Two projects that could vastly reshape downtown Palo Alto and its outskirts received early positive reviews from the City Council Monday night, but members still asked sharp questions of the applicants.
Both will return to the council for official approval at future dates.
A proposal to build a 53-unit apartment complex for very low income working families on Alma Street got a conceptual thumbs up, but Councilman Bern Beecham questioned whether it was a good deal.
The city would contribute its electrical substation on Alma Street for the project, and then would help two nonprofits purchase Ole's Car Shop for $4 million.
In total, the project will cost $150,00 per unit, a cost to be shared by the city and two nonprofits partnering with the city.
Eden Housing Executive Director Linda Mandolini acknowledged the $4 million sum would be the highest her organization ever paid for land for a low-income housing project.
"You pay a real premium for being Palo Alto," she said. The other nonprofit working on the project is Community Housing Alliance.
A $3 million contribution for the land would come from a city fund financed by housing projects that don't provide the city's required number of affordable units. Most council members felt the project was a good use of that money.
"I don't know why we wouldn't grab this and say, 'Go, go, go -- and go as fast as you can,'" Councilman John Barton said.
The other project that received a positive preliminary review Monday night is a proposed four-story building, with retail on the first two floors and office space on the top two for 135 Hamilton Ave.
Currently, zoning only allows property owner Chop Keenan to build a two-story 12,000-sqaure-foot structure at the site. But he's hoping the city will grant him a zoning change for a "planned community."
In return for rights to a 30,000-square-foot building, Keenan is offering to replace a 52-space surface parking lot on High Street with a 146-spot parking structure. Keenan also wants the city to grant him exclusive use of 60 of those spots during the workday.
Most council members were in favor of learning more about the project, although some had concerns. Councilwoman Dena Mossar worried the four-story building would be another eyesore -- which Keenan describes as "a little jewel box" -- like the Cheesecake Factory on University Avenue.
Faith Bell, owner of Bell's Bookstore on Emerson Street, warned that the expanded parking garage would not be to her customers' likings. Also, she was planning to put solar panels on her roof this year, but Keenan's large building would block out the sun.
"That doesn't make me very happy," she said.
The last time Bell and Keenan faced off was when he applied, in the mid-1990s, to replace the Varsity Theatre on University Avenue with Borders Books and Music.
"May I just say," Bell said, "five independent bookstores have closed since Borders came in."