With residents in Barron Park and Green Acres up in arms against a planned housing complex on Maybell Avenue, their counterparts in Evergreen Park, Ventura and other neighborhoods around the city's center are preparing for their own battles against dense development eyed for their backyards.
The latest neighborhood to enter the fray in the grassroots battle against "planned community" zoning and densification is the residential community around El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, a congested intersection that is now the focus of several new proposals. Last year, the Pollock Financial Group bought a parking lot at the northeastern corner of the intersection, where it now looks to build a four-story, 50-foot-tall building that would be occupied by a bank.
To do that, it would need Palo Alto officials to rezone the site to "planned community," which would allow the developer to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated "public benefits." This is the same zoning designation sought by the Jay Paul Company, which is looking to build two four-story commercial buildings with 311,000 square feet of office space a stone's throw away from the lot, at 395 Page Mill Ave.
Both proposals are still in their early phases. Last month, the Planning and Transportation Commission heard a presentation from Pollock but refrained from initiating the zone change. Instead, it directed the applicant to return in four to six weeks, when the city has at its disposal an independent economic analysis of the proposed zone change. Several members of the commission pointed to the growing public opposition to PC-zoned projects and stressed the need to demand adequate public benefits from developers.
At that meeting, only two nearby residents spoke out in opposition to the planned building, which would be 50 feet tall and feature three levels of underground parking. When the project returns to the commission and, ultimately, the City Council, the number of critics will likely swell.
David Rockower, a resident of Silverwood, a three-story condominium complex just northeast of 2755 El Camino, said he and other homeowners have recently learned about the Pollock proposal and are now trying to get the applicant and the city to address their concerns, which mostly pertain to traffic and density. One major driveway, he said, would be placed right next to the Silverwood community, effectively sending cars "2 feet from the residents' backyards."
"It destroys the residential nature of the community," Rockower said.
One neighbor, Deborah Italiano, raised this point at the Sept. 11 meeting of the planning commission, noting that under the proposed layout, cars will be zooming right past Silverwood windows.
"It's going to basically be traffic by people's bedrooms and living rooms," Italiano said.
Earlier this month, the Silverwood homeowners met with Pollock and saw a model of the proposed building. Residents expressed their concerns and were assured by the representatives that they will continue to work with the residents to address the issues. They did not, however, offer any revisions to their plans or accommodations, Rockower said.
At the Sept. 11 meeting of the planning commission, developer Jim Baer, a member of the applicants' team, assured the commission that the project would not have an adverse impact on traffic. One of the public benefits Pollock is proposing, he said, is a right-turn lane from Page Mill to northbound El Camino Real.
Not everyone is convinced. Rockower called the proposed lane a "good solution to a different problem" than the one he and his neighbors are worried about. Morris Page Mill, LLC, which owns the Sunrise of Palo Alto assisted-living facility next to the lot, is also skeptical. In February, Morris Page Mill's attorney submitted a letter arguing that the proposal is incompatible with the nearby "neighborhood commercial" zone and that it would diminish the view of Sunrise residents and "increase traffic congestion in an already-congested area."
Rockower said a Sunrise representative attended the homeowners' meeting with the Pollock Group on Oct. 9. Now, Rockower is circulating a petition that lays out the homeowners' concerns. The petition argues that the proposal for 2755 El Camino is "too large a building, generating too many more traffic problems for local residents, too close to an intersection that is already a major problem."
Chris Donlay, who lives on Pepper Avenue, which lies in the neighborhood south of Page Mill Road, also has plenty at stake when it comes to the recent crop of "planned community" proposals. He is one of a handful of residents who have become engaged in the planning process in recent months, as the Jay Paul and Pollock Group proposals embarked on their crawls through city review. On Sept. 11, Donlay told the commission that he and his neighbors have "grave concerns" about the two proposals and their impact on traffic and parking in the Ventura neighborhood.
"Bringing such a huge project and cramming it into such a small space will only make it worse," Donlay said. "It's underparked and over-occupied, and while we as a neighborhood feel that rezoning may be a good idea, we do not feel that cramming such a huge project into this site is a good idea."
He suggested that the city hold off on approving the Pollock proposal until after it's done evaluating the impacts of the Jay Paul plan.
Earlier this month, Donlay emailed the city's planning department and argued that "no additional projects make sense in the area until the horrendous traffic situation at the Page Mill/El Camino Real is resolved." He also cited the "comprehensive surveys" that residents in the Evergreen Park and Ventura neighborhoods have been conducting, which are similar to ones compiled by Downtown North residents earlier this year.
The map of the Evergreen Park neighborhood, north of the California Avenue Business District, shows the entire commercial stretch of the neighborhood filled with cars. The area bounded by Park Boulevard on the east and El Camino on the west is entirely red between Oxford Avenue and Page Mill at noon, connoting saturation of more than 80 percent. On most blocks in this section, the saturation rate is 100 percent or more, suggesting that there are more parked cars than parking spaces (for details about how these surveys are conducted, see "Much ado about parking" in the Oct. 4 issue of the Weekly or on PaloAltoOnline.com).
Though both the Jay Paul and the Pollock development proposals have received some early praise from a few council members during early "pre-screening sessions," where no formal action is taken, the November election could pose an obstacle for the two applicants. The battle over the planned-community zone change on Maybell has energized land-use critics from throughout the city, with about 4,000 people signing the referendum petition that brought Measure D to the ballot.
The changing public mood has already affected the council's stance toward public benefits. The council decided earlier this year to require independent economic analyses for major new PC proposals. At the Sept. 11 planning commission meeting, Vice Chair Arthur Keller argued that the city needs to be diligent about making sure it is getting enough public benefits from developers seeking a PC zone.
"There's been significant complaints in the community about public benefits that turn out not to be benefiting the public," Keller said, before the commission voted to continue its discussion to a later date.