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Palo Alto approves new housing vision
Gennady Sheyner | Palo Alto Weekly


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Without a peep of public protest or a single dissenting vote, Palo Alto adopted on Monday night a new vision document aimed at guiding housing development for the next eight years.


The City Council voted 8-0, with Vice Mayor Liz Kniss absent, to adopt a Housing Element for 2015-2023, a strategic document that is mandated by state law, and gets integrated into the city's Comprehensive Plan. The document lays out the city's strategies for accommodating its "fair share" of housing, as determined by the Association of Bay Area Governments through the Regional Housing Needs Assessment.


The assessment requires Palo Alto to plan for 1,988 new housing units in the Housing Element time frame. Many of these can simply be rolled over from the prior Housing Element, leaving city planners with a far less daunting task of finding sites for just 369 units. Of these, 250 units could be accommodated by Stanford University's housing developments at California Avenue and El Camino Real and another 82 are part of the mixed-use project at 195 Page Mill Road.


The new policies in the Housing Element primarily aim to encourage housing near the city's two transit hubs downtown and around California Avenue. In these areas, the city would consider "limited exceptions" to the usual 50-foot height limit for new buildings.


The Housing Element also pegs some sites on El Camino Real and San Antonio Avenue, though staff and council members have acknowledged that these sites are less than ideal and they are in the document primarily as a placeholder while the city considers other policies for encouraging more housing downtown and around California Avenue. The idea is to eventually trade out the San Antonio and El Camino sites for the ones in the transit-rich areas.


Another policy in the new document aims to tighten the city's below-market-rate requirements for new developments. Currently the requirement to designate a portion of a residential development as affordable housing applies to projects with five or more units; the rule change would make it three or more.


The two newest policies added to the document include consideration of a new "pedestrian and transit oriented development" overlay for University Avenue, a zoning designation that offers density exemptions for developments near transit; and a program that provides incentives for consolidation of small lots to create greater opportunities for building affordable housing.


The council quickly approved the document Monday night, with several members praising the process used to put the document together. The only criticism came from Gail Price, who argued that the document doesn't go far enough. It includes no zone changes and bold proposals for new housing, but does include 32 granny units in the total. Price said she is supporting the new Housing Element "reluctantly" and "with some pain."


"I think we're being extraordinarily timid," Price said.


Several nonprofit organizations and residents also argued in letters to the state Housing and Community Development that the document doesn't go far enough to encourage affordable housing in a city where housing is notoriously unaffordable.

Resident Edie Keating wrote that given the current development climate in Palo Alto, the "likelihood of low or very low income affordable housing is zero unless more supportive policies are required in Palo Alto."


Other council members had only good things to say about the new Housing Element and the way the city got to it. While the prior version was years overdue, this one was created on time and after collaboration with a communitywide stakeholder group.


"It was a long and arduous process in some ways," Scharff said, noting all the work done by the committee and the specially formed working group. "I thought it was a great process – very thoughtful and very helpful."


Mayor Nancy Shepherd agreed, saying "You made it look easy this year."