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BY ELAINE GOODMAN
Daily Post Correspondent
The Palo Alto City Council is poised to designate much of downtown as a priority area for new housing and jobs, but an ousted planning commission member has questioned whether getting housing built downtown is a lost cause.
The city is considering a tool called a Priority Development Area, or PDA, that is intended to concentrate housing and jobs near transit. The proposed 206-acre PDA for downtown would extend from the University Avenue train station about a half mile down University Avenue and also include the Stanford Shopping Center and the South of Forest Avenue area, or SOFA.
The City Council is slated to discuss a possible downtown PDA on Monday (Jan. 13).
The city Planning and Transportation Commission on Nov. 13 recommended that the City Council approve the downtown PDA. The commission also recommended that the council look at extending the downtown PDA along El Camino Real.
But commission member Asher Waldfogel, who has since been replaced, voted against the downtown PDA.
Attracting housing developers
Waldfogel said getting more housing built downtown was a major theme during his four years on the commission.
“We’ve implemented generous density bonuses. I think we’ve tried really hard,” Waldfogel said during the Nov. 13 meeting. “And we’ve gotten no takers so far. I’m not sure we understand why we’ve had no takers so far.”
On the other hand, he said, developers seem more interested in building housing in other parts of the city.
“There are other districts — El Camino, the San Antonio corridor — where the market seems to want to develop housing, and we’re lagging behind,” he said. “I mean we are several years behind even a process to develop a plan for those districts.”
“I’m not sure that we’re spending our money smartly if our goal is to get housing development,” Waldfogel added.
Removing barriers to housing
Commission member Michael Alcheck said he was more optimistic about the ability of a PDA to stimulate housing development downtown. The key, he said, is for the City Council to address major barriers to building housing.
“The parcel size in this zone … is literally too small to create that housing under our height constraints,” Alcheck said.
“If you were to adopt this sort of initiative, I think you would see results as our community begins to lower the restrictions and the barriers,” he added. “And I think that’s coming.”
Priority Development Areas are a concept created by two regional planning agencies: the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or MTC, and the Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG. The PDA concept is included in the MTC and ABAG regional plan, called Plan Bay Area 2040.
PDAs are seen as a way to reduce car trips in the Bay Area and protect open space. They also may help align cities’ goals for development with regional strategies, according to a presentation to the Planning Commission. Cities adopt PDAs voluntarily and can remove them at any time.
City eyes funds from grants
The PDAs also help cities obtain grand funding for transportation and planning improvements.
“The principle reason we’re pursuing this exercise is that we’d be eligible for funding,” Planning Director Jonathan Lait told the commission.
Waldfogel was also worried that even though there are currently no penalties associated with PDAs, the state might later decide to penalize Palo Alto if it wasn’t meeting certain PDA goals.
“I don’t completely trust the state as a partner in some of these processes,” he said.
Waldfogel’s term on the Planning Commission ended last month. Although he applied for another term, the City Council in a split vote replaced him with land use attorney Barton Hechtman. While Waldfogel received votes from three council members — Lydia Kou, Eric Filseth and Tom DuBois —four others voted for Hechtman. They were Liz Kniss, Alison Cormack, Greg Tanaka and Adrian Fine.
Palo Alto has one existing PDA, in the California Avenue area. Formed in 2007, it has resulted in two mixed-use developments, according to information provided by the city. One of those projects, on Cambridge Avenue, includes four housing units and ground-floor retail. The other project, on Birch Street, has eight units of housing and ground-floor offices.
Some have questioned whether PDAs are worsening the housing crisis. Greg Schmid, a former Palo Alto vice mayor, said in June that while jobs have been added in the PDAs, housing in those areas has lagged, particularly in the West Bay region between San Francisco and Santa Clara.
In a paper called “The Future of Jobs” released in May, MTC said that 750,000 jobs were added in the Bay Area from 2010 to 2018, but only about 100,000 housing units.
MTC spokesman John Goodwin said the agency doesn’t have data on how much housing versus non-residential development has been generated in individual PDAs. That’s something that MTC and ABAG are working on, Goodwin said, although he didn’t say how soon that information would be available.
Other cities have PDAs
Other mid-Peninsula cities have adopted PDAs. Mountain View has five: downtown, El Camino Real, San Antonio, North Bayshore and Whisman Station.
Although the city didn’t have figures available on types and amount of development in each PDA, Principal Planner Martin Alkire said there’s been “quite a bit of housing” in the El Camino PDA.
Menlo Park’s one PDA encompasses the El Camino Real corridor and downtown. Deanna Chow, Menlo Park’s interim community development director, didn’t respond to multiple requests for information on the PDA.
Redwood City has three PDAs: a downtown PDA, another for the El Camino Real corridor and a third in the Broadway/Veterans Boulevard corridor. The city isn’t currently considering any new PDAs, according to Acting Principal Planner Anna McGill.
McGill said information on how much housing vs. commercial development had been built in each PDA was not readily available. But she noted that there’s been an uptick in commercial development proposals in existing PDAs.
“The City Council is committed to making housing a strategic initiative and exploring ways to accelerate housing production both within PDAs and other opportunity areas within the city,” she said.