Council Redesigns Planned Community Project After Midnight

The Council made surprising changes to the proposed Planned Community at Alma and Lytton after midnight, when everyone had gone home.


At their March 12 meeting the City Council spent more than three hours discussing the proposed five-story Planned Community (PC) project at Alma and Lytton. This was a classic example of what not to do and how not to do it during Sunshine Week. The result was unexpected and bizarre.

The first violation of normal practice was when, during the morning of the meeting, the developers offered $250,000 for a parking permit program to prevent spill-over parking from the project into Downtown North. That violated the 72-hour notice requirement but wasn’t considered a major change requiring
postponing action.

Second, six councilmembers voted to remove the 5th floor housing, which cut needed parking by 14 spaces. Removing an office floor, on the other hand, would reduce required parking by at least 50 spaces.  This also reduced height to the normal 50’ allowed.

Councilmember Burt said addressing the need for parking was a top priority and supposedly the elimination of housing rather than offices was more likely to be accepted by the developer. His major priority was the parking shortfall. Then why not reduce office space?

The third violation was eliminating housing when a provision of seven below-market-residences (BMRs) was offered. Staff and the developer are supposed to negotiate the value of the seven BMRs and that amount is supposed to be paid into the housing fund.  Agreeing on a value won’t be easy.  After that value is agreed to and paid, the money will be set aside pending another BMR opportunity. 

If nothing gets built for more than two years it is likely construction costs will rise and the money paid in lieu of seven BMR units will buy fewer actual units, even in cheaper parts of town than Downtown. Eliminating housing while retaining office space for over 200 jobs worsens the jobs/housing imbalance.

The fourth violation was limiting occupants of the subsidized ground-floor offices to organizations related to downtown.  Vice Mayor Scharff noted he spoke to the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business District about office space. Those discussions could bias who benefits from the lower rent.  Other worthy organizations that serve the entire city, such as the Red Cross, wouldn’t qualify.

Having BMR units downtown in a relatively high-cost area concerned some council members.  They wanted the BMR units to be elsewhere.  That often means in South Palo Alto where most BMR units already exist. Since there won’t be any housing on-site, staff has to argue with the developer about the value of the seven eliminated BMR units and get payment of their value to hold in a fund for BMR developments.

Discussion and debates on what actions to take dragged on until after midnight.  Good decisions are not often made after midnight. Logically, action should have been deferred to another meeting so that all aspects of the proposed major changes could be vetted and discussed with the developers and the public, but those efforts were defeated.


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