News

Council not sold on new El Camino development

Palo Alto officials hit the brakes on project proposed for city's most congested intersection

Faced with traffic problems, parking shortages, and public angst over new developments, Palo Alto officials swiftly swatted down on Tuesday night a proposal to build a four-story building at the chronically congested intersection of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road.

In a pre-screening session that didn't feature any votes, the City Council sent a strong signal that it will not approve any proposal that favors offices over housing and that would worsen the traffic.

The feedback means that the project envisioned for the former Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) parking lot at 2755 El Camino Real will need to undergo major revisions before it wins the green light.

The council didn't reach any clear consensus on what exactly they would like to see at the site, which is currently zoned for "public facility" and would require a zone change before a housing development or a commercial project can be built there.

Two years ago, Pollock Financial Group approached the city with a proposal for a "planned-community" (PC) zone change, a highly controversial process that allows developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for public benefits negotiated with the city. In February 2014, the council put a moratorium on PC zoning, leaving the Pollock proposal in planning limbo.

To emerge from that limbo, the developer proposed a different type of zone change: community commercial (CC2). The designation would enable Pollock to build a 32,456-square-foot, four-story building with retail and office space on the ground floor, four residential units on the top floor, and offices everywhere else. The development would also include three levels of underground parking.

What would the city get in return? Primarily, a strip of land on Page Mill that would be turned into a right-turn lane, potentially easing the congestion.

"We are prepared to give this valuable land if we can agree together on a viable project such that we can afford to give it up," applicant Jeff Pollock told the council during his presentation Tuesday.

Pollock also offered to install neighborhood traffic-calming devices and contribute $250,000 for an intersection study.

But the council, which now enjoys a slow-growth "residentialist" majority, was in no mood for negotiating. Most council members agreed that "spot zoning" should be generally avoided, unless the property is part of a larger area plan.

Council members also took issue with the particular zone the applicant was requesting. Of the various commercial zoning designations in the city code, CC2 is at the higher end of the density scale. It would allow 39,126 square feet of commercial space. By comparison, an alternative zoning designation, service commercial (CS), would allow 7,825 square feet.

A report from the city's planning staff noted that CC2 zoning is intended for "larger shopping centers and districts that have a wider variety of goods and services than the neighborhood shopping areas." It gave as examples sites like Stanford Shopping Center and Town & Country Village. It didn't take long for the council to conclude that this zoning designation would not be appropriate for the location.

Several residents also urged the council not to approve the project. Becky Sanders, a resident of Ventura, was among them.

"With all the development under construction and in the pipeline for the California Avenue area and abutting neighborhoods, the collective impacts haven't fully been measured," Sanders said. "Please don't allow business interests to override our residential quality of life."

Also in attendance were about 30 members from the Carpenters Local Union 405. Wearing CIA (short for Carpenters In Action) T-shirts, the group stood up while field rep Genaro Diaz urged the council to support the project. He called the project's mix of commercial and residential a "progressive step forward."

"The issue of more housing is not only a Palo Alto concern but a Bay Area-wide concern that has no easy and short-term solution," Diaz said.

After hearing from both sides, the council made it clear that it will not be supporting the proposed zone change. Councilman Eric Filseth characterized it as a PC by a different name. Much like with PC projects, he observed, a developer here is requesting exemptions from the city and is offering things in return.

"Whatever the reason, the fact is that these PC deals had a lot of skepticism in Palo Alto and we told residents we don't want to do them," Filseth said.

Filseth also characterized the proposal as a conflict between the interests of a developer and the interests of the community.

"Our role in zoning itself ought to be the focus on the best interests of community," he said.

Most of his colleagues, however, didn't have a problem with changing the zoning designation on the site. They just didn't like the one Pollock chose. Mayor Karen Holman, and councilmen Marc Berman, Greg Scharff and Cory Wolbach all made a case for building housing at the site to address what Berman called an "acute housing crisis."

"I think this is an area where it makes a lot of sense to address that," Berman said.

Holman and Scharff both said they'd like to see a housing project with ground-floor retail, while Wolbach suggested a scheme in which the building's residential tenants would be prohibited from owning cars. Scharff also made it clear that the office-heavy project currently on the table won't be advancing.

"I wouldn't spend another dime on moving toward a CC2 zoning," Scharff said. "I don't think it's going to happen."

Comments

15 people like this
Posted by gnar
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 16, 2015 at 8:47 am

...because that intersection isn't already a nightmare during peak hours. Perhaps this will dissuade the residents of those newly zoned high-density projects from driving, and they'll all take public transportation instead! Oh wait, no.

Well, at least they'll probably create a space which integrates beautifully with the surrounding neighborhood, like the Miki's disaster at Alma Village, instead of putting up imposing and uninviting walls to the street. Oh wait, no.

