Are modular homes the answer to Bay Area's affordable housing demand?

Inside the latest chapter in one pastor's bid to solve the region's housing crisis

A three-bedroom, 960-square-foot modular home made from three modules in East Palo Alto. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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Are modular homes the answer to Bay Area's affordable housing demand?

Inside the latest chapter in one pastor's bid to solve the region's housing crisis

A three-bedroom, 960-square-foot modular home made from three modules in East Palo Alto. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Two steel houses were delivered on the back of a big rig on Jan. 7 to a parking lot in East Palo Alto, one coming all the way from Pueblo, Colorado, and the other from Caldwell, Idaho. They're not exactly ready-to-live-in homes, but in a few weeks, possibly by Valentine's Day or earlier, they can be.

For Pastor Paul Bains, that's just part of the beauty and benefit of modular houses — factory-built homes that come ready-made in sections to be stacked or put together like Lego blocks. One of the newly delivered modular dwellings is a 960-square-foot, three-bedroom house made of three sections; the other is a 640-square-foot, two bedroom home made of two sections.

The big-rig delivery marked a new chapter in the Palo Alto native's 21-year pursuit to address homelessness in the Bay Area.

"My goal has always been to disrupt generational poverty," Bains said. "You do that through education and home ownership, and this makes it much more affordable for people to own their own home."

Bains and his wife, Cheryl, founded East Palo Alto's We Hope nonprofit in 1999, which now operates 100-bed shelters in San Francisco, a 74-bed shelter and Safe Lot RV parking program in East Palo Alto and mobile fleets that provide showers, bathrooms and laundry services in 17 cities, across four counties, according to Bains.

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But to address homelessness more directly, a problem made worse by the pandemic, the pastor is venturing into affordable housing development with his new nonprofit, United Hope Builders.

"We cannot solve a homeless problem without having housing, no matter what," he said.

Through a partnership with IndieDwell, an Idaho-based B corporation that manufactures modular housing units, United Hope Builders will construct a roughly 60,000-square-foot factory by leasing 7 acres of the old Romick Environmental Technologies site on Bay Road. The facility will churn out steel modular homes like the two recently delivered to East Palo Alto's RV Safe Lot at 1798 Bay Road.

A burgeoning trend in housing

Pastor Paul Bains and We Hope Associate Director Alicia Garcia talk inside a master bedroom, which is part of a three-bedroom modular home in East Palo on Jan. 12. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Prefabricated homes are not a new concept, but they've become an increasingly popular answer to the Bay Area's affordable housing crisis.

In August, as part of San Jose's goal to provide emergency housing for the homeless, the city broke ground on one site that will host more than 100 beds, using modular dwellings that each cost $85,000, according to a report from San Jose Spotlight.

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Sand Hill Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Sand Hill Property Company of Palo Alto, purchased the modular units for the San Jose project, Bains said.

As another sign of the demand for modular housing, Factory OS, a 3-year-old Vallejo-based modular housing factory, recently completed 1,000 housing units, according to multiple media reports, and raised $55 million in Series B funding, receiving support from tech and finance corporations such as Facebook, Google and Morgan Stanley.

In September, the company announced that it will open a second facility to meet the demand.

"The floodgates have opened," Bains said. "I'm getting inquiries every single day about this product and people wanting to come see it."

Two of the most attractive reasons for the shift toward modular homes lie in time and cost.

"Modulars can reduce construction expense, but most importantly, reduce (construction) time sometimes by as much as 40%," said Michael Brownrigg, United Hope Builders' chief of staff.

In 2019, the average cost of building affordable housing in the Bay Area was $664,455 per unit. According to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, an economic and policy think tank, that figure includes construction, land acquisition, materials, labor and legal fees, among other costs, unique to the region.

'The floodgates have opened. I'm getting inquiries every single day about this product and people wanting to come see it.'

-Paul Bains, co-founder, United Hope Builders

Brownrigg couldn't yet provide the total price tag for a United Hope Builders modular home, due to some of the uncontrollable variables beyond construction, but he is certain that modular units will cost a "small fraction" of the typical new home.

