Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth this week chose to use his biggest bully pulpit opportunity — his "State of the City" address — to sound a loud public warning over pending state legislation that seeks to pre-empt local zoning laws and reshape current single-family neighborhoods by allowing the development of high-density housing.
He also proposed that local cities condition new commercial development on the building or funding of housing that, at a minimum, would offset the housing needs created by the new development.
Unlike most past mayors, who have steered clear of policy advocacy in favor of dispassionate reviews of accomplishments and outlines of broad goals, Filseth jumped into the middle of what is probably the most controversial and divisive political issue to face state and local lawmakers in decades.
Filseth's immediate target is Senate Bill 50, sponsored by San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener. In its current form, SB 50 would force cities to permit high density housing — up to five-story apartments complexes and townhouses — within a half-mile of major public-transit stops. In almost every Peninsula city, that radius would encompass large areas of single-family home neighborhoods.
In California and most states, zoning and land use is the prerogative of local government. With a few exceptions, such as along the coastline, cities and counties have had sole authority to create zoning that they determine is best for their communities. It's led to both good and bad outcomes depending on the quality of local officials and their visions for their communities. And often, zoning decisions have been made based on the revenue expected to be generated by the type development to be allowed.
The importance of this local control to residents and their elected city council members can't be overstated. But the current statewide housing crisis has led a powerful coalition of businesses, developers, unions and housing advocates to push for state pre-emption in order to smooth the way for the creation of what Gov. Gavin Newsom estimates to be 3.5 million needed new housing units.
With most state legislators having come from the ranks of city councils, SB 50 and similar legislative proposals will put them smack in the middle of conflicting constituencies and even their own political supporters.
SB 50 would dramatically change communities like Palo Alto that are located along the Caltrain or other major public-transit corridors. By establishing a radius around train stations where the state would usurp local zoning, current parcels with single-family homes would be allowed to be transformed into multi-story, high-density apartment buildings with no limits on the number of units or parking requirements. In Palo Alto, the affected areas within a half-mile radius include all of Evergreen Park, half of Southgate, most of Old Palo Alto and downtown Palo Alto east to Cowper Street, and most of Greenmeadow. Its potential effects here demonstrate why such sweeping state pre-emption is far too blunt an instrument for addressing the housing problem.
Filseth delivered a data-rich seminar on how these proposals threaten Palo Alto and thoughtfully laid out his alternative vision. He challenged Sacramento legislators to focus instead on how to get cities, growing companies and commercial office developers to recognize that we lose ground with every new office development approved without corresponding housing. Companies like Google and Facebook have been allowed to expand with insufficient housing mitigation or parallel housing development, and state and local government need to focus on curtailing this unsustainable approach. These companies should not be allowed to expand without fully addressing and paying for the housing and transportation impacts of their growth.
Filseth's challenge as mayor is to build enough public awareness and support to win over one or two of his colleagues so that a clear majority is focused on reversing the strong economic incentives that currently favor commercial development over residential development in Palo Alto. And, as he pointed out, to build the affordable and subsidized housing that is our highest priority the city will need to find sources of funding, including much higher housing-mitigation fees for new commercial development, in order to acquire land for housing. New market-rate housing affordable only for high-earning working couples will not produce what our community needs to sustain those who work in lower-paying service jobs. And neither will poorly thought out zoning requirements imposed from Sacramento.