A resident's challenge of a proposed 180-unit housing development in Stanford Research Park won a few concessions from the university and the Palo Alto City Council Monday, while losing a main objection based on fire safety issues.
City Council members voted unanimously to reaffirm approval of Stanford's plans to build the faculty housing on upper California Avenue -- eight two-story single-family homes and 112 units of multi-story housing -- shooting down an appeal filed by College Terrace resident Fred Balin that claims the project violates city fire code. Councilman Larry Klein recused himself because his wife works at Stanford.
Stanford's applications for architectural review and a tentative map of the upper California Avenue project unanimously passed muster with the Architectural Review Board on March 20. The plans were further approved by Director of Planning and Community Environment Hillary Gitelman after a hearing on April 18. Balin filed the appeal on May 2, alleging that the project doesn't properly follow city fire codes, that it does not accommodate school routes in the area and that it would increase congestion on Columbia Street, among other issues. The appeal cites the findings of traffic engineer Tom Brohard of the firm Tom Brohard and Associates, who was commissioned by Balin and his wife to review Stanford's plans.
On Monday evening, Palo Alto Fire Marshal Rich Dean and Fire Chief Eric Nickel disagreed with the appeal's main points. Balin has said that the project violates fire codes related to road width and turnarounds for fire equipment at the end of dead-end streets more than 150 feet long. Two dead-end driveways more than 250 feet long constitute fire-access roads and must have turnarounds, city fire code states.
The roadway widths on Columbia and Amherst streets also violate fire code because they are 24 feet wide, while city fire code states that the minimum road width "shall be 26 feet where a fire hydrant is located on the fire access road," Brohard wrote in his report. Stanford could easily resolve the code violations by adding a new curb cut near Dartmouth Street and move four residences in its path by shifting them elsewhere or including them as part of the multi-family complex, Balin said. Columbia and Amherst streets could be widened to 26 feet in all areas, he added.
Dean said he determined that fire vehicles would not need to travel more than 150 feet along the driveways to meet a hose-reach requirement, and city municipal code allows the fire code official to increase the 150-foot length if the building is equipped with automatic fire sprinklers. A generally accepted interpretation of the road-width measurements allow rolled curbs and engineered sidewalks that can bear the weight of fire vehicles to be included, Dean and Nickel said.
State Fire Marshal's Office has confirmed by email that Palo Alto Fire is within their purview to make interpretations and implement locally adopted fire code, Dean noted Monday.
Council members said they would not second-guess fire department officials and trusted their judgment. But they were more open to Balin's and other residents' concerns regarding bike and pedestrian safety. Architectural-review policy requires the city to make 16 findings before approval. Balin has maintained that the project does not satisfy one of those findings -- that access and circulation at the considered property are safe and convenient for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.
In addition, the city's existing "Walk and Roll" maps, which identify the safest pedestrian and bicycle routes to schools, libraries and other amenities, do not account for the new California Avenue housing and were not used to evaluate the proposal, Balin and others said.
Staff said they believe students will use Columbia Street as the main route to schools. But Balin noted that Palo Alto Unified School District has not determined which schools will serve the new community -- Escondido or Nixon elementary schools. The Walk and Roll school map published by Escondido Elementary School show Bowdoin and Hanover streets as the designated safe routes for children and campus employees, he said.
Balin suggested that council direct staff to work with the neighborhood to develop the best and safest paths in and out of the development and from Stanford Avenue. Stanford representatives said they would work with residents.
Several community members expressed concern Monday regarding the lack of a sidewalk along the western portion of Amherst Street in the new project. Stanford has proposed a single sidewalk along that section to preserve mature trees. But Chris Wuthmann, associate director of design and construction for Stanford's real estate operations, said the university would be willing to add a second sidewalk at that location.
Brent Barker, president of the College Terrace Residents Association, also said new subdivision sections of Amherst, Bowdoin and Columbia streets have bulb-outs that cause the road to narrow. Wuthmann said the bulb-outs are there to eliminate parking on corners, but council members asked for alternatives such as signs or red curbs. The council voted to reduce the size of the bulb-outs where the streets intersect with California Avenue, but without eliminating them completely.
Residents also asked for bike lanes on California Avenue, which would likely eliminate street parking on the street's south side. The council directed staff to look at potentially eliminating the parallel parking in that area. Stanford and city staff will also engage the neighborhoods and Safe Routes to School groups to design safe bike and pedestrian pathways to schools.
Councilman Greg Scharff made a motion to approve the project map and architectural review with a sidewalk on Amherst, which Councilwoman Gail Price seconded.
The proposed development at 1451-1601 California Ave. is part of the Mayfield Development Agreement, which the council adopted in 2005. Under the agreement, Stanford was granted permission to build 250 units on two sites around Stanford Research Park (the other housing project is on El Camino Real) and requires the university to lease to the city the 6-acre "Mayfield site" on the corner of Page Mill Road and El Camino for $1 per year for 51 years. The university was also required to build soccer fields on the site and turn them over to the city, which it did in 2006.