A pair of three-story buildings that are slated to go up on a vacant lot in the Barron Park neighborhood have some area residents fretting about the visual impacts and proposed density of the El Camino Real development.
The city's Architectural Review Board, which on Thursday morning got its first look at 4146 El Camino Real, had no such concerns, with members arguing that more density is exactly what the area needs.
Pitched by Su Chen Juan and Chung Chiun Jan and designed by prolific architect Ken Hayes, the new three-story development would consist of 21 condominiums and one level of underground parking. The development would be located near Maybell Avenue, east of the Barron Square condominiums and across the street from Starbucks, Subway and other small businesses that line the commercial thoroughfare.
Though the project is still in the early stages of Palo Alto's planning process, it got off to a promising start Thursday morning when members of the architecture board supported the applicant's bid to build at a higher density than existing zoning allows. The developer is proposing rezoning the site from RM-15, which would accommodate up to 11 residential units, to RM-30. Though their purview was largely limited to design and architecture, board members generally agreed that with housing in short supply, El Camino is a logical area for accommodating more density.
"I think higher density is really important," Chair Lee Lippert said. "We're looking for housing sites throughout the city. We're struggling."
Vice Chair Randy Popp concurred and pointed to the regional mandate that the city is facing to provide more housing. Popp lauded the project for bringing in new units while controlling their potential negative consequences.
"I think it's really a great idea to increase the density and take every advantage of opportunity to provide housing," Popp said.
One issue of contention revolves around a pathway between the new condominiums and neighboring residences. City planners want to see better connectivity, including a new path for bicyclists and pedestrians. Neighbors have opposed this proposal, city officials said, with some arguing that increasing foot traffic could bring problems, such as vandalism, to the neighborhood.
The board sided firmly with city planners. Board members Alexander Lew, Clare Malone Prichard and Lippert all said they would like to at least see plans for new connections, if not actual implementation, so that the new condominiums would not preclude future construction of bike paths. Popp took it a step further and argued that an improved connection should be a condition of approval. The amenity, he said, "will make the neighborhood better."
"It's a connection between neighborhoods, and I think that's good for everybody," Popp said.
The board also criticized some design aspects of the proposal, including a plan to build the new condominiums on a 4-foot podium, or grade. Several board members, including Lew and Lippert, said 4 feet is too high and suggested an elevation of 2 feet. Board member Robert Gooyer criticized the design of the buildings as "too repetitive" and encouraged more variation. Because this was a preliminary review, the board didn't vote on the project, which will return with revisions at a later date.
The board heard from several speakers who live at Barron Square. Jeff Eustis said the developer should provide a simulation to neighbors that would show the visual impact of the new buildings to existing residences.
"I believe the board and community need additional information to make a decision and the proposed application should be supplicated," Eustis said
Ruth Lowy, who also lives at Barron Square, wondered whether the proposed buildings would be too dense for the area. She noted that the buildings would be located at a 0.75-acre site.
"I really feel it's a dense project for such a small parcel of land," Lowy said.