The new housing would expand the existing Palo Alto Commons, a housing and assisted-living center, and would be located on 0.83 acres at 4041 El Camino Way, adjacent to the current Commons facility.
The existing senior assisted-housing facility has 121 rental units with 140 beds, according to a city staff report. The need for additional affordable senior housing is exemplified by the more than 50 deposits on Palo Alto Commons' waiting list, project architect Rob Steinberg said.
The average age of Commons residents is 87, according to Steinberg.
The facility addresses the needs of a population of seniors who can't afford to move into costlier Palo Alto facilities such as Channing House or Classic Residences by Hyatt (now called "Vi of Palo Alto"), which require huge upfront payments. Many seniors are also beyond the age when they could be accepted to those facilities, said resident Steve Player, who supports the new project.
"This rental opportunity ... was a lifesaver for my mother. She was eligible to move in on a month-to-month basis," he said.
Commissioners gave the Commons Addition project the go-ahead with some caveats and recommended a zoning change from Neighborhood Commercial (CN) and Multi-Family Residential (RM-15) to Planned Community (PC), which would match Palo Alto Commons' current zoning.
Currently, two aging commercial buildings sit on the land.
The PC zone has a controversial history in Palo Alto, as it allows for denser — and typically more lucrative — projects. But making exceptions for the project requires the developer to provide "public benefits" in exchange.
The Commons Addition project proposes to improve a bus stop and access along El Camino Real.
Jennifer Cutler, project manager for the city, said Wednesday that granting the Commons Addition a PC designation would conform to the city's guiding land-use plan. It would also allow for a smooth transition between the existing Palo Alto Commons and the surrounding neighborhood, said
The building is proposed as a C-shaped structure around a courtyard that preserves a large heritage oak tree. Its design would "step" from two stories to three stories.
Residents living in adjacent Jacobs Court, a 19-home neighborhood with many families with young children, said they oppose the project's 34.5-foot height, which they said would tower above their homes and create the equivalent of a three-story wall.
Residents said developers are comparing their project to other PC-zone projects approved by the city, including the Campus for Jewish Life on Charleston Road, which includes senior housing. But those developments are adjacent to commercial properties or are otherwise separated from residential housing, residents said.
Commissioner Eduardo Martinez said he had visited the Jacobs Court site on Saturday and wants to see developers break down the long block of the third story with a different design.
Commissioner Arthur Keller said he was particularly uneasy with two units directly facing Jacobs Court.
Commissioner Susan Fineberg also had reservations and said the design will need work, but she favored the development.
"There is something very special with this project," she said, adding that additional support services won't be added because they already exist at the other Palo Alto Commons site.
Resident Tom Reese, a founder of Avenidas Village, a citywide assisted-living program, agreed. The likelihood of any stand-alone assisted-living such as Channing House being built is slim, considering costs to build such facilities, he said.
The project would eliminate a small amount of existing retail-tax revenue by removing the commercial buildings, but commissioners doubted that retail such as the Love Bug Lice Control was producing significant tax revenue.
Any loss would be lessened or made up by recurring annual revenues of $159,000 and one-time impact revenue of $592,000 from the senior-housing project, according to a city staff report. Commissioner Keller said the revenue is likely to exceed current sums from the retail properties.
Some commissioners agreed the bus-stop upgrade might not be enough of a public benefit. But the intrinsic value of providing moderately priced housing could potentially be considered a public benefit in itself, they indicated.
Several residents spoke in favor of the project.
Marguerite Fletcher said her 92-year-old mother lives at Palo Alto Commons and would have moved in earlier if space was available.
"We scoured to find a space that felt residential and felt like a home," she said.
Nancy Mueller's mother entered Palo Alto Commons in 2000.
"There really is nothing like (the Commons). How we care for our elders is a metric of our society. We owe it to our parents to care for them in their sunset years," she said.