This story was originally published Nov. 19 in the print edition of the Daily Post.
BY ELAINE GOODMAN
Daily Post Correspondent
Palo Alto is looking at reducing parking requirements for new multifamily housing projects in the city — including affordable and market-rate projects — as a way to encourage development of more housing.
The proposal is contained in an ordinance that City Council is scheduled to vote on Monday, Nov. 26.
Other ideas in the ordinance include relaxing requirements for ground-level retail in affordable housing projects and streamlining the review process for multifamily housing proposals.
Open-space requirements for new housing are also covered in the ordinance, including standards that would be applied when rooftops are used as open space.
“The value of the proposed ordinance is that it streamlines project review, increases unit density, adjusts parking requirements to be more aligned with industry standards and modifies other development regulations that constrain housing development,” City Manager Jim Keene said in a report to the council.
The ordinance is a product of the city’s housing work plan that the council approved in February. The proposals were reviewed by the Planning and Transportation Commission during a series of meetings this year. The city also hosted 16 meetings with architects and developers to discuss the proposed changes.
In addition, a community meeting was held in June, where a range of perspectives were expressed on the city’s housing crisis and potential solutions — particularly parking.
Consultant’s view of parking demand
The proposed reduction in parking requirements for multifamily housing is based partly on a consultant’s study that reached what may be a surprising conclusion: Parking supply is greater than demand for market-rate as well as affordable housing in Palo Alto.
Consultant Fehr & Peers looked at parking demand at nine multifamily housing projects in the city. Parking demand was highest at market-rate projects and lower at affordable or senior housing projects, the study found.
One of the sites studied was The Marc, an apartment complex that is 0.7 miles from the downtown Caltrain station. The project provides 0.92 parking spaces per bedroom, but peak demand is only 0.58 spaces per bedroom, according to the consultant’s report.
“This suggests that there are opportunities to reduce parking requirements without creating spillover impacts or an undersupply of available parking,” Keene said in his report to the council.
Some residents who attended the community meeting in June were skeptical about the study.
“The study seems deeply flawed and counterintuitive to neighborhood experience,” one person said in written comments. “Seriously, in five years, the entire city will need RPP (residential parking permits).”
New parking requirements
New housing projects are now required to supply 1.25 or 1.5 parking space for each studio or one-bed-room apartment, respectively.
The proposed ordinance would reduce that to one parking space per unit for either unit type — and to 0.8 parking space per unit if the housing is within a half mile of a train station. Those projects would be required to provide annual transit passes to residents.
Two parking spaces would be required for each housing unit with two or more bedrooms — the same as the current requirement. That would be reduced to 1.6 parking spaces per unit for projects close to the train station. Additional parking for guests would not be required.
For affordable housing projects, developers now may ask for a parking reduction from the city, which reviews the request and then approves or denies it.
The proposed ordinance would give affordable housing a parking reduction “by right,” meaning without a review process. The reduction is 20% for low-income housing, 30% for very low and 40% for extremely low-income housing.
What about retail?
Another issue addressed in the proposed ordinance is the impact of ground-level retail requirements on housing development.
While preserving ground-level retail has been a goal in some parts of town, some have said that objective is at odds with affordable-housing development.
A representative of the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing told the council in February that his organization was looking outside Palo Alto to build low-income homes because it wasn’t able to get grants and tax-exempt bonds that require developments to be 100% affordable housing.
“Mixed use is great, but it can’t get in the way of getting housing units built,” commented one person who attended the city’s community meeting in June.
Others were more supportive of retail.
“If trade-off is necessary, (I’m) OK with prioritizing housing over retail,” a resident said in a written comment. “But (I) would prefer mixed use, and support increasing height limits to accomplish this.”
The proposed ordinance would exempt 100% affordable housing projects from the retail preservation requirement, except along El Camino Real, and in the city’s ground floor and retail combining districts downtown and in the California Avenue District.
Regarding open space, the ordinance would allow rooftops to qualify for up to 75% of the open space requirement for multifamily projects downtown; or 60% of the open space requirement in the California Avenue district or along El Camino Real.
The city zoning code requires open space for residential uses in commercial districts. Standards would apply to the rooftop open space to address privacy, noise, visibility, odors, and safety, the city said.