City Council Reviews the 2015-2023 Housing Element

On Monday Nov 10 @ 7:55p, City Council reviews the Housing Element (HE). The HE is a section of the Comprehensive Plan and the state requires updates every 8 years.  The next update is due to be certified by January 2015.  Join us to voice your thoughts about the HE (or write to [email protected]) in support.   

Some ideas/points to convey:  

  1. Share your story - who you are, where you live, what brought you to Palo Alto, and why you think Palo Alto needs better housing options

  2. Support the idea of shifting sites from south El Camino to Downtown & Cal Ave during the Comp Plan (and the right zoning/densities to enable that)

  3. Support new program ideas like: easier granny unit construction; pedestrian transit overlays for more housing nearer to Caltrain stations; specific plans in the Downtown, California Avenue and El Camino areas; removing maximum unit per acre restrictions in certain areas to allow for the creation of smaller units easier granny unit construction, pedestrian transit overlays for more housing, specific plans Downtown, Cal Ave and El Camino, removing maximum units to allow creation of more smaller units

Staff Report
Housing Element Public Review Draft

All municipalities are mandated by the state to submit a Housing Element that finds sites and zones for a certain amount of housing to keep pace with growth.  Cities do not have to actually build those units, they simply have to designate them as available in the Housing Element.

How does Palo Alto know how much housing to plan for in the HE?  A simplified explanation is that the state Housing and Community Development (HCD) department defines regional allocations.  For the Bay Area region, the members of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) developed a scoring mechanism to identify housing allocations for each municipality, called a Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA).  The full detailed methodology can be found here.

For this Housing Element cycle (2015-2023), Palo Alto’s RHNA was 1,998 units of housing.  (This is about 3.6% of Santa Clara County’s total housing need; by comparison, Palo Alto has 9.6% of Santa Clara County jobs.)  If Palo Alto doesn’t identify sites to meet those requirements, the city would be forced to find sites for those units plus units for the next allocation during the next Housing Element cycle, or be vulnerable to legal action.


Above is a map of the sites (p70 of the Housing Element Draft)– many are in South Palo Alto along El Camino Real, and tend to be small parcels, especially those near train stations. The Housing Element Community Panel suggested shifting sites from south El Camino to Downtown & Cal Ave during the Comp Plan (upzoning those sites would be needed to enable that).  The Housing Element and existing zoning code may not yield 1,998 constructed units (Palo Alto’s track record is typically 173 units/year or 1,384 units over eight years), but there are several new programs that if implemented, can help supply additional housing, especially if the housing is located service and transit (Downtown, Cal Ave, future El Camino Transit nodes)

We recommend council approve the Housing Element and strongly advocate for the following programs:

Program 1.1.2 (p129) Consider modifying development standards for second units, where consistent with maintaining the character of existing neighborhoods.
Palo Alto currently only produces 4 second units/year with existing second zoning standards. Many local municipalities (Menlo Park, Redwood City, etc) are also changing their standards to encourage second units.  In Portland, OR, 2009 changes in second unit standards and permitting process resulted in a sixfold increase of constructed second units.

Program 2.1.1 (p131) Consider amending Zoning Code to permit high-density residential in mixed use or single use projects in commercial areas within one-half a mile of fixed rail stations and to allow limited exceptions to the 50-foot height limit for Housing Element Sites within one-quarter mile of fixed rail stations.
If Palo Alto needs to find places for housing, sites near services and transit are the best places for housing.  If the city re-evaluates Housing Element sites during the Comp Plan, Downtown, Cal Ave and San Antonio parcels tend to be smaller, and would require different height limits, setbacks, etc. to accommodate the same number of units.

Program 2.1.10 (p133) Along El Camino Real (ECR), identify pedestrian nodes (i.e. “pearls on a string”) consistent with the South El Camino Design Guidelines, with greater densities in these nodes than in other areas.
This framework could provide better urban design guidelines, better transportation planning along ECR and ensure more compatible uses on parts of El Camino that back up directly to R-1 neighborhoods.

Program 2.1.11 (p133) Consider implementing the Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Development overlay for University Ave
This allows for different development standards for commercial and multifamily parcels around University to incentivize more housing near University Avenue

Program 2.1.12 (p133) Evaluate developing specific or precise plans for Downtown, California Ave. and El Camino Real areas
As discussed in a previous blog post, specific plans can create thoughtful design guidelines to create human scale and architecturally compatibility, and can help with transportation planning.

Program 2.2.8 (p135) Assess potential of removing maximum residential densities in mixed use zoning to encourage the creation of smaller units within the allowable Floor Area Ratio
This is especially important in order to create viable units and options for young professionals, seniors, or individuals interested in co-housing or supportive housing projects.

Program 3.3.7 (p143) Prepare a local parking demand database to determine different parking standards for different housing uses
Correctly sizing parking for housing projects is important, as parking spaces are expensive to build (especially underground) and contribute to increased housing cost (underground parking may contribute as much as half the cost of a new housing unit). Factors like the sharing economy and proximity to services/transit can also result in parking utilization rates that are much lower than planning standards require (typically 2 parking spaces for each 2 bedroom unit)

Because of the state deadline to certify the Housing Element, the City of Palo Alto wants to certify this version of the Housing Element quickly, but revisit the housing sites and programs during the Comp Plan process in order to connect the HE with the Land Use and Transportation Elements of the Comp Plan.  

Are there other housing program ideas that Palo Alto should consider as part of the Comp Plan process?  Share your thoughts with Hillary Gitelman, Planning Director ([email protected]) and Tim Wong, Interim Advance Planning Manager ([email protected]), and copy us ([email protected])


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