On Deadline: America's 'urban' growth outpacing overall density — Palo Alto feeling it? | September 20, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 20, 2013

On Deadline: America's 'urban' growth outpacing overall density — Palo Alto feeling it?

by Jay Thorwaldson

Palo Alto isn't the only area of the nation that is experiencing increased urban density.

While the City Council struggles with how to launch a "Transportation Demand Management," or TDM, program to cut down on auto use (see Weekly story on Monday night's council meeting), a number of residents are clamoring for something even bigger: one could call it a "Growth Demand Management" program.

But isn't that what the city's Comprehensive Plan and companion Zoning Ordinance are supposed to be?

Palo Altans like to think of their town as a suburb. It has its own "urban forest" and deep-green environmental policies. Yet it seems awash with proposals for mostly large-scale projects that exceed the restrictions of existing zoning. The projects have stirred up residents in one part of town or another and the city is now attempting to quantify the extra return for the developer versus to cost of promised "public benefits."

Of course Palo Alto is not an island unto itself. Whether most of residents like it or not, it is deeply enmeshed in (and in part responsible for economically) the surge of regional urbanization that is the second highest in the nation, as reported by the U.S. Census for 2000-2010.

The San Francisco-Oakland area combined with the San Jose (read "Silicon Valley") weigh in at about 6,000 persons per square mile between them, trailing only the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim region, with nearly 7,000 persons per square mile. Comparative growth rates are 12.1 percent for urban areas versus just 9.7 percent for overall growth.

Palo Alto is smack dab in the middle of the second and third most densely urbanized areas in the nation.

Lifelong Palo Altan John Northway is an architect who has witnessed the transition of his home town from a rural/suburban mix to increasingly urbanized city. He doesn't like all he sees.

Over the years, he has tried to do what he could to minimize the harsher edges of urbanization, such as the oversized, overly modernistic buildings that are today's fashion. Northway served six years of the city's Architectural Review Board (ARB), which he chaired, and four years on the Planning and Transportation Commission. He also co-chaired a committee on second-story overlay zoning in predominantly single-story neighborhoods, and chaired a task force on homelessness.

He spearheaded formation of the first Leadership Palo Alto program in the mid-1980s, designed to better equip future leaders with a knowledge of history, trends and issues.

"We've been transformed into an urban area," Northway said of his community. Not everyone agrees, he added. Even some city officials seem to have the "same sort of denial that we have about global warming."

Denial is easier due to quickly accessible open-space lands looming to the west.

"With the foothills being open we can sit back and see all this rural area," he said.

Yet he has deep concerns as urbanization continues its seemingly inexorable creep forward into virtually every corner of town, and into neighboring communities.

One impact felt by many residents is traffic and parking overflow — both symptoms of urbanization. Parking problems can be a side effect of both bigger buildings and tighter work spaces within existing buildings, as some residents have noted.

Yet Northway recalls a time when parking was considered even less important in the approval process for projects than it is today.

"When I was first on the ARB, the city traffic engineer produced a 'mitigated EIR' (an environmental-impact report saying any impact could be mitigated) relating to parking and traffic near the (Stanford) shopping center." The engineer was called on that decision, but the city seems to have regressed.

"All these things add up," he said of parking concessions, such as a (downtown) Parking Assessment District that doesn't provide enough parking for those who work in the area and the general lack of overall integrated planning.

More intensive use of space, itself driven in part by sky-high rents, has added to the parking overflow into neighborhoods: "A requirement of four cars per 1,000 square feet was fine when everyone was in separate cubicles. Now people are working close together at tables."

Rising commercial rents — especially in downtown Palo Alto — has driven businesses out. Northway's own business, Stoecker & Northway, was forced to relocate from its longtime location on Lytton Avenue to a commercial pocket near Highway 101 and San Antonio Road when rent jumped from $3.75 per square foot to $6.75 per square foot, consistent with a general rent range as high $5 to $7 per square foot.

No wonder employees find themselves in tighter work spaces.

So revamping and tightening parking requirements may be a first step toward controlling size of buildings and the density of employees.

What's needed now to offset or reverse some impacts is "some creative planning," even in the face of a car-dominated lifestyle and economy, Northway feels.

"The entire basis for all of California is the single-occupant car," he noted. The dislocation of jobs and housing and an inadequate transportation network combine to make today's urbanization a crisis.

"If we really want to address the issues of urbanization effectively we've got to think outside the convention. We should look at a policy of getting jobs to move to the Central Valley, to put them where people can afford to live."

Northway's core message "has always been to try to define a problem before jumping to a solution," he noted. Yet defining the problem first is not the custom. Americans are great jumpers after solutions first, and then wonder why there's still a problem.

"We need to get past the anger and denial about urbanization and begin to plan what we can do about it to minimize its impact on our quality of life."

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


Like this comment
Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 23, 2013 at 8:54 am

New Economy Workers Everywhere. No Housing Anywhere. What's next is obvious: Micro-Apartments

Palo Alto is already talking about very small housing units primarily for single workers.. PBS Weekend News last night gives us interesting insight for an entirely new type of Palo Alto housing and residents. Take a look

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Julie
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 23, 2013 at 1:09 pm

I appreciate the need for these tiny units, however, if they're built in Palo Alto they will discourage children and families which has been the basis of Palo Alto's neighborhoods since it's inception.

Is Palo Alto prepared to embrace the future, or continue to encourage housing that will accommodate families with children?

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 24, 2013 at 12:44 am

When I was a student for quite a while I lived in a "studio" apartment, is what they were called back then. That was fine for me, and may even have been fine for me and one other person for an amount of time. It's a good idea. If they are built well, energy and space efficient and have enough parking and do not allow too many people to live in one unit, I don't see a problem to have some of these small rental units.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.