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About this blog: I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to the area in 1963 when I started graduate school at Stanford. Nancy and I were married in 1977 and we lived for nearly 30 years in the Duveneck school area. Our children went to Paly. We moved ...  (More)

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Palo Alto Housing Element Update

Uploaded: May 2, 2014
Palo Alto has begun the process of updating the City's Housing Element (HE). The process is well summarized in a memo to the Council's Regional Housing Mandate Committee (RHMC), which meets next on May 8 at 4pm at City Hall. click here. There is a citizen advisory committee that has been meeting. More information is available at click here.

The City is looking to identify sites that could hold roughly 2,200 units by 2023 to meet state and ABAG planning requirements. All of the sites proposed by staff have existing zoning and virtually all the new units would be in multiple-family structures with a few potential "granny" units as part of the proposal.

My understanding is that approval of already zoned units on these sites cannot simply be dismissed by the council except in extraordinary circumstances, e.g. toxics on the site.
So even people who think (incorrectly) that they can stop all condo and townhouse developments should be interested in having a voice on which sites are selected.

There are at least three important decisions described in the memo to the RHMC.

One decision is whether to eliminate some sites in the current HE (that are mainly in south PA) and replace them with units in downtown and Cal Ave, I like this idea.

A second decision is how much housing to plan for on the Fry's site. It is the ONLY site under discussion with the potential for a large number of new units.

A third decision is about some sites along San Antonio.

All of these choices are described in the memo.

My understanding is that even if a different council is elected in November, these choices will need to be made and that just "no" is not a legal option.
Please discuss the choices and not whether you like that they have to be made. To clarify another point, the HE is a planning requirement but the sites under consideration have a legal right to be developed under current zoning should an owner wish to do so.

Comments

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sean, a resident of Midtown,
on May 2, 2014 at 7:26 pm

Deleted.

SL: The fact that the housing sites identified for the HE are legal derives from the zoning and not any state/ABAG planning mandates.

If you want to participate in this blog, please share your views of which sites make the most sense to include in the HE and read the staff report in the link as it provides helpful information.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 3, 2014 at 10:48 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

If readers click on the link at the end of the first paragraph and scroll down to the bottom of the page, they will find the Excel site selection tool developed by staff, a color coded map with housing sites in the current HE and other sites proposed for consideration by staff and a list of advisory panel members as well as other relevant information.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by in-laws, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 4, 2014 at 2:57 pm

I like the idea of legalizing in-law units as SF recently did in Castro/Eureka Valley. The units are pre-exisiting and already being rented out (illegally). This is an easy and low-impact way to our low-income housing requirement for ABAG.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 4, 2014 at 5:48 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

@ in-laws

Right now staff is including 32 such units in the HE site inventory because the city has been approving roughly 4 per year.

My understanding from the meetings is that there are lot size restrictions that would have to be removed to make a larger number possible. I support such action and the meetings noted above provide opportunities for residents to weigh in.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 7, 2014 at 8:40 am

Steven Levy,
I don't think anyone has ever suggested outlawing condo units. I think you may be misinterpreting a fundamental disagreement in how density rules are applied. This Council would always assume they could put the highest density in a transition zone, then apply bonus density rules to that. This has the effect of allowing three times the density in and next to residential areas despite inconsistecy with the comp plan. Or has Ouncil overtly done away with those inconsstencies? Please tell.

Also, most of the rules do allow for changes when safety is at issue, but for lack of any clear guideline, our Council just ignores safety. It's time we got separate safety and traffic circulation elements as befits a City with our issues. Then we could stop unsafe and hugely impactful developments because we would know what our infrastructure could take instead of treating it like black box until it's too late. And we would know how to asses those things nd stop all the politicl arguing because there would be guidlines. Until then, there will be lawsuits.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sean, a resident of Midtown,
on May 7, 2014 at 11:00 am

deleted


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 7, 2014 at 11:15 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

@ resident

I am sure there are disagreements about density.

If you do not like some of the housing sites selected by staff, I started this blog to give readers a chance to suggest alternate sites.

I have suggested more sites downtown and around Cal Ave to replace some of the smaller sites in the south and changing rules to allow more second units.

Frys is the one big site added by staff that could house a substantial number of units.

My understanding from staff that no units in their proposals would require a change in zoning/density currently permitted.

What are your thoughts on what sites should be in the HE?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 7, 2014 at 5:21 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

@ resident

I agree that guidelines and safety and traffic circulation are important.

But these are reasons to plan wisely and to invest in solutions, not to me reasons to stop development.

For "transition" areas, the operative word is transition, meaning change will occur.

