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How much density? Palo Alto debates zone changes to meet housing goals

Council considers how broadly to apply revisions that would raise density for residential projects

The complex at 801 Alma, which opened in 2014, has 50 residential units for lower income residents. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

As Palo Alto prepares to update its zoning code to meet its targets for new housing, city officials remain undecided on a critical question: How far should they go when it comes to loosening density limits in residential zones?

The zoning update, which the City Council plans to discuss on Oct. 4, is aimed at helping the city meet its goal of producing 6,086 dwellings between 2023 and 2031. It is a key component of the city's Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out all the programs that Palo Alto is launching to promote housing growth. It also lists all the sites that the city believes can accommodate the new housing.

The complex discussion comes with some urgency. Under state deadlines, the city must approve many of the zoning changes proposed in the Housing Element by Jan. 31. This despite the fact that the city's Housing Element has yet to win approval from the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), which rejected the city's submitted drafts in March and in August.

A key component of Palo Alto's housing strategy is upzoning residential and commercial zones in various sections of the city so that they could legally accommodate more apartments or condominiums than they currently do. Sites that currently have a limit of 40 dwellings per acre, for example, will now have a 50-dwelling limit. In areas where the limit is 30 dwellings per acre, it would be raised to 40.

The council has also approved a more ambitious upzoning effort in the "general manufacturing" and "light office, research and manufacturing" zones, mostly around San Antonio Road and Fabian Way. This area, which is expected to accommodate roughly a third of the city's new housing units, would see residential zoning density increase to 90 dwellings per unit in some areas.

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A key question that is yet to be answered, however, is: Should the city only upzone residential areas that are listed as "opportunity sites" in the Housing Element or should these changes apply to zoning districts throughout Palo Alto?

At the moment, staff and the Planning and Transportation Commission are leaning toward the more cautious approach. In discussing the effort on Sept. 13, the city's consultants and planning commissioners favored focusing only on the opportunity sites.

"The thinking is that if we made these changes across the board, in the base districts, you're catching a whole bunch of sites that we don't expect to redevelop," Jean Eisberg, principal at Lexington Planning, said at the Sept. 13 hearing. "There're existing uses that we expect to continue for the next eight years and maybe the next eight years after that."

Planning staff and commissioners acknowledged, however, that this change would create some complications for them and for project applicants, who will now be required to consult a new chapter in the zoning code to see what development standards apply to any particular property. It would create an inconsistency between sites that have the same base zoning district but would now have different development standards.

But while the commission didn't take any votes on the proposed upzoning effort, members supported it keeping the changes relatively narrow. They generally agreed that keeping the changes limited to the "opportunity sites" in the Housing Element areas would suffice when it comes to meeting the city's housing goals.

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"If it was highly likely to be developed, it would be on the opportunity sites," Commissioner Keith Reckdahl said during the discussion. "I don't think we're missing anything by holding off and not giving benefit to somebody who's not going to use it."

Commissioner Allen Akin also said he's not ready to commit to broader zone changes to base zoning districts.

"I'm not opposed to the idea of updating the baselines later, when we have a little better justification for doing so," Akin said.

A report from planning staff also noted that because the Housing Element list already represents the "most viable housing sites for development, at least within the next eight years, the potential implications may not be significant." City planners noted that raising density limits more broadly would have implications for projects that rely on State Density Bonus Law, which allows developers to claim additional height and density for housing proposals.

"On the one hand, this would generate more below-market rate housing units within a State Density Bonus Law-compliant project, but would also allow additional density bonus, which could result in taller and larger buildings than are currently permitted by the Zoning Ordinance," the report states.

It remains to be seen, however, whether these changes meet the requirements of the HCD, which remains unconvinced that Palo Alto's housing inventory is adequate. Local housing advocates, including members of the group Palo Alto Forward, have consistently maintained that the city's rezoning efforts don't go far enough.

In a letter to the HCD, the group pointed to projects like the recently constructed Alta Locale complex (now rebranded as the Palomino) on the corner of El Camino Road and Page Mill Road and the recently approved development at 788 San Antonio Road. The two projects have residential densities of 130 and 102 dwellings per acre, respectively. Neither would be feasible even after the proposed zone change, the letter argued.