"Even when you peel all those different expenses away, we're still, we think, much more competitive from a cost point of view," he said.

Construction time is also a big selling point, especially for a region where supply can't meet the demand.

Unlike traditional stick-built homes, modular homes are put together off-site in a factory, without any of the on-site construction delays that might arise from factors like weather.

Solving the land problem

Pastor Paul Bains stands on the lot where a modular housing factory will be built in East Palto Alto. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

There are, however, hurdles both generic to any type of affordable housing development and unique to modular housing, Brownrigg said.

"Challenges for all of us in the Bay Area is the availability of land — I'd actually put that as No. 1," he said. "Then, No. 2, just the red tape and cost of building."

One way United Hope Builders wants to address issues of land availability is by targeting "non-traditional landholders" such as the churches and other religious organizations throughout the Bay Area that own often wide-open parking lots. Citing research from U.C. Berkeley's Terner Center for Housing Innovation think tank, Brownrigg claims there are about 5,000 acres of unused land controlled by religious organizations in the Bay Area.

"We think there's an opportunity to work with other mission-aligned people in the Bay Area who want to create great, beautiful, environmentally sound, affordable housing," he said.

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Workers guide a modular home onto a foundation in East Palo Alto on Jan. 7. Courtesy Pastor Paul Bains.

And to move through red-tape, Brownrigg said modular units can come already compliant to state code before developers have to put them together.

Specific to modular housing, however, one of the biggest hurdles is facilitating the shift in the housing industry's approach to development, where, traditionally, design decisions such as flooring, windows and appliances are made over a longer period of time rather than early-on as required with modular houses.

A study on modular construction by McKinsey and Company, published in June 2019, found that while modular homes can cut the development schedule by 20% to 50% and construction costs by 20%, "modular projects currently tend to take longer to design than traditional projects" because of the early decision-making process.

"Design decisions need to be made upfront and changes later in the process are both more costly and more difficult," the study said. "The industry is not used to working in this way."

This, as a consequence, also requires larger down payments at the front end, and Brownrigg finds that it can discourage some developers who may rely on low-income housing tax credits to fund an affordable housing project.

Without greater control of the construction process, Brownrigg said, a developer may be nervous to pull tax credits early on since there are very strict deadlines between the moment tax credits are issued and when a tenant moves into the property.

"If (developers) missed the deadline, they put at risk their allocation of future tax credits, which for an affordable housing developer is like an existential threat," he said. "I think we have a solution to that. I think we can find a way to finance that sort of downpayment stage so the affordable housing developer doesn't have to."

Pastor Paul Bains hopes United Hope's modular homes factory will bring around 100 jobs to East Palo Alto. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

To date, United Hope Builders has raised $4 million through foundations and private investors. Some of the largest investors include Anastasia Vournas and Bill Uhrig, who is the owner of Three Cities Research investment firm, and both helped lease the factory site on Bay Road, according to Bains. To get the factory open by the third quarter of this year, the organization will need to raise another $2 million.

With the opening of United Hope's factory, Bains also hopes to bring around 100 jobs to East Palo Alto, where employees will earn equity by owning 20% of the factory.

The organization is projected to produce around 400 homes per year at a minimum for the Bay Area, Bains said.

As for the homes already delivered, two families who are clients of We Hope will be surprised with them in the next few weeks, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the site planned on Valentine's Day.

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Are modular homes the answer to Bay Area's affordable housing demand?

Inside the latest chapter in one pastor's bid to solve the region's housing crisis

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Jan 29, 2021, 6:48 am

Two steel houses were delivered on the back of a big rig on Jan. 7 to a parking lot in East Palo Alto, one coming all the way from Pueblo, Colorado, and the other from Caldwell, Idaho. They're not exactly ready-to-live-in homes, but in a few weeks, possibly by Valentine's Day or earlier, they can be.

