Palo Alto: Housing Initiative Could Usher in Below-Market Units

2018-03-08 | Palo Alto Daily News

March 08 -- Palo Alto Housing says it could build hundreds of affordable dwelling units in Palo Alto if the city allows denser projects near transit corridors.

"Certainly, we can add a few hundred units to the affordable housing stock," said Candice Gonzalez , president and CEO of Palo Alto Housing .

She was referring to a recent City Council proposal to enact an initiative that would allow parcels within a half mile of major transit stops such as portions of downtown, El Camino Real and California Avenue to be redeveloped to higher density if 100 percent below-market housing units are built on them.

Currently, developments cannot exceed 40 percent of a parcel's size or rise taller than 35 feet in those transit zones

The initiative would allow five times the density and buildings 50 feet or taller, a city official said. Properties that are currently zoned for commercial uses in the transit zones also could be redeveloped for affordable housing.

That would coincide with the city's goal of adding between 3,545 and 4,420 new units by 2030. According to the Association of Bay Area Governments , 1,258 new below-market units are needed in Palo Alto to meet its part of the state's housing goal by 2023.

The city's Planning and Transportation Commission is set to discuss the initiative at its meeting on Wednesday. One issue that will likely be debated then is whether citywide ground-floor retail protections would apply to affordable housing projects and how flexible parking requirements could be. The council is then expected to discuss and possibly approve the initiative in April.

"The key question is to what extent could an affordable housing developer be able to waive requirements for retail," said Jonathan Lait , the city's assistant planning director. "We previously recommended that the council have the ability to waive requirements if it's in the public interest (but) we're contemplating some changes. ... It's just a matter of finding where the wiggle room is."

Gonzalez said if retail protections are not waived or significantly reduced, Palo Alto Housing may not find it feasible to construct Wilton Court, a housing development of 61 below-market units on two parcels it owns at the intersection of El Camino and Wilton Avenue , because it wouldn't qualify for state and federal tax credits. Half of those units would be geared for adults with developmental disabilities.

Palo Alto Housing has 10 other properties in the city that could be redeveloped to higher density with affordable units, Gonzalez said, and there are additional properties near transit it would consider purchasing for affordable developments if the city enacts the initiative.

"We would be more interested in purchasing (property) if the city waived retail or significantly reduced it," she said.

Properties within transit zones wouldn't automatically qualify for high-density affordable housing developments if the initiative passes, Lait said. Projects would still need to go through the public review process on a case by case basis.

Palo Alto Forward , a local advocacy group pushing for the Wilton Court project, is urging the city to boost allowable densities even higher along California and University avenues and to expand the initiative to Stanford Research Park and the city's general manufacturing areas. Palo Alto Forward board member Elaine Uang said without the initiative, the city will continue to lag on new housing.

"The rules in place are 40 years old or more and they're outdated," Uang said. "The reason why a lot of housing projects ask for exemptions is the rules are very restrictive. ... We're tired of seeing housing projects get quashed for a number of reasons."

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