On Deadline: Does 'Planned Community' really mean 'Unplanned Community' or 'Negotiated Zoning'? | August 16, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 16, 2013

On Deadline: Does 'Planned Community' really mean 'Unplanned Community' or 'Negotiated Zoning'?

by Jay Thorwaldson

When I was first introduced to a "Planned Community" zone in the mid-1960s it was with an enthusiastic assessment by a professional planner in Mountain View, later echoed by planning staff members in Palo Alto.

Only a few years earlier, as a young reporter still in college but on a summer job in west Fresno County, I had been introduced to basic zoning laws, from residential to commercial and industrial.

But the planners believed the then-new PC zoning concept would liberate developers from cut-and-dried formulas that included rigid setbacks, heights and density standards. The theory was that it would allow developers to be more creative and expansive in their proposals.

And the PC zone would also benefit the communities at large by encouraging more creative and attractive projects, in addition to specific "public benefit" items offered by (or required of) the developer.

No one dreamed that the PC zone would morph into something big enough to swallow up traditional zoning and community planning, as it now seems to be threatening to do in Palo Alto. And, as outlined July 19 by the Weekly in a detailed analysis by Gennady Sheyner, three significant PC proposals may well trigger the next resident revolt against either overdevelopment or misplaced development.

The three projects that might ignite a broader political response are the proposed office/theater development by John Arrillaga at 27 University Ave., a 311,000-square foot high-rise development along Page Mill Road by Jay Paul Co., and a comparatively small, 60-unit low-income senior-housing-plus-12-houses project on Maybell Avenue in Barron Park.

The Maybell project already is being challenged by referendum petitions, while the first two are beginning the city assessment and approval process, so any referenda challenge is premature.

But something happened to the bright promise those long-retired planning officials outlined to me as a reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times. Instead of an occasional PC zone for special circumstances or opportunities, the PC zone has become commonplace.

Simply put, the PC zone replaces any underlying zone in the city's zoning ordinance, a detailed document intended to reflect broader planning policies and goals outlined in what once was commonly called a General Plan. General was the operative word, as most such plans in my experience in various communities usually gathered more dust than attention following their adoption.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, teams of freelance professional planners traveled the state convincing local officials in smaller towns that every community needed one. Larger communities assigned their own planning staffs to develop such plans. The result was a document outlining what should go where, accompanied by a large map with different colors for different uses. The maps usually wound up on a wall behind or beside the city council dais.

Repeatedly, the key decisions were made on a case-by-case basis, often depending on the eloquence, or influence, of the developer or landowner and who was serving on the governing council or board.

Getting to specific decisions on specific properties or areas of town proved more complicated than the "general" plans could encompass.

In Palo Alto, the city's General Plan met pretty much the same fate as elsewhere in the state. The fast-growth 1950s and early 1960s were fueled by a serious need of both the city and Stanford University to increase revenues plus a huge demand for housing and a surging economy pushed by high-tech and the Cold War.

The growth of the Stanford Industrial Park — never proposed or studied as a whole plan, former longtime Planning Director Louis Fourcroy once told me — created a side effect that still haunts Palo Alto politics: traffic. What is now the Stanford Research Park grew on a project-by-project basis rather than as a planned overall land-use policy.

The debate over growth and impacts of growth tore apart the city, rising to a crescendo by the mid-1960s and resulting in a split City Council and a decade of see-saw policies and politics.

Then in the early 1970s a remarkable city planner arrived, fresh from land-use battles surrounding the University of Chicago relating to conflicts between university desires and needs and adjacent residential neighborhoods.

That planner, Naphtali Knox, still a consultant in the Palo Alto area, recognized the weakness of the General Plan, discernible one surmises through the layers of dust, and proposed a revolutionary change to the planning process.

Instead of creating a general document and multi-colored map that would run aground in the face of specific decisions, Knox proposed turning the process upside down. He would start with specific decisions, over a period of months and scores of meetings, and then based on those decisions the professional planners would draft a "Comprehensive Plan" that would reflect those real-world decisions.

That plan is sometimes referred to as the bible (lowercase b) of city development policies. Like the actual Bible, there seems to be something in it for everyone and anyone, but without the storytelling drama. And, like its namesake, it is often ignored in day-to-day practice.

Instead, since the 1980s in particular, the PC zone has grown in both usage and stature. It has survived repeated criticisms, and even a city auditor report, about providing far more benefit to the developer than it does to the community. It has been admitted that even most of the promised "public benefits" have been lost to memory or record, and there is little enforcement of the few that are known.

With each proposal being an independently negotiated deal for extra features in exchange for some kind of benefit, the question is being asked by a seemingly large number of residents: Why continue the Comprehensive Plan revision now underway at all?

That may be a fair question to which current city leaders and planners might pay more attention than they have in the past.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes regular blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).


Posted by Sam, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 18, 2013 at 6:08 am

If much needed PC reform gets turned into a blunt instrument as residents try to beat back the latest assault of commercial develop, they may take affordable housing down with it to the detriment of all of us.

Commercial PCs are the problem (don't we have enough offices from which we get no tax revenue?). Much needed affordable housing for residents is not the problem. Reformers must distinguish between the two and see they have a responsibility to foster an economically diverse community while looking out for their own interests.

