One way or another, Palo Alto is about to experience a growth spurt of housing unlike any other in its history.
If things go as according to the city's plans, apartment complexes would be built in neighborhoods currently zoned for commercial and industrial use around San Antonio Road and Fabian Way. Multifamily developments would become both more common and denser near Caltrain stations and along El Camino Real, the city's primary bus corridor.
Single-family neighborhoods, which to date have been largely shielded from any significant additions of housing, would see a proliferation of accessory dwelling units and, in some cases, triplexes and fourplexes. Churches would develop affordable housing in their parking lots. The city would do the same in its own public lots around downtown.
If things don't go as planned, growth will likely arrive in other ways. Thanks to recent state legislation, if Palo Alto fails to identify sufficient housing sites or to follow through with actual construction, it could lose much of its discretion over development projects, allowing housing developers to win approval for their projects either "by right" or through a streamlined process with minimal environmental review.
Such are the stakes for Palo Alto as it enters the final stage of putting together its housing element document, which lays out the city's planning strategies for adding 6,086 housing units between 2023 and 2031, the sixth planning cycle of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). By historic standards, this would represent an unprecedented surge of housing. According to city data, the city had just over 23,000 households in 1980 and the number grew only gradually over the following three decades, increasing to 26,720 by 2013.
The city's assignment for the current planning cycle of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, which covers the period between 2014 and 2022, is a comparatively modest 1,988 dwellings — a third of the next cycle's allocation.
Palo Alto is required to submit its new housing element to the state Department of Housing and Community Development in January, and the council took a critical step toward meeting the deadline that on Monday, when it approved by a 5-1 vote, with Vice Mayor Lydia Kou dissenting and council member Tom DuBois absent, a list of housing sites that could potentially accommodate this growth influx.
In addition to the endorsing the housing policies and sites that had had already been vetted by the city's Housing Element Working Group and its Planning and Transportation Commission, council members also pitched ambitious new ideas that could have a potentially transformative effect on the city, including reimagining the city's primary job hub, Stanford Research Park, as a housing destination.
The council also suggested revising the zoning code in commercial areas around California Avenue and along El Camino Real to further limit new office space and spur housing development.
The Monday discussion underscored how much Palo Alto's discourse around housing has changed in just a few months. For decades, Palo Alto council members have defended the city's 50-foot height limit for buildings as a critical measure to preserve neighborhood character. And just months ago, several council members rejected the idea of allowing major residential construction near the University Avenue transit center until after the city conducts a major planning effort for the broader downtown area.
Now, the downtown site at 27 University Ave. is very much in play as part of the city's housing strategy. The council agreed on Monday to include it in its housing inventory, a sign that it is now open to considering Stanford University's concept for a seven-story building with a height of between 75 and 85 feet, featuring five stories of housing over two stories of parking.
The project, which is one of three that Stanford has pitched on sites that it owns and controls, could accommodate between 180 and 270 dwellings at this height, according to the university. The council decided to set the target at the upper limit of 270.
Despite the city's prior pushback to the regional allocation process, council members acknowledged Monday that the process, while flawed, needs to be taken seriously.
Mayor Pat Burt and Council member Eric Filseth both observed that because the process prioritizes the number of housing units as opposed to housing types, it creates an incentive for cities like Palo Alto to plan for housing that is smaller and easier to build: namely, studios and small apartments.
"The reality is that RHNA is pushing us to do some things which are probably not optimal things for the community to do," Filseth said. "Since we're measured only on a number of units, the impetus to build lots and lots of small units and opposed to something that's more representative of the community is quite high.
"On the other hand, the state is threatening us with SB 35 if we don't get there and who knows what other things? There are proposals flowing out there that prevent cities from collecting impact fees if we don't collect our RHNA targets. We're in a position where we're going to have very little choice."
Council members generally agreed that commercial sites offer the most promising solution to the dilemma. Filseth observed that the GM- and ROLM-zoned sites in south Palo Alto are close to areas in north Mountain View with plenty of jobs and that the city's new bicycle amenities, most notably the new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek, offer convenient transportation alternatives to tech workers heading to Google and other area firms.
The council's new housing inventory followed months of hearings and envisions the following locations for housing between 2023 and 2031:
• 1,385 residences that could be added by increasing density in zoning districts that currently allow commercial, mixed-use and residential projects. Areas that currently allow a maximum of 20 housing units per acre would now allow 30 units, while those that limit development 30 units per acre would now allow 40.
• 902 residences in "research, office and light manufacturing" zones, which are mostly concentrated in the area around East Meadow Circle and Fabian Way.
• 839 units at three sites on Stanford University-owned properties: 425 apartments at Pasteur Drive near the Stanford University Medical Center; 144 at 3128 El Camino Real; and 270 at the transit center at 27 University Ave.
• 790 housing units that are currently in the planning pipeline.
• 739 residences in areas close to Caltrain stations.
• 598 residences at sites currently zoned for "general manufacturing" use, which are mostly around San Antonio Road near the U.S. Highway 101.
• 512 accessory dwelling units.
• 402 residences in areas that are already zoned for multifamily housing.
