Housing over parking? Architects propose building apartments on public lots | September 24, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 24, 2021

Housing over parking? Architects propose building apartments on public lots

Housing Element Working Group supports further exploration of idea, which could generate about 1,000 new dwellings

by Gennady Sheyner

As Palo Alto advances a new vision for housing growth, two local architects are pitching an idea that they believe could generate as many as 1,000 new dwellings near downtown and California Avenue: constructing housing over parking on city-owned lots.

Under the proposal from Peter Baltay and David Hirsch, who both serve on the city's Architectural Review Board, the city would issue a request for proposals to developers to build three- to five-story buildings filled with small apartments on parking lots. All of the existing parking would be maintained on these lots, though much of it would be shifted underground, with housing built above it.

Baltay and Hirsch began exploring the concept about six months ago. They toured every lot in the California Avenue and downtown areas to count parking spots and create estimates for how much housing each could accommodate. They estimate that downtown's 12 surface parking lots, which today contain 707 parking spaces, could potentially accommodate about 740 housing units as well as 1,070 parking spaces. On California Avenue, the five surface parking lots could be developed to include 263 residences as well as 397 parking spaces, up from the current level of 282 spaces. (The parking structures in the two business districts are not included in the proposal.)

"We have to stress over and over again that we won't lose parking," Baltay said at an interview Wednesday. "This does not require a loss of a single parking space."

The two architects believe that their idea could not only generate hundreds of new housing units in each of the two business districts, but that it could help revitalize retail at a time when the business community is reeling from the rising popularity of online shopping and the economic damage wrought by COVID-19. More importantly, they said, their plan would allow the city to dictate the terms of the new development, including building designs and affordability levels in the new housing complexes.

This, they argue, is particularly important at a time when the state is setting aggressive housing targets for local jurisdictions and adopting new laws that curb cities' powers to reject development proposals. Under the state's Regional Housing Allocation Process, Palo Alto will have to plan for 6,086 new housing units before 2015 and 2023, which makes their proposal particularly timely.

As members of the Architecture Review Board, Baltay and Hirsch are intimately familiar with both the difficulty of getting through the approval process and the importance of ensuring that new buildings have ample parking. In advocating for exploring the use of parking lots, they note that they are acting as individuals and not in their capacity as board members. (They have not discussed the proposal with anyone else on the board, Baltay said.)

They are, however, preparing to go through their own vetting process to advance their concept. The first step occurred earlier this month, when they pitched the parking lot idea to the Housing Element Working Group, a citizen's panel that is helping Palo Alto adopt its Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lists the city's housing policies and that includes an inventory of sites that can accommodate housing.

In the Sept. 2 presentation, Baltay noted that because these lots are in commercial areas, the new development will not adversely impact the city's existing residential communities.

"We can control the development parameters of the new buildings," Baltay said during the presentation. "Since the city owns the land, we are able to insist on projects that reflect the physical and social character and values of our community."

Hirsch stressed during the presentation the economic benefit that the plan could bring to the retail areas and noted that by focusing dense multi-family developments on sites around downtown and in the California Avenue area, the city could avoid significant growth in corridors that abut low-scale residential neighborhoods, including Middlefield Road, Alma Street and El Camino Real.

"The trending decline in brick-and-mortar retail activity combined with the catastrophic impact of the covid-19 pandemic has devastated our local shopping districts," Hirsch said. "Bringing new residents to downtown areas can help reverse this trend, creating variety, vitality in our urban district."

The idea of building housing on city-owned lots isn't exactly new. In 2018, as the city prepared to adopt a new Housing Work Plan, the City Council considered and rejected a policy that would make parking lots available for new housing. At that time, council members expressed concern about giving up a scarce and precious commodity, public land, before the council voted 6-3 not to include the policy in the plan.

Other cities have been more receptive to the idea. Mountain View has recently approved a project from the nonprofit Alta Housing that would bring 120 affordable-housing units to a city-owned parking lot near Castro Street. Hirsch also pointed to housing projects in Burlingame and San Mateo that are relying on parking lots to create 132 and 54 apartments, respectively.

To demonstrate what such a project would look like in Palo Alto, the two architects created a concept plan for the parking lot on Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street, which the council had previously considered as a site for a new parking garage. The illustration shows a five-story building with 83 apartments with skylights, clerestory windows and a roof deck. The project would also include 130 underground parking spaces.

Baltay and Hirsch said they believe that it's time for Palo Alto reconsider the idea of housing over parking on public lots. Rather than force it to cede control over public land, the plan allows the city to exert control and shape its own housing destiny, they argued.

"If it's important for you to step the building down to fit a neighborhood, you can do that. You own the land; you call the shots," Baltay said. "You wait until the state tells you what the rule is, you lost. It's so important that the city has the opportunity to not only do these things, but to do them under Palo Alto's standards."

