Originally published Feb. 4, 2019
BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor
Should the state punish a community because it has high-quality schools?
State. Sen. Scott Wiener’s new bill to stimulate the construction of housing includes a gun pointed squarely at Palo Alto and Los Altos, with their high-performing school districts.
Last year, Wiener unsuccessfully pushed Senate Bill 827, which would have forced cities to allow housing developments up to eight stories within a half-mile radius of every Caltrain station and a quarter mile from bus stops where buses run every 15 minutes during commute times.
Eliminating local control
Cities across the state fought the measure because it would eliminate local zoning control and allow for taller buildings along transit routes, such as El Camino Real.
Palo Alto generally doesn’t allow buildings taller than 50 feet. Affordable housing advocates argued SB 827 would be a giveaway to developers, who have an easy time replacing rental homes for the poor with luxury condo complexes.
SB 827 died and this year Wiener is back with Senate Bill 50, which attempts to respond to the critics.
The new bill lowers maximum building heights to five stories. And SB 50 has provisions to protect rental housing from redevelopment.
But there’s something new in the bill that caught my eye. The old bill defined the target zone for high-density housing to places around bus stops and train stations. The new bill expands that area to places with a “proximity to jobs, high area median income relative to the relevant region, and high-quality public schools…”
Sounds like Palo Alto and Los Altos to me.
The bill defines places with good schools and jobs as “high-opportunity areas.”
My concern is that if SB 50 passes, Palo Alto and Los Altos will become “high-opportunity areas” where a developer could build a high-density housing project on any parcel zoned residential, and there wouldn’t be much that residents could say about it.
I want to see more housing, but not in neighborhoods full of single-family homes.
Where should new housing go?
That should be a local decision. I don’t want to replace the judgment of our local city council members and planning commissioners with that of Weiner and his buddies in Sacramento.
While Wiener’s previous bill failed, this one has more supporters.
He now has the very vocal housing advocates on his side because he added protections for existing low-income housing.
Big businesses are supporters as well, which figures since this approach will cost them less than if they were required to create housing when they build more offices.
And while Gov. Jerry Brown was lukewarm on SB 827, Gov. Gavin Newsom is more likely to sign SB 50 given his goal of building 3.5 million new homes in seven years.
Palo Alto’s pitch to Wiener
Tonight (Feb. 4), Palo Alto City Council members will meet with their Sacramento lobbyist. I don’t think council should give the lobbyist orders to kill SB 50, because the general intent of the bill — to create housing along transit corridors — is a worthy objective given the magnitude of the housing shortage.
The city needs to take a more nuanced approach.
Our lobbyist should try to convince Wiener to amend the bill so that it doesn’t label all of Palo Alto and Los Altos as a high-density housing zone. Palo Alto can argue that it is taking the challenge of creating more affordable housing seriously without being hammered by the state.
In the past two months, council has approved ordinances allowing for higher housing densities downtown, in the California Avenue district and along El Camino Real.
That’s proof that the city is moving in the direction Wiener intended, and his provision targeting communities with good schools and good jobs would be overkill.
Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.