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Palo Alto considers luring new development, state funding to downtown

City looks to prioritize areas around University Avenue for growth

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Update: By a 4-3 vote, the Palo Alto City Council on Jan. 13 approved designating downtown as a "preferred development area." Read the full story here.

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In a bid to boost development around the city's main transit hub through state funding, the Palo Alto City Council will consider on Monday designating the downtown area as its preferred location for growth.

By designating the area around University Avenue as a "priority development area," the city will become eligible for grants under the One Bay Area Grant program, which is administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The program was established to comport with Senate Bill 375, a 2008 law that requires cities and regional organizations to work together on growth plans that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Palo Alto, where new housing is both a rare commodity and a high priority, currently has one priority development area around California Avenue. The designation has helped the city obtain funding for the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan, an ongoing effort to craft a new vision for a roughly 60-acre neighborhood just south of California Avenue.

The proposed University Avenue/Downtown "priority development area" would be about 206 acres, all within half a mile of the downtown Palo Alto Caltrain station. According to city planners, the designation would be consistent with the city's growth vision, the Comprehensive Plan, and with its Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out the city's plans for increasing housing. A report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment notes that the designation would also align with council policies that focus on "growth in the downtown and improving non-SOV (single-occupant vehicle) connectivity to and through the downtown area.

"Designating this area as a PDA would create opportunities for the City to qualify for potential grant funding to prepare or advance a downtown coordinated area plan, multi-modal transportation planning and investment, or other infrastructure improvements," the report states.

Not everyone agrees with the staff proposal. During a Nov. 13 meeting of the Planning and Transportation Commission, members argued that the city should go further and also designated sections of El Camino Real near the downtown area as part of the "planned development area."

Given that the designation doesn't require the city to actually implement zoning changes, commissioners agreed that there is little downside to making the move. The only dissent came from now-former Commissioner Asher Waldfogel, who said he was concerned that the designation will create new obligations for the city to promote developments in the future.

"I'm a little concerned that if we designate PDAs, they (the state) will come back five years in the future and possibly penalize us in some fashion for not accomplishing something in a PDA," Waldfogel said.

Waldfogel argued that the city doesn't have enough information about the state's future plans to determine whether the designation would be a good idea or not. But because these districts intend to concentrate jobs and housing growth, one impact that the city can expect is an increase in its housing requirement, as determined through the Regional Housing Needs Assessment.

The staff report notes that even without the designation of the downtown as a priority development area, the state Housing and Community Development Department has "already signaled that significant increases are expected for the upcoming housing element cycle as it factors in additional criteria to assess regional housing needs."

Other commissioners noted at the November meeting that the downtown designation, if anything, wouldn't do enough to encourage development. The city has consistently fallen behind its goals for housing productions and few expect the designation to have a significant effect, at least in the near term. It could, however, help the city get funding for a downtown area plan, a document that would consider zoning and transportation improvements in the downtown area, including a reconfiguration of the Palo Alto Avenue grade crossing.

Michael Alcheck, vice chairman of the planning commission, said he is optimistic that the designation of downtown as a "priority development area" can create fruitful outcomes if paired with other initiatives that address some of the biggest hurdles to housing development — including the city's 50-foot height limit.

"I think one of the biggest constraints that I really feel the broader public doesn't appreciate is that the parcel sizes in this zone in downtown — where we're so enthusiastically attempting to encourage development of housing — is literally too small to create that housing under our existing height constraints," Alcheck said. "Every time we do something in this community and nothing happens, it makes the case that the hurdles we keep on ignoring are actually the hurdles we need to address."

Planning staff is also proposing designating a 2,629-acre portion of the Baylands and a 5,260-acre swath of the Foothills as "priority conservation areas," which would make them eligible for conservation funding. According to staff, such funding can be used "to study and address the impacts of sea level rise and the preservation of open space." The planning commission had enthusiastically endorsed this designation, with no dissent.

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Comments

12 people like this
Posted by Evan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 10, 2020 at 5:00 pm

BUILD. MORE. HOUSING. NEAR. TRANSIT.


