Density IS a Choice

For decades, Palo Alto has been a very desirable place to live.

Lovely weather, proximity to Stanford, excellent schools, abundant parkland, and magnificent open spaces by the bay and in the foothills.

A family-friendly, suburban town.

But something has changed. Gradual increases in population and density has morphed into a huge building boom in regional commercial space. In downtown, for example, office space increases in the last 5 years equal those of the previous 20.

We now have twice as many weekday inbound commuters as residents. This further exacerbates our region-leading imbalance between jobs and housing and adds pressure to build more residences. But in our built out city, trying to satisfy that need often leads to proposals for dense housing projects and housing on top of commercial developments. 

Residents feel the impact of these rapid changes on everyday quality life. This includes the inconveniences of increased traffic congestion and parking intrusion into neighborhoods; the jolt to the senses from uninspired buildings that maximize or exceed allowable floor area while stretched closer to the edges of the lot. And there are less visible costs, such as increase demands on our water supply, city streets, and safety services.

The overall result is a decided move to to a more dense, urban-like feel, but without either the infrastructure or residential majority to support it.

Part of the problem resides with the state, such the unelected Association for Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and its unreasonable housing allocations as well as financial incentives through grants designed to structure our town the way the state wants it to be, not necessary the way we do. As a council member, I will extend our city’s pushback on limitations to our local planning control by helping creating alliances with other municipalities in the region.

But much of our problem stems directly and solely from the actions and decisions of city staff and the city council.

Density is a choice. A choice Palo Alto makes through the candidates residents elect, and their follow-through in direction to city staff, oversight of boards and commissions, and votes on projects.

What has gone wrong?

Quite a bit:

- Failure to follow our Comprehensive Plan. 

- Exceptions to zonings, large and small.  

- Under parked projects, including:

Grandfathered credit for garage and parking lot spaces that no longer exist; outdated exceptions still active in the code for decades after they are needed; parking reductions for transportation demand management programs that are never monitored; highly outdated parking ratios. In the age of open space offices, Palo Alto's assumption of one office works for 250 or 300 square feet, is way too generous. The overall result is that for years, it is rare to find an office project in town that in any meaningful way fully accounts for the impact of its occupants.

- Planned Community (PC) Zoning District

 This design-your-own zoning option has brought us projects such as Alma Village and Lytton Gateway in exchange for limited public benefits and remains a long-standing problem in need of major reform or possible elimination. But alarmingly, recent project proposals have come forward through city staff and on to council consideration that make those earlier PCs seem positively miniscule. That includes the four office towers proposed for 27 University Avenue in 2011 and another huge office complex on a built out site at  395 Page Mill Road introduced in 2012.

This city council started out as one of the most pro-develoment in years, with those opposed to that trend, in a distinct minority. Increasingly the public sensed a problem that a council majority either did not, or would not, act on.

Along with many others residents, I set aside time last year to support the referendum to oppose the Maybell Avenue PC -- not to curtail senior or affordable housing, which are community needs I support — but to say that overdevelopment, including the PC process, with its visible carrot on one end, and overlooked community impacts on the other, has gone too far. Last November's decisive vote was the catalyst for the recent change within city hall and on the current council, as well as for my personal decision to become even more involved in ciivic matters.

Will the recent reversal in attitude on the city council continue or fade on the vine after the November 4 election? 

That is far from clear or certain. This election is yet again another crossroads. I began my campaign efforts early this summer and, I consider this effort a fight for the soul of this city I love. With your help, I can become part of new council majority focused on resident priorities. Please join me to protect the Palo Alto we value so much.

Here's what do we need to do:

First, we need to change the focus from developer to residential interests.

 I will work to end the current Era of Exceptions by:

- Respecting our current comprehensive plan and enforcing our zoning ordinances that stem directly from it.

- Approving only high quality projects that improve Palo Alto.

- Insists that all environmental studies consider cumulative impacts of other developments in the pipeline or likely to be developed.

- Rejecting zoning exceptions in size, mass, and scale.

- Insisting that projects are, in reality, fully parked.

- Maintaining support for the 50-foot height limit.

- Protecting proper setbacks from the property line

- Curtailing the expanding definition of design enhancement exception at the Architectural Review Board and variance at the Planning Commission.

- Oppose transition from ground-floor retail to office, and work to reverse that trend

- Support efforts to retain neighborhood-serving retail

 

Together this will provide more certainty for applicants and save everybody time and the questionable use of limited city resources .

 The Comprehensive Plan states, and I agree, that Palo Alto needs to "support commercial activities but not at the expense of our residential neighborhoods.” I will hold us to that wise statement of purpose. 

  

But these steps are not enough. 

Our current Comprehensive Plan and the zoning in place that follows from it is generally quite good. But exceptions have thrived for so long, that we have come to point that even with their elimination, too much redevelopment under current zoning can tip us further along an irreversible path. For example, replacing a or one or two-story commercial building in one of our downtown cores with an allowable three story building adds even more office space. 

 We are rapidly reaching the limit in the amount of additional commercial space we can reasonably absorb in certain areas of town. 

Therefore, we need to institute a firm and reasonable cap on commercial development in certain areas now.

Also,we should institute some reasonable zoning adjustments to help insure buildings are less massive. This could include an increase setbacks and light planes, as well as a decrease in floor area ratios. 

Density is a choice.

On the housing side, the large increase in office space continues to exacerbate both the availability and cost of housing. Renters, and particularly seniors, are at risk, due to escalating rents during boom cycles such as this one and the associated demand for office space, our limited housing stock, and the amount of land left to develop.

This year, I was selected to join the citizen's advisory group to the Housing Element update of our Comprehensive Plan, so I am very aware of both the responsibilities and the challenges we face. I support:

- Diversifying  our housing stock with more one bedroom and studio apartments, near our downtowns as a means to maintain a diverse population a well as help meet our ABAG housing allocation.

- Placing affordable housing near services and public transportation. However the current proposals put over 50% on El Camino Real at the south end of town. Rather, more should placed between downtown and California Avenue.

-  Efforts from the city to broker an agreement as the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park site between the owner, the residents, financiers, and affordable housing advocates to fund plan that would either pay the property owner the value of the land while enabling the residents to remain or give them priority for other affordable housing within Palo Alto. 

- Beginning work now on a specific are plan for the Fry’s area, a large non-conforming commercial use area, but zoned for residential. The amortization period for return to residential zoning as well as Fry’s lease will end soon. While I hope that Fry’s will remain in Palo Alto, it is highly highly expected that this large site will be redeveloped. This gives us a great opportunity to possibly replicate the success of the South of Forest Avenue (SOFA) area plan that brought us housing and Heritage Park.

 

With regard to our treasured open spaces and parklands , I will

- Continue our historic efforts to protect parks, open spacesand wildlife corridors.

- Press for additional protections for city-owned recreational treasure, such as Gamble Gardens and the Winter Lodge, via formal parkland dedication.

 

Conclusion

We have an opportunity to re-invent the modern town – a family friendly place to live with open space and great neighborhood. An environmental leader, close to a vibrant university, complemented with innovative new and established companies, while also remaining a highly desirable place to live.

 

It can easily tip away from a eminently livable community. Some feel it already has.

 

It will take leadership, experience, dedication and sincere love and appreciation for this time town to turn back the tide.  

 

I ask for your support of candidacy in that shared effort.