Los Altos City Council approves interim commercial zoning, drops lobbyist talk

The Los Altos City Council last week put two issues to bed that it had addressed on multiple occasions: a downtown Commercial Retail Sales zone district amendment and the possibility of hiring a lobbyist.

The council voted 4-1 Sept. 10 – with Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins dissenting – to adopt city staff’s draft amendment to the CRS ordinance for now, despite council members’ qualms about some of the wording. The ordinance was established by a council-appointed committee in 2000, and both business and property owners have lobbied the city for downtown zoning changes to attract new – and different types of – tenants.

To settle their worries while also taking formal action, the council directed community development director Jon Biggs and his team to incorporate some of their recommendations and present a revised draft at a later date. Council members suggested, for example, banning call centers from being based downtown, separating animal clinics from the other businesses listed as “office administrative services” – such as medical and dental offices – and adding a provision that would preclude day care centers from operating on First, Main and State streets.

In other action, at the suggestion of Councilwoman Neysa Fligor, the council voted unanimously to form a legislative subcommittee including two council members before resorting to vetting lobbying firms for state-level help with housing matters. The subcommittee will be treated as a standing committee, meaning the mayor appointed at the beginning of the next legislative cycle in December will name its members.

CRS: Stricter language

Downtown business representatives spoke loud and clear at the initial hearing on the proposed amendment to the CRS ordinance.

They had requested an update to the document for years, with changes reflecting the current retail climate and a more inclusive approach to new businesses. Specifically, they sought expanded permitted and conditional uses to include businesses offering amenities listed in the city’s Downtown Vision plan – art, dance, music, tutoring and fitness studios – that could bring both revenue and vitality to the community.

Beyond a wish, business coalitions such as the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce, the Los Altos Village Association and Los Altos Property Owners Downtown stressed that allowing more diverse businesses downtown is a need.

“With the rise of e-commerce, many downtowns are adapting and moving away from the conventional, contiguous retail model, favoring instead an approach which provides a broader lifestyle experience,” Chamber president Kim Mosley wrote in a letter to the council Aug. 27. “Greater flexibility is required so that our storefronts can be fully occupied.”

The council found a happy medium between acting on the business community’s call and dispelling their own concerns with the draft proposal by requesting that city staff incorporate stricter language.

The revised draft will go to the Planning Commission before returning to the council. Biggs and the Planning Commission’s council liaison, Councilwoman Anita Enander, assured the council the amendment could be redrafted and placed on the commission’s agenda by year’s end. If passed, the revised amendment language will replace the version passed last week.

Lobbyist: Ineffective use of resources?

Mayor Lynette Lee Eng’s request to discuss hiring a lobbyist came before the council in June. Her excitement about the idea met with mixed feelings from the council; some of her colleagues said joining forces with other small cities and hiring a communal lobbyist would be more effective, while others rejected the idea altogether.

Lee Eng continued to voice how important adding a lobbyist to the fiscal budget is, even bringing in Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf for backup. Along with serving on an Association of Bay Area Governments committee, Scharf sits on Cupertino’s Legislative Review Committee. He gave an account of how a lobbyist has served Cupertino.

“The thing is there are hundreds of bills coming, and cities need to be aware of them,” Scharf said of pending housing legislation. “If we had taken up measures in Cupertino in advance of Senate Bill 35, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are today.”

SB 35 is affordable housing legislation that aims to streamline the housing application process to encourage construction of below-market-rate units across the state. Los Altos faces an SB 35-related lawsuit after rejecting Ted and Jerry Sorensen’s proposal for a five-story, mixed-use building at 40 Main St.

Scharf said the Cupertino City Council “unfortunately” did not have a majority vote to take a position on SB 35, so his city’s interests were never relayed to local representatives. Bruins wondered whether Los Altos would get a return on the investment from a lobbyist if its city council were similarly divided.

“I don’t think of it as we’re getting a lobbyist, I think of it as we’re getting a legislative analyst,” Lee Eng said after Bruins and Fligor supported the concept of a subcommittee that would read up on bills and inform the council who needs to be called or written to about which bills and when.

“It’s not the letters that are effective, I’m sorry,” said Enander, the council member responsible for following housing-related bills in the State Assembly and Senate. “The really effective work is when a person who knows the inside and outside of Sacramento can walk up … to a staffer and say, ‘Look, I’ve got 12 cities behind me and they are all saying this. Can we get this bill changed?’”

The debate turned sour, with each council member questioning how much change they could effect as one city entity.

“Maybe we should stop sending our letters,” Fligor said.

Councilwoman Jan Pepper utimately swayed the vote, sticking with her original position that a lobbyist requires oversight the city does not currently have the resources to provide.

“Lobbyists are helpful in committee hearings to represent a position, so I could go either way,” she said. “Maybe it would make sense this first year to have the two (members) be a subcommittee.”

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