When Palo Alto officials put the brakes on its controversial "planned-community" zoning process early last year, they also dealt a blow to the only development currently seeking this zoning designation: a four-story building proposed for the bustling intersection of Page Mill Road and El Camino Real.
But while the zoning process remains on hiatus, the developer behind 2755 El Camino Real is still hoping to get the green light for the project. And on Sept. 15, the City Council will have a chance to give some early feedback on the project, which should influence whether the developer can continue to move forward with the application or consider other plans for the site.
The project that the council will consider is similar to the one that was proposed in 2013, when Pollock Financial Group purchased the former Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority parking lot and applied for a planned community, a designation that allows developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated "public benefits."
In this case, the package of benefits included the widening of Page Mill to improve traffic circulation and an installation of pedestrian light poles as well as electric-vehicle charging stations on California Avenue.
The developer also proposed buying Eco passes and Caltrain passes for all employees at the new 32,456-square-foot building, which would include four residential units and nearly 25,000 square feet of office space. The building would be 50 feet tall, the maximum allowed by city code, and would include a mechanical roof screen that would add another 8 feet. There would also be three levels of underground parking which, along with a surface lot, would provide 109 parking spaces one more than city code requires.
To get around the fact that planned community has been suspended, Pollock is now requesting a different zoning designation for the site, which is currently zoned "public facility." While the existing designation allows for flexibility when the site is owned by a public entity such as the city, the county or the state, private ownership restricts uses to things like parks, schools and medical facilities.
The developer hopes to change it to "community commercial" (CC2), which according to the city is intended to "create and maintain major commercial centers accommodating a broad range of office, retail sales, and other commercial activities of communitywide or regional significance."
The CC2 zone also allows for 50 percent more lot coverage and requires 10 percent less landscaped open space than the standard CC zoning, according to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment.
The report notes that CC2 zoning is in place in other sections of El Camino, close to the California Avenue business district. The city's report notes that this land-use designation is "intended for larger shopping centers and districts that have a wider variety of goods and service than the neighborhood shopping center."
The site at 2755 El Camino, however, falls outside the boundaries of the business districts and planning staff is far from sure whether this change is warranted. Other zoning options include service commercial (CS), which encourages regional services that would be inappropriate in residential neighborhoods or pedestrian-shopping areas; and neighborhood commercial (CN), which promotes neighborhood shopping areas with retail and food establishments.
For the development team, the CC2 designation has the advantage in that it would allow far more office space than the other commercial designations. In exchange for the zone change, the development team is preparing to offer the city and county the portion of its property so that a right-turn lane could be added for Page Mill drivers looking to go north on El Camino.
The team includes Jim Baer, who has helped develop dozens of planned-community projects in Palo Alto; former Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie, who now works for Goodyear-Peterson-Hayward LLC; project architect Ken Hayes; and the project owner, Pollock Financial Group.
In the application, the team calls the site "an eyesore for the city and the applicant does not believe this to be an appropriate element right next to a senior living home and across the street from where our kids play soccer."
"We feel it is time to build something of which the city can be proud at this Gateway corner into Stanford Research Park," the application states.
The application calls the proposal "a compelling, appropriate mixed-use project" that "fits this anchor corner site and merits serious consideration."
Though a CC2 zone, unlike a planned-community zone, doesn't require public benefits, the applicants are preparing to offer some community benefits from the original application. The application deems the dedication of land for intersections "the most important community benefit" of the proposal.
"The owner is in a unique position to be able to offer this land, although it does come at a cost and loss of economic value to the project, as outlined below," the application states. "Therefore, as a reasonable tradeoff, an economically viable project needs to be granted in order for the project to afford the offer of land for intersection improvements."
Applicants are also proposing to contribute $90,000 for traffic-calming devices for Sheridan Avenue and $250,000 for a greater study to improve the congested intersection of Page Mill and El Camino.
At its "pre-screening" hearing, the council will have a chance to give its early feedback on the proposal. The council will not be voting on the project, though council members' feedback should help determine whether the project will continue its long journey through Palo Alto's planning process, remain on hold or get withdrawn.