Spring Real Estate 2006

Publication Date: Friday, April 28, 2006

In the mix
New form of development sweeps area

by Lauren McSherry

When Matt Goldstein was planning to move to Palo Alto, he wasn't considering any one type of housing in particular.

The Stanford medical student eventually moved into an apartment in a mixed-use building on Homer Avenue due to its proximity to campus.

His apartment sits above The Parlor, a decorative furnishings store. It is half a block from Whole Foods Market.

"My place is ideal," he said. "The location is very conducive to my lifestyle."

It's an easy walk for Goldstein to grocery shop, browse local bookstores or dine at a downtown restaurant. He even enjoys living above a small business.

"The women who own it are absolutely wonderful," he said. "They're not open crazy hours. They're pretty quiet for the most part."

Goldstein exemplifies the kind of tenant developers are hoping to attract to a number of mixed-use projects planned locally near downtown areas.
Working professionals and seniors are two other groups attracted by the convenience of living in low-maintenance, mixed-use projects.

Mixed use - when office space, shops, entertainment, schools and parks are built in close proximity to one another - is a relatively new form of development, being touted as the antidote to suburban sprawl by local city planners, real-estate developers and architects.

The balm to traffic congestion, a lost sense of community and environmental degradation, they say, is mixed use.

"We think there are a lot of advantages to it," Palo Alto Planning Commissioner Pat Burt said. "It creates vitality around the clock."

Mixed-use development has been gradually gaining momentum not only in Palo Alto, but in cities along the Peninsula, including Menlo Park and Mountain View. One of the most well-known examples is Santana Row in San Jose.

"It's a mantra now in planning," said architect Tony Carrasco, whose firm is based in Palo Alto. "It's all over."

The concept is actually a throwback to pre-World War II community planning when mixed use defined most American downtowns.

On the Main streets of old, shop keepers usually lived above their businesses, and errands were completed on foot, not by car.

After the war, however, suburban development swept the nation, the dependence on automobiles increased and the concept of mixed used fell by the wayside.

Over the past two decades, an architectural movement called New Urbanism rekindled mixed use, tying it to environmentalism.

Now, New Urbanism is making national headlines as some planners promote it as the solution for rebuilding devastated New Orleans.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the New Urbanist vocabulary is being assimilated into common vernacular. (One of the strongest advocates for the development form, the Congress for the New Urbanism, is based in San Francisco.)

Words associated with mixed use - such as "pedestrian friendly," "transit oriented," "smart growth" and "place making" - are commonly used in local public gatherings, from city council meetings to neighborhood association gatherings.

In Palo Alto, Carrasco is just one of the many individuals working to transform derelict stretches of El Camino Real and revive office parks sitting vacant since the dot-com bust with mixed-use projects.

His firm is even located in a mixed-use building. One of his employees lives in an attached residential unit, eliminating the need to commute.

Carrasco is currently designing a "horizontal" mixed-use project that will expand the JJ&F Market, at the corner of El Camino and College Avenue. The project includes apartments, office space and a small park on the 1.25-acre property.

Two other similar projects could be making their way through the city's review process. Developers who are working on revamping two aging shopping centers in Palo Alto - Alma Plaza and Edgewood Plaza - have said mixed-use projects will likely replace the existing strips of retail.

A second form of mixed use, called "vertical" mixed use, is also popping up throughout downtown Palo Alto as well as on El Camino.

Vertical mixed use refers to stacking retail, office space and housing units on top of one another in a single building.

A new building between El Camino Way and El Camino Real is one example of smaller scale, vertical mixed use. A Starbucks and SUBWAY restaurant operate from the ground floor while office space and apartments comprise the rest of the three-story building.

Another recently completed project is 800 High St. where Saint Michael's Alley, a restaurant located on Emerson Street, will occupy part of the ground floor.

Yet another project going through the city's review process involves restoring the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, believed to be one of the oldest African-American churches on the West Coast.

The project includes a three-story building facing Homer Avenue containing office space on the ground and second floors and four condominium units on the third floor. The developer has also agreed to rehabilitate another historic structure, the French Laundry, built in 1931.

In addition city planners are working to encourage mixed use through updated zoning, Burt said. One area of focus is California Avenue, which already contains some mixed-use buildings and where public transportation is accessible, namely Caltrain.

"(Mixed use) can work in ways that accommodate our requirements to provide additional housing, but in the right location," Burt said, "so we're not putting pressure on single-family neighborhoods."

Likewise, several mixed use developments have been built away from single-family neighborhoods in Mountain View.

That city has adopted a policy encouraging mixed use near transit and in 2004 changed zoning to promote residential-over-retail development in the historic core of the downtown, between California Street and Evelyn Avenue on Castro Street, Senior Planner Lynnie Melena said.

One mixed-use project is The Crossings, constructed just off California Street at the end of Showers Drive.

The development, which is across the street from a Caltrain station, contains 350 residential units.

The project has only 2,000 square feet of retail, but is within walking distance of San Antonio Shopping Center, Target, Safeway grocery store and several other shops.

"You might say it's mixed use naturally," Melena said. "It really wasn't marketable to add retail to The Crossings because there was so much retail around it already."

Meanwhile in Menlo Park, developer Jeff Warmoth of Sand Hill Property Company hopes to revive an economically vapid stretch of El Camino, vacated recently by several car dealerships.

Warmoth's is one of two mixed-use projects that could change the face of the aesthetically challenged multi-lane strip.

"The car dealership is not coming back. We all know that," he said of the 3.4-acre property formerly occupied by a Cadillac dealer. "It's as if the neighborhood has been abandoned in some way."

He added that stand-alone commercial businesses are finding it more difficult to succeed on El Camino because they don't have the "critical mass" to attract customers.

In total, 134 residential units and 70,000 square feet of retail space could be built at 1300 El Camino. There will be no "fields of cars," Warmoth said. Residents and retail customers will park in a garage beneath the buildings.
Plans show a courtyard with landscaping, benches and fountains at the center of the property.

A cafÈ, boutique, chain clothing store or sporting goods store are some the business types Warmoth would like to attract. (The Menlo Park City Council studied the project in early April, expressing concerns about its size and impact on traffic and schools, but took no action.)

As for the local trend, Warmoth agrees one exists, but "the Peninsula is behind the times." San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco have been the sites of mixed-use development for years, he said.

In Palo Alto, some mixed-use developments, in particular 800 High St., have garnered criticism from residents for being too imposing and stressing city services.

Don Weden, a retired long-range planner for Santa Clara County, maintains the movement toward high-density, mixed use does not foretell the end of single-residential neighborhoods.

"No one is talking about turning Palo Alto into a San Francisco," he said.
In fact, he said, smart planning can preserve those neighborhoods when high-density, mixed-use is "built where it fits" - in areas close to public transportation, job centers and retail.

He stressed that mixed-use has big-picture implications: It can reduce global warming and improve quality of life.

"The challenge is how do we change the equation so communities proactively plan for where they want growth to occur," Weden said. "Unless you decide where you want it to happen, it's going to happen in places of least resistance."

Staff Writer Lauren McSherry can be e-mailed at lmcsherry@paweekly.com.