For Pastor Paul Bains, that's just part of the beauty and benefit of modular houses — factory-built homes that come ready-made in sections to be stacked or put together like Lego blocks. One of the newly delivered modular dwellings is a 960-square-foot, three-bedroom house made of three sections; the other is a 640-square-foot, two bedroom home made of two sections.

The big-rig delivery marked a new chapter in the Palo Alto native's 21-year pursuit to address homelessness in the Bay Area.

"My goal has always been to disrupt generational poverty," Bains said. "You do that through education and home ownership, and this makes it much more affordable for people to own their own home."

Bains and his wife, Cheryl, founded East Palo Alto's We Hope nonprofit in 1999, which now operates 100-bed shelters in San Francisco, a 74-bed shelter and Safe Lot RV parking program in East Palo Alto and mobile fleets that provide showers, bathrooms and laundry services in 17 cities, across four counties, according to Bains.

But to address homelessness more directly, a problem made worse by the pandemic, the pastor is venturing into affordable housing development with his new nonprofit, United Hope Builders.

"We cannot solve a homeless problem without having housing, no matter what," he said.

Through a partnership with IndieDwell, an Idaho-based B corporation that manufactures modular housing units, United Hope Builders will construct a roughly 60,000-square-foot factory by leasing 7 acres of the old Romick Environmental Technologies site on Bay Road. The facility will churn out steel modular homes like the two recently delivered to East Palo Alto's RV Safe Lot at 1798 Bay Road.

Prefabricated homes are not a new concept, but they've become an increasingly popular answer to the Bay Area's affordable housing crisis.

In August, as part of San Jose's goal to provide emergency housing for the homeless, the city broke ground on one site that will host more than 100 beds, using modular dwellings that each cost $85,000, according to a report from San Jose Spotlight.

Sand Hill Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Sand Hill Property Company of Palo Alto, purchased the modular units for the San Jose project, Bains said.

As another sign of the demand for modular housing, Factory OS, a 3-year-old Vallejo-based modular housing factory, recently completed 1,000 housing units, according to multiple media reports, and raised $55 million in Series B funding, receiving support from tech and finance corporations such as Facebook, Google and Morgan Stanley.

In September, the company announced that it will open a second facility to meet the demand.

"The floodgates have opened," Bains said. "I'm getting inquiries every single day about this product and people wanting to come see it."

Two of the most attractive reasons for the shift toward modular homes lie in time and cost.

"Modulars can reduce construction expense, but most importantly, reduce (construction) time sometimes by as much as 40%," said Michael Brownrigg, United Hope Builders' chief of staff.

In 2019, the average cost of building affordable housing in the Bay Area was $664,455 per unit. According to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, an economic and policy think tank, that figure includes construction, land acquisition, materials, labor and legal fees, among other costs, unique to the region.

Brownrigg couldn't yet provide the total price tag for a United Hope Builders modular home, due to some of the uncontrollable variables beyond construction, but he is certain that modular units will cost a "small fraction" of the typical new home.

"Even when you peel all those different expenses away, we're still, we think, much more competitive from a cost point of view," he said.

Construction time is also a big selling point, especially for a region where supply can't meet the demand.

Unlike traditional stick-built homes, modular homes are put together off-site in a factory, without any of the on-site construction delays that might arise from factors like weather.

There are, however, hurdles both generic to any type of affordable housing development and unique to modular housing, Brownrigg said.

"Challenges for all of us in the Bay Area is the availability of land — I'd actually put that as No. 1," he said. "Then, No. 2, just the red tape and cost of building."

One way United Hope Builders wants to address issues of land availability is by targeting "non-traditional landholders" such as the churches and other religious organizations throughout the Bay Area that own often wide-open parking lots. Citing research from U.C. Berkeley's Terner Center for Housing Innovation think tank, Brownrigg claims there are about 5,000 acres of unused land controlled by religious organizations in the Bay Area.

"We think there's an opportunity to work with other mission-aligned people in the Bay Area who want to create great, beautiful, environmentally sound, affordable housing," he said.

And to move through red-tape, Brownrigg said modular units can come already compliant to state code before developers have to put them together.

