Facing a regional mandate to plan for more than 6,000 units, Palo Alto is taking a closer look at the commercial and industrial area in the city's southeastern corner as a promising destination for future housing.
But as members of the Planning and Transportation Commission noted on Wednesday, this strategy would face major challenges, given the area's current lack of schools and subpar transportation options.
The Housing Element Working Group, a group of residents and commissioners that is helping the city draft its new housing vision, is proposing zone changes in the area around East Meadow Circle and San Antonio Avenue that would allow housing in areas currently zoned for "general manufacturing" (GM) and "research, office and light manufacturing" (ROLM).
Under current zoning rules, residential development is not allowed in the general manufacturing zone. The ROLM zone, meanwhile, only allows housing if the city approves a conditional use permits.
Planning staff estimated that if these properties in this area are rezoned to allow 40 dwellings per acre, it could generate more than 1,500 residences. If approved by the City Council, the strategy would represent one of the largest components of the city's plan to identify sites for 6,086 housing units between 2023 and 2031, as required by state law.
Major residential growth isn't new to this area. About 20 years ago, new apartment and condominium complexes went up in and around East Meadow Circle. The city responded by banning residential uses and then spearheading an area plan to explore adding new amenities to the area — a vision document that was never officially adopted.
Now, with the area once again seen as ripe for housing, some are questioning whether it can absorb more than 1,500 new residents without major investments. Commissioner Bryna Chang said the last time new housing developments went up on East Meadow Circle, they created a "massive problem with neighborhood schools." About 30% of the students who would normally go to Palo Verde as their neighborhood elementary school were sent to other schools because of capacity issues.
"If you add 1,500 kids — that's a huge influx," Chang said, noting that most elementary schools range between 300 and 600 students. "What are we going to do with all these kids added to that one little corner of Palo Alto?"
Commissioner Doria Summa agreed and said that the city also needs to think about adding amenities such as parks and walkable retail to serve the area's new residents.
"It almost warrants a larger planning exercise," she said.
In addition to targeting industrial areas, working group members and city planners have also expressed support for allowing greater housing density in zones that already accommodate multifamily residential development. Under this strategy, zones that currently allow up to 20 dwellings per acres would be modified to allow up to 30. Similarly, R-30 zones, which allow up to 30 dwellings per acre, would be upzoned to allow 40.
According to Senior Planner Tim Wong, who is leading the Housing Element revision, this strategy can generate 1,657 housing units.
Other strategies that the city is looking at call for building housing at church parking lots, which could accommodate 148 dwellings, and on city-owned lots, which could support another 168. The council has already expressed support for the latter strategy when it voted last month to invite developers to contribute proposals for local lots that would include both parking and housing, particularly affordable housing.
"To the extent that we can have affordable housing throughout the community, I think that's a real community benefit," council member Alison Cormack said at the Dec. 6 discussion of the parking lot proposal.
Another key strategy that the working group endorsed is raising density at sites within a half-mile of Caltrain stations, which would now accommodate between 40 and 50 dwellings per acre (depending on their proximity to the station). This strategy could generate about 798 dwellings, according to staff. It explicitly excludes, however, the rezoning of any R-1 zoned properties.
Other strategies favored by the working group similarly steered growth away from single-family zones. The only strategy that includes housing in low-density zones is approval of accessory-dwelling units in these areas. The city expects to see about 512 new accessory-dwelling units over the eight-year planning period (the estimate is based on the city's recent three-year average of 64 new accessory-dwelling units).
Altogether, the working group and staff have identified sites that could yield 7,122 dwellings, well above the target established through the Regional Housing Needs Allocation Process. Many of these, however, are based on speculative plans that remain a long way from becoming reality.
Stanford University, for example, has identified three of its own sites — the downtown transit center, a vacant property on Pasteur Drive and 3128 El Camino Real — that can collectively accommodate 825 new dwellings. But as Stanford officials have told the city at recent meetings, this would require the city to loosen zoning regulations, reduce parking requirements and support seven-story buildings with the bottom two floors devoted to parking. Though these units are included in the city's total, there's been little indication to date that the council would approve such developments.
Bart Hechtman, chair of the Planning and Transportation Commission, lauded the working group for identifying so many sites for new housing.
"It is a Herculean effort to find 6,000 potential units in Palo Alto," Hechtman said.
He also suggested, however, that by excluding single-family zones that are close to transit, members of the working group may only be delaying the eventual redevelopment of these areas.
"They get to make that initial recommendation call, but I recognize and I want to make sure that we all recognize that to the extent we have low-density areas in close proximity to our transit stations — to our Caltrain stations — those properties are by any appropriate measure underutilized," he said. "And the question is not whether they'll ever get upzoned but when."