Months after Palo Alto revised its zoning rules to encourage new housing in downtown and around California Avenue, the City Council is preparing to extend the development incentives to San Antonio Road.
The move, which the council considered Monday night, was sparked by a revised proposal from a developer that last year proposed a 54-condominium complex at 788-796 San Antonio Road, between Middlefield Road and East Charleston Avenue. Ted O'Hanlon, the project manager representing the developer 788SAPA Land LLC, told the council that the applicant is now proposing a 64-unit project, which would include 10 units for below-market-rate households.
The move was prompted by the council's adoption last year of the Housing Incentive Program, which offers density bonuses for residential projects in downtown, around California Avenue and along El Camino Real, with bonuses varying by locations.
"We paid attention to what Palo Alto was discussing and what Palo Alto would like to see with their developments," O'Hanlon said. "We rethought our idea and came back with a plan that would create more units."
At its last review of the project, in October, the council signaled its willingness to rezone the site from service commercial to multifamily residential (RM-40) -- a move that would have raised the floor-area-ratio (a measure of density) for the project from 0.6 to 1. If the council agrees to extend the types of zoning incentives that it created for El Camino Real to San Antonio Road, the maximum FAR at the site would go up to 1.5, enough to accommodate an additional 10 units.
Most council members indicated on Monday that they're willing to do just that. Several alluded to the council's official goal of generating 300 housing units per year -- a goal that the city failed to meet last year. So far this year, the council had approved one multifamily project: a 57-unit below-market-rate project known as Wilton Court.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss supported the proposed zone change and said the new project from Yuron Hang, the site owner, meets many of the city's requirements.
"I still know it will get lots of pushback. I hope in the end we will end up accepting this and get on a pathway with 300 (units) a year," Kniss said.
Vice Mayor Adrian Fine, the council's most strident housing advocate, concurred and said he completely supports extending the Housing Incentive Program to San Antonio Road and moving ahead with other zone changes that the developer had proposed, including exempting the majority of the site's retail component from parking requirements and from floor-area-ratio calculations.
"There are a thousand ways we can say no to a project like this," Fine said. "I think the challenge to this council and other communities across the Bay Area and California is to learn how to say yes."
Not everyone, however, was as excited about the project, which would displace more than 10,000 square feet of retail or retail-like uses, including Studio Kicks, a martial arts studio. Councilwoman Lydia Kou called the site a "reasonable" place for housing, but argued that the project runs counter to the council's general policy of directing development toward transit-friendly areas. San Antonio Road, she argued, has very few transportation options. Bus service at San Antonio and Middlefield is sporadic and Caltrain only goes to the San Antonio station once per hour during peak commute times.
The project, she said, also raised questions about school impacts and the project's parking plan, which would place 44 of its 91 parking spaces on car lifts.
"While I appreciate the housing project, there's not enough community benefits nor deed-restricted BMR housing or parking spaces," Kou said. "All you're doing is making another area have parking issues that the city is going to have to resolve, not you."
Councilman Tom DuBois shared Kou's concerns about encouraging more housing in the eclectic mixed-use area around San Antonio, which as few transit options. The city, he noted, chose the locations that it did for its Housing Incentive Program precisely because they were close to transit.
Mayor Eric Filseth agreed that most residents in the new building will drive. For him, however, that wasn't a deal breaker. Nor was the fact that the new project would only include 1,750 square feet of retail -- far less than is in place today. Filseth said he doesn't see any reason not to extend the Housing Incentive Program to San Antonio Road, the lack of transit options notwithstanding.
"This is going to be a car-centric project," Filseth said. "I think we should just accept it if we're doing this here."
Several residents weighed in on the project, giving it mixed reviews. Joan Larrabee, who lives across the street from the site, said she's had trouble getting answers from the developer about its transportation plan and the project's school impacts.
"We do support housing, we live in multifamily housing, we welcome multifamily housing," Larrabee said. "We just have some very grave concerns that have not been answered in the last seven months."
Others urged the council to do what it can to add housing. Economist Stephen Levy noted the recent decision in Sacramento not to proceed with Senate Bill 50 -- which would loosen development standards for housing projects near transit -- until early 2020. The decision to delay the state bill has created a new opportunity for Palo Alto, where most council members oppose the bill.
"It has (put) my city on the map of every state and national paper, for better or worse," Levy said. "And it has given us -- you -- an opportunity to show that local control can attract housing."