One year after Palo Alto swiftly shut down a plan to construct an office building at the busy intersection of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, officials are preparing to weigh in on a new concept for the central site: a 60-unit housing complex aimed at young professionals.
The new proposal for 2755 El Camino Real in many ways reflects the city's new push to promote more housing near transit corridors, particularly when it includes "microunits" and other types of apartments aimed at addressing the growing need for affordable housing.
Yet at the same time, the project also contains many of the characteristics that the City Council and residents have been fighting in recent years: It does not fit in with any existing zoning designation; it bumps up right up against the city's 50-foot height limit; and its density goes well beyond what would normally be allowed for a multi-family building.
In addition, the building comes nowhere close to providing the parking that would normally be required under city code. While a 60-unit project would typically be required to provide between 92 and 100 parking spaces, the new proposal from Windy Hill Property Ventures calls for 45 spaces, 26 of which would be provided through a mechanical lift system.
The plan also represents a radical departure from prior projects that had been considered for the site. In 2013, the council shelved an application for a 45,000-square-foot office building, which would have required "planned community" (PC) zoning. The controversial PC designation, which allows developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated "public benefits," itself has since been shelved and is now being revised.
The next proposal, for a four-story building with ground-floor retail, four residential units and office space, fared hardly better. On Sept. 15, 2015, the council soundly rejected this vision and indicated that it would prefer to see housing at the central site. Councilman Marc Berman was one of several council members who alluded at the time to what he called the city's "acute housing crisis."
The former Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority parking lot, he said, is "an area where it makes a lot of sense to address that."
The new proposal responds to this feedback by proposing 30 studios and 30 one-bedroom apartments, with sizes ranging from 502 to 710 square feet (the average unit is 573 square feet). At the same time, it also threatens to further exacerbate neighborhood anxieties about traffic and parking problems in this part of the city, which is undergoing a construction boom. Stanford University is completing a housing project across the street; the College Terrace Centre development is nearing the finish line on the 2100 block of El Camino; and the Brutalist building at 2600 El Camino is being eyed for demolition and redevelopment.
In explaining its decisions to provide fewer parking spots than are legally required, Windy Hill pointed to the difficulty of "establishing easily accessible vehicular access to this challenging isolated location."
"This urban in-fill housing project will allow for walking and bicycle trips for Palo Alto employees to and from the Stanford Research Park," Tod Spieker and Jamie D'Alessandro, speaking on behalf of the project team, wrote in a letter. "Additionally, this is not California or University Avenue where one would expect contiguous retail or restaurant-type business."
The developer is also banking on its "traffic-demand management" program to reduce the building residents who commute by car. Amenities will include high-speed Internet so residents can work at home, extensive bicycle parking and sharing, car sharing and an on-site transportation coordinator, according to Spieker and D'Alessandro. In addition, Caltrain and VTA passes would be provided to residents to discourage their use of cars.
Regarding the apartments themselves, Spieker and D'Alessandro wrote that the units would be "carefully designed and sound-insulated to create a comfortable living environment."
"Windy Hill believes that studio and one-bedroom housing units provide a valuable mix of housing types in an area of jobs-housing imbalance," the letter states.
Development of this property will almost certainly require a zone change (the lot is currently zoned as "public facility"), which the council may withhold if it has concerns about the present proposal. Thus, unlike with other commercial and residential projects in this area, the City Council has full discretion to deny this project or demand further modifications.
Because the Monday discussion is a prescreening, the council will not be taking any formal votes. Its feedback is, however, expected to dictate whether or not the project will move forward.