The Housing Element Working Group proved largely receptive to the proposal, with 12 members supporting further exploration of the concept and three opposing it. For many, the support came with caveats. Arthur Keller, a former planning commissioner who serves on the working group, insisted that the projects not include "puzzle lifts" for cars as part of their parking schemes (Baltay and Hirsch confirmed that they do not). Another group member, Hamilton Hitchings, insisted that any housing projects developed on parking lots be 100% affordable housing projects, targeting residents who make no more than 80% of area median income.

"If we're using public land, this really has to be for low-income (residents). ... It needs to be developed by a nonprofit and it needs to receive state funding," Hitchings said.

Kathy Jordan, who also serves on the housing group, suggested that the plans are not providing sufficient parking, given that the architects are proposing only 0.5 parking spaces for each new apartment on the public lot. She also criticized the plan for privatizing a public asset.

"We have a private party that would be profiting, earning income, over a public property and amenity," Jordan said.

While the tentative proposal does not explicitly require the new apartments to be offered at below market rates, Baltay emphasized that the city can set that as a condition when it issues a request for proposals. Hirsch said that in the preliminary concept, 93% of apartments are studios and one-bedroom units — which means that, at the very least, they would be relatively affordable when compared to other local apartments.

Hirsch also said in an interview that while the concept has the potential to create more than 1,000 apartments, these would be developed over a long period of time. One possible path forward, he said, is to select one lot in downtown and one in the California Avenue Business District and see what proposals the city receives for housing developments.

"It's never going to be done in one shot," Hirsch told the Weekly. "It's a long-term process."


What do you think about building housing over city-owned parking lots? Share your thoughts on Town Square, the community discussion forum at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on Sep 23, 2021 at 9:49 am

Chris is a registered user.

I hope the reactionary City Council will embrace this idea. They really need to get more in its on the largest parking lots, through height or size of units.

There are already 5 or 6 buildings near Homer and Waverley that are higher than 5 stories. Building a taller building on that site will not be the end of Palo Alto as we know it, contrary of the belief of the majority on City Council.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 23, 2021 at 10:01 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Brilliant. Now the city can save the $280K they were going to spent on an economic development manager since they've devised yet another way to kill our downtowns. Are they so clueless that they don't realize people stopped meeting friends for lunch near University years ago because of parking issues which were so bad the city had to move to Residential Permit Parking?

This reminds me of putting housing on all the train station parking lots thus removing parking while still preaching that people should take the train and/or putting electric car lifts in areas prone to frequent power outages.

Palo Alto never ceases to amaze me.

Posted by ALB
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 23, 2021 at 10:03 am

ALB is a registered user.

Hamilton Hitchings is correct any housing that is constructed must be truly below market rate. Be careful when architects push projects as they benefit when developers bless their support. The ARB should not include mainly architects but residents from other professions.

Posted by Green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 23, 2021 at 10:39 am

Green Gables is a registered user.

Oh, great, maybe those brilliant architects can draw up more water supply. Forget all the extra traffic as all those people being housed will be walking to work.

Posted by tmp
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 23, 2021 at 11:00 am

tmp is a registered user.

This is an awful idea. Parking lots are these days close to the only open, relaxing space that can spare you from the oppressiveness of large looming buildings. It is already hard to find any sun on a nice day downtown and this will make it worse. The city has given up on any pretense of building urban parks and open space to relieve the gloom of this over-developed city. We don't need more 5 and 6 story buildings to pollute the world, and suck up energy and water that we do not have and to house more people that the state's water and environment can not support.

This is all about money and who gets to cash in on the very limited resources that are now available in the city and state. Rather than being thoughtful and careful with our very limited resources there is a cohort of selfish people who want to get in at the last big boom before it all comes to a crashing halt. At some point we will no longer be able to ignore the lack of water and the lack of clean air and the desperate condition of the natural world but just like that last Rapa Nui on Easter Island cutting down that last tree we foolishly listen to people who continue to destroy our environment for their own gain.

Posted by Jim
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 23, 2021 at 11:00 am

Jim is a registered user.

This is a wonderful idea that could actually increase parking spaces rather than removing them while increasing housing units over the same property. If it is public land, the revenue could be used to support other public services that serve the entire community.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2021 at 11:05 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Still no talk of parking meters or electronic signage to tell us where there is space to park.

These underground parking spots will probably be used more by the people living in the apartments than those of us who want to park.

Posted by PST
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 23, 2021 at 11:29 am

PST is a registered user.

The city should become the developer and retain ownership of everything. This proposal does not include enough parking. All the apartments should be extremely low income and low income housing.

Posted by Evergreen Park
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 23, 2021 at 12:09 pm

Evergreen Park is a registered user.

This idea has the germ of something that could be really nice. The trick will be in not expecting this to solve all of the housing problems in the City and thus making it way too dense to be livable. Scale back some of the housing and include a park and some green space so that residents and the City benefit. Concrete does not absorb green house cases -- open land does.

