Responding to recently approved housing legislation, the Palo Alto City Council kicked off on Monday the complex and at times contentious process of revamping the city’s rules for approving new residential projects.
The goal of the effort is to establish new “objective standards” – clearly defined rules that will govern the designs of new buildings. Unlike existing rules, which tend toward more subjective guidelines such as neighborhood compatibility, the new ones are clearly measurable. They cover everything from parking lot sizes and window styles to yard dimensions and the building’s “vertical rhythm.”
Like other cities, Palo Alto is revising the rules in response to recent state laws such as Senate Bill 35 and Senate Bill 330, which effectively ban the city from turning down qualifying housing projects based on subjective criteria that are open to interpretation. The new “objective standards” — which by definition require “no personal or subjective judgement” — address this by giving the city a suite of tools to steer new developments toward officially sanctioned designs.
The specificity is at times striking. One proposed rule specifies that an upper story of a new building that is next to an existing structure must have a minimum façade break of 5 feet in width, 2 feet in depth and 32 square feet in area for every 36 to 50 feet of a building’s façade length. Another proposed rule states that buildings that are greater than 25 feet in height and 70 feet in length and that face a public street shall not have a “continuous façade plane greater than 70% of the façade length without an upper floor modulation, which can include bay windows.”
The council’s Monday discussion was the first of a series of public hearings on the new objective standards, with the next one set for Oct. 25.
Planning Director Jonathan Lait said that the goal of the endeavor is to take existing subjective standards and “make them objective so that we can continue to honor our interest in these design criteria or these aesthetic standards that wouldn’t otherwise apply if one of those qualifying housing projects come forward.”
“There’s been some concerns that we’re removing some aspects of the code and that it’s weakening some of the standards, but the intent here is really to strengthen those things that this community over the years has really embodied in terms of design and aesthetic interests,” Lait said.
The new proposal is the product of more than a year of public hearings and conversations between city staff and local architects, developers and consultants. This included eight meetings with the full Architectural Review Board and five more with the board’s specially appointed ad hoc committee, as well as three hearings in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission. Both boards ultimately voted to approve the package of revisions prepared by staff, even though some Architectural Review Board members expressed concerns that the new rules are a bit too prescriptive and may lead to a “cookie-cutter” design. Osma Thompson, chair of the board, said Monday that even with that concern, the new standards will “push designers toward a pretty good cookie at the end of the day.”
“We’ve attempted to formulate this document with utmost intent of promoting high-quality design in Palo Alto,” Thompson said. “We’re aware of other cities and other projects that create guidelines, and we intend to continue monitoring the implications these standards have on projects and intend to revisit as necessary in the future.”
Not everyone is thrilled about the new rules. Some architects have suggested that they are too restrictive. Architect Heather Young pointed to a new provision in the objective standards that requires a side-yard setback of at least 10 feet. The provision, she noted, would significantly reduce the building width on a 50-foot lot on El Camino Real, creating “awkward and unappealing massing.”
“The idea that good — or even acceptable — design results from the overlay of one-size-fits-all fixed dimensional requirements on all projects, regardless of site, use, context, or style, is an illusion that completely misses the opportunity and nuance that take our cities from rote need fulfillment to delight,” Young wrote.
Some residents also took issue with the new rules but for the very opposite reason. The new objective standards, they argued, would not be as effective in protecting existing neighborhoods from new developments as the existing design guidelines.
The umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, which includes representatives from various local neighborhood associations, contended in a letter that the process for adopting new design standards is flawed because it sought little public input (aside from developers, architects and consultants); it did not include an analysis of any impacts; and it did not include clear comparisons between existing rules and the ones proposed.
“The proposed ordinance removes privacy protections for residents near new development and deletes long-standing context-based protection rules,” Sheri Furman and Becky Sanders, co-chairs of Palo Alto Neighborhoods, wrote in a letter to the council.
There are at least two projects in the city’s development pipeline that would be immune from the city’s changes. One is a proposal from Sobrato Organization for an 85-townhome development at 200 Portage Ave., next to the building that until recently housed Fry’s Electronics. Another is a 48-home development that SummerHill Homes plans to construct just east of Greer Park, at 2850 Bayshore Road. Both are relying on the streamlining provisions of Senate Bill 330, which freezes the development standards that the city has in place at the time of the application and precludes the city from changing the rules or requiring lower density.
Of bigger concern to Palo Alto staff is Senate Bill 35, which creates a streamlining process for residential developments in cities that fail to meet their housing targets under the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process. That means that in Palo Alto, which is far behind the regional mandate for below-market-rate housing, projects that offer affordable housing are eligible for streamlined approval. (Palo Alto has, however, produced enough market-rate homes over the current housing cycle to preclude market-rate developments from relying on SB 35’s streamlining rules).
That, however, may change in the next eight-year cycle of RHNA, with the city facing a mandate of creating 6,086 dwellings between 2023 and 2031. If the city falls behind, these developments will proceed through the streamlined process. Objective standards will then be the city’s primary method for asserting its design preferences.
“Four years into our RHNA cycle, if we’re not on pace to meet our market-rate housing production, then that’s when these objective standards are really going to kick in,” Lait said. “That’s what we’re preparing for and trying to anticipate through this endeavor.
The council agreed that the exercise is well worth pursuing even though council members weren’t ready to immediately approve the multitude of code changes proposed by staff. Some members suggested additional focus areas. Mayor Tom Dubois and Vice Mayor Pat Burt both wanted to see more provisions that protect residents’ views. Council member Greer Stone favored greater attention to resident privacy.
Council members Eric Filseth and Lydia Kou both urged a cautious approach, noting that the council may not have the option of undoing any of its efforts to loosen the zoning rules. Filseth pointed to what he called the “growing spiderweb of state mandates” and suggested that legislators have shown that they are “very serious about getting into the municipal architecture business.”
“This is not the state imposing stuff on us,” Filseth said of the proposed objective standards. “This is us preparing for the state imposing stuff on us.”