Despite some consternation from area residents, a proposal to demolish the El Camino Real building that once housed the popular Compadres restaurant and to build a new mixed-use development with 17 residential units advanced this week after winning a key Planning and Transportation Commission vote.
Under the proposal by Zijin LLC, the two-story 1938 adobe building would be replaced with a three-story mixed-use development with six units fronting El Camino and townhouses with 11 more units behind the building. On Wednesday night, after hearing from the project architects and a handful of critics, the planning commission recommended approving the plan by a 3-1 vote, with Doria Summa opposing and Przemek Gardias recusing himself.
The vote came after a few residents urged the city to hold off on the approval until more research is conducted to make sure the Compadre's building at 3877 El Camino Real is not a historical structure. Barron Park resident Winter Dellenbach argued that the project should be reviewed by the city's Historical Resource Board before winning approval. South Palo Alto, she said, doesn't have very many historical buildings because of the way the city has evolved. Most, she said, are in the north.
"This is very likely a historic resource and we do not take lightly in Barron Park and in the Ventura neighborhood that the city will take shortcuts and not to the HRB and take out one of our very few historical buildings and just going to demolish it," Dellenbach said.
Stuart Welte, architect with the firm Environmental Innovations in Design Architecture, argued that the question has already been exhaustively analyzed. Both the applicant and city's own historical consultants had determined that it's not a historical structure.
"We've worked with several different historical consultants and everyone has determined that there's no historical mural, there's no historical actual adobe in this building," Welte said, "There is a different of opinion there, but the people who are the historical consultants and who do this for a living say that the building is not historical and we believe them."
Assistant Planning Director Jonathan Lait concurred the project was reviewed by planning staff and its environmental consultant. The conclusions on the review were such that the property was not of a historic significance.
Summa wasn't as confident. She noted that the exterior of building remains in its original state and characterized the historical report submitted by the applicant as inadequate.
"I think this could be a terrible mistake," Summa said. "I'm sorry it hasn't been caught earlier in the process, but I think we have to have an HRB review of this and more public discussion so that more people can be made aware of this and involved."
But Chairman Michael Alcheck disagreed and said the commission should "trust the process" that the city follows for determining historical significance. He cited a 50-page report that was conducted for the project (but not provided to the commission), which concluded that the building is not historically significant.
"The notion that we would essentially dispute the experts in the room on their conclusion on an area on which we typically don't have any expertise and oversight -- I'm uncomfortable with that," Alcheck said.
Historical significance wasn't the only area of concern for nearby residents. One neighbor called the proposed project "a little too high-density." Another urged the city to make sure the developer conduct a geotechnical study before constructing the underground garage for the project -- a facility that would contain 62 parking spots. And land-use watchdog Bob Moss called for larger building setbacks and more landscaping.
But for the majority of the commission, the project's benefits far outweighed its potential impacts. Commissioner Eric Rosenblum lauded the fact that the project will create a new anchor for the neighborhood that has traditionally been dominated by oil change shops and other automobile service stations. Both Rosenblum and commission Chair Michael Alcheck used the word "delightful" to describe the proposal.
"I honestly can't remember the last time we looked at a multifamily project," Alcheck said. "It's delightful to be considering a housing project on this commission.
"It's delightful because more than any other volunteer in the city, we are acutely aware of the housing crisis. It's a big part of the world of our work and so the notion that we're finally considering a residential, multifamily project that has some component of (below-market-rate) housing is really refreshing."
Commission Ed Lauing also praised the design of the project, including the architecture and the gathering spots included in the site plan.
"This is really an amazing project in a ridiculous setting and it also improves the neighborhood," Lauing said.
In giving the project the green light, the commission specified that the approval is subject to the city's review of the project's historic significance.
The proposal still has to be vetted by the city's Architectural Review Board, which would forward its recommendation to the city's planning director for final approval.