The Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit group that develops and manages affordable-housing properties, scored a major victory for its latest project Wednesday night, Feb. 13, when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission agreed to launch a zone change that would enable a residential complex for seniors at 567 and 595 Maybell Ave. to be built. Located at the border of the Barron Park and Green Acres neighborhoods, the project consists of a four-story, 60-unit apartment complex for low-income seniors and 15 single-family homes that would be sold at market rates.
The project already received an early blessing from the City Council, which agreed in November to loan the agency $3.2 million to purchase the two parcels that comprise the 2.46-acre site. The apartment complex will be 46 feet tall and will include 59 one-bedroom apartments, along with a two-bedroom manager's unit. The rents will be priced between $590 and $1,181 per month. The 15 market-rate houses will help finance the nonprofit component of the project.
The planning commission voted 4-2, with Greg Tanaka and Alex Panelli dissenting, to initiate a "planned community" zone, a typically controversial designation that allows developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for "public benefits" that are negotiated with the city.
The commission opted to initiate the rezoning process after a lengthy, wide-ranging discussion touching on architecture, the number of parking spots provided and the prospect of having fewer (but larger) market-rate homes. But remarkably for a PC-zoned development of this size, there was no public opposition. Commissioners disagreed mainly over whether they should initiate the zone change Wednesday night or do it at a later date, after a thorough discussion of public benefits. Chair Eduardo Martinez, Vice Chair Mark Michael and Commissioners Arthur Keller and Michael Alcheck all chose the former option, with Michael calling the proposed development "an excellent and timely project."
Commissioners had some quibbles, with Martinez requesting that the architect add decorative features to the apartment complex and Michael recommending adding parking underground (the proposal includes 47 street-level parking spots for the senior-housing development). Martinez also suggested the Housing Corporation provide additional public benefits, including a community garden, an electric-vehicle charging station and a community room that is available to the public at large, rather than just the building's residents.
These details will be worked out in the coming months, as the Housing Corporation refines its proposal and conducts a traffic analysis before going to the City Council for final approval. Like his colleagues, Martinez acknowledged that housing for seniors is, in itself, a public benefit. City staff took a similar stance. A report from the planning department notes that Palo Alto's senior population is booming (it's the second-fastest-growing age group in Palo Alto, according to U.S. Census data). According to the Silicon Valley Council, 20 percent of the city's seniors live at or below the poverty level.
"The project will provide affordable housing on a long-term basis to this rapidly increasing population at a density that would not otherwise be allowed in any multi-family residential district," the report states.
Keller agreed, calling the project "intrinsically worthwhile."
Jessica de Wit, project manager with the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, said units in the agency's existing housing developments are in high demand.
"All of our properties in Palo Alto have very lengthy waiting lists," de Wit told the commission. "Being able to increase affordable-housing stock here in Palo Alto is very critical and important."
Keller made the motion to initiate the zone change. The Housing Corporation now hopes to get the council's approval in June and begin construction in November. If all goes according to schedule, the construction would be completed in October 2014.
Commissioners Wednesday night marveled at the lack of opposition to the project, given the proposed senior complex's height and proximity to single-family homes. Alcheck told the applicants that the lack of opposition "speaks a lot about your reaching-out process." Tanaka was more skeptical and surmised that people didn't show up to criticize the project because they didn't know about it.
"I think if the people in the (neighborhood's single-family houses) really knew what was being built across the street, there would be more of an outcry there," Tanaka said.