Palo Alto should start building affordable housing above city-owned parking lots downtown and in the California Avenue district.
The benefits are two-fold — supplying more housing and bringing back foot traffic to stores and restaurants.
In addition, the city can do this at a minimal cost to the taxpayers.
City Council discussed this last Monday and it seemed as if the council members, City Manager Ed Shikada and other city employees didn’t know that Burlingame and Mountain View were already turning parking lots into housing at a low cost to their cities.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, let me make a few points.
One of the largest costs a housing developer faces is the cost of land. But a city can lease a parking lot to a developer for zero rent for maybe 50 or 75 years. That reduces the cost of building the homes, making such a project more likely to pencil out.
The city needs to allow the developer to have a mixed-use project, with a combination of market-rate and affordable housing in the same building. On a long-term basis, the market-rate rents will subsidize the affordable apartments. Retail on the ground floor is also a good addition, in that those rents can also go for subsidizing the affordable units.
Mixed-use also makes the project profitable, which is essential for attracting developers. And if these developments pay for themselves, the taxpayers don’t have to pay for them.
Such a project could also provide as much public parking as the parking lot it replaces. Of course that adds to the cost of a development. But the city has a $15 million parking fund with money paid by developers who didn’t provide enough parking for their projects. Perhaps that money can pay for the public parking component of such a development?
Another advantage of building housing on parking lots is that it will increase foot traffic in commercial areas. Council members always talk about how they want to increase “vitality” in a commercial area. Housing in or near a commercial area is the key to increasing vitality.
Consider Redwood City. For years its name was “Deadwood City” because the sidewalks rolled up at 4 p.m. and there was nothing to do downtown. Go to downtown Redwood City now and you’ll see it’s hopping with people. That’s because the council decided to allow new apartment and condo buildings there. The people who moved there wanted something to do at night. Restaurants and retailers were happy to oblige.
Palo Alto’s downtown has a couple of problems. First, it depends on downtown workers. But now that work-from-home has become de rigueur, those office workers aren’t downtown anymore. And there aren’t a lot of people in their 20s or 30s living near downtown. They can’t afford the rent. The neighborhoods to the north and south are heavily populated with grandmas and grandpas — not the demographic associated with vitality.
Somebody once remarked to me that Palo Alto has got to be the world’s biggest outdoor nursing home.
I fear that the Residentialists on council will stand in the way of housing on parking lots. Every politician says they’re for more housing, but the Residentialists always find ways to torpedo it. These developments will exceed the 50-foot height limit and they’ll balk at that. But they won’t be located in residential neighborhoods surrounded by one-story homes. They’re going up in commercial areas where many buildings already exceed the 50-foot limit.
And housing won’t have any impact on nearby neighborhoods.
In downtown Palo Alto, there are three surface parking lots that are ripe for such development:
• Lot D, Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street, across from the Post Office.
• Lot O, stretching between High and Emerson streets, next to the Aquarius Theater and across from Jing Jing.
• The lot in the 500 block of High Street, behind Mac’s Smoke Shop and Bell’s Books.
Let’s get going.
Council on Monday (Dec. 6) took a baby step in the right direction by telling City Manager Ed Shikata to issue a request information from interested developers. That’s a tentative step that falls short of a formal “request for proposals” that would give council something to consider.
The Palo Alto council might benefit by holding a joint study session with members of the Burlingame City Council and city planners to ask them about their project. Or Mountain View’s council. And the Palo Alto council could learn a thing or two about downtown vibrancy by having a pow-wow with Redwood City leaders. Instead of reinventing the wheel here in Palo Alto, how about we ask our neighbors how they tackled these problems?
Oy vey! Pastrami, rye
A few weeks ago I mentioned that downtown Palo Alto needs a good old fashioned Jewish deli. I heard a lot of agreement from people hankering for a pastrami and rye sandwich, matzo ball soup or potato knish.
Coincidentally Chabad MidPen, an Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement, had a pop-up deli yesterday. It worked like this. People placed online orders earlier in the week, and then picked up their food at a Redwood City home.
Of course I put in my order and when I got there yesterday, there was a line of six people in front of me. It looked like people were thrilled to pick up their orders. I had a pastrami and rye plus some matzo ball soup. It was delicious. The proceeds will benefit a senior program the Hasidic group has. Hats off to Ella Potash, wife of Rabbi Levi Potash, who organized the pop-up deli.
Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is [email protected].