69 people like this
Posted by Stop Developer Giveaways
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 10, 2020 at 5:03 pm

This is beyond idiotic. Downtown is beset with traffic and parking nightmares so why waste time crafting ways to make it worse? Do local developers need to get even richer?

The only grant we need is one to hire mental health professionals who can wean our pro-developer City Council members off their addiction to growth.



56 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2020 at 5:13 pm

Sounds like another pro-office-space trick. Make downtown a priority, but, " the broader public doesn't appreciate is that the parcel sizes in this zone in downtown -- where we're so enthusiastically attempting to encourage development of housing -- is literally too small to create that housing under our existing height constraints ".

IOW, the only way to make housing "pencil out" is by adding more office space than housing, digging ourselves deeper into housing debt. Just say no to more office space.


40 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 10, 2020 at 5:32 pm

Anyone checked out the prices for downtown condos and apartments lately? I keep seeing $2M+ with quite a few starting at $3.500,000. That'll sure help all the people priced out of the market.

Almoat as affordable as the penthouses renting for $40,000 and $35,000 A MONTH.

How great we're helping out lower-wage workers and the homeless.


30 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 11, 2020 at 3:17 pm

FYI, my comments to Council on this:

The Staff Report states that "most growth is projected to occur in these areas [PDAs]." If so, downtown is a poor choice for a new PDA for a number of reasons.

Downtown does not have, and for economic reasons likely never will have, the largest concentration of jobs in the City. Greater reductions in VMT and GHG emissions could be achieved by focusing housing and transportation development closer to the areas with a greater number of jobs (for example, SRP). PTC's suggestions are relevant here.

Land cost, construction costs, and parcel configuration downtown cause projects built there to be significantly more expensive than equivalent projects elsewhere in the City. Downtown housing would be too expensive to improve average affordability within the City.

We already have a deficit of open space for the current population. Building "tall" makes this deficit worse by increasing the ratio of population to open space (even given the debatable classification of rooftops as "open space"). Combining new dense housing with open space on the same or nearby parcels is economically infeasible downtown, but would be possible elsewhere.

Increasing density near "transit" is a mistake if the capacity of the transit systems is insufficient to handle the new population. Given the anticipated increases in demand for Caltrain, the rather modest increases in service to Palo Alto envisioned by the current Caltrain business plan, and the limited arterial access to downtown for other transit modes, this is a significant risk. Development closer to El Camino, 101, or 280 would allow existing rights-of-way to be leveraged for transition periods and for eventual replacement by new systems. Again, PTC's suggestions are likely relevant h
ere.


27 people like this
Posted by mjh
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 11, 2020 at 5:11 pm

Let's be clear who on the council is pushing increasing the downtown density, and for whose benefit.


29 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2020 at 6:11 pm

If this is going to happen, I will tell you what I see happening and that's that apart from anyone who lives in downtown, the rest of Palo Alto residents will find somewhere else to go to shop and to eat.

It is already difficult to park, traffic is horrendous, and there is very little reason to go there when there are other alternatives which are easier to get to and easier to park. We already prefer Castro Street area to eat for those very reasons.


16 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 12, 2020 at 7:50 am

This comes across as government-speak to me. Is there a Part 2 that addresses the actual building part of housing? I'm curious as to where increased development might happen downtown. Are we somehow, magically, adding stories to existing buildings? And if designation is the first step to allow further development, where's the EIR on that? Or is the just pesky detail?

I hope CC and Staff heed Waldfogel's concern. I also hope they read the post by Allen Akin. In theory it make sense to build near transit, but the fundamental prerequisite to that is having adequate transit. PA doesn't. And I recall reading somewhere that Stanford alone will absorb most if not all of any increased CalTrain capacity.

It's concerning that some of the same CC members who were rabid in their support of housing-unmitigated commercial development that caused PA's housing shortage mess are still on the dais, still able to impact the built environment. How much bigger a mess of things can they make?


