Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 11, 2011

New five-story building proposed for downtown

Proposed height-limit-busting development would feature office space, retail and residences on former Shell station site

by Gennady Sheyner

A five-story building featuring offices, retail and residential units would go up on the site of a former Shell gas station in downtown Palo Alto under a proposal recently submitted to the city.

The 64-foot-tall building is proposed for 355 Alma St., at Lytton Avenue. The site was occupied by the Commuter Shell Service for 42 years before the gas station closed in June 2010.

The new building would include four stories of office space, along with retail on the ground floor and five residential units on the fifth floor, according to city planning director Curtis Williams. The development would include both underground and at-grade parking and public open space on Lytton.

The developer, Lytton Gateway LLC, is requesting a zone change to a create planned-community (PC) zone on the site. The zoning designation allows developers to build at a greater intensity than the city's regulations typically allow. In exchange, developers must offer the city "public benefits."

In recent years, projects seeking a PC-zone designation have received an increasing amount of scrutiny from planning commissioners and local land-use watchdogs. Several recent high-profile projects with this zoning designation a list that includes Alma Plaza and the College Terrace Centre received approval only after heated community meetings, multiple revisions and criticism from residents who argued that the public benefits being offered are too paltry to compensate the city for the increased density.

Lytton Gateway, LLC, is proposing to both exceed the city's density regulations and its 50-foot height limit for buildings. Williams said in an e-mail that the applicant requested the increased intensity and height because of the building's close proximity to the downtown Caltrain station.

The Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to review the application and consider the zone change on March 16.

TALK ABOUT IT

Do you think this is a good use of the planned community zoning? Share your opinions on Town Square on Palo Alto Online.

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

Comments

Posted by Enough, a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 5, 2011 at 3:11 pm

The last thing Palo Alto needs is MORE housing. This is nothing but greed in action. The city council should represent the majority of people in Palo Alto and shut down proposals like this one.


Posted by Dawn, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 5, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Whenever something is built or becomes vacant in Palo Alto we either end up with more restaurants or more housing. Neither of which we need more of.....


Posted by David, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm

More housing in downtown near the caltrain station is exactly what we need: increased density where it makes sense. But in any case, this project only has 5 additional residences, with most of the space allocated to offices. Quality office space in downtown Palo Alto is in demand, so I suspect the space will be filled quickly. Just wished it had more housing.


Posted by dp, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 5, 2011 at 5:37 pm

More housing is exactly what we don't need.

Keep this zoned to provide a gas station.


Posted by Howard, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 5, 2011 at 6:46 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Anna, a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 5, 2011 at 8:43 pm

more housing to flood our schools!! will they say that these people will be 'empty nesters' like they did with the housing developments near Greer park and 101?? I think not.


Posted by Unhappy Neighbor, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 5, 2011 at 9:24 pm

When Council agreed to allow the Campus for Jewish Life to build their senior living condos to 60 feet, they opened a Pandora's box. Developers are well aware that the 50 foot height limit has been exceeded once, so they want the same privilege.

Meanwhile the mosque proposed for San Antonio Road is also preparing to ask to exceed the 50 foot height limit with a minaret to 60 foot high.

You allow one exemption to the 50 foot height limit, you must give it to all.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 5, 2011 at 9:32 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Five Storeys, isn't that higher than allowed?


Posted by Anon, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 5, 2011 at 11:20 pm

Sounds cool, and while yes, we need to be cautious about adding more school age population to the city lest we overtax our schools, housing on the fifth floor of a building near a RR station sounds more suitable to childless demographics to me.

I must say, though, that I miss that Shell station and the friendly gent that used to run it. You could have eaten off the floor of his bays, and the service there was superb, as was his mechanical aptitude.


Posted by Well known trick, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 5, 2011 at 11:35 pm

Developers know they can't get 5 stories or anything near it, so they ask for something preposterous then when they are told to lower it they show how cooperative they have been, and they get something else that isn't allowed.
Very well known trick.
Who are the owners?


Posted by Bruce Li, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 6, 2011 at 2:32 am

Come on people lets be realistic. Do you prefer the eye sore of an empty run down former gas station that is currently in place. The proposal sounds like a great idea to bring in a little more income for the City and improve the ugliness that is located at various empty rundown locations throughout Palo Alto. I myself am very appreciative that there are investors who have the desire to improve our community!


Posted by Unhappy Neighbor, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 6, 2011 at 10:28 am

The site of the former shell station at Alma and Lytton should be kept to provide one of the sites the HSR Authority are requiring for parking.

