Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 26, 2010

Palo Alto approves 'transit oriented' Birch Plaza development

City hopes residents in new mixed-use project on Grant Avenue will rely on public transportation

by Gennady Sheyner

The latest development to win the green light in Palo Alto's bustling California Avenue Business District aims to meet two goals near and dear to the hearts of city leaders: boosting the city's housing stock and getting people out of their cars.

The three-story "Birch Plaza" project at 305 Grant Ave. will feature office space on the ground floor and eight apartments on the second and third floors, along with courtyards, a pocket park and new street trees. It would also include an underground garage with 19 regular parking spaces and 15 "tandem parking stalls."

The City Council unanimously approved the new development Monday night.

"This project achieves many of the goals we have in terms of using the Pedestrian and Transit Oriented District in terms of increasing housing density and also making a more pedestrian-friendly environment," Councilwoman Gail Price said. "It is my belief that the project before us is an improvement to the immediate neighborhood."

The project, proposed by developer Harold Hohbach more than two years ago, is the second development to apply for a zone change to Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Development district. The designation allows a greater density and a broader mix of land uses for projects close to a transit corridor, with the goal of getting residents to abandon their cars and shift to trains and buses.

One condition of approval requires the property owner to provide occupants of the new development with transit passes.

But this "transit oriented" project is causing a stir from area neighbors, who ironically point to car congestion as their number-one concern. The project, some have argued, relies too much on transit use and would, ironically, saddle the neighborhood with parking problems.

Joe Villareal, who lives at an apartment complex next door to the proposed development, said the area already suffers from a major parking shortage because of poor planning. When his building was built, Villareal said it only included 19 parking spaces for 57 units because the city assumed the building's senior residents wouldn't be driving. Now there is a large waiting list of residents hoping for assigned parking spaces, he said.

Many residents and workers in the area park their cars in the largely vacant lot where the new development would go up, Villareal said. The lot currently includes three single-family homes and space for cars.

"The corner of Sheridan and Birch every day between 25 and 30 cars park here," Villareal said. "Where will they go when this building is built?"

Land-use watchdog Bob Moss also said he opposes the project for a different reason: The number of housing units proposed by the developer is too small.

City officials consider the California Avenue area as the perfect area for new mixed-use projects and housing developments because of its proximity to Caltrain. The city previously determined that the site could accommodate between 12 and 18 housing units, but Moss noted that the developer is only offering eight.

Palo Alto faces a mandate from the Association of Bay Area Governments to identify locations for 2,860 housing units. Given this requirement, Moss said, the city should seek to place more units at the Grant Avenue site.

But others agreed with the council that the project would improve the area. Chris Gaither, who lives close to the proposed project, acknowledged that the neighborhood has a "systemic parking problem" but argued that the new development would not add to this problem. Instead, it would create a better entrance to the busy neighborhood, he said.

"For so many years, it's been a vacant lot with overflow cars parked at this vacant lot," Gaither said.

"It's not a great entryway to the California Avenue shopping and business district."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 23, 2010 at 8:11 am

What exactly are transit passes? Who pays for them and what transit will they cover? Will transit passes get the residents to Costco, Target, Walmart, movies, on a regular basis?

Regardless of whether residents use transit for commuting to work, it is still realistic to expect them to have at least one car per unit. There must be sufficient parking.

How about some innovation and aim to get Zip Cars to have a location in Palo Alto. This service is working efficiently in San Francisco. Perhaps this is the type of service that will encourage residents to give up car ownership - not transit passes (as commendable as this idea may be).


Posted by Wondering, a resident of Stanford
on Nov 23, 2010 at 8:37 am

Is there any project that Bob Moss does not oppose? One has to begin to wonder if there is a concerted, under the table, effort by certain residents of the city (who fancy themselves as "watchdogs", "neighborhood leaders" or "NIMBYists") to prevent and/or delay for years any new development in the city.


Posted by what is a plaza?, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 23, 2010 at 9:54 am

Kind of a scam to call an apartment building a "plaza". I thought a plaza was an urban public open space.


Posted by Paul, a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 23, 2010 at 10:21 am

Yup. And with a requirement for "adequate parking." City Hall may preach transit, but it practices business as usual.


