The latest major development proposed for the bustling, congested and rapidly transforming area around Page Mill Road and El Camino Real won the support of Palo Alto's planning commissioners on Wednesday night, despite concerns about adding more office space to an area already facing commercial growth.
The development, a three-story building at 441 Page Mill Road, would replace four existing single-family homes on an eclectic and largely commercial block that also includes Kelly-Moore Paints and the AT&T store. The building would be 35 feet tall and feature retail on the ground floor, offices on the second floor and 10 apartments on the third floor, three of which would be below-market-rate units. It would be close to both the California Avenue Caltrain station and to several other large, recently approved mixed-use developments, including 195 Page Mill Road, which includes 82 apartments and research-and-development space; the development known as the College Terrace Centre at 2180 El Camino Real; and a four-story block-long development around Equinox Gym at 3159 El Camino Real.
The planning commission Wednesday voted 4-2, with Arthur Keller and Carl King dissenting and Eric Rosenblum absent, to support the project, with responses ranging from jubilation to skepticism. Keller voted against the approval because he wanted to see further economic analysis, while King was reticent about the project's significant office component.
Because the new development would provide three units of affordable housing, it is entitled under state law to three "concessions," or zoning exemptions. Though Palo Alto recently adopted a local density-bonus ordinance that offers applicants a menu of concessions to choose from, the applicant in this case chose to go "off menu" and request exemptions pertaining to lot coverage and density. One concession would enable the project to roughly double its commercial square footage, from 10,770 square feet to 21,541 square feet. Because the applicant didn't choose from the set menu, the project was subject to an independent economic analysis, which confirmed that the requested exemptions are fair given the cost of providing affordable housing. Even so, King raised concerns about the added density.
"In general, the residents don't like to see big exceptions," King said. "This is a massive exception of double the office space. The last thing people prioritize about adding to Palo Alto is office space. That's my concern with the project."
King said the trade-off -- three units of affordable housing in exchange for an extra 10,000 square feet of office space -- doesn't seem like a good deal for the city.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck took the opposite stance and thanked the applicant, Norman Schwab, for bringing the project forward. The development, he said, should serve as an example to other new projects.
"I think the proposal is inspired, responsible and a major improvement over what I consider to be a terribly situated series of eyesores," Alcheck said. "This is a tremendous improvement in the use of land."
While Chair Mark Michael and Planning Director Hillary Gitelman both said they were somewhat disappointed by the developer's decision to go "off menu," Alcheck had no such hesitations and said the city should welcome affordable housing "any way we can get it."
"If the development can justify the incentive that's off-menu, I suggest we welcome it with open arms," Alcheck said.
His colleagues generally agreed, with Commissioner Przemek Gardias saying that he thinks it will be "a very welcome development" that will promote pedestrian activity and Mark Michael calling it "in many ways, an excellent project." Michael also said he was concerned about parking and traffic, huge issues of concern for the community, and noted that "this very nice project is very close to the worst intersection in the city." But he ultimately voted with the majority.
"I think the project is very thoughtful; it's attractive; it meets (our) needs; and it in many way surpasses my expectations for what can be done with the site," Michael said.