When state lawmakers approved a law this year that allows homeowners in single-family zones to split their lots and build up to four dwellings, they hailed it as a sensible way to encourage residential construction in communities that have little appetite for dense apartment complexes.
But in Palo Alto, city leaders see Senate Bill 9 as a threat to the city's land-use powers and to the character of single-family neighborhoods. On Monday, they sought to address this threat by passing a series of new design standards that builders will have to meet to get approval for additional housing on residential lots in single-family zones.
The city unanimously approved an urgency ordinance that establishes a set of "objective standards" governing everything from garage widths, roofline styles and the size of second floors. One new rule requires at least one second-floor bedroom to have its largest window facing the front lot line. Another rule prohibits the height of a building's first-floor eaves or parapets to be more than 18 inches higher than the average height of an eave or parapet of homes on abutting lots. And if at least 50% of the homes on the block have street-facing porches, the proposed house also would have to include a street-facing porch no less than 6 feet deep and 8 feet wide.
By adopting these design rules, as well as many others, the city is looking to shift from its traditional approach of using subjective criteria to review housing proposals in single-family zones to quantifiable, or "objective," design standards. In supporting the urgency ordinance, which took effect immediately upon adoption, council members pointed to the fact that SB 9 prohibits them from relying on subjective guidelines, making the new rules necessary.
Council member Greer Stone, a vehement critic of SB 9, suggested that the new rules may actually help the city achieve more housing.
"If we have these projects fitting in with the neighborhoods, if they're consistent with neighborhood character, I believe we're going to have less contentious debate about these projects," Stone said. "I think we'll have less public outcry against projects if they're maintaining the character of the neighborhood.
"My hope is that this will actually encourage more projects and better projects."
Others were less sanguine about some of the changes. Council member Alison Cormack suggested that the new rules on garage designs may be a bit too rigid.
"I am stunned that we are contemplating insisting that garage doors should match the material, color and panel design pattern of the entry door or window fenestration," Cormack said, referring to one new objective standard.
Palo Alto is far from the only city that is now playing zone defense against SB 9, with Cupertino and Los Altos Hill preparing their own updates of design standards, ostensibly to protect their communities from incompatible new developments. Palo Alto's process in revising development rules is expected to unfold gradually over the coming year.
In addition to approving an urgency ordinance and a nearly identical interim ordinance on Monday to ensure that the new rules are in place when SB 9 kicks in on Jan. 1, the council signaled that it plans to advance a new permanent ordinance in the coming months, pending reviews by the city's Architectural Review Board and its Planning and Transportation Commission. Both bodies have been heavily involved in crafting the newly adopted objective standards. Components of the permanent ordinance may include an impact fee that builders would have to pay to support the city's affordable housing efforts and a requirement that any builder that uses SB 9 to split lots and build three more dwellings needs to restrict one of the units as affordable housing.
Not everyone was thrilled about the city's effort. Numerous residents and housing advocates characterized Palo Alto's new requirements as just the latest instance of the city resisting calls from the state to build housing. Michael Quinn pointed to the city's recent appeal of its new Regional Housing Needs Allocation numbers, which was unanimously rejected by the Association of Bay Area Governments, and the city's process for choosing members of the Housing Element Working Group, which was led by a group of three council members who privately corresponded about the group's composition before unveiling their list for the full council to adopt.
"We're in pretty bad shape here," Quinn said. "If we continue to thumb our nose at the state, we're going to get stepped on. They're going to step in and intercede and we're just putting ourselves into a worse and worse position."
Housing advocate Kelsey Banes, a Palo Alto resident who serves as executive director of the advocacy group Peninsula for Everyone, also encouraged the council to embrace the state's efforts to create duplexes and lower-cost housing options. Banes, who grew up in a duplex, said the housing option allowed her mother to have a place that she could afford to buy when she became a single mom. She also suggested that SB 9 is unlikely to spur a huge construction boom in Palo Alto.
"We're most likely to see subdivisions of existing properties into duplexes, but the financial reality in Palo Alto is that most people are still going to be incentivized to build McMansions and take $3 million homes and turn them into $7 million homes," Banes said.
Council members, however, strongly supported the new laws and characterized them as a necessity given the state's prohibition on use of subjective standards. The new objective standards, according to staff, remain guided by the city's subjective criteria, which require a "unified visual character" in building facades and the use of "appropriate roof pitches" to manage perceived height, among other goals.
Mayor Tom DuBois and council member Eric Filseth both noted that the only reason that the city is adopting the rules is because of the new state laws. Both favored starting out with stricter rules and gradually loosening them.
"It is what it is, and if you don't like it, call your Assemblyman," Filseth said. "I agree with the conservative approach."
There was less consensus on the council about impact fees, a requirement that most members supported but that some thought would be too onerous and, in some ways counterintuitive. Filseth and DuBois both argued that the new residences created through lot splits will not be affordable and that it is incumbent on the city to charge impact fees to support other affordable housing efforts. Council member Greg Tanaka disagreed and suggested that imposing fees will serve only to deter development.
"I think having more fees will make it harder to develop," Tanaka said. "It's not going to help. It's going to discourage it and not encourage it."
Cormack, meanwhile, said she disagreed with the "conservative" approach proposed by DuBois and Filseth and urged her colleagues not to make the new rules too stringent. She said that during her office hours she has had conversations with people whose children were born and raised in Palo Alto but who will no longer be able to live in the city because of insufficient housing options.
"I just want us all to contemplate for a moment that there probably are some people in Palo Alto who will be able to use this tool to enable their children to live nearby," Cormack said.