The bustling block of Page Mill Road just east of El Camino Real looks like an unlikely place for quiet single-family homes, with its high traffic volume, a scattering of shops such as the AT&T store and Kelly Moore Paint Store and the towering AOL office building just a stone's throw away.
But the largely commercial block also includes four single-story homes, which, in a hint of zoning irony, stand out precisely because of their nondescript nature. Unlike other properties in the area, the four parcels at 423, 433, 441 and 451 Page Mill Road are currently zoned for residential use, a designation that city planners view as odd given the surrounding area.
Now, plans are afoot to change that. The owner of the four residential parcels, Norm Schwab, and local architect John Northway of Stoecker and Northway Architects have asked the city to rezone the pocket of residential properties to "service commercial," a change that would allow construction of another dense office development in an area that has seen an influx of them in recent years. In addition to the existing AOL building, the city is also preparing for a major "planned community" zone application from developer Jay Paul.
That proposal, which the City Council is scheduled to discuss Sept. 10, would allow the developer to exceed Palo Alto's zoning regulations in exchange for a negotiated set of "public benefits," which the council hopes will include a new police headquarters.
Meanwhile, Northway's firm is planning its own commercial development on the Page Mill Road block, on the site that currently houses the four residences. The city's Planning and Transportation Commission considered the request for a zone changes Wednesday night, Aug. 29, and largely supported the zone change. Commissioners expressed concern, however, about the lack of neighborhood outreach and voted 6-0, with Alex Panelli absent, to delay any decisions about potential zoning changes until October.
Northway said the new development will be a "multi-use type of building," though he noted that "it hasn't been taken too far yet" because the zone change hasn't been made yet. He said that after considering various potential zoning designations, the applicant team felt that Service Commercial (CS) is "the best zone to use for the business plan being developed."
"You don't want to spend too much money designing a building until you know you have a zone it can fit into," Northway said.
City Planner Russ Reich said the zone would allow a development with a height limit of 35 feet. Reich said that while the city typically doesn't support "upzoning" residential sites, it is making an exception with this one because of location on a busy arterial roadway and its proximity to transit.
The commission agreed that a zone change could be suitable but stopped short of approving the developer's request. Vice Chair Mark Michael was one of several commissioners who urged the developers to get the neighborhood involved in the project before proceeding with the zone change. He and his colleagues seemed puzzled by the fact that not a single neighbor attended the meeting centering on a zone change that could significantly impact the block.
"Doing outreach upfront helps promote a more successful project," Michael said, channeling the sentiments of his colleagues.
Commissioner Samir Tuma agreed with staff and the applicants that the single-family homes in this area "have never really made much sense" from a zoning perspective and said he was "generally supportive of the idea of that changing to something else."
But Tuma was particularly adamant about the need to get neighbors involved in the process. He rejected the assertion from Northway that the commission is dragging the process out by requiring developers to perform outreach before concrete plans for the new commercial project are in place. Tuma also alluded to a proposal in 2008 to build a five-story hotel on the block, a proposal that the city ultimately shot down after community criticism about the project being too massive and too dense. Though the residential sites are flanked by commercial developments, they also abut single-family residences on Pepper Avenue, near the rear of the property.
"We've had projects in this area before where the neighbors, once they found out about them, were very engaged," Tuma said. "Which leads me to believe that they don't know (about this)."
Even so, the commission was sympathetic to the zone-change request, which city planners have also recommended.
"It's a unique site," Planning Director Curtis Williams said Wednesday. "Having these single-family lots sitting in a major commercial thoroughfare is an unusual situation."
He noted that the city's new planning documents, including the concept plan for California Avenue, all encourage dense multi-use developments in this area because of its proximity to the California Avenue Caltrain station.
"The California Avenue plan will ultimately recommend something more intense in nature on these parcels," Williams said.