A string of awkwardly placed homes on a busy stretch of Page Mill Road in Palo Alto could soon make way for a dense new development thanks to a zoning change the City Council approved Monday night, Dec. 10.
The council voted unanimously to rezone four parcels on the 400 block of Page Mill Road from residential to commercial, a move that members agreed would make the properties in the 0.6-acre rezoned site more consistent with the largely commercial area that surrounds them.
Currently, the four nondescript, single-family homes at 423-451 Page Mill Road are a zoning aberration on a busy block that lies just east of El Camino Real. The block includes conspicuous commercial buildings such as the Kelly Moore Paint Store, the AT&T Retail Store and the large AOL office development at 395 Page Mill Road. The four parcels are expected to ultimately house a mixed-use development designed by architect John Northway, who is working with property owner Norm Schwab on the project.
The rezoning proposal had already sailed through the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, which approved it on Oct. 3 with no dissent. The council followed suit Monday night, agreeing with planning staff's recommendation. In a report to the council, staff wrote that the commercial land-use designation is appropriate for the properties and consistent with the commercial uses on each corner of the block.
"The property fronts on Page Mill Road, which is a high traffic, major arterial roadway with adjacent commercial uses," the report states. "Single-family residences are not typically encouraged in such locations."
Council members agreed, with Pat Burt calling the single-family residences an "anachronism" at the busy site, Nancy Shepherd noting how "lonely" the houses look and Vice Mayor Greg Scharff criticizing them as "an eyesore."
The only disagreement was over whether to create a "site-and-design overlay" on the properties, which would trigger a more stringent design-review process for the proposed development, including public hearings in front of the city's land-use board and the council. Council members Burt and Karen Holman argued that the designation would be a prudent way to ensure the future project will comply with the council's vision for the site. Price disagreed and said the development standards -- the service commercial (CS) zone -- "will be sufficient to make a good transition and allow opportunities for redevelopment of these properties."
The council took the cautious route and added the overlay by an 8-1 vote, with Price dissenting. Burt said that while he trusts Northway to propose a good project, the zoning applies to a parcel, not the applicant.
"We don't know for sure whether the project goes forward with the given applicant," Burt said. "We want to make sure that we don't just have faith in the architect."
So far, Northway has offered few details about the development, other than to say it will be a mixed-use building with both residential and commercial space. Northway said he and Schwab didn't want to proceed too far along with the design process before getting the zone change that would make the project possible.
Northway said he will work with neighboring properties on producing a suitable design before unveiling it to the broader public and to the council. He had no objections to the council's proposal for the overlay.
"We promised the neighbors, and we will do this, that we'll show it to them first and take their comments into consideration before we finalize the design and submit it for site-and-design (review)," Northway said. "We really need to get the land-use zoning in place so Norm can feel comfortable going ahead and spending the time and money to finalize the design."