With its sea of cars, narrow sidewalks, imposing office complexes and eclectic scattering of motels, restaurants and oil-change stations, El Camino Real rarely resembles the "grand boulevard" vision planners have long been pushing for the central corridor.
Not that this has stopped officials in Palo Alto from trying. Concerned about outsized new buildings looming over the busy thoroughfare, City Council members Greg Scharff, Karen Holman, Gail Price and Greg Schmid issued a memo last April citing "consternation in the community" about the tendency of buildings on El Camino and other major corridors to "turn their backs on the public right of way." Local planners and commissioners have been brainstorming for ways to remedy the situation ever since.
The effort to widen sidewalks and turn the generally uninviting corridor into more of a Champs Elysee scored a victory on Wednesday, when the Planning and Transportation Commission endorsed four staff recommendations aimed at addressing oppressive buildings and narrow sidewalks. These include giving developers more flexibility to place buildings further back from the sidewalk than the city currently requires under its "build-to-line" law; allowing larger setbacks on the ground floor of a new building than on the top floors (to create an arcade effect); lowering the density allowed on El Camino properties with zoning that can accommodate 20 units per acre; and clarify various definitions in the zoning code to "encourage provision of wider sidewalks," according to a staff report.
In recommending by a 4-0 vote (with Chair Mark Michael and Commissioner Eduardo Martinez absent) the changes proposed by staff, commissioners acknowledged Wednesday that El Camino has a long way to go before it comes anywhere close to the type of pedestrian-friendly boulevard planners have been advocating for under the regional "Grand Boulevard Initiative." Though it passes by the vibrant Town & Country Shopping Center and Stanford Shopping Center, the local segment of the central thoroughfare is best known for less acclaimed developments such as Arbor Real, a development whose 181 tightly packed townhouses seem to practically push up against the street; and Palo Alto Square, an office park near Page Mill Road that is flanked by large parking lots and largely stands apart from El Camino on its own corporate island.
The desire to tweak the aesthetics of the traffic-heavy street isn't the only factor driving the code changes. Another is growth. Palo Alto has recently adopted a Housing Element that identifies several locations along El Camino as appropriate sites for new housing units. Because of a state law, providers of affordable housing would be able to build up to 20 units per acre, more than what the zoning code normally allows.
To counteract this incentive for growth, the council directed staff earlier this year to consider reducing the density allowed at these commercially zoned properties. The idea is that while state law entitles builders to develop more units, local law would make sure that these units would be relatively small.
The law proposed by staff and vetted by the planning commission would affect about 32 sites on El Camino, according to Amy French, the city's chief planning official.
At Wednesday's discussion, commissioners agreed that they would prefer to offer developers a range of options for sidewalk widths, which on El Camino would generally fall between 12 feet (the current standard) and 18 feet (the standard in the Grand Boulevard Initiative). The Architectural Review Board, which discussed these proposed changes on Feb. 20, favored sidewalk widths of 9 to 15 feet (between curb and building), with the more narrow sidewalks pertaining to stores with display windows.
Randy Popp, a member of the city's Architectural Review Board, said he strongly favors a range over a fixed number. The goal, he said, should be "to promote a varied character in the environment along the El Camino corridor."
"There is no one-size-fits-all solution here," Popp said.
He also noted that El Camino has a wide variety of lot sizes, some vast and others shallow, and that some parts of the corridor may be more suitable for a greater setback than others. As an example of a site that can accommodate far larger sidewalks, he and French both cited Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park, a restaurant known for its vibrant outdoor plaza.
Vice Chair Arthur Keller also supported variety and recommended eliminating the "build-to-line" requirement that forces developers to build close to the street and to prohibit new developments from having parking lots in front. If a developer wants to set a building further back from the sidewalk than the city's guidelines require, he or she should be allowed, Keller said, noting that in most cases developers look to do the exact opposite. Keller also suggested that staff explore the concept of requiring an "average setback" for a building (as opposed to solely a "minimum" setback).
Commissioner Carl King focused his comments on a staff proposal to grant developers density allowances elsewhere in their buildings in exchange for open sidewalk space in front of the properties. The freed-up space, he noted, can easily be used by restaurants for outdoor tables. One thing staff needs to consider, he said, is whether the sidewalk space freed up by property owners should be granted to the public or whether it can be retained or restricted by the businesses.
The planning commission plans to revisit these changes next month, when it holds a joint session with the Architectural Review Board. The proposals will then head to the City Council for approval.