"The conclusion of our analysis was stark: real housing proposals in Palo Alto consistently require far more density, height, and FAR, as well as lower parking ratios, than the City is proposing in its Housing Element," the nonprofit wrote to the HCD in June. "For example, the typical density required by a real project is about 115 units per acre, but the Housing Element limits housing to 30-50 units per acre, or up to 90 units per acre in the GM/ROLM zone. That's a huge gap, and it strongly suggests that the proposed densities are governmental constraints to housing."

Some members of the group made this case to the commission. Scott O'Neil, board member at Palo Alto Forward, said the proposed development standards are "around half of the average of Palo Alto's recent history of proposals."

Amy Ashton, executive director at Palo Alto Forward, urged the city to apply the zone changes citywide. The proposed changes, she said, are "insufficient to meet what we need." She suggested raising base zoning to a level that makes projects economically feasible and extending the changes throughout the city.

"Projects happen outside the housing inventory. It happens all the time. Project deals come and go, you just never know, so why not let all of these sites participate in these zoning changes?" Ashton said.

Not everyone, however, is thrilled about the upzoning effort. Former Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, who is affiliated with the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, criticized the state housing mandates, which he argued are based on outdated job forecasts. Schmid, an economist, suggested at the Sept. 13 meeting that because the job-growth numbers are inaccurate, the projected number of new dense housing that the city is required to produce is also wrong.

"I'm very concerned that the state is pushing Palo Alto to put up a rash of new buildings based on numbers that are completely outdated," Schmid said.

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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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How much density? Palo Alto debates zone changes to meet housing goals

Council considers how broadly to apply revisions that would raise density for residential projects

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Mon, Oct 2, 2023, 8:24 am

As Palo Alto prepares to update its zoning code to meet its targets for new housing, city officials remain undecided on a critical question: How far should they go when it comes to loosening density limits in residential zones?

The zoning update, which the City Council plans to discuss on Oct. 4, is aimed at helping the city meet its goal of producing 6,086 dwellings between 2023 and 2031. It is a key component of the city's Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out all the programs that Palo Alto is launching to promote housing growth. It also lists all the sites that the city believes can accommodate the new housing.

The complex discussion comes with some urgency. Under state deadlines, the city must approve many of the zoning changes proposed in the Housing Element by Jan. 31. This despite the fact that the city's Housing Element has yet to win approval from the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), which rejected the city's submitted drafts in March and in August.

A key component of Palo Alto's housing strategy is upzoning residential and commercial zones in various sections of the city so that they could legally accommodate more apartments or condominiums than they currently do. Sites that currently have a limit of 40 dwellings per acre, for example, will now have a 50-dwelling limit. In areas where the limit is 30 dwellings per acre, it would be raised to 40.

The council has also approved a more ambitious upzoning effort in the "general manufacturing" and "light office, research and manufacturing" zones, mostly around San Antonio Road and Fabian Way. This area, which is expected to accommodate roughly a third of the city's new housing units, would see residential zoning density increase to 90 dwellings per unit in some areas.

A key question that is yet to be answered, however, is: Should the city only upzone residential areas that are listed as "opportunity sites" in the Housing Element or should these changes apply to zoning districts throughout Palo Alto?

At the moment, staff and the Planning and Transportation Commission are leaning toward the more cautious approach. In discussing the effort on Sept. 13, the city's consultants and planning commissioners favored focusing only on the opportunity sites.

"The thinking is that if we made these changes across the board, in the base districts, you're catching a whole bunch of sites that we don't expect to redevelop," Jean Eisberg, principal at Lexington Planning, said at the Sept. 13 hearing. "There're existing uses that we expect to continue for the next eight years and maybe the next eight years after that."

Planning staff and commissioners acknowledged, however, that this change would create some complications for them and for project applicants, who will now be required to consult a new chapter in the zoning code to see what development standards apply to any particular property. It would create an inconsistency between sites that have the same base zoning district but would now have different development standards.

But while the commission didn't take any votes on the proposed upzoning effort, members supported it keeping the changes relatively narrow. They generally agreed that keeping the changes limited to the "opportunity sites" in the Housing Element areas would suffice when it comes to meeting the city's housing goals.

"If it was highly likely to be developed, it would be on the opportunity sites," Commissioner Keith Reckdahl said during the discussion. "I don't think we're missing anything by holding off and not giving benefit to somebody who's not going to use it."

Commissioner Allen Akin also said he's not ready to commit to broader zone changes to base zoning districts.

"I'm not opposed to the idea of updating the baselines later, when we have a little better justification for doing so," Akin said.

