The City's influence over development is predominantly through zoning. One of the key roles of zoning is to fairly share civic infrastructure among all the property owners. City Hall has, and is, allowing excessive development to overwhelm our infrastructure: our streets, parking, schools, parks, and other civic facilities. City Hall has allowed this through:
- Persistent failures to update the Zoning Ordinance for new realities, such as the increased density of workers in offices.
- Under assessing developments for their impacts.
- Increasing densities allowed based upon unsupported assumptions, such as there being viable public transit and other infrastructure.
Another key role of zoning is to provide for a balance of the many types of land-uses needed for a city to serve the needs of its residents. Different types of land-use have different values. Without zoning, this balance would be destroyed as properties migrated to the uses giving the highest financial return. Zoning maintains this balance while allowing property purchasers to base their offers on what gives them a reasonable return-on-investment. Alma Plaza is a prime example of what happens when this system breaks down: A developer was able to flip the majority of the property for more than 3 times his purchase price on the expectation that he had the clout to get a zoning change contrary to the City's Comprehensive Plan.
Balance means more than just the infamous Jobs-Housing Balance. It includes land-uses such as retail. City Hall doesn't seem to understand that there are many important subcategories of retail and that they need different conditions to thrive. Palo Alto is increasingly becoming a place of coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques, with the places that people like me use to shop have closed or moved (Redwood City and Mountain View).
City Hall's development policy is dominated by the New Urbanism/Smart Growth ideology. It’s a feel-good dogma that breaks down when you start looking at details and spotting the contradictions. For example, New Urbanism calls for
Most things to be within a 10-minute walk but its adherents don't hesitate to put a major housing development over a mile from its elementary school and where the children would have to walk along busy commercial streets and cross El Camino.
Listening to the advocates, I hear a vision focused on high-income people and those without children. I work in residential real estate and that is not the Palo Alto my clients want. And it certainly isn't the Palo Alto that I moved to and wants to maintain. If you ask, these advocates may acknowledge that Palo Alto is a built-out city, but that disappears from their proposals. We cannot continue to approve developments based on assumptions that the impacts will be significantly less than what experience has shown. Or that mitigations, such as broadly viable transit, will magically become available. We need to be realistic about funding and politics.
Many of our problems, and constraints on how we can address them, come from outside: from regional agencies (ABAG, VTA, MTC) and from the State Legislature. To have a reasonable chance of getting heard, we need to have a coalition of cities that have similar problems, and the best chance for that are Council members who are intent on making that happen.
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