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By Steve Levy

Smart Growth Principles ARE Smart

Uploaded: Jun 13, 2014

The term smart growth is used to describe a perspective on how our region's growth, particularly the housing growth, should be located. It is separate from the discussion of how much growth to expect or how much growth residents desire so this blog is not a place to debate the amount of housing growth in the city or region.

Although I don't usually use the term "smart growth", I do agree with the principles. I agree that the growth in Bay Area housing is best located near at least two of the following three activities?1) close to activities that people regularly use like shopping, restaurants, and medical facilities; 2) in areas where more trips can be done by walking or bicycling for local activities and close to transportation options for commuting and 3) close to jobs.

By implication this means directing the growth in new housing away from the middle of existing single family neighborhoods. Nearly all new housing being built up and down the Peninsula is in multi-unit and multi-story buildings, which also argues for not putting growth in the midst of existing single family neighborhoods.

Earlier this week Palo Alto convened a meeting relative to the Comp Plan update. The attendees split into four groups and each selected where they thought new housing in Palo Alto would best be located. All groups identified three areas?downtown, Cal Avenue and parts of El Camino. But there were some interesting additional suggestions.

A resident from midtown at the table I attended suggested growth in his area around the shopping area would be good but only if there were easy access (perhaps a regular shuttle) to the Cal Ave/Caltrain area. Another idea was in the Fabian Way area close to the large job growth in nearby Mt. View and shopping as well as highway 101. Many suggested using parking lots but with the idea of undergrounding parking and building housing on top?perhaps in parts of Stanford near the shopping center and medical center and in the downtown or Cal Ave areas.

Another idea was to work with employers to incorporate housing in/near the Stanford Research Park area. Within the residential areas, there was a lot of interest in making it easier to add second units on existing properties.

Why are these locations "smart"? I will give my example. We live in a condo on Forest behind the farmers' market area. We are close to shopping, close to restaurants, close to our dentists and medical providers, close to parks and public facilities. Regardless of where we work our car travel needs are greatly diminished as most non work trips are in walking distance. So for us, "smart" means convenient. For the broader community, our location downtown reduces traffic and parking as we walk everywhere?downtown, T&C, Palo Alto Medical Center, and can access Stanford facilities with the shuttle.

For me there are added bonuses. I don't drive so this location increases my independence. In addition CalTrain and the Stanford shuttle are short walks away and I use them for many trips that would be difficult otherwise.

But our location is also popular with families with young children. There is a neighborhood school within easy walking distance and we are close to lots of family activities. And we have a few retired residents for which this is a very convenient location close to services and amenities.

I know there are a group of residents who 1) wish that Palo Alto would not grow very much and 2) think most people want to live in single family homes. The second point is clearly false as it denies the reality of the great variety of people who are bidding up prices and rents in downtown PA, in downtown Redwood City, in downtown Mountain View and up and down the Peninsula. This is true even those these residents have the choice of living in cheaper single family homes and commuting long distances. Some make that choice but many others make the "smart" choice.

But even if you wish Palo Alto would not grow, which is difficult given the large amount of development allowed under current zoning, it is hard to argue that providing for a large part of the Peninsula's housing growth near shopping, near amenities, near transportation and near jobs is not the smart approach. Nearly all the new housing built today on the Peninsula is apartments, condos and townhouses. It seems smart to me to put them in "smart" locations and not in the midst of single family detached housing neighborhoods.

I have a couple of final thoughts. One is that if you want to build up the family oriented retail in Palo Alto, say in downtown, you might want to consider adding customers by adding housing. Whatever goes downtown will be expensive given the rents but the argument that we need more retail but don't want more development (i.e. potential customers) is unlikely to persuade many retail owners.

Finally, my neighborhood is a smart place for subsidized housing for low income households for the same reasons it is a smart location for me and the variety of households that live in our building.