Specific to modular housing, however, one of the biggest hurdles is facilitating the shift in the housing industry's approach to development, where, traditionally, design decisions such as flooring, windows and appliances are made over a longer period of time rather than early-on as required with modular houses.

A study on modular construction by McKinsey and Company, published in June 2019, found that while modular homes can cut the development schedule by 20% to 50% and construction costs by 20%, "modular projects currently tend to take longer to design than traditional projects" because of the early decision-making process.

"Design decisions need to be made upfront and changes later in the process are both more costly and more difficult," the study said. "The industry is not used to working in this way."

This, as a consequence, also requires larger down payments at the front end, and Brownrigg finds that it can discourage some developers who may rely on low-income housing tax credits to fund an affordable housing project.

Without greater control of the construction process, Brownrigg said, a developer may be nervous to pull tax credits early on since there are very strict deadlines between the moment tax credits are issued and when a tenant moves into the property.

"If (developers) missed the deadline, they put at risk their allocation of future tax credits, which for an affordable housing developer is like an existential threat," he said. "I think we have a solution to that. I think we can find a way to finance that sort of downpayment stage so the affordable housing developer doesn't have to."

To date, United Hope Builders has raised $4 million through foundations and private investors. Some of the largest investors include Anastasia Vournas and Bill Uhrig, who is the owner of Three Cities Research investment firm, and both helped lease the factory site on Bay Road, according to Bains. To get the factory open by the third quarter of this year, the organization will need to raise another $2 million.

With the opening of United Hope's factory, Bains also hopes to bring around 100 jobs to East Palo Alto, where employees will earn equity by owning 20% of the factory.

The organization is projected to produce around 400 homes per year at a minimum for the Bay Area, Bains said.

As for the homes already delivered, two families who are clients of We Hope will be surprised with them in the next few weeks, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the site planned on Valentine's Day.

Comments

Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 29, 2021 at 12:02 pm
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2021 at 12:02 pm

Again. The production solutions of housing is fundamentally wrong. Modular home / classrooms are environmentally toxic, temporary solutions. There is a major seismic (Earthquake fault line) in the Bay Area . Cost of living, essential skilled jobs and population growth AND infrastructure (upgrades to wastewater plants, train tracks) issues abound. Along with climate change. Another empty, Much ADU about nothing. We can no longer back space w a delete button, here.

Can you imagine Palo Alto embracing modular home sites??? Example: the mean spirited nature against keeping Buena Vista mobile home, RV living on ECR. Again. Nice try but a big, fat NO! Treating housing like tin cans , kicked down road...


Context matters.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2021 at 1:14 pm
Context matters., Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2021 at 1:14 pm

We need to make more productive use of land. How about condominiums?


Resident
Registered user
Fairmeadow
on Jan 29, 2021 at 1:49 pm
Resident, Fairmeadow
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2021 at 1:49 pm

The cost is in the land. If we want to make a dent in our ABAG deficit, especially while retaining public and wild green spaces, we need dense apartments and not modular homes or even tiny houses or RV parks. We need to minimize private land use.


R. Cavendish
Registered user
another community
on Jan 29, 2021 at 2:33 pm
R. Cavendish, another community
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2021 at 2:33 pm

terrific concept. a modular home tract would be similar to a mobile home park.

it could provide housing for the homeless population as well as for those who cannot afford conventional residencies.

location would be the primary criteria and issue, where to develop these tracts and how much private yard space would they be afforded?

they actually look better than some of the older homes in Palo Alto.


Steve Raney
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 30, 2021 at 3:27 pm
Steve Raney, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 30, 2021 at 3:27 pm

So great to see Pastor Bains taking visionary "social entrepreneur" leadership. I'll take 1% credit for putting together the May 2018 tour of Vallejo's Factory OS union-built modular home factory. And Elaine Uang should snag 1% credit for inviting Bains. On that tour, you could see his large brain imagining the possibilities. He had already identified the Bay Road parcel where he wanted the factory. He had extended conversations w/ Factory OS staff (they have a Bridge and Eden affordable housing executive lineage).

