The commission's strong show of support for the project positions it for final approval by the City Council, which is set to receive it next month. Commissioner Keith Reckdahl was one of several members who lauded the project because it converts office space to housing, a key strategy for Palo Alto as it seeks to meet its regional obligations for new housing and to reduce its jobs-housing imbalance.
"That's really good because you take something that requires housing, and you're producing housing, so it helps on both ends of the spectrum," Reckdahl said of the conversion. "And also, there is no existing housing that gets eliminated or existing tenants that need to be replaced."
"I just couldn't be more delighted with the concept of removing office and putting housing in there because that solves a double whammy for us as a city because the current ratio is out of whack," Lauing said.
The commission's vote in favor of the project comes just a month after the project suffered a setback at a hearing of the Architectural Review Board, which unanimously recommended rejection of the project. At its April 21 hearing, the board strongly criticized the proposed development as lacking a "unified and coherent design" and an "internal sense of order" and failing to promote safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.
In the past, criticism would typically trigger further revisions and reviews and stretch out the approval process by months. But thanks to recent laws such as Senate Bill 330 and the Housing Accountability Act, a prolonged review process is no longer an option. Absent very specific findings that the project violates local zoning codes, runs counter to the city's Comprehensive Plan or would cause "serious public health problems," the city must approve the project within 90 days of the certification of the project's environmental analysis. It is also limited to five public hearings, which includes reviews by all boards and commissions, the council hearing and any potential appeals.
The laws have upended the city's approval process. In the past, a vesting tentative map — which locks in entitlements for the developer — wouldn't be considered until after a developer completed the architectural review process and obtained the needed permits for the project. (In this case, SummerHill needs a conditional use permit to build residential units at a site zoned for research, office and limited manufacturing use.) With the new deadlines in place, the council will find itself considering all of these items at the same meeting.
While the commission generally supported the project, Vice Chair Doria Summa said she feels the commission is "very constrained" by the housing laws and agreed with the Architectural Review Board's concerns that the streets in the new development are not bike- and pedestrian-friendly.
"On the one hand, we like getting all the housing and we appreciate the applicant for going in that direction," Summa said. "On the other hand, the ARB was unanimous in feeling it was not adequate in this way."
John Hickey, vice president of development at SummerHill, said the company tried to design the circulation so that it really focused on pedestrians. He noted that the entrance to the eight buildings fronts Bayshore Road while the garages are in the back. The project does not seek to create a shared route for vehicles and pedestrians, he said.
The project does, however, include bike improvements along Bayshore, Hickey said. The existing northbound bike lane would be widened and a new southbound bike lane would be created between the project site and Colorado Avenue.
Hickey likened the proposed project to similar condominium communities in the area, including Sterling Park and Oregon Green.
"The site is very well-suited for this type of development and density of development," Hickey told the commission.
Commissioner Giselle Roohparvar, who lives in a condominium complex near Fabian Way, said communities of this sort create an opportunity for young families like her own to live in Palo Alto. She said she is very excited about the project. Townhomes of the sort proposed by SummerHill often serve as "starter homes" for people who cannot afford to spend $5 million to $6 million for a home, which is typical in Palo Alto.
She also argued that building a residential community on Bayshore Road would bring the added benefit of making the area safer.
"When I walk up and down Bayshore and Fabian with my daughter, it feels very cold and industrial and I do want it to have more of a community feel, to feel safer, frankly. Because it's dead at night and on weekends otherwise," Roohparvar said.
SummerHill's proposed development is also benefitting from a lack of public opposition. No one spoke out against the project at Wednesday's hearing, while a few residents submitted letters supporting it. Palo Alto Forward, a nonprofit that advocates for more housing, was among them.
Katie Causey, community engagement manager of Palo Alto Forward, noted in her letter that seven of the 48 condominiums will be offered at below-market-rate. (Hickey said they would be designated for "moderate" level, which connotes between 80% and 100% of area median income.) She also supported the developer's plan to turn an office site into a residential community, consistent with the goals of the city's Housing Element.
"Rejection of this project will raise doubts about the viability of the many commercial sites planned for housing in the site inventory," Causey wrote.
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