If the HSR Authority gives a stop to Palo Alto we are required to provide 3,000 parking spaces, and the site at Alma and Lytton would be ideal.


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm

HSR, if it happens at all, is so far away. Further, PA and Stanford have already stated that they are not going to buy the land and/or pay/build the parking garages requested/required.

Besides - that lot is far too small for a parking facility.

The developer is ready to go + jobs for blue collar workers = good for the local economy.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 6, 2011 at 12:43 pm

It's time for the planning people to start requiring a Financial Impact Report for all projects in Palo Alto. Such a report would look at the societal costs, and benefits, for any project.

For instance, if this building were to have retail on the ground floor, then these stores would generate a certain about of sales tax. The building as a whole would generate a certain amount of property tax. The individual units would consume utilities, so there would be increased utilities demand and increased UUT.

On the other side of the ledger, there are increased public safety costs, various staff costs, and possibly increased student demand for educational services.

Given the size of the building, and the kinds of stores (in this case) envisioned, then the building becomes a net loss, or gain, from a public budget point-of-view.

At the moment, no one in the planning department is thinking along these lines. They do think about traffic generation, based on land use, however. So, this suggestion is an extension of this underlying idea.



Posted by maditalian, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm

I thought that the owners of the Shell on El Camino at Valparaiso in Menlo Park were going to operate the station on Alma. Does anyone know what happened with that?


Posted by David, a resident of University South
on Mar 6, 2011 at 5:39 pm

This sounds like a much better use of space than a gas station -- it's great to have more housing, offices, and retail in the core downtown area.


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 6, 2011 at 5:56 pm

>"More housing in downtown near the caltrain station is exactly what we need"

I suppose none of the residents will own cars, none will have school-age children, and all will use the train, bike or walk everywhere.

Why does every developer request exceptions? We've already seen the laughable "public benefits" they provide in order to get what they want. What's the point of zoning laws?

Bob, your idea of a Financial Impact Report for every project makes perfect sense! Seems like any rational planning department would already be doing that because some financially aware council members would be demand it. Oh, I forgot: this is Palo Alto.


Posted by Matthew, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 6, 2011 at 9:43 pm

I laugh every time I read comments on this site. As a member of the next generation of Palo Alto I find it ridiculous how many people seem to want to keep the town at a stand still. No high speed rail, no this, no that. I don't think this developer should have to provide anything for the pubic. It's a wasted lot that could be turned into something very profitable. Additionally, those five residences are paying taxes like everyone else and furthermore they are paying taxes at the actual value of the property as opposed to many in Palo Alto who are still paying property taxes at rates far below market value because of Prop 13. Prop 13 is a huge reason our schools are having educate far more students with far less financial resources. I applaud developers who are working to push downtown Palo Alto forward.


Posted by Outside Observer, a resident of another community
on Mar 6, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Bob,

Your idea makes a whole lot of sense. That's why you will never see it implemented.

The only type of "impact" they listen to is environmental impact, and that, by it's nature, is co-opted to service political agendas.


Posted by sales tax?, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 6, 2011 at 11:23 pm

I dare say we don't need housing. We do need sales tax revenue. Most residents travel out of town to do their regular shopping and such. Afterall, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Mountain View have major shopping centers that are so easy to access. We don't need more boutique shops, restaurants, or housing. We do need basic bread and butter shops (that are not kept artificially small in terms of square footage). Unfortunately, that concept doesn't jive with the philosophy of the city which tries to keep Palo Alto like a small town while the rest of Silicon Valley has great libraries, roads, etc. Time to let the city grow up.


Posted by Bob, a resident of another community
on Mar 7, 2011 at 1:11 am

Curious that no one seems to want to know who's behind this project. Lytton Gateway LLC'S address is the same as address for the EPA office of the real estate firm Cassidy Turley/BT Commercial (aka NAI BT Commercial)1950 University Avenue, Suite 220. The Executive VP/Managing Partner of the PA office is David Hiebert 650-320-0250.
The agent for service for the LLC and the name that shows on PA Planning docs is Lund Smith (age about 28), a property manager & broker for Willis & Company in Portola Valley. Willis is a commercial property management and real estate advisory services which has done a lot of business with eBay including managing some of its buildings.
So one question might be is eBay the money behind 355 Alma and if so they plan on taking over some of the offices.
If any of you and/or Gennady want to do some more digging you can start in EPA or Portola Valley.


Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on Mar 7, 2011 at 10:14 am

Matthew
Your comments are rational and very wise. I'm writing this note to let you know that there are folks out there, of all ages, who agree with you.

