Opinion: Build Density in Palo Alto–and Lots of It

To keep up with demand and slow the astronomical rise in housing costs, Palo Alto and other Silicon Valley cities must overcome local opposition to density and high-rises.

2 minute read

August 9, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Sundry Photography / Shutterstock

Brock Keeling argues that Palo Alto must revive its forgotten role as a housing innovator if it is to house all the workers flocking to Silicon Valley and maintain any semblance of affordable housing within the city.

In the 1950s, "famed developer Joseph Eichler, who believed that good design should be democratic, studded the city with affordable homes that, at the time, were priced to move. He used innovative and imaginative architects to bring roughly 2,700 homes with crisp lines and a focus on the outdoors to the working class." Today, "the betrayal of Eichler’s affordable and stylish vision really slaps you in the face the moment you step off the train in Palo Alto."

"Eichler’s Mid-Century Modern homes, prized for their vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows, now regularly fetch upward of $2.5 million." The city's median price, meanwhile, is $3.5 million. 

"Between 2010 and 2018 Palo Alto's jarring jobs-to-housing ratio was 16:1, with 20,475 jobs added, but only 1,269 homes permitted, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development." Jordan Grimes, a Peninsula housing advocate, says "[t]he strongest force pushing back against new housing in Palo Alto is what's known as the ‘residentialist’ faction."

By mandating residential mid and high-rises, Palo Alto can become ground zero for housing that goes above — way above — its puny 50-foot ceiling for new developments, a law enacted in the early 1970s to allegedly preserve quality of life. Get rid of all parking requirements, an outdated mandate from 1951. Affix fees on new commercial builders to fund affordable housing. And increase the puny 20% affordable housing requirement while you’re at it.

"As mandated by the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Bay Area as a whole has to change its zoning to allow construction of 441,000 new homes from 2023 to 2031."

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