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Housing Element Program and Density Bonus Ordinance
Jan 152014

On January 13, 2014, the Palo Alto City Council passed two ordinances modifying CN-15 zoning (Neighborhood Commercial) and implementing the state mandated Density Bonus Law. A comprehensive discussion of California’s Density Bonus Law is provided on these pages with references to Palo Alto Staff Reports and California Code.

The last page of this article provides access to the video transcript of the meeting, including presentations by PASZ members Bob Moss, Susan Fineberg, Cheryl Lilienstein, Fred Balin and Joe Hirsh..

Dealing with California’s Density Bonus Law in Palo Alto

A Residents Report

Prepared by Fred Balin 1/9/14

A proposed Palo Alto implementation of the state’s Density Bonus Law (DBL) will come before the full city council this Monday, January 13 for discussion and possible adoption. (Staff Report available)

The DBL allows a density bonus, a parking reduction, and 1, 2, or 3 concessions for any project which meets a minimum threshold of “below market rate” (BMR) residential units, a generic acronym I will use throughout this report.

Because of its negative impacts on a predictable and well-planned zoning code, the DBL is disconcerting for many residents.

Even though Palo Alto has a long-standing and generous inclusionary zoning program that has led to the development of over 1,800 BMR rental units and an ownership total I do not know, but may be in the hundreds, it carries no weight within the state’s DBL.

Moreover not only is local implementation required, but until it occurs, the more general state code remains in effect and completely controls, which may be making matters worse, as detailed later in this report.

The goal in crafting a local density bonus ordinance is to make the best of a bad situation.

This report is designed to provide residents with background on this important yet complex item.

Unfortunately many sections of the local DBL implementation are fixed by state law, but there are areas where Palo Alto can, and via its process has, customized it. Now I hope you will evaluate those areas as well as familiarize yourself with other key facets of the proposed ordinance, which will be vetted on Monday, unless the meeting runs late and council calls it a night before reviewing this final item.

The city process on this issue has been “go-slow-go.” A very informative and productive hearing at the Planning Commission in October of 2011, then nothing for 13 months, then two more meetings in 2013 concluding in front of a minority of faces still on the commission from the 1st meeting.

Next, in late summer, the too-familiar jolt of a Wednesday evening (or later) realization that a complex item will come to council on the following Monday. Fortunately residents pushed back – way too much to swallow, way too little time to digest – and council correctly referred the item to its Regional Housing Mandate Subcommittee, which held two substantive meetings (September and November).

This report picks up as well as draws from two articles I wrote just prior to that first council subcommittee meeting. 

Once again the window for evaluation is short, and I have tried to create this report to help inform you as an adjunct, or as an alternative, to the staff report.

It strives to be as objective as I can be from a resident’s perspective and leaves it to the reader to arrive at best conclusion between it and the council meeting.

Toward that end, feel free to post your comments with corrections, important omissions, and/or needed additions.

Public Hearings

How to find the minutes of public hearings on this matter, if they are available:

Regional Housing Mandate Committee

No minutes from either other two RHMC are included in the staff report

As of this writing, the minutes of the most RHMC recent (11/14/13) is also not available
via the RHMC website.

Minutes of the first RHMC meeting  (i.e., 11/14/13) is posted on the RHMC site via:

Planning & Transportation Commission

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