1 person likes this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 12, 2020 at 7:53 am

Typo correction. Make that: Or is that just a pesky detail?


37 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 12, 2020 at 3:54 pm

Why is it a priority to add yet more jobs, offices and commuters? Didn't thousands of residents call for limiting office growth?

Isn't a 6:1 imbalance enough??


19 people like this
Posted by Ed
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 12, 2020 at 6:17 pm

I will argue that the only effective mass transit that services down town PA is Caltrain. VTA has been trying to figure out how to reduce service to PA for a long time, but keep PA on the hook as a funding source for their exceptionally poorly run agency. Before designating ANY part of PA as a hot bead of any development, please make sure the mass transit will be there as well.


8 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 12, 2020 at 6:22 pm

Ed, remember that our new mayor Mr. Fine is on the VTA board.


5 people like this
Posted by Ef
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 12, 2020 at 7:55 pm

I believe the VTA board has 12 voting members. 5 represent San Jose. Unless I am mistaken, Adrian Fine is currently an alternate board member, and I think alternate board members do not vote.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2020 at 10:08 am

Posted by Ed, a resident of Downtown North

>> I will argue that the only effective mass transit that services down town PA is Caltrain. VTA has been trying to figure out how to reduce service to PA for a long time

Obviously they need the 22/522 all the way, and, I certainly in favor of supporting Gunn and Foothill students if that can still work. But, VTA can't even hire enough drivers right now. I don't think I would rely on VTA up here anyway.

Seriously, if VTA could be fixed to work well for Sunnyvale/Santa Clara/San Jose (let's call that SSCSJ for now) that would be enough for me. That would mean, for example, that anyone riding Caltrain from the north into an SSCSJ transit hub could then get to within 1/2 mile of work within 1/2 hour, from that hub. That is a tall order. Once VTA is working for SSCSJ, then sure, let's add Palo Alto/Mountain View back in.


17 people like this
Posted by South of Oregon Secede!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2020 at 10:40 am

South of Oregon -- let's secede. Seriously, let's just leave and be our own town. The over glut of companies is mostly downtown, and this plan basically means Palo Alto is now theirs, run for them, and we are paying for it.

We have historically not had much representation in City Hall anyway. Richer residents in the north look down their noses at us, even as we pay nearly as much per square foot in taxes and they enjoy most of the amenities.

Ventura area is finally an opportunity to create civic space on this side of town, it should not be Palantir's opportunity to entrench its takeover.

We could name our town Mayfield. (The old is new benefit is that "May" means beautiful in Chinese.)


4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 13, 2020 at 11:45 am

"BUILD. MORE. HOUSING. NEAR. TRANSIT."

That is a very bad idea. We ought to target our R-1 zones for redevelopment. That land is very, very inefficiently used. Crescent Park and Old Palo Alto are the most egregious examples. For people who insist on transit, run buses to the new housing projects.


12 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on Jan 13, 2020 at 2:08 pm

Scared to know what kind of horrific ideas this will engender (doubtless MOAR DEVELOPMENT without any thought to infrastructure and traffic beyond shouting about riding your bicycle).


6 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2020 at 8:19 am

It's all about downtown maybe its because council members present and past own property on University ave? What about Midtown? The city has ignored us for years so I agree south Palo Alto should secede because what's going on in midtown (open drug use by 7-11,strong arm robberies, public defecation( would never be tolerated in precious downtown Palo Alto. The police are non existent there to busy sipping lattes downtown.


8 people like this
Posted by friendlyneighbor
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 22, 2020 at 8:57 am

Funny thing is, we never go downtown anymore. We moved to Palo Alto @ 30 years ago after living in East Bay for a long time. We are happy enough here, & have great friends, but it's a boring homogenous town. For socializing, enjoying arts, dining out, etc, we usually go to East Bay or SF. University Ave seems to be increasingly dedicated startups, big box stores and over priced but underwhelming restaurants. It's designated to help the wealthy become more wealthy. There is no there there.


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