Well, at least they'll create some mixed-use attractions, like a quaint cafe that will inspire foot traffic. I know when I have free time, I love to go walk around the Page Mill/El Camino intersection. Oh wait...


14 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2015 at 8:54 am

It's a little hilarious that the developer is proposing to get a high density high impact developer favorable zoning in exchange for a relatively small concession, when the existing zoning on the property is "public facility".

We need public facilities, especially at such a central location Let's not convert any precious public facility zoned land.


18 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 16, 2015 at 9:11 am

I would love to see a public facility mean exactly that. We don't need any more restaurants, coffee shops, nail salons, or tutoring services.

I would love to see some type of "youth facility" by which I mean a business that caters to bringing some fun into the lives of our young people. We have lost the bowling alley and laserquest, as well as the minigolf and gocarts in Redwood City. All these things were businesses that did well and weren't struggling but they became victims of the developers. These also needed a fair amount of space so the land provided a lot more for developers than they were generating in their existing condition.

What we need is a "good idea" fun activity business to become the next "in" thing for young people. I can almost hear the cheers of our youth for something new to do in Palo Alto.

I don't expect the City to provide anything like this for our youth, but it would be nice if they would favor any type of business enterprise with youth in mind.

PS, anyone who thinks that hiking, biking, skate boarding, etc. is all the fun our youth need, then they are sadly out of touch.


23 people like this
Posted by housing
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 16, 2015 at 9:52 am

I really hope they build housing here. We have a desperate need for housing in the Bay Area. We've added so many jobs and so little housing, we've created an entire underclass of people commuting here from as far as Tracy, Stockton, and Gilroy. That's an unfathomable waste of time and life. This is a great location for housing - it's right on a bus line and next to Caltrain and next to a number of services. Of all the places you could add housing while creating the least number of new trips, this is one of the best.


23 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2015 at 11:20 am

I've known people who commuted from so far, and it had nothing to do with being "underclass" but because they wanted to live in large houses or lead a rural lifestyle, or because a spouse worked farther afield. Building more packed in expensive housing in Palo Alto wouldn't change that choice for a single person I know.

There is no emergency to pack in more housing in Palo Alto. There is an urgent need yo make Palo Alto a welcoming and safe place for the youth who already live here. in case you hadn't noticed, the mobile home park at Buena Vista was just fine until the development climate became so permissive of overbuilding and someone thought it was worth their while to evict all the residents (especially since the initial plan had anticipated building many times zoning.)

We don't have a need for more housing in Palo Alto. If we don't build a single unit more, we will be just fine. New housing isnt just about units, it's about paying for new schools, infrastructure, straining the natural environment, using more resources lije water, dealing with increased pollution from congestion, etc. developers arent nearly paying to offset those problems and our city is barely dealing with solving them.


10 people like this
Posted by Another Concerned Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2015 at 11:46 am

We have 90,000 people commuting to Palo Alto every day. The ADT numbers on page 12-32 of the Comp Plan Transportation Element show that Page Mill (280 to El Camino) is at capacity, and Oregon Expressway (101 to El Camino) is on its way to capacity. Although getting  to a final Comprehensive Plan is months to years away, we as a city need to be thinking about what kinds of things might be done to mitigate traffic. Thinking regionally, and about land use, is one of them.

Google, FaceBook (and probably others) run big commuter busses back and forth to SF, and perhaps other places. We need to investigate the possibility of organizing that kind of service with the businesses already in Palo Alto, Stanford and the businesses in the Stanford Industrial Park. Those busses would need a place to stop to drop off and pick up commuters - a transit hub. The VTA lot, centrally located on the corner of Page Mill and El Camino would be an excellent choice for a Palo Alto's first transit hub. The lot already has numerous shuttles and busses stopping there. Although it doesn't appear that Palo Alto's current shuttle stops there. If this becomes an expanded transit hub, perhaps the current Palo Alto shuttle route could be reevaluated and expanded.

Setting up a coordinated commute bus service with Palo Alto employers and Stanford would help reduce at least some of the traffic and parking. Any people we can get out of  cars will also help with CO2 emissions. You all can do the math on how much CO2 our 90,000 commuters emit every day. We need to do as much as possible to reduce that number. We should not give up any reasonably located open space which could be used to facilitate that.


18 people like this
Posted by Sue
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 16, 2015 at 12:20 pm

Has everyone forgotten that that property sits atop the big toxic plume? It seems that any proposal that includes digging an underground garage is ill-advised.


7 people like this
Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Sep 16, 2015 at 3:35 pm

This lot is SMALL. To build anything means going up up up with little or no street setback! As someone said above -- yes, let's have another unattractive Miki's style failure. This is an awful location for anything of size. Why not keep the parking -- isn't that what we don't have enough of?


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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