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By Steve Levy

Background and Ideas for the Comp Plan

Uploaded: Jul 29, 2014

Regional Background

The City Council will discuss the Comp Plan update process on August 4th. I sent some background memos on regional trends and ideas about the update to the Council and Planning/Transportation Commission and am posting a summary here.

As most residents know, the peninsula economy has been surging in terms of job growth and VC funding/IPOs. The peninsula economy from San Francisco to San Jose has already recorded 80% of the job gains that were anticipated in Plan Bay Area between 2010 and 2020—averaging nearly 100,000 added jobs per year since 2010. Although job growth will slow in the long term as baby boomers retire, the medium term will likely see continued strong growth from 1) 2014 is on pace to be the second highest VC funding year on record, 2) the 49er stadium is attracting major development nearby, 3) the BART station extensions will increase accessibility to job sites here and 4) companies are still acquiring space as a hefty pace.

Population growth is on pace to meet the Plan Bay Area forecast but has been accelerating at a rapid pace in the past two years as Santa Clara County and the Bay Area were the fastest growing county and region in the state. Recent job growth has been filled with many existing residents who were unemployed but new jobs will increasingly require new residents.

Two years ago there was concern (hope?) that the Plan Bay Area population projections were too high as the state Department of Finance had released much lower growth projections. On Friday DOF will release the second round of new projections for agency review. I talked to the DOF demographer yesterday and confirmed 1) that the Bay and Santa Clara County projections are much higher than previously and in line with the Plan Bay Area growth expectations.


One, the Comp Plan horizon is 2030. The DOF projections will give insight into the age and ethnic population profiles and changes expected in the region and our county. These plus other information the staff can compile will help paint a picture of who will reside in PA in 2030. Two trends are certain—1) PA will experience the baby boomer aging like everyone else and 2) the Asian population in the region and county will be the fastest growing group. These trends should help inform where the Comp Plan engagement process can focus to make sure these voices are heard.

Two, presently staff is fleshing out four alternatives. I have encouraged staff that at least one of these alternatives investigates the strategies and implications of growth (particularly the housing growth) that is close to what is anticipated in Plan Bay Area. There are at least four reasons—1) many residents spoke at the Our Palo Alto and housing advisory committee meetings in favor of policies that promote a diversity of housing opportunities in PA, 2) there may be legal troubles if the city is seen as refusing to even explore the Plan Bay Area scenario and 3) it may turn out that absorbing this growth can be done without harm to existing R1 neighborhoods and 4) this amount of growth may be easily legal under current zoning. For example, in regards to office job growth, the dominant trends may not be added buildings as much as more intensive use of existing space. The number of employees in our last two downtown offices has more than tripled as tech firms expanded.

Also for example on the Town Square blogs, many have commented that meeting the ABAG housing planning targets would be impossible without "bulldozing" parts of the city. Yet Council has approved a draft Housing Element that meets these planning targets under current zoning. This seeming contradiction or confusion leads to three additional suggestions—1) that staff provide information on what kind of growth is permitted under current zoning, 2) that staff including the city attorney advise council and residents on what is discretionary in terms of project approval and what is permitted under law and 3) that the Comp Plan update continue to focus on the six priority areas identified by staff and discussed at the Our Palo Alto meetings.

I have been to all the meetings and people seemed open to finding positive opportunities in each of the six areas, none of which are in R1 neighborhoods. Fleshing out creative approaches in these six areas—all of which can be seen on the city's Comp Plan website, may alleviate concerns or at least help move from the abstract to more concrete information.

Three, this is the best thinking I know about location and traffic. To reduce commuting by car, locate jobs near transit. The downtown Caltrain ridership is surging, and four times as many riders use downtown as a destination than for leaving PA. Downtown jobs plus the Stanford shuttle are taking cars off the road.

Locate housing near services and everyday retail and dining. So the admonition to locate housing within x miles of transit should be replaced by the planning target of locating housing near services and everyday retail/dining. This will reduce non commute trips as much as possible.

Four, work on parking and traffic solutions as the city is doing with a three part approach. Treat residents, businesses and workers with respect as they all have rights in what is a shared problem. Expanded capacity and pricing incentives to use existing non neighborhood space are good ideas whose time has come.

Five, acknowledge that retail/dining/service provision will be driven by owners assessment of their customer base, which recently has seen the most growth in workers and visitors. The wish of residents for "more retail" is in conflict with their wish for limiting growth in residents and jobs.

Six, plan to make this a great city even as we grow. While the amount of growth and change may be somewhat in the discretion of the Council, there will be growth and change. This makes the investments in city and school infrastructure and capacity critical to maintaining a high quality of life. Prior generations provided Nancy and our children a great city by investing in infrastructure and amenities. Let's continue that tradition for the residents of 2020, 2030 and beyond.