San Ramon

Action Item

Tiered Density/Public Benefit Zoning


Department:CD - Planning DivisionSponsors:
Category:ReportWorkflows:City Council


  1. Printout

Staff Report



Receive the report and provide feedback and direction to staff.




Over the past several months the Planning Commission reviewed a number of development projects that included a density level in excess of the City’s maximum density under the existing zoning district.  Each of these projects included a State Density Bonus provision which permits the applicant to layer additional density (up to 35%) on top of the City’s maximum under the existing zoning district. The City currently uses a density range for projects to address the non-uniform nature of development.  However, in order to qualify for a Density Bonus an applicant must propose at the top of the range prior to adding additional units. The Planning Commission expressed concerns that due to the economic (land and construction costs) and political pressure for housing, future projects will continue to be proposed at the top of the density range and will also include a density bonus request.  The net result is a development level beyond those assumptions generally anticipated by the City’s policy documents.


Tiered Density Concept:


The Planning Commission Zoning Ordinance Update Ad Hoc Committee recommended studying a tiered density approach to zoning which would result in additional community benefits associated with higher density developments.  A tiered density concept (public benefit zoning) works on the premise that a property owner is entitled to the base Density/Floor Area Ratio (FAR) for the zoning district and will be granted additional density/FAR for a project that provides additional or superior public benefit.  In San Ramon, the City Center Mixed Use (CCMU) district is a limited example of this concept.  The CCMU district has a maximum FAR of 0.70 and additional FAR of up to 1.35 may be permitted with workforce housing and public benefits/amenities.


Given the potential concerns over the impacts of higher development density, the broader application of a tiered density concept for the Zoning Ordinance and Specific Plans may be appropriate.  For example, a project in the Multifamily-Very High Density zone is currently allowed at a density range of 30-50 dwelling units per acre.  Under a tiered density concept, the base would be set at or near the 30 units per acre and additional density up to 50 units per acre would be allowed in exchange for public benefit as defined by the ordinance.  The goal of such a program is to tie additional units for a project to addressing needs in the community.


Several variations of tiered density zoning could be tailored to meet the needs of the Specific Plan areas or the community as a whole.  Depending on the nature of the development standards, tiered density zoning can be applied to residential, commercial and mixed use areas.  The type of land use will determine if the property owner benefit is unit density or FAR, while the public benefit will likely also correspond to the type of land use proposed and/or overall needs of the community. 


Defining Public Benefits: 


Establishing what qualifies and is considered a public benefit, beyond State density bonus standards can be a challenge.  While there are clearly concepts that would be considered a citywide public benefit, some of those uses might not be considered a priority to some residents.  For example, affordable housing or additional commercial space might help meet City housing or economic goals, but might be seen by some as adding to traffic congestion or contributing to a drain on existing City services.  Likewise, a desire for development to contribute to schools, libraries or community buildings might create a demand beyond the traditional scope of City services and add to the long-term costs for management and maintenance. 


Establishing a menu of specific community benefit options that are acceptable to the City is perhaps the most straight forward approach.  The difficulty is in defining the public benefits in a way that is clear and quantifiable to provide the property owners and City clear options in making decisions.  State density bonus standards are specific; however, items like superior or sustainable design tend to be subjective. 


Table 1 lists some of the public benefits that have been used by other communities: 

Table 1 Examples of the Public Benefits

Affordable Housing

Public Open Space

EV/ Solar Infrastructure

Public Infrastructure

Increased Unit Size

Sustainable Design

TDM/ Bike Stations

Public Art

Universal Design

Neighborhood Design/ Walkable Communities

Transit Hubs/ Public Parking

Schools, libraries, Fire stations

Onsite Day Care

LEED/Energy Upgrade

Superior Design

Neighborhood Retail 

Senior Housing

Green Building

Low Impact Design

Regional Retail


In San Ramon, many of these benefits categories are already addressed through our existing entitlement process, (parks, school fees, road fees, public art, Lighting and Landscape/Community Facilities Districts, etc.); however, requiring a higher level of public benefits may be an option. Another option could be to negotiate additional density on a case-by-case basis.  The negotiation of Density/FAR for public benefits requires that there be agreement between both the City and the property owner.  There is less certainty for the property owner in the early planning process; however, there are additional tools such as a tiered density bonus agreement or formal Development Agreement that could allow for advance negotiations to add more clarity to the process.


Implementation of Tiered Density


Implementation of a tiered density concept would require that the City revisit the density ranges for some or all of the zoning districts within the City.  Currently much of the anticipated development is planned within the specific plan areas and would require that those documents be revised to pursue a tiered density standard in those areas. 




The cost of the community benefit improvement would be borne by the applicant.  The City will potentially face long run maintenance or service costs on any new project.




Council and Commission to provide feedback and recommendations to staff.

Meeting History

Apr 18, 2017 7:00 PM Video City Council Joint Meeting