Posted by Who-Uses-Transit?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 23, 2010 at 10:44 am

The Myth of Transit-Oriented Housing can be seen at The Crossings--just south of the Mountain View/Palo Alto border--

Web Link

Virtually no one who lives in this complex seems to use the train to go to work, to the market, to church, to shop for holiday presents, and so on. The platform is almost always empty.

But this is the wave of the future, according to Palo Alto.


Posted by Quiethope, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 23, 2010 at 11:11 am

Hmmm, not sounding so good or valuable.


Posted by Transit rider, a resident of another community
on Nov 23, 2010 at 1:14 pm

@Resident - "What exactly are transit passes? Who pays for them and what transit will they cover? Will transit passes get the residents to Costco, Target, Walmart, movies, on a regular basis?"

Usually, the kinds of transit passes included with development projects are VTA Eco Passes. They're basically a monthly pass that offers unlimited rides, that are purchased in bulk at a discounted rate by a company or an apartment complex. It sounds from the article like the property owner will be required to provide them. The 22 and 522 buses run just a couple blocks from this development so the residents could take them to downtown PA, shopping at San Antonio Center (Target, Walmart, Trader Joe's), etc. From this site you can easily walk to the movies at Palo Alto Square, and you can take Caltrain to the Century theatres in downtown Redwood City if you want the megaplex experience.

I think Zipcar is a great idea for residents of developments like this one. Zipcar is already nearby at Stanford (33 cars there) and across El Camino at Facebook. The challenge with Zipcar is that it requires a critical mass of users nearby and a place to host the cars. Maybe if a couple of buildings near California Ave band together they could work with Zipcar to get a car placed there.

I don't think the Zipcar/transit passes thing should be an either-or proposition - both can play a role in encouraging people to drive less or perhaps shed a car (for instance, go to 1 car in a 2-person household).


Posted by New Observer, a resident of another community
on Nov 23, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Our car had to be in the shop for one week, a few months ago. We got a taste of public transportation around here.

It was so long to get anywhere by bus, we ended up just walking & took the train once. It took 3 hours to do something that would be a 20 minute errand, by car. Good luck.


Posted by Jared Bernstein, a resident of University South
on Nov 23, 2010 at 8:02 pm

This article, like the ones on bicycles run over, would be helped buy a small map. I imagine that you can do that. I work near there, but I still can't really figure out which corner it would be at.


Posted by Mass Transit, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 25, 2010 at 10:42 am

"Virtually no one who lives in this complex seems to use the train to go to work, to the market, to church, to shop for holiday presents, and so on. The platform is almost always empty. "

and

"Our car had to be in the shop for one week, a few months ago. We got a taste of public transportation around here.

"It was so long to get anywhere by bus, we ended up just walking & took the train once. It took 3 hours to do something that would be a 20 minute errand, by car. Good luck."

Two things:
First, why aren't all those who find a problem with transit-oriented housing, and who claim that benefits from transit oriented housing are mythical, arguing for more public transportation, instead of using (in most cases) the argument for lack of benefit to cover up their NIMBYISM. Joe Villareal is one exception to this rule; he's not a whiner; his concern (above) is legitimate, but even Joe misses the point about potential solution.

When adequate public transportation is made available - just look around the entire developed and developing world - transit-oriented housing works!

But here, in Palo Alto, many of those - mostly self-appointed liberal defenders of the "Green meme" - who most oppose transit-oriented housing are *also* aware of the very basic fact that suburban sprawl is the most significant contributor to pollution in America (and really bad in California), they just whine that "transit-oriented housing doesn't work", without *ever* arguing - without anything near the fervor that they bring to their anti-housing stance - for mass transit solutions that **would make transit-oriented housing work**. Think about that. In order to stop the impact if suburban sprawl on California's air quality - and our health - we need to get people living closer to cities, and out of their cars. Period. Case closed.

What's sadly implied in this anti-housing group's anti-advocacy of transit-oriented housing is NIMBYISM, plain and simple. They give themselves away by not arguing for the solution (mass transit) that would make transit-oriented housing *work*. Instead of putting their liberal Green philosophies to work in service of make whole solutions, they proffer up lawsuits that keep people *in their cars*. It's more than subtle hypocrisy, coming from a number of people who profess one thing (Green), and then act in ways that completely contradict their often very loud self-aggrandizing support of the environment.

