critical importance.

I've found that it is generally true that only people with an agenda choose to operate outside of long-established rules and procedures. It's been about 18 months since the Council Majority pushed through the elimination of the cap. Why the rush, all of a sudden, to get that implemented? Is it coincidence that CC is on recess? Or that the Hotel President debacle is unfolding? Or that many Palo Altans are on vacation? The word "sneaky" comes to mind. At the very least the timing is manipulative.

Why not do things the right way so that the outcome is not subject to suspicion? It's far easier to accept an unwelcome result when it is arrived at fairly than when it is not. The way CC business was conducted last year and the way it is being conducted this year do little to promote trust, let alone a sense of fair play.


22 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 25, 2018 at 1:39 pm

Council Majority (n) A polite PC term referring to the Gang of Five: Kniss, Wolbach, Fine, Tanaka, Scharff; who posed as residentialists to get elected but represent developers. AKA the Liz Kids.


12 people like this
Posted by Perfect Worl
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 25, 2018 at 1:58 pm

Make every candidate say if they propose slowing growth in PA. Then let us vote, and let the path to recall be clear if they should stray from their promises.


10 people like this
Posted by Boo hoo
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 25, 2018 at 2:02 pm

Curmudgeon-- cry complain and malign all you want. We had a pasz majority previously. The voters were unhappy and flipped the council. Suggesting that the voters did not know whom they were voting for is insulting. All we hear on this forum from a small minority is insults and complaints against certain council members. Those kind of postings seems to go unchallenged by the weekly staff.


14 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 25, 2018 at 4:27 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

All 5 pro development CC members have posed as pro residents when running for office. In Palo Alto, there is a time honored tradition of believing the candidates. Palo Palto residents are generally far too busy chasing money and success to spend what precious little time they have to actually investigate and research CC candidates, they also fall prey time and again to name recognition, hence several pro development, anti high quality of life candidates managed to get elected. Many Wolbach voters are still shocked when told that he actually supports commercial development every time it comes up. "But he said we should be civil, he never said he was for commercial development".


14 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 25, 2018 at 4:37 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@Boo Hoo, More than 3,000 people signed the petition for the ballot initiative to curb commercial growth. Very few of them had ever heard of PASZ.

I was an early Wolbach supporter because his "residentialist" pitch sounded good. I also thought his work with whoever the assemblyman or state rep -- someone remind me who that was -- would qualify him to help overturn ABAG's growth targets. I asked him about that; he hedged; I asked him again and when he refused to answer a direct question, I trashed his yard sign and voted for someone else. His incessant campaign voice mails still espoused "residentialist" positions.

Other voters weren't so persistent.


8 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 26, 2018 at 10:55 am

mauricio is a registered user.

When Wolbach was running for CC four years ago, a friend of mine went to a gathering in a private home in which he was trying to drum up support and get campaign contributions. My friend asked him directly if he envisioned Palo Alto remaining a suburban college town with very high quality of life and traffic that is at least marginally under control, or a dense urban midsize city, and his response was along the lines of 'If we are just civil to each other we can find solutions for everything'. Regardless of further probing, Wolbach wouldn't divulge his opinions about any important city issues beyond platitudes like "civil" and "cooperation".

There is a clear pattern here, shared by his colleagues in the CC majority, of hiding their views and running as pro residents when trying to get elected. Notice how even with this particular topic he actually won't divulge his real views, well, certainly not before the elections.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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