One modular housing application is massively-scalable, affordable, carfree housing: Web Link preferably located new to transit and the middle of a walkable downtown.

Of note, Google's John Igoe catalyzed the creation of Factory OS.

Everyone can agree that using modular construction to create crappy housing is bad. But modular developers are really creative with use of space. Patrick Kennedy is a pioneer: Web Link You can check out his 8' x 20' MicroPAD at 1321 Mission St in SF. 1321 itself has 160 microunits, 0 cars, 0 car parking, 180 bikes. It is 11 stories and 120’ high with a density of 761 housing units per acre. Kennedy leased all 160 units before construction completed. Before the Factory OS tour, we brought Patrick Kennedy to PA's Institute for the Future to lead a seminar.


Resident
Registered user
Fairmeadow
on Jan 30, 2021 at 4:20 pm
Resident, Fairmeadow
Registered user
on Jan 30, 2021 at 4:20 pm

Tall modular is fine. Single-story as in this article is not. New residents have to get past the appeal of having a yard and green space of their own if we are going to align housing with jobs. All new construction should be required to be four stories or more. All spare land is going to be needed to meet the needs of our new residents: quality recreation, spacious schooling, multi-modal transportation, and more. Single family homes are quickly becoming an anachronism. As long as we do the work to maintain ample public spaces, nature preserves, and greenery throughout our developments it won't be so bad. It won't be cheap. But it can be done. IMO this is hard to swallow since it is a big change for our city, but I don't see a way around it.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 30, 2021 at 5:05 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 30, 2021 at 5:05 pm

Resident - yes it is a big swallow. Note that the original meeting was in Vallejo. That is a place with a lot of available land. A good place for this type venture. So why does everything translate into a MUST for Palo Alto? I am really trying to figure out why residents of this city keep trying to manipulate everyone else into some concept which is backwards of what we are doing.

Real estate agents fill the pages of the papers with homes for sale. They are selling a home in a neighborhood. That is what our economy is working on. So why do people sitting in their own homes reimagine what is suppose to happen to everyone else and their homes?

And what new residents are you talking about? Are you part of some group that sponsors people coming over the border?

Sorry - do not get the why's and how's that someone who is a resident of this city is thinking up how to destroy the very essence of the city. Just move to wherever it looks like what you think it is suppose to look like. We live here because it looks like how we want to live.


Steve Raney
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 30, 2021 at 7:29 pm
Steve Raney, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 30, 2021 at 7:29 pm

What's great is Pastor Bain's:
* brain making connections between things to come up with this innovative concept,
* his compassion,
* his ability to weave together the relationships to get this project going,
* his energy and ambition.
This is no small accomplishment.

Per Web Link this type of housing is illegal in most cities including Palo Alto. This type of housing won't come unless a city welcomes it:
a) get a blue-ribbon commission to check this housing out in other locations and tour Factory OS
b) make this housing type legal,
c) a city should secure parcel(s) and then change zoning for this housing type.
There's no way to sneak this type of housing into a city that doesn't want it.

The Regional Housing Needs Assessment (Web Link was invented by Ward Connerly. RHNA creates new housing allocations for cities to fulfill. Residents often want to see the impacts of new housing mitigated. For a city like Palo Alto, affordable, car-free microunits might represent "maximally-mitigated" new housing:
* Super-low carbon footprint.
* Improve jobs/housing imbalance.
* Fewest possible number of car trips/traffic.
* Zero parking demand.
* Very high property tax revenue per square foot.
* Increased expenditure at local businesses, increasing retail viability.
* Etc.