• 232 residences along transit corridors, primarily along El Camino Real.
• 168 residences on city-owned parking lots.
• 148 residences at faith-based institutions.
In addition to these locations, another 183 dwellings could be placed at various sites where developers have been trying to build or where housing is suitable, in the view of city staff, Wong told the council. These include 3300 El Camino Real and 2951 El Camino Real, two parcels previously proposed for "planned home" zoned projects (neither advanced with a formal application), as well as 980 Middlefield Road, 955 Alma St., 550 Hamilton Ave. and 300 Lambert Ave.
View the city's interactive map of sites on the housing inventory.
Council members on Monday weren't content to restrict housing to these locations, however. Burt made a strong push for building housing in an area that has been largely excluded from discussions: Stanford Research Park. Though the area is known as a site for giant companies such as VMware, Lockheed Martin and SAP, Burt suggested that it should be able to accommodate a significant number of residences.
The 700-acre research part, he noted, is "far and away the most massive amount of underdeveloped land."
"What we've had is circumstances that are really changing," Burt said. "Our RHNA numbers are triple of what they were before and this is the largest area of underdeveloped land in the city, where we can really do constructive planning of high-density housing that would probably be better received for taller buildings and higher density than in much of the community because very little of the research park abuts existing neighborhoods and would have those kinds of impacts on neighborhoods."
To date, city staff has largely deferred to Stanford to propose potential housing locations. Planning Director Jonathan Lait said the city has not considered the idea of rezoning the research park.
The three sites that Stanford has identified were deemed to be particularly promising by the university because they are not under long-term leases and are not actively being used, said Jean Snider, Stanford's associate vice president for real estate.
Land in the research park is another matter.
"While these conditions don't necessarily preclude adding new housing, they create complexity in complying with the (Housing and Community Development) requirement that sites be suitable and available," Snider told the council in reference to research park sites. "Stanford-controlled sites provide a clear path to realizing actual housing production sooner."
These complexities notwithstanding, Burt pushed for a drastically different and far more assertive approach in dealing with Stanford. This, he said, could include rezoning sites at the research park to limit density of new office space and to permit housing development. Though the issue of rezoning research park land was not on the council's Monday agenda, council members agreed to direct staff to resume the conversation at a future meeting.
While the research park remains a wild card, the council was generally in accord as it approved all the other housing sites that had been vetted and recommended by the Planning and Transportation Commission. One area where there was some disagreement was the suggestion that the housing developments on city-owned parking lots and at church lots be exclusively devoted to affordable housing. Council member Greg Tanaka suggested that this would make these projects financially infeasible.
"In general, 100% affordable is a nice idea, but the big problem with 100% affordable units is: Who's going to pay for it? … This almost makes it so they never get built," Tanaka said.
Tanaka also pushed back against a reduction in office space, which he argued is a move toward turning Palo Alto into a "bedroom community."
"I don't think that's the Palo Alto I want," Tanaka said. "The Palo Alto I want is a place where the next great startups start here, that great inventions are made here, that a lot of innovation still happens in our city. I'm worried about limiting our capability in that area."
While Tanaka joined his colleagues in supporting the housing sites recommended by the planning commission, he voted against most of the proposed policies that would revise zoning to restrict commercial development.
He and Kou also opposed the council's proposal to build affordable housing on city-owned parking lots, a proposal that advanced by a 4-2 vote.
The council's various proposals to rezone commercial sites also advanced by a 4-2 vote, with council member Alison Cormack joining Tanaka in opposition.
Kou, meanwhile, voted against the entire housing inventory out of broader concerns about the regional allocation process and the high number of units that Palo Alto has been allotted.
"I am in protest of the allocation and I cannot support a housing element plan that has flawed methodology," Kou said.
While the council's vote represents a major milestone in adopting the long and complex plan, plenty of work remains. This includes developing strategies to support a state goal of "affirmatively furthering fair housing," as required by Assembly Bill 686.
The state Housing and Community Development Department defined this goal as taking actions that "address significant disparities in housing needs and in access to opportunity, replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns, transforming racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity, and fostering and maintaining compliance with civil rights and fair housing laws."
The city also has to figure out ways to meet regional targets for below-market-rate housing, an area in which the city has historically lagged. Palo Alto's new regional allocation includes a requirement for 1,556 housing units to be in the "very-low income" category (for households making 50% or less of area median income) and 896 in the "low income" category (for those making between 50% and 80% of area median income).
The city's failures to make sufficient progress on below-market-rate housing were highlighted in a recent report by the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury, which urged Palo Alto to identify more funding sources, explore more "specific plans" (plans developed for certain areas of town) and streamline its approval process for residential developments.
Last month, the council received a petition signed by 370 residents, including former mayors Sid Espinosa, Adrian Fine and Larry Klein, as well local climate activists and former city commissioners, urging the city to follow the Grand Jury's recommendations and to focus housing growth around transit corridors and stations.
"Housing options near transit and jobs can both increase housing affordability and help meet our climate action goals," the petition states. "Palo Alto has the resources, expertise, and authority to be a leader in housing affordability in the Bay Area. We encourage our leaders to take bold and speedy action."