They just seem not to want "those people" who live in lower-priced transit-oriented homes in our community; or, they "don't like the way the properties look" (like Bob Moss, who is *directly* responsible for the continuing vacant mess on California Ave.) Just think of the $$$ that Moss' & Company lawsuit has cost local businesses on California Avenue. Sad. For what? To satisfy a whim? Because he/they could? I don't get it, and neither do several California Avenue business owners who were hoping that Google would move into the hp building on Park after leasing it; but Google didn't move in because they did not want to have employees subjected to long, drawn out noise and delays and dust brought by the possibility of future obstructions by Moss and company. Sad.

So who wins in all this. A few "watchdogs" who get a thrill by gadflying all over town with great knowledge of City code and gumming up the works.

Where's your support - your passionate, intense, strong, words-to-actions support for public transport, folks? Not just trains, but jitney buses, taxis, innovative mass transport of all kinds, cooperative systems that enable ride-sharing and short-term car rental. Why isn't Palo Alto leading the Valley on this front, given that we have the largest jobs/housing imbalance in the region? It's puzzling; and, it's embarrassing. Furthermore, the more we delay in lobbying *hard* for these mass transit solutions; and, the more we use and listen to the lame arguments about how "transit-oriented housing just doesn't work" (knowing all the while the blight that sprawl causes, and also knowing that sufficient transport *makes*transit-oriented housing work); the more we do that the more we look like hypocrites.


Posted by maguro_01, a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 26, 2010 at 4:18 am

The health and service from Caltrain seems to be in doubt at this point, unfortunately.

It's not surprising that people who are putting so much income into housing dedicate themselves to limiting the local housing supply as much as possible while hitting the town treasury for as many neighborhood amenities as possible. As they have been discovering there is risk in housing as in everything - depending on one house is like buying one stock and nothing else.

Our parent's generation assumed a house was a house and one might get some appreciation out of it but it was basically a house. People who make one their only real investment may dedicate themselves to excessively righteous activism and simply go into a rage if they feel they are threatened or even if they feel the world around them isn't dedicated to hyping the value of their real estate. Their fear is real, but the answer is diversity in savings vehicles.


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 27, 2010 at 1:30 pm

" we need to get people living closer to cities, and out of their cars. Period. Case closed."

The case won't be closed until we have some hard data showing that dense, transit-oriented housing works, i.e., gets people out of their cars.

"Virtually no one who lives in this complex seems to use the train to go to work, to the market, to church, to shop for holiday presents, and so on."

This statement is observational, not factual. Until someone does a real survey of people living at The Crossings and Arbor Real and other transit-oriented housing projects, we don't know how many cars they have, whether they take public transit or how many children they have in the schools.

"Where's your support for public transport, folks? Why isn't Palo Alto leading the Valley on this front, ?"

Good question. Why not ask the city council and planning department? What would they/could they do to improve public transit? Caltrain and VTA are losing money. The big state & Federal push is to put money into HSR with its seriously flawed business plan.

Seems to me the city can't do much, yet it's totally focused on building transit-oriented housing, bike paths and pedestrian walkways without knowing if any of it will get people out of their cars. The dense housing is probably just adding more cars to the daily traffic jam.

Meanwhile, the city is worried about "calming" traffic, which will only get worse with more housing, Stanford Hospital's expansion, more school kids, etc.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 27, 2010 at 3:35 pm

You can't expect people to use public transit when it is so poor. If you work in San Francisco, the commuter trains are good. Otherwise, Caltrain is pretty pathetic to use for shopping or Church when the destination is say 4 stations away from where you get on.

Using transit for work is reasonably easy if it is convenient for you. For many other trips, transit is not flexible enough or convenient for carrying more than a few groceries or shopping bags. It is not convenient to use Caltrain if you are shopping for groceries for a family of four for a week, and very expensive for a family of four to use it for Church in Redwood City if you live near Cal Ave. for examples.

Caltrain, VTA, etc. all need to improve services and work together if they seriously expect riders to use them as their primary source of transport.

Until this happens, any housing built near transit is not going to use it except for long work commutes.


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