I've heard from mid-level public sector staff from another city that this type of housing represents a huge improvement compared to other crappy, expensive, long-commute options.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 31, 2021 at 12:05 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 31, 2021 at 12:05 am

The city of Palo Alto is built out. What you are not addressing is the infrastructure elements - the sewer connection, plumbing, and water connections. What we are seeing now in this city is older homes being replaced with bigger two story homes. That is what is selling in this city. That is selling in Crescent Park, and that is selling in South PA. This type of housing may work in central valley but I doubt it because they are building like crazy now in the central valley and those are two story homes.
The real estate section of the paper has new housing going up all over the place.
You may view this as an investment but I don't see it for this city. What I see is apartment and condos on El Camino. That is the best use of the land right now. If you read the real estate section of the paper people now are selling and moving out. There is a lot of homes for sale in the city, lots of turnover.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 1, 2021 at 12:08 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Feb 1, 2021 at 12:08 am

Stanford is the biggest land holder and employs the most people in this location. They have an abundance of undeveloped land. This idea could work for them to accommodate some of their workers.


citizen
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2021 at 2:56 pm
citizen, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Feb 1, 2021 at 2:56 pm

Modular homes do not have to be crappy and they can eliminate a lot of the waste involved in construction. They can also make it easier for people to put in ADU's.

That said, times have changed, and thus it's time to stop trotting out tired old developer-serving myths like "Single family homes are quickly becoming an anachronism."

The pandemic happened, and what did people do? Move to where they could get some space and quality of life. They didn't say, oh hey, now I can move into a cheaper crappy little human-cage down the street.

Dense building and urban heat sinks have serious insurmountable drawbacks in seismic-prone, drought prone, fire prone areas. Sprawl is bad, too, but that's not what's happened after the pandemic -- a lot of workers moved and are working remotely. Medium-sized towns like Bend that have both reasonably nice housing and civic amenities have been swamped. The state focus should be on creating safety and amenities in this more distributed model because ultimately that's how the most number of people have the most reasonable affordable quality of life. Having gardens is not frivolous, there are numerous environmental, health, and mental health benefits. And given a chance, people will go to where they can have that quality of life.

I really wish the false developer-serving narratives would stop. A mix of different types of housing is good. Treating some people's housing like it's evil in order to bulldoze it and make a lot of money for a few already rich developers is not. And at some point, we have to start thinking about the pollution, noise, invariable traffic, heat sinks, drought, safety, fire, life-cycle-cost, daylight plane, mental health, and other challenges associated with overdeveloping relative to the infrastructure and local natural environment.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Feb 3, 2021 at 11:20 am
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Feb 3, 2021 at 11:20 am

I agree with all the positive comments above. I've no way to assess if the comment about such housing being toxic is correct, but have to believe that can be resolved. I also bet that there either is or could be a two-story option.

I also think that Pastor Bains is promoting the type of housing - single family - that is wisest. Advocates of high-rise, stack and pack housing should consider what Covid has taught us about the disadvantages of such housing. Shared space (elevators, hallways, entry ways, etc) can be highly problematic for both those who reside in those buildings and the greater community. Like it or not, single family residences are healthier. If what Pastor Bains has achieved can be duplicated - even on the land-rich Stanford campus so that those campus employees who are now living in their RV on El Camino can move to a real house - all the better.

Years and years of approving commercial development that resulted in more jobs and demand for housing by people filling those jobs created the enormous and problematic jobs:housing imbalance that we must somehow improve. The development-friendly majority on City Council pretty much ignored pleas to not continue that practice or at least require that new construction be mitigated, housing wise. Also ignored. Then along came Covid and an unexpected consequence: a leveling-off of the demand for housing. Although I cannot provide a statistic (no doubt someone can!) many companies have announced that employees can work from home even after the pandemic crisis is over. FOR LEASE signs, a rare sight in Palo Alto before Covid, are now visible all over town.

I hope those in positions of influence over development are taking Covid impacts into account.


Mark Dinan
Registered user
East Palo Alto
on Feb 4, 2021 at 8:25 am
Mark Dinan, East Palo Alto
Registered user
on Feb 4, 2021 at 8:25 am

To the best of my knowledge, this proposal for a new factory in EPA has not gone through any permitting, approval process, environmental impact or any of the other regulations necessary to open an industrial facility in East Palo Alto. I may be wrong about this, but it does seem to be a possible application for a new use for this site at 2020 Bay Road, not a done deal.


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