Maybell is a good example - a scapegoat that detracts from positive PC reform. Maybell is a well designed project that depends, as all affordable projects do, on a complex web of funding and PC zoning. All affordable housing projects in this town have relied on PC zoning. So be very careful how you go about reform - you can do good or hurt a whole lot of low income old people, children and our community.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 18, 2013 at 7:10 am

My definition of "we'll designed" includes,fitting into the adjacent surroundings.

A 50 foot building dropped into an area with a 30 foot limit is hardly that.

Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 18, 2013 at 7:54 am

There will be no resolution of public benefits/planned community abuse until the Mayor Scharff and City Manager Keene decide that Palo Alto sits in a deep no-win development hole. When the history books are written for 2013, citizens will be puzzled how their common sense and sense of community failed to serve public interests. Citizens are alarmed and motivated by lack of due diligence and stewardship for residential neighborhoods jammed with 1500+ all-day commuter parked vehicles, gridlocked intersections, biking safety, and serial office buildings approved with totally inadequate on-site parking (sometimes no on-site parking at all).

The Mayor and City Manager know the objective facts, yet they abuse their duties by withholding the power of their offices. In this crisis Palo Alto does not need reluctant, timid leaders.

For the moment, I think that the professional city management (James Keene and Acting Planning Director Aknin)are not empowered by the City Council and are overwhelmed with the burdens from the developers who are rushing projects through the Planning Process. The serial findings of Negative Impact are simply irrational and unjustified.

Stewardship for Palo Alto starts and ends with Mayor Scharff. The first step would be full public disclosure of timelines and who is responsible for 3 key undermanaged projects.

1. Follow up to the Public Benefit Dear Colleage Memo March 27
2. Downtown Cap Study
3. Full study of traffic and intersections throughout Palo Alto

Each of these languishing projects must be fast tracked and completed not later than mid-2014..ample time for the November 2014 elections

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 18, 2013 at 10:12 am

>they may take affordable housing down with it to the detriment of all of us.

Wrong! So-called 'affordable housing' (AH) is NOT a benefit to Palo Alto. I have yet to see one convincing argument that it is. AH is used as a 'public benefit', as absurd as that is, to allow for high density residential development. AH has had sacred cow treatment for far too long. It is time to remove AH as a public benefit...because it is just the opposite.

In the meantime, all new AH projects should go into the elite neighborhoods in North Palo Alto. Then watch how fast AH gets delisted as a public benefit!

Posted by Jade, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 18, 2013 at 11:39 am

PC zoning is now leapfrogging into neighborhoods. PC zoning is being used to drop a 60 unit, 50 feet complex on 1 acre on Maybell in a residential neighborhood. Current residential zoning on that 1 acre is 15 units with a 30 feet height limit (RM-15).

Posted by Peter, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 18, 2013 at 12:47 pm

If you heard a developer approach a public official and ask, "what will it take to break the zoning laws so I can build what I want." Would you define this as a proposed public benefit , or would you simply label it as an attemted bribe. Remember the public has no say in defining the merits of a public benefit. Perhaps it should be relabeled as "developer benefit."

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Aug 18, 2013 at 1:46 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

As someone who was a PA Planning Commissioner when we wrote the 1970's Comprehensive Plan I am proud of that document and the innovations which it included such as three dimensional zoning that permitted housing above commercial uses on the same site. The plan was truly comprehensive and it was not enhanced by the later wide spread use of PC zoning.
PC zoning inherently lacks the integration and balance into the adjacent properties that was detailed in the Comprehensive Plan.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 18, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Peter Carpenter,

Do you happened to know who/how the 'affordable housing' element was wedged into our city?

Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 18, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Jay Thorwaldson writes:
"Why continue the Comprehensive Plan revision now underway at all?"

Good question.

The Comp Plan in Palo Alto is neither followed nor respected.

Also, as a charter city, Palo Alto is not required to have its zoning code be consistent with the Comp Plan. City Attorney Molly Stump said as much when she advised the council on August 8 to accept one of the two Maybell petitions and therefore rescind the Maybell Comp Plan land use change as it was "not determinative" for the PC.

Nor, I believe is the Comp Plan required to be regularly amended except for the housing element, which needs to be updated every 5 years (Someone chime in if I am mistaken).

But a Comp Plan (called a General Plan in most other cities) is required, and we had an excellent community process to produce the current version over 10 years ago. And while you can cherry pick something from it to align with almost any project, there are many overriding themes within it that are clear, should take precedence, and be followed.

The city needs to respect the current Comp Plan, and the best way to ensure that is via a city charter amendment to require consistency between the Comp Plan and zoning as is required in all California General Law cities, which comprise over 80% of California cities, as well as Charter Cities such San Marcus (San Diego County) that have amended their charter for that purpose. Web Link

Then, of course, we have to be diligent as citizens and make sure that Comp Plans through its amendments remains internally consist and reflects the desires of the community.

You can still allow PCs under that scenario, but each proposed PC would still need to be consistent with the Comp Plan. To make matters more explicit, just add that wording to the charter amendment.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 19, 2013 at 9:49 am

Not to worry, Mr Balin. There is never a discrepancy between the Comp Plan and a PC development. It is routinely amended to make it conform to each PC.

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