Charming, suburban Palo Alto could almost triple in size, with
multi-story apartments surrounding its sought-after single-family
homes and up to 90,000 additional cars on its tree-lined roads if a
controversial housing bill becomes law, according to a new report
that paints an alarming — but some say extremely doubtful —
future under the proposed legislation.
If lawmakers pass SB 50, which would force cities to approve
higher-density buildings near transit stops and in “job-rich”
areas, Palo Alto could some day add up to 46,000 homes around its
Caltrain stations and bus stops, according to estimates from
researchers at the Embarcadero Institute, a
nonprofit funded by foundations and private donors. The
institute’s president, Gab Layton, gave $5,000 to slow-growth
group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning last year, according to
campaign finance documentation filed with the state. But the
institute says it does not have an agenda.
Sen. Scott Wiener, the author of SB 50, called the Embarcadero
Institute report “misleading” and “absurd.”
“This report is an effort to scare people that, ‘God forbid,
if we actually allow more housing to be built, the world’s going
to end,’ ” he said.
The report, which Embarcadero Institute co-founder Asher
Waldfogel says is intended to help the public understand the
potential impacts of SB 50, is a reflection of an ongoing battle.
On one side: cities worried about losing control over the housing
built within their borders. On the other: lawmakers desperate to
solve the region’s intense housing shortage. Lately some local
city leaders and residents have been resisting those state
policies, letting Sacramento know they won’t be told what to
build in their neighborhoods — at least not without a fight.
“I don’t see any way possible that the citizens in the
community that I know well are going to accept that kind of
intensive development,” said Palo Alto Councilwoman Liz Kniss.
The council did not commission the report but is reviewing it.
rendering shows properties along Scripps Avenue in Palo Alto. The
area iswithin a half mile of a major transit stop, making it
eligible forbuildings up to 45 feet tall. If two lots were combined
into one parcel, itwould allow construction of an apartment
building with about 55 studio orone-bedroom units (Courtesy of the
The report’s projection of 46,000 new homes — Palo Alto
currently has 26,000 — is “a rather astonishing number” and
far more than the city can withstand, Kniss said. “I don’t
think we’d be able to breathe.”
The report assumes all homes eligible under SB 50 will be torn
down and rebuilt as multi-unit buildings. But that’s not how
development works, Wiener said. Construction would happen gradually
and not on every parcel available, he said.
The report comes as cities around the Bay Area are pushing back
against attempts by state legislators to influence local housing
development. Lawmakers passed a bill in 2017 that requires cities
to put certain residential and mixed-use developments on the
fast-track toward approval and this session have proposed more than
a dozen bills touching on
everything from rent control to zoning.
One of the most controversial of these measures is SB 50. Hailed
by advocates as a solution to the Bay Area’s housing shortage,
the bill would override cities’ density rules, height limits and
parking requirements in areas near public transit hubs. For
example, projects within a half-mile of major transit stops —
including two Caltrain stations in Palo Alto and one on the border
with Mountain View — could be up to 45 feet tall, or about four
stories. About 7,000 parcels, or 40 percent of Palo Alto’s total
parcels, would be subject to SB 50 rules — enough to transform
Palo Alto from a community of predominantly single-family homes
into a city dominated by townhouses and apartments, according to
the Embarcadero Institute.
The legislation could cause the city’s population to grow to
2.7 times its current size and bring up to 30,000 new students to
Palo Alto, the report said, potentially stretching the capacity of
the local schools in a city renowned for the quality of its public
education system. SB 50 also could bring as many as 90,000
additional vehicles to town, according to the report.
But adding children to schools is a positive move, and any
argument otherwise distracts from the larger problem — many of
the students already enrolled in California schools are homeless,
Wiener said. And he rejected the assumption that his bill would
“The whole point of the bill is to reduce the number of cars
on the road,” he said, “to allow more people to live within
walking distance of public transportation.”
Not all Palo Alto leaders oppose SB 50. Instead of 46,000 new
homes and large apartment buildings on every corner, Vice Mayor
Adrian Fine envisions the legislation bringing three and four-story
apartment buildings next to Caltrain stations — which he would
welcome with open arms.
The Embarcadero Institute report is sensationalizing the bill,
“I challenge these folks — any and all of them — to put
real solutions to the housing crisis out there,” Fine said.
Waldfogel acknowledged SB 50 won’t immediately drop tens of
thousands of homes into Palo Alto but wanted people to know the
extent of the bill’s possible impact.
“We just wanted to have a public discussion about it,”
Wiener’s bill also overrides cities’ zoning rules in
“job-rich” areas, but because the bill’s definition of
job-rich is still vague, the Embarcadero Institute did not look at
development in those zones.
Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth said the City Council has yet to
determine what, if anything, to do with the report.
Filseth said he would like to see more housing in Palo Alto. The
city recently approved its first affordable housing project in more
than seven years, relaxed zoning rules on in-law units, eased
parking requirements and eliminated some restrictions on building
housing in commercial areas, he said.
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But SB 50 isn’t going to help Palo Alto with its housing
shortage, he said.
“It attempts to solve an important problem with a solution
that isn’t going to work,” Filseth said. “What I think SB 50
is going to do is make voters really angry with Sacramento … at a
time when we need to get everyone together, work together to solve
Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Palo Alto could almost triple in size under controversial housing bill, new report says