Responding to new state laws, Palo Alto is preparing to revise its approval process for new housing projects.
Instead of subjective guidelines that force developers to ensure their projects fit into the surrounding neighborhood and give city leaders ample leeway to demand revisions, the city will now rely on “standards.” objectives’ – clear rules which, if followed, will allow housing projects to gain approval in a streamlined process.
The city has been developing the new objective standards for over a year, with the Architectural Review Board holding 11 public hearings on the project and the Planning and Transportation Commission holding three. Both panels had supported adoption of the proposed objective standards, which the board is expected to review and possibly approve on August 16.
Explaining the effort, Jodie Gerhardt, responsible for the City’s current planning, noted that some residential projects are no longer required to go through the City’s discretionary review. Without clear “objective standards,” the only rules the city would be able to enforce are height limits and setback requirements, Gerhardt told about 25 people on Monday during a virtual webinar on the effort.
âAs a city we believe in high quality developments, so we would like to have more standards,â said Gerhardt. âWe take our current design criteria and turn them into objective standards so that we can maintain this high quality development. “
The new standards cover elements such as facade design, building volume and open space requirements. They approach these elements with striking specificity, requiring, for example, a minimum facade break of 4 feet in width, 2 feet in depth, and 32 square feet in area for every 36 to 50 feet of facade length of a building. The new standards specify that when a building is less than 40 feet from an adjoining structure, no more than 15% of the surface facing that structure must be made up of windows or other glazing. They also dictate how far an upper story should be set back when a new development is next to a much smaller building (6 feet). And they require that every building with three or more stories have a differentiated base, middle, and top.
While the new rules aim to give the city more leverage on housing projects, public reception so far has been mixed. Some of the attendees were irritated with the way the rules deal with height limits, especially for buildings in or near RM-40 zones, which allow up to 40 units per acre. Under existing laws, new projects within 150 feet of residential areas have a height limit of 35 feet. However, RM-40 zones are excluded.
Several residents of the Mayfield neighborhood, including those at the Palo Alto Central condominium complex, urged city staff on Monday to close the gap and give their zoning district, RM-40, the same protections against buildings. taller than other areas. Area resident Terry Holzemer suggested that treating RM-40 differently from other neighborhoods “is not fair or equitable for tax-paying residents like everyone else who owns property in this city.”
Others feared that replacing contextual guidelines with objective standards would lead to projects that did not fit their particular neighborhoods.
âEither way, rejecting the context-based design, it seems like it’s all happening,â said Mayfield resident Peter Shuler. “And I think you have to be really careful before you say, ‘We’re not going to take the context any more, we’re just going to drop things off and put a nice front on them and that’ll make them fit in. “”
A member of the Architectural Review Board had similar doubts about the new rules. David Hirsch, the only board member to vote against the proposed objective standards, suggested that the new mandate that requires all buildings three stories or more to have a clear base, top and middle is too restrictive . He pointed to several recent residential developments that have gained council approval despite not following unguided ones.
“There are so many other good ways to do it,” Hirsch said at the March 18 meeting, just before the Architectural Review Board votes to approve changes to the city’s development standards. “And I think even if you look back at Wilton Court or if you look at the Page Mill project, Windy Hill – these projects violate the idea that it is a base, a milieu and a a summit. Certainly, they’re not of that ilk. For that reason, I don’t think we should pass that on unless we change that aspect. “
The Planning and Transport Commission also supported the new objective standards. At their June 9 meeting, the commissioners agreed that these rules should also apply to projects in âpublic facilitiesâ areas, which include the former parking lot of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority at 2755 El Camino Real , where developer Windy Hill Ventures is currently building a 57-unit Residential Development. The only commissioner who expressed her dissent was Doria Summa, who noted that parks and public places are also generally included in this zoning designation.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck noted that the new rules would make it more difficult for the city to reject projects that meet quantifiable standards. At the same time, objective standards would prevent certain developments from obtaining automatic approval without meeting a clear set of design rules. He alluded to Cupertino, where a large mixed-use project known as Vallco Town Center was approved through the SB 35 process despite opposition and litigation from opponents of the project.
âI think objective standards are a NIMBY nightmare,â said Alcheck, using the acronym mockingly which means âNot In My Gardenâ. âAnd, frankly, the consequences of not adopting objective standards will be a NIMBY nightmare. We have been judged, like a number of local municipalities, and our subjective standards are too good to stop housing development – in essence, restricting housing development. offer that is at the heart of the entire housing crisis. “
The new city rules also provide flexibility for projects that want to deviate from objective standards. Those who do, however, would now be more eligible for streamlined approval. Chris Wuthman, director of Stanford University Real Estate, suggested this could create a barrier for affordable housing projects.
Palo Alto’s new standards, Wuthman noted, do not recognize the differences between rental and sale plans for buildings and between more or less affordable developments.
âThe hope is that the standards are not such that they unwittingly force more affordable projects to use this alternative route and lose rationalization,â Wuthman said.
However, most members of the Planning and Transportation Committee and the Architectural Review Board agreed with planning staff that the new standards, while imperfect, are a valuable tool in ensuring that the city has a say in new residential developments. Gerhardt noted that the rules would only apply to three types of projects: those that are 100% residential, mixed-use projects that are at least two-thirds residential, and those that provide transitional housing.
Osma Thompson, chairman of the Architectural Review Board, acknowledged the “philosophical concerns” surrounding the new objective standards – in particular, concerns about whether the new objective rules can lead to the creation of large buildings. The new rules, however, are “the result of a lot of input and a lot of effort to make them as good as possible,” Thompson, who supported the adoption of the standards, told the planning committee during the meeting. June 9 meeting.
A June report from planning director Jonathan Lait notes that design standards “aim to strike a balance between prescription and flexibility.”
“They are intended to lead to buildings which implement good design principles and which present an acceptable level of articulation and detail,” says the Lait report. “However, because these standards are objective, they cannot anticipate all the different types of buildings and unique architectural designs that a developer may want to achieve.”