A report from planning staff also noted that because the Housing Element list already represents the "most viable housing sites for development, at least within the next eight years, the potential implications may not be significant." City planners noted that raising density limits more broadly would have implications for projects that rely on State Density Bonus Law, which allows developers to claim additional height and density for housing proposals.

"On the one hand, this would generate more below-market rate housing units within a State Density Bonus Law-compliant project, but would also allow additional density bonus, which could result in taller and larger buildings than are currently permitted by the Zoning Ordinance," the report states.

It remains to be seen, however, whether these changes meet the requirements of the HCD, which remains unconvinced that Palo Alto's housing inventory is adequate. Local housing advocates, including members of the group Palo Alto Forward, have consistently maintained that the city's rezoning efforts don't go far enough.

In a letter to the HCD, the group pointed to projects like the recently constructed Alta Locale complex (now rebranded as the Palomino) on the corner of El Camino Road and Page Mill Road and the recently approved development at 788 San Antonio Road. The two projects have residential densities of 130 and 102 dwellings per acre, respectively. Neither would be feasible even after the proposed zone change, the letter argued.

"The conclusion of our analysis was stark: real housing proposals in Palo Alto consistently require far more density, height, and FAR, as well as lower parking ratios, than the City is proposing in its Housing Element," the nonprofit wrote to the HCD in June. "For example, the typical density required by a real project is about 115 units per acre, but the Housing Element limits housing to 30-50 units per acre, or up to 90 units per acre in the GM/ROLM zone. That's a huge gap, and it strongly suggests that the proposed densities are governmental constraints to housing."

Some members of the group made this case to the commission. Scott O'Neil, board member at Palo Alto Forward, said the proposed development standards are "around half of the average of Palo Alto's recent history of proposals."

Amy Ashton, executive director at Palo Alto Forward, urged the city to apply the zone changes citywide. The proposed changes, she said, are "insufficient to meet what we need." She suggested raising base zoning to a level that makes projects economically feasible and extending the changes throughout the city.

"Projects happen outside the housing inventory. It happens all the time. Project deals come and go, you just never know, so why not let all of these sites participate in these zoning changes?" Ashton said.

Not everyone, however, is thrilled about the upzoning effort. Former Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, who is affiliated with the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, criticized the state housing mandates, which he argued are based on outdated job forecasts. Schmid, an economist, suggested at the Sept. 13 meeting that because the job-growth numbers are inaccurate, the projected number of new dense housing that the city is required to produce is also wrong.

"I'm very concerned that the state is pushing Palo Alto to put up a rash of new buildings based on numbers that are completely outdated," Schmid said.

Comments

Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 2, 2023 at 10:28 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Oct 2, 2023 at 10:28 am

What an imbalanced article where you quote several pro-density advocates at length and then give only a few lines to one person questioning the obvious inaccuracy of the housing targets due to massive economic changes!

Couldn't you find a few residents to comment about the impact of these changes on their / our daily lives? I constantly hear/read comments from people complaining about shopping center closures and the constant displacement of retail, restaurants and professional service providers for more housing while office vacancies remain high and are due to get worse with forecast economic slowdown??

And what about increased traffic and all the accidents, esp. those involving kids? The Bay Area's supposed to absorb 1,000,000 more households / 1,500,000 more cars. Been on 101 and Alma recently??

And if housing's supposed to be so important, why does each development include more offices??

Some balance and objectivity would be special.


Adam
Registered user
University South
on Oct 2, 2023 at 11:01 am
Adam, University South
Registered user
on Oct 2, 2023 at 11:01 am

Our region is in a housing crisis. Our children cannot afford to stay here, and our parents cannot afford to move here. Our retail workers, teachers, and other are driving super-commutes to get here, burning green-house gasses and wasting time, because they cannot afford to live where they work. Homelessness is worse than ever.

Palo Alto must do its part. That means making room for new neighbors. In and around our commercial districts and transit corridors, we need significant upzoning. I hope our city council will do the right thing, and make it easier to build new homes.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 2, 2023 at 11:30 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Oct 2, 2023 at 11:30 am

People change jobs regularly here; that's what Silicon Valley's all about. How many jobs have you had? More than one I'd suspect.

Plus, what 25 year old expects to be able to buy an expensive house right out of college?? You start small and move up.

The housing crisis is a national problem which is made worse by all the speculators.


Silver Linings
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 2, 2023 at 2:26 pm
Silver Linings, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Oct 2, 2023 at 2:26 pm

It's not just that housing density "needs" have changed, the needs have changed in part because putting up a lot of dense building (office and/or housing) without regard to infrastructure and quality of life--which are affected by density, including safety--changes the desirability of a place.

