Development: Balancing: History (personal)

Introduction: This is a collection of events that I am aware of and regard as significant in the evolution of the view of how to balance development (especially housing and office) in Palo Alto. Consequently, it is biased toward events involving the neighborhoods and normal residents.

During the development of the current Comprehensive Plan (early 1990s), it was recognized that the previous CompPlan had gone far overboard in pushing the conversion of commercial properties to housing - especially along El Camino - and there was limited success in reversing the process. The battle over the Fry's property was suppressed because ground water contamination would provide a reason/excuse to defer conversion for many years.

In the mid-1990s, a prime commercial property on El Camino (at Los Robles) was converted to housing, partly because of zoning but also because it housing already had higher returns than retail. The local neighborhood association (Barron Park) worked hard to retain this property as retail both because of its individual significance and because it linked other retail properties (both issues had come up during the CompPlan workshops). Despite attempts to highlight this as a warning sign, it went unheeded by the City.

During the Internet bubble, offices were crowding out retail leading to "ground floor retail" restrictions as a temporary, piecemeal measure as it became a problem in successive business districts. This displacement of retail lead to broader perception among residents of its importance.

Starting in the late 1990s, leaders of the Midtown neighborhood became very involved in promoting their retail area. Other neighborhoods, such as Barron Park, were involved in promoting/protecting important retail operations.

The El Camino Real/Caltrans Design Study (2002) involved representatives of most of the adjoining neighborhoods and several of the major retailers. A major focus of the design was to make El Camino better support retailers (and the residents of the nearby neighborhoods who would shop there). As a side-effect, this provide a forum where residents learned directly from the retailers what were their most pressing issues and the retailers found contacts among residents to help push their issues.

The update of the Housing Element of the Comprehensive Plan (2001-2002) dictated the conversion amount of retail and potential retail properties to housing. The proposal was developed by Staff with public hearings largely restricted to housing advocates. The initial proposal was defeated when residents packed the Council Chambers and argued for the need for balance (my presentation was typical), but a slightly scaled back version was passed when the City Manager told Council that further delay would put the City at risk of sanctions from the State (questionable assertion since many other cities were in similar situations). Although the need for additional sales tax revenue was already a major issue, the economic implications of these decisions were not part of the discussions by the Staff or the Council. This was the decision that finalized the conversion to housing of Palo Alto's prime location for a big box retail or auto mall (the old Sun site at San Antonio and 101).

The e-mail lists and discussion groups of neighborhood associations also greatly expanded knowledge of these issues. Coverage in the newspapers had been primarily after-the-fact announcements that provided little opportunity for involvement. With residents now having more information about the issues and alternatives, meaningful participation grew.

The opportunity to easily distribute analyses directly to residents also raised the visibility and credibility of the people who had been arguing for balanced growth: On those limited occasions when they were mentioned in the newspapers, they were often cast in the light of NIMBYs (Not In My BackYard) or obstructionists or anti-business ideologues.

The impact of these e-mail lists is reflected in the 2003 State of the City speech by Mayor Mossar: "Neighborhood associations have banded together to create large and small e-mail communication networks that have changed the lobbying landscape significantly from the days -but six years ago- when a neighborhood typically fought its battles in solo mode. The business community, in an attempt to level the playing field, is trying to find an effective way to respond."

The attempt by Hyatt to build housing far beyond the allowable zoning at the Rickey's site was a thread that the more you pulled on it, the more things unraveled. Attempts to analyze the impacts of the proposed development revealed other pending developments that would impact the same resources (schools, streets, parks, ...). This led to a series of articles in the local papers (spring/summer 2005) about the amount of housing in the pipeline.

In 2003, Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), the umbrella group of neighborhood associations, published a series of Guest Opinions and held a forum on the importance of retail in the development equation ( > Surveys) followed by another forum in fall 2005 on Balanced Growth.
(Disclosure: I am a neighborhood leader, a co-chair of PAN and an organizer of that forum.)

A high-density housing development at 800 High sparked intense opposition from a wide range of residents who put a referendum on the fall 2003 ballot to overturn the City Council's approval of this project. The referendum was narrowly defeated after the developer waged an intense (and expensive) campaign. The debate over 800 High convince many residents that the City - both staff and Council - was overly enamoured of high-density housing development and was paying little attention to impacts.

Council's willingness to allow the 800 High developer to substantially exceed the housing density established by the site's zoning created great concern that this would further accelerate the conversion of commercial properties to housing. The existing economics provided a much higher return for developing a site as housing than as commercial, so worn-out commercial buildings were being replaced with housing, but increasing the density allowed shifted the balance even further, putting thriving businesses at risk:

The Stanford-Mayfield agreement was negotiated in private and presented to the community as a "take it or leave it" deal, although some minor adjustments were subsequently made. The City's representatives in this negotiation were focused on housing and youth athletic - the presentations show no evidence of attention to a range of other issues, such as city revenue. The corner of El Camino and Page Mill had long been viewed as a site for a hotel, but was not assigned to being soccer fields. Hotels are highly desirable commercial developments because they have low impact (they cost the City little) and the full room tax (officially Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT)) goes to the City, whereas the City gets only a small portion of property tax and sales tax. However, this concern got no traction in the press.

The deal also converted the edge of the California Avenue Business District adjacent to the Stanford Research Park from commercial to housing.

The original deal did not take into account many of the impacts on the adjoining neighborhoods, but some of these impacts - such as providing smoother transitions from single family to high-density housing - were mitigated in the revised agreement.

The debate over this project widened the preception that the City joined developers as an advocate for high-density housing projects and did not adequately assess the impacts and alternatives.

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