In Palo Alto, a Small Step to Better Planning

In Palo Alto, a Small Step to Better Planning

As Stanford requests a substantial expansion of its academic development, activists and students are sharing their concerns about inadequate housing and the worsening of traffic and sprawl.  On the other side of El Camino Real, however, Palo Alto just took a small but significant step to reigning in the explosive office development that has produced one of the most imbalanced jobs-to-housing ratios in the United States.

On Monday night in a 5-4 vote, the Palo Alto City Council approved an initiative that would cut allowable office development up to the year 2030 via a revision of their Comprehensive Plan. The revision mandates a dramatic reduction in the allowable office development from 1.7 million square feet down to 850,000 square feet over the next 12 years, forestalling a likely contentious vote on the issue in November. The change would align better with the Plan’s purported intent to “encourage commercial enterprise, but not at the expense of the city’s residential neighborhoods.”

While the revision can’t undo poor planning that has already taken place, it will hopefully discourage rampant office development from overtaking land that would be better suited to dense housing and green space.  Limiting office development in Palo Alto is a positive advance for conservationists, housing advocates, and anyone concerned with the dramatic inequality in Silicon Valley.

As we wrote in a recent blog about Stanford’s growth, Committee for Green Foothills and other environmental groups have been sounding the alarm about imbalanced regional planning for decades.  As more and more workers find employment in Palo Alto, but fewer can afford the $2,700+ average rent for a one bedroom apartment, commutes get longer and urban development gets pushed outwards into far-flung corners of the nine Bay Area counties–and sometimes beyond.  The pressure on rural and low-density areas caused by the housing crisis on the Peninsula threatens to make sprawl more pervasive, which in turn negatively impacts wildlife movements, groundwater absorption, and regional resilience to climate change.

There’s also an immense human cost to the lack of affordable housing amidst office growth.  Take any Palo Alto VTA bus in the late evening or early morning and you find workers in service industry uniforms attempting to sleep while commuting long distances.  Worse still, others opt for endless rides on the 24-hour bus since it affords the closest thing to a safe place to sleep that they have.

Far more than an office development cap will be needed to end the crisis, including similar limits by other cities where jobs outnumber housing.  But the cap should be welcomed by environmental advocates and housing activists alike, and indicates a much-needed shift in planning perspective.

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