I even posted about this well before the pandemic--that the potential for remote work existed even then, and if we pushed these quality-of-life-destroying-based-on-magical-thinking changes too hard, any disruptions, like epidemic, earthquake, etc, would produce a sudden shift in population that would be hard to recover from, because a badly done built environment becomes very hard to fix. We're seeing the chickens come to roost in San Francisco now because of it.

On the one hand we are seeing businesses trying to get exceptions to fill vacant office space, while others keep pushing the idea that we're still in "crisis" requiring the dismissal of all manner of needs like safety and open space with development, in order to build their own projects (and make $$ at the expense of the community).

Affordable housing is a need that never goes away. But as we've seen in SF and HK, all the overbuilding in the world doesn't solve that problem. Working on affordable housing is its own endeavor. Affordable developments do need exceptions in order to make them affordable. But if you reset the entire context, then affordable developments no longer have that cost advantage.

When things were booming, there was no way to overcome the magical thinking that if we just forget about the environment, safety, urban green space, people's quality of life and time/traffic circulation, the needs of people with mobility problems, clean air, the horrendous environmental costs of construction, etc etc then densifying willy nilly would magically create utopia. We can't afford NOT to learn the lessons about why that thinking was wrong, or we will in fact put ourselves into a long doom loop.


Asher Waldfogel
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 2, 2023 at 4:30 pm
Asher Waldfogel, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Oct 2, 2023 at 4:30 pm

We have perilously little time to approve 6000 units AND for developers to get them financed, built and finaled by 2031.

Fourplexing a single family parcel is a net add of three units. In a world where ADU applications take over 100 days to process, does anyone believe planning can process 28 fourplex applications per MONTH for the next 6 years?

If we’re serious about the goals, we need to focus on bigger projects. We only need planning to process ONE 100+ unit application each MONTH, which is much more doable. They take longer to build which means we’re probably talking about a 5 year deadline for permits vs 6+ years for smaller projects.

Point is, anything that distracts us from our efforts to build bigger projects in the foreseeable future means we’re less likely to hit the RHNA targets.

I respect Councilman Schmid’s views, but HCD has said they will not revisit their numbers. We’re stuck with them unless the legislature offers some relief. At the same time I wonder if PAF is serious about getting units built, or if they raise more money on the drama?

Why can't we all work together to streamline the process in opportunity districts so we get the large projects we need to hit the targets approved and built fast?


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Oct 2, 2023 at 6:05 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Oct 2, 2023 at 6:05 pm

One open question is whether the proposed new standards, plus the State's density bonus law, Palo Alto's Housing Incentive Program, etc. are enough to make large multi-income-level projects attractive to developers. The answer probably changes over time (for example, as interest rates vary). We have to meet our legal obligations, but overshooting has consequences too, so as I said in the hearing I think it makes sense to proceed cautiously.

Another open question is whether individual projects should go ahead without area plans to manage traffic, schools, green space, and so on. Some of the analysis has already gone into the Housing Element and NVCAP; we have to decide how much more is needed, how to fund that, and what the schedule should be. There are a lot of moving parts.

The big debates are about the nature of the community -- for example, what would it become if it committed to unlimited growth in order to accommodate everyone who wanted to live here plus all their descendants for all time, as some have requested? Those things are definitely worth talking about, but they're way beyond the scope of the issues Staff, PTC, and Council are considering right now.

(Speaking only for myself here, not representing the PTC.)


scott
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Oct 2, 2023 at 9:16 pm
scott, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Oct 2, 2023 at 9:16 pm

I don't know if anyone has suggested that we need " to accommodate everyone who wanted to live here plus all their descendants for all time".

I frequently opine that we should not displace my own children. When I say I would like to be able to hug my grandchildren without buying plane tickets, that's a statement about where I'd like my son and daughter to be able to form households and settle down. They are 11 and 14, so their prospects of being able to choose to live here or nearby as young adults boils down to policy decisions we're making today.

If I win that fight, then I'd surely continue to support my grandkids in a future battle. But I'm not going to be around forever, and if I lose a future fight, or if a future generation of my descendants wanted to start displacing their own children again? Well, that would be their prerogative. The dead should not govern the living.