Remember that another 500 units built in a very small area will most likely attract at least 1000 cars that need to be parking somewhere. While the plan does not remove parking, it increases the demand for it exponentially. While we had hoped that the new Cal Ave garage would take traffic, pollution, etc. out of the surrounding residential areas and allow them the same quality of life in other RPPs, it now appears that the pressure on these residential areas will increase. If so, I recommend that the City sell employee permits in College Terrace and Old Palo Alto, and not expect Evergreen Park and Mayfield to carry the load along -- very discriminatory not to.

The City will have to figure out how to manage traffic of 1000 new residents as well as the traffic generated by new retail. The Cal Ave area is a very small area with limited ways in and out -- particularly with Cal Ave closed and so many lanes of streets in the area closed for construction.

Lastly, heaven help those of us who live around this area -- the eternal construction of an "ongoing" process will be horrendous unless the City manages it carefully -- which it has never done in this area. As someone else has noted, there has never been a single sign (other than a couple of "detour" ones) to help people get around, find parking, etc.

Might be a good idea with a little less density AND careful planning.

The Ciyt

Posted by W. Reller
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 23, 2021 at 4:16 pm

W. Reller is a registered user.

Parking lots are not city owned land per se but owned by parking assessment districts not the city itself. Those that have paid into the districts would have a big say on other usage.

Posted by CC
a resident of University South
on Sep 23, 2021 at 4:18 pm

CC is a registered user.

The idea here seems to be:
1) Take some land in a high-value area (Palo Alto) that has a low-value use (housing for cars)
2) Improve the land to be something high-value (housing for people)

It is telling that this is indeed such a controversial proposal.

Posted by Observer
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 23, 2021 at 7:05 pm

Observer is a registered user.

The old shell game at work here. Per Mr. Baltay: "We have to stress over and over again that we won't lose parking," Baltay said in an interview Wednesday. "This does not require a loss of a single parking space."
Let's just take the Calif. Ave. proposal for example. Existing parking spaces - 282. After this project - 397, a gain of 115 spaces. New residences -263. If each residence has only one car, they consume 263 spaces, resulting in a net loss of 148 spaces (263 - 115) available to non-residents of the new apartments. Even if you accept the ludicrous assumption of 0.5 cars per new residence, it would still be net loss of spaces available to the public. Mr. Baltay, please quit playing games with your false assertions.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Downtown North

on Sep 23, 2021 at 9:19 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Posted by KOhlson
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2021 at 7:00 am

KOhlson is a registered user.

A very promising concept, more or less so depending on the details.

Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 24, 2021 at 10:30 am

eileen is a registered user.

I hope this proposal includes open space with trees and landscaping for people to gather. Maybe turn one of the parking lots into a park?

Posted by Ryan
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 24, 2021 at 11:15 pm

Ryan is a registered user.

Terrible idea. First of all, we don't have the water. Even if we did, it would be an environmental disaster and cause more pollution.

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 26, 2021 at 5:06 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

Local businesses already are heavily impacted by lingering Covid-19, and too many have failed. And now this incredibly "wise fool" city government wants to take parking away from more of their potential customers, just in the name of "more housing"? Residents won't take shuttles or buses or ride services to to PA businesses. It is far easier and practical for them just to get in their cars and drive to Menlo Park, Mountain View, or Los Altos where there is ample parking.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 26, 2021 at 5:25 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Terribly dumb idea! Why is the city trying to discourage us from patronizing local businesses?

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 27, 2021 at 4:24 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Some have proposed housing built above BART stations and parking lots. Since BART is on-board with this it is a good idea. In LA the subway is built below ground with stops at popular locations - like the Hollywood theatre section. This city is not set up for this type venture since Caltrain is in a residential section. In other cities Caltrain is in the downtoen industrial setions.

Posted by Amie
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 6, 2021 at 4:59 pm

Amie is a registered user.

Replacing the surface parking lots (that are a waste of land) in our downtown is the BEST IDEA EVER! We need more community members there who will live, work, and enjoy downtown - as well as patronize local retail and restaurants. This could really revitalize our retail uses that are so obviously struggling.

I live two blocks from University and buy something locally just about every time I walk my dog. We need more of me downtown!

Has anyone seen the "walk on the sidewalk to save our retail signs"? This is ridiculous. We need more residents in small apartments (with VERY limited parking) withing walking or biking distance to retail and services. I would say exactly the same for Cal Ave as well.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 6, 2021 at 5:43 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Annie, why not ask the poor struggling retailers if they want to get rid of more parking for their customers? They've had a tough enough time of it with their former customers deciding to go elsewhere rather than compete with all the commuters who outnumber residents 4 to 1.

As for needing more people to live downtown, why not ask the city managers why they ousted 85+ downtown LONG-TERM residents of the President Hotel so they could bet on more $$$$ from the high-end business travelers who went POOF!

With all the homeless hanging out in the garages, they're more dangerous than usual and street-smart people, esp. women, prefer surface lots to the dangers of enclosed garages.

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