There is no way that Bay Area communities will wisely plan for and absorb the growth in jobs and residents unless density changes in some parts of most communities. The challenge is to plan with a positive approach, which for me means concentrating the growth and leaving many single-family neighborhoods mostly the same.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 8, 2014 at 8:30 am

Stephen,
With all due respect, "transition" zone means, in the code, going from an area of higher density to an area of lower density, because abrupt changes in density have well-known negative urban imoacts. That is all. It is not by any stretch of the imagination a call to change the zonng. There is a range of allowed density in transition zones, and where those areas abut residental areas, they are supposed to be on the LOWER end of the density range, for important reasons. City Council has been ignoring that and only applying the high end of the range. Citizens have recourse against that misuse of the zoning, or at least, they did.

[portion deleted]

As for where to find more units, how about allowing existing properties to apply to gradually increase density from within, such as in a recent thread on potentially allowing Channing House increased zoning so they could divide units as they are vacated and being upgraded? (I'm sure you could find the thread by searching on Channing House.) Focus on older properties that have larger units anyway, and where the change might be a desirable choice. Then the building is already there, the change would be gradual, and there would be less of a negative impact now and when the next bust happens.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 8, 2014 at 10:49 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

@resident

This is the dictionary definition and common meaning of transition.

"the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another."

In PA experience my block has transitioned from what it was in 1950 as have many areas of Stanford campus, Hamilton Avenue, Welch Road, the Stanford Shopping Center, etc. In all cases "transition: has meant a move to higher density to accommodate growing numbers of jobs and people. That is now going on for Waverley Avenue outside my back window as happening around the region. It is the natural response to growth and change.

As to your idea for older properties, come to the RHMC meeting today and offer your suggestion.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 8, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Deleted.

SL: Disrespectful and not responsive.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 8, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Stephen Levy,

I quoted the dictionary, city code and the Comprehensive Plan.

You said, "For "transition" areas, the operative word is transition, meaning change will occur. "

No. "transition has a specific meaning in regards to the City Code and Comprehensive plan. It has nothing to do with transitioning to a city of high density. I has to do with rules for transitions from areas of higher density or non-residential use, to areas of low density.

For the record, why have a blog if you can't handle quoting the comprehensive plan and City Code when they show you are wrong?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 8, 2014 at 7:08 pm

And by the way, my quoting the other definition of the "dense" from the dictionary was no less valid than your completely inapplicable definition of the word "transition" when applied to transition zones such as RM-15 Multifamily residential, such as I was alluding to in my first post.

These are not areas designated for change, they are areas that connect (transition) from areas of one type of zoning to areas of another type of zoning. Those transition zones are supposed to be on the lower end of the density scale when transitioning to residential areas, but City Council always interprets the highest density range. But no one reading this is really going to understand because you deleted where I quoted from the City Code and Comprehensive Plan.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 8, 2014 at 7:13 pm

"I agree that guidelines and safety and traffic circulation are important.

But these are reasons to plan wisely and to invest in solutions, not to me reasons to stop development."

Let's start with guidelines for safety and traffic circulation. We have no explicit guidelines, rules, visions, or programs for safety in our Comprehensive Plan, safety is included as a vague afterthought in our natural environment element, which was probably okay in our early days when a volunteer City Council sufficed.

We should make safety and traffic circulation the priorities they are, by having separate Safety and Traffic Circulation elements in the Comprehensive Plan, and making their following mandatory, not just suggestions.

If developments are unsafe, sure they should be stopped. Are you suggesting developments should proceed even when they are unsafe and significantly hurt traffic circulation in contravention of state mandates?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 8, 2014 at 7:18 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Resident,

Exactly what applicability does your argument about the Comp Plan have to do with selecting sites for the housing element, which is what this blog is about?

What are your ideas for which sites being considered should be selected ow which other sites should be substituted?

Suggesting that other people (not you) subdivide their sites is hardly a serious alternative. Would you include large single family homes or just places like Channing House, where I assume you do not live.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 8, 2014 at 8:55 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Resident,

If you only want to ask questions that make no specific connection to the sites under consideration by the council and advisory committee and not respond to my questions back to you, you are free to start your own blog.



 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 8, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Stephen Levy,

You asked me: "would you include large single family homes or just places like Channing House, where I assume you do not live."

I never even suggested single family homes.


[portion deleted}

I am suggesting places like Channing House. [portion deleted] I'm suggesting we make the option available to property owners and residents who WANT it. Channing House currently is not zoned for more units. But giving the owner the option to add more through some gentle densification isn't likely to cause any of the kinds of ills that were opposed at Maybell, could be an advantage to the owner and supported by the residents, and in a place where the services already exist. Why do you dismiss it offhand as not a serious alternative?

Other older housing stock should be identified to be OFFERED such an opportunity. What is wrong with doing things in a way that works for everyone?"

{portion deleted}


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 8, 2014 at 10:09 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

I started this blog to inform readers about the housing site options being considered by council and the citizen committee building on the staff proposal.

Only two readers have responded so there seems to be little interest.

Proponents of the idea of allowing more units at Channing House could have but did not come today or to other public meetings but they have not.

