Palo Alto City Council Pursues “Urgency” Ordinance to Protect Retail

In a 7-0 vote Monday night, Palo Alto city council members decided to pursue an “urgency ordinance” aimed at protecting the city’s flailing retail businesses.

In spite of the downtown area’s economic success, increased rents have recently pushed a number of shops and restaurants out of the area, and many of them are being replaced by offices. According to data from the Planning Department, the city lost about 70,514 square feet of retail between 2008 and 2014, while adding 537,144 square feet of office and research-and-development space.

Under the retail-protection ordinance, conversion of ground-floor retail to offices would be prohibited in commercial districts. The rules would remain active for 45 days while the council pursues a more long-term strategy, but could be extended for up to 22 months.

This is the second “urgency” measure the city has pursued in order to curb retail’s flight. Last month, the council approved an interim law setting an annual cap of 50,000 square feet for offices around University and California avenues, as well as El Camino Real.

"If you're thinking about expanding commercial zones, do it with incredible care," said Judy Kleinberg, the city’s former mayor and current CEO of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce. "The more you dilute retail, the harder it is to create a pedestrian-friendly commercial zone."

Though Monday’s vote was unanimous, some officials expressed reservation. Council Members Gregory Scharff and Eric Filseth, for instance, said the rules should apply to proposed developments which are currently in the midst of the city’s application process.

The urgency ordinance will go before the council for adoption on May 11. If approved, it would take effect immediately.

Read more about the ordinance here.