Amie
Registered user
Downtown North
on Oct 3, 2023 at 1:39 am
Amie, Downtown North
Registered user
on Oct 3, 2023 at 1:39 am

Upzoning in the right places (i.e. near transit, schools, jobs, retail, and services) doesn't have to be so scary.

I urge everyone to go to look at Springline in Menlo Park at the Caltrain station and imagine those amazing cafes and restaurants on ECR here in Palo Alto. Or check out the Agrihood in Santa Clara where there are 500 units and a WORKING URBAN FARM for the benefit of the residents. What about the beautiful new Wilton Court project or the huge parks incorporated into East Whisman in Mountain View.

We can be (and need to be) a better Palo Alto for our kids, seniors, essential workers, and the environment -- but these zoning changes would not allow ANY of the above projects to be built here. This is about making our community a great, fun, engaging, economically sound place. We need to think bigger and bolder and make it happen!


Norman Beamer
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Oct 3, 2023 at 5:41 am
Norman Beamer, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Oct 3, 2023 at 5:41 am

Palo Alto is not a medieval village where generation after generation lives in the same place. Just because you live here doesn't mean that the city has an obligation to make it easier for your parents and children to also live here.


Asher Waldfogel
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 3, 2023 at 8:25 am
Asher Waldfogel, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Oct 3, 2023 at 8:25 am

@Allen,

Area Plans are a great idea. But our recent history with reasoning about zoning has not been very predictive.

Cubberley process, NVCAP, two rail committees have all been duds. Workforce housing and AH overlay were passed in response to single applications and stimulated exactly zero follow-ons. How many HIP applications have started construction?

Even projects we give preliminary thumbs up to keep coming back asking for more.

The Housing Element is important, but who in City Hall has the job title and responsibility to stimulate 6000 units to happen in a very short time period? I worry if we get focused on Area Plans and sidetracked on small stuff we’ll achieve a few hundred times a small number by 2031. Not nothing but it’s not a serious swing at the ball. It’s a bunt that doesn’t leave us in a scoring position to reach the targets.

Do you worry we'll be too successful? So far we haven't cracked that code. Based on what's happened elsewhere in the region, commercial and manufacturing brownfield has a lot more potential to scale than R1 infill.

If we had an economic development official, I suspect one of the first discussions would not be infill zoning, but where in town we can negotiate over height limits to promote podium construction?


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Oct 3, 2023 at 5:49 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Oct 3, 2023 at 5:49 pm

@scott: I was reacting to Adam's comment above, but yes, you and I have discussed this in the past. I remember you expressing dismay that any community could decide not to offer housing for all the descendants of its members. I don't remember that any time limit was attached.

Would you argue that we have a moral obligation to build housing for anyone (potential residents and descendants of current and potential residents) who wants to live here? If not, under what conditions would you limit it?

@Amie: If my files are correct, Springline has 231K sq ft of office space, enough for roughly 1500 employees. It provides 183 apartment units, enough for roughly 500 people. So its jobs/housing imbalance is about 3:1, and it makes Menlo Park's overall balance slightly worse. Worth keeping in mind if we're considering it as a model for zoning changes.

@Asher: Good points, all. I'm not going to discuss individual projects because I might run afoul of the Brown Act, but it sounds like I'm a little more optimistic with respect to market-rate development. I also hear interest in applying Density Bonus or HIP for AH.

Macroeconomic conditions are tough, and because of that I think it makes sense to talk about relaxing constraints in some cases. I'm not yet convinced about relaxing constraints permanently and universally as a response to conditions that might be short-lived. What did you have in mind?

(Speaking only for myself here, not representing the PTC.)


Padraig
Registered user
Midtown
on Oct 4, 2023 at 2:26 pm
Padraig, Midtown
Registered user
on Oct 4, 2023 at 2:26 pm

Mountain View and RWC are crushing us w re to young families. In my opinion there's one clear reason: MV and RWC allow TALLER STRUCTURES.

Awake to the future of housing density on the Peninsula, Palo Alto:

Raise the 50ft height barrier.


Sunshine
Registered user
Barron Park
on Oct 5, 2023 at 5:03 pm
Sunshine, Barron Park
Registered user
on Oct 5, 2023 at 5:03 pm

If we are in such need if housing, why are so many local apartment houses advertising that units are available now? It seems a travesty of truth to me. When there is a housing shortage there are no vacancies and apartments take a waiting list. Our current situation is the reverse.
It appears that someone wants to destroy the quality of life in Palo Alto. It will be overcrowded if those pushing for more housing and higher density get their way.


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