It seems to me given the 2,000+ units needed in the HE and the relatively small number at Channing House and the even smaller number who would make this choice AFTER the zoning is changed in what could only be a long and uncertain process, that proponents of offering choice to residents would have considered offering the choice to single family homeowners to change zoning and increase density on their sites, which would produce a large number of units.

But I guess offering choice broadly is not what resident had in mind. Why choice for Channing House residents but not interested homeowners? Choice is choice.

As to this repetitive safety and traffic posting, my offer remains--take a look at the sites proposed by staff, tell readers which ones you don't like and offer a similar number of other units.

Be aware that staff feels the housing element will be rejected by the state if it is based on speculative unadopted zoning changes. That is why staff proposed only sites that do not require a change in zoning.

That is why examination of the actual sites proposed by staff and council is required to have a meaningful discussion.

There will be more public meetings for readers to come and make proposals. Two new ones were offered today.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 8, 2014 at 10:27 pm

"Proponents of the idea of allowing more units at Channing House could have but did not come today or to other public meetings but they have not."

Based on my experience with coming to public meetings during the Maybell process, even if we show up in historically large numbers, it makes not difference. I tried to just go down to Council to make a statement Monday but had no time. It's time Council made it possible for citizens to participate remotely, because not all of us have the time to go to all these meetings, especially those of us with kids and other responsibilities. Not that it seems to matter if my opinion conflicts with what Council already wants. My opinion seems to be equally dismissed whether I show up at a small, large, meeting, or write an email, so I may as well be ignored by email.

You go to the meetings, though, Mr. Levy, I would like you to consider taking the idea of allowing owners of already dense housing to be allowed some gentle densification. The many existing senior complexes may be able to take care of all the upcoming senior needs -- and it makes sense, because if the need reduces again, they could remodel for larger units again if that meets their needs.

Council says that about not putting things that require rezoning in the Comp Plan, but they inserted Maybell anyway. But any reservations would stem from probably conflict -- if Council puts out a call to owners of apartments and other community buildings and asks who would WANT to increase their density if the City allowed them a zoning variance, that would be different, there would already be buy in before the rezoning.

Offering the choice to single-family homeowners is different because dividing a single-family house makes a duplex, which changes the neighborhood and potentially the property values of those around. Allowing an existing high-density apartment to densify a little more won't involve really changing the land use, and may not even involve increasing traffic such as if Channing House and similar senior communities did so.

You go to these meetings - all conflict above aside, I read your blog because I find it informative. I would like to convince you to take the idea seriously and bringing it up the next time you are at a meeting.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Susan, a resident of Midtown,
on May 11, 2014 at 7:32 am

"Be aware that staff feels the housing element will be rejected by the state "

What does the state have to do with it? I did not think that the HE was part of a state mandate.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 11, 2014 at 8:25 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

Susan,

The first line in the staff report in the first link in the blog says the HE must be adopted and accepted by the state by January 2015. Read the link report for more information.

My understanding is that staff wants to make sure that the sites included are credible for the state review.

That is why residents with opinions should get involved in the discussion.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Susan, a resident of Midtown,
on May 11, 2014 at 10:37 am

"The fact that the housing sites identified for the HE are legal derives from the zoning and not any state/ABAG planning mandates."

Steve, I am confused. You said the above, and I am under the impression that state mandates are driving this HE effort. Please allow me to ask my question this way: If there was not a state mandate, would we be doing this HE effort?

With regards and respect,

Susan


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 11, 2014 at 11:40 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

Good question Susan thanks.

The HE includes housing policy statements that can be unique to Palo Alto and, yes, the HE is part of the Comp Plan.

The state requirement relates to one part of the HE, which is to identify sites that could hold the number of new housing units required by 2023 under the state's regional planning allocation for the Bay Area and ABAG's share of that regional total for PA.

To clarify a point that has been confused in these TS discussions, the state's regional planning target had absolutely nothing to do with ABAG's growth forecast that I participated in. It was done prior to and apart from ABAG's regional growth forecast.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 15, 2014 at 2:15 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

There is a Weekly story today about a proposal for housing on El Camino where the owner is asking for an increase in density.

I am informed by staff that if this increase in zoning is approved from 11 to 21 units, then 10 fewer units would be needed in the new Housing Element.

My understanding from the press coverage is that this development would have 42 parking spaces and a 20 foot setback.

As a choice among alternatives for the new Housing Element, might this not be a better choice?

The city council does not get to put 0 units in the Housing Element. They are going to put the required number of sites in the plan. The choice is which ones.

This kind of choice is why I started this topic inviting residents to weigh in knowing that some sites will be chosen.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 28, 2014 at 9:51 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

The next housing advisory committee meeting is tomorrow at 4pm at Avenidas on Bryant downtown to discuss sites for new housing and housing policies.



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