Housing Design Challenges in Palo Alto

According to a recent October study[1], Palo Alto has the highest rents in the country, with a median rent of $3,645/month. Given the city's limited space, is it possible to accommodate future homes in Palo Alto?



Challenge #1: Where exactly can you build housing in Palo Alto?

According to the recent draft Housing Element, “The City is nearly built out, with only 0.5% of the developable land vacant and no opportunities to annex additional areas to accommodate future housing needs” [pg 2, 2]. The Element states high land costs and small lot sizes make it tremendously difficult to create more residential units. However, we can see how to use zoning techniques to build enough residential units at human scale - even on these small lots.

Below, the Housing Element, Housing Resources and Sites Chapter, provides an inventory of availability of sites for housing [pg 59, 2].

The Housing Element and the Association of Bay Area Government (ABAG) predicts that between 2014 and 2022, Palo Alto will need 1,988 housing units to account for future “population and employment trends” in Santa Clara County and to meet ABAG's Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) requirements. [pg 53, 2]

Observing this map, a majority of available housing sites are commercially zoned parcels. The Housing Resources and Sites Chapter states that the commercially zoned sites have a realistic housing capacity of 855 units, or 43% of the required housing units needed to meet RHNA requirements [pg 65, 2].   

The Housing Element Community Panel also recommended evaluating these sites during the Comprehensive Plan process, to explore shifting some South El Camino sites to more transit oriented locations, such as Downtown, Cal Ave and transit nodes on El Camino. Many of these sites will be small so it will be important to begin thinking about creative ways to design housing on these smaller, transit oriented lots.

Challenge #2: How can you design denser housing in Palo Alto?

"Many people are inherently afraid of what they don't know. They know what traditional suburbs look like, and downtown San Francisco, but not that you can do something in-between in a respectful way." - Shiloh Ballard, Silicon Valley Leadership Group. [5]

In the South Bay, existing zoning regulations favor suburban housing models. However, density is not binary, there is a spectrum.  Can we look at slightly denser housing, especially in slightly denser downtown areas, without reaching Downtown San Francisco or Manhattan levels?


Image provided by the Los Angeles Planning Department.

For example, a typical single family residential home is about 8 dwelling units per acre. Here, an image taken from Visualizing Density[7], shows an 6.8 dwelling unit per acre neighborhood in Emeryville, California:

Next to El Camino Real, here are some Mountain View townhouses [7] at 15 dwelling units / acre.

Next to the Hayward BART Station [7], here is a 27.7 dwelling unit/acre townhouse neighborhood.

City governments have a powerful tool called zoning. According to the City of Palo Alto's Types of Zoning Codes and Formats: Discussion Paper: “Zoning allows a local government to control and regulate the uses and characteristics of buildings, structures, and land within its boundaries” [6].

For example, with zoning, one can regulate the type of available uses (i.e. residential, office, retail, entertainment, etc.) and the dimensional standards of each parcel (i.e. maximum height, maximum building coverage, dwelling units/acre, building setbacks) [6]. For housing, zoning also governs the amount of units you can built per parcel.

This is what a single family residential zoning district ordinance looks like (Single family homes (zoned R-1) make up 24% of the City of Palo Alto's land use) [Ch 18.12, pg 4, 8]:

This is what a zoning ordinance looks like for multi-family housing zoning districts in the City of Palo Alto. [Ch 18.13, pg 4, 8]. RM-15 refers to 15 dwelling units per acre, RM-30 is 30 dwelling units per acre, and RM-40 is 40 dwelling units per acre.


However, current zoning and development codes do not address the current housing constraints in Palo Alto.

It's important to begin thinking a little bit about how these rules help or hinder creation of new housing, and ultimately contribute to the local & regional housing supply. These numbers actually make a big difference in the amount of additional housing units made available in a parcel.

Here is a diagram of setbacks provided by the City of Pasadena's Community Development Department for a single family house.

In the Hayward and Mountain View images above, notice that different setbacks have increased the number of homes. At the same time, the homes are built at a human scale: they are 2-3 stories high, with access to well designed shared open spaces in the center of the neighborhood.

Now that we understand the role of zoning in shaping communities, what are some best design practices other cities have done?

Several cities have created neighborhood specific plans. These allow for site-specific zoning regulations that are unique to the neighborhood.

The Downtown Mountain View Precise Plan regulates the design of the neighborhood at a block by block scale. Here is a map of the Precise Plan below [pg 3, 3]:

For each portion of the neighborhood, it provides visual guidelines that helps the reader identify how the buildings will look like. For example, this is an example of what residential, office, and retail would look like on Hope Street on Section G, the Transit Center Block [pg 67, 3]

In addition, specific policy guidelines can make a big difference in shaping the design of the neighborhood.
If you read the Transit Center Block Development Strategy Guidelines on the left [pg 65, 3], pay attention to the wording. For example:

“The focus of this area will be on ground floor retail stores and restaurants that extend Castro Street storefront activity to the Transit Center. Residential uses should be primarily located on the upper levels, not on the ground floor, particularly in the block closest to Evelyn Avenue[pg 65, 3].

This strategy makes a big difference in deciding where to place housing. Rather than trying to identify empty vacant lots, this strategy places retail right within walking distance to housing, and utilizes existing parcels. In addition, building within walking proximity to major amenities can reduce the need to drive long distances.

In addition, as buildings get taller, it is still completely possible to create upper story setbacks to still add open space for the tenants and owners of the building. Here is an image from the Castro Street Historic Retail District, Section H [pg 93, 3].

Can these guidelines be applied to Palo Alto in order to better utilize small lots and be compatible with existing neighborhoods?

These design guidelines are compromise strategies. They recognize the future regional growth of the San Francisco Bay Area, and provide development standards while recognizing the local neighborhood context.

In conclusion, it is completely possible to regulate the physical form of the building to allow for more flexibility. However, much of changing zoning ordinances at a neighborhood scale requires a strong cultural shift: population growth is going to be inevitable in the San Francisco Bay Area. It's all a question of how you manage and design for it.


  1. It's Official: Bay Area Rents Are Absolutely Crushing New York's: http://sf.curbed.com/archives/2014/10/22/its_official_bay_area_rents_are_absolutely_crushing_new_yorks.php
  2. City of Palo Alto Draft Housing Element, 2015 - 2022: http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/42391
  3. Downtown Mountain View Precise Plan: http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/42391
  4. Downtown Redwood City Precise Plan: Building Height and Disposition: Regulations: http://www.redwoodcity.org/phed/planning/precise/FINAL-DTPP/DTPP-Downloads/14%20Height%20Regulations.pdf
  5. Mountain View stuck in past when it comes to housing policy. San Francisco Chronicle: http://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/place/article/Mountain-View-stuck-in-past-when-it-comes-to-5519893.php#/0
  6. Types of Zoning Codes and Formats: Discussion Paper. City of Palo Alto: http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/news/displaynews.asp?NewsID=787&TargetID=239
  7. Visualizing Density Image Gallery Search: http://www.lincolninst.edu/subcenters/visualizing-density/gallery/index.aspx
  8. City of Palo Alto Municipal Code http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/8694

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