It's really too bad that the community voice on this website is often dominated by such narrow and self-centered comments.


Posted by Chris, a resident of another community
on Mar 7, 2011 at 10:35 am

I think the issue is the kind of a "feel" we want in your communities. My fear for Palo Alto and Menlo Park and other towns: Everybody wants to live here, so we keep changing it to help them live here. But the new type of community we create is no longer the community we moved here for. We move out, leaving an overbuilt, high-density neighborhood we moved here hoping to avoid in the first place.


Posted by Paul, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2011 at 10:44 am

No No No.
Stop the multi story infill. Pretty soon we'll be living in LA, not PA.


Posted by Peter, a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Mar 7, 2011 at 10:44 am

Steve Emslie told me that the reason the Campus for Jewish Life
was given a height exemption was due to the fact that
they could not put the parking garage below ground because of
ground water contamination. Perhaps I got the reason wrong but
this is what I thought I heard.


Posted by Renter in PA, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 7, 2011 at 10:53 am

I'm surprised to read the small minded comments of people who are all worked up about the schools being "flooded" with kids who will be living in the new building. How close minded are you people? You realize PA has a lottery for kids from other cities such as EPA to attend their schools? Before you get all worked up about families that actually live in PA (and either pay property taxes or at least shop in PA) maybe you should look more carefully at those who contribute NOTHING to the city and yet use one of your most valued resources -- the schools.


Posted by Too much traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2011 at 10:54 am

"It's time for the planning people to start requiring a Financial Impact Report for all projects in Palo Alto. Such a report would look at the societal costs, and benefits, for any project."

That is a good idea. If it is shown that the project will generate even one new net car trip into the city or if the businesses do not provide housing for their employees then the request should be denied.
Now if we could only get rid of that pesky Stanford University, we can then become the bucolic community that we should be.


Posted by Frank, a resident of Ventura
on Mar 7, 2011 at 10:57 am

gotta' third Matthew's post. Too many folks here say NO to everything. If our forefathers and foremothers thought that way University Ave would still be mud.

But the article is spot on about one thing. it's controversial.


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 7, 2011 at 11:04 am

TMT: Your act is old and tired. Time for some new material.


Posted by Julia, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2011 at 11:07 am

Agreed with Matthew. Glad, there are reasonable people reading this, even if they are a minority.


Posted by Too much traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2011 at 11:10 am

"TMT: Your act is old and tired. Time for some new material."

CPD--it is the same complaints we hear from people everytime a new building is proposed. Maybe you should get in touch with them all tell them that their complaints are old and tired.
If you do not appreciate my outlook on these issues, then skip my postings


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 7, 2011 at 11:18 am

TMT - my point is come up with new material. You don't have to change your message. I agree with your POV - just the lack of creativity.


Posted by commonsense, a resident of Professorville
on Mar 7, 2011 at 11:36 am

Of course it's controversial - it's over the "50' rule". Change is good and this is great opportunity to break free of the mold. It is not close to other less dense residential so will not bother neighbors. Five small residential units are going to crush our schools? Give me a break. Sure miss the gas station though...


Posted by Safe in CP, Haha, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 7, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Better if they put it on some nimby's neighborhood than in mine.


Posted by jardins, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2011 at 1:12 pm

A new and multi-use building on that site would be great, if it were set back from the sidewalks, and/or less than 5 storys high. As often, the scale of the neighboring buildings needs to be taken into account, and the fact that one wouldn't want an overly tall building on the corner there.


Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Marie is a registered user.

An retail/office/residential building is fine for that site as long as it meets Palo Alto zoning - I would hope that means no more than 50 feet and adequate parking and a pretty streetscape. Five apartments are fine - but I think they are just the reason to justify 64 feet - the city (and I) like the concept of buildings that are a combination of retail/office/residential. It makes for a very vibrant downtown. The developer can come back and say - oh, you don't want 64 feet? Then we can't afford apartments- all of which is nonsense if they bought the property zoned as a gas station.

Parking in downtown Palo Alto is so tight that I rarely go there any more. If they are trying to say they don't need parking because they are next to the train station, forget it.

I think we should get rid of the planned community zoning and have reasonable zoning in the first place. Community benefits are a joke. Most aren't. Remember the "plaza" as public benefit for the building on Sheridan - it is now Cafe Riace.

Let's have reasonable zoning and stick to it!!!


Posted by DTNResident, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Does this project have all its parking on site? Yet another project to push more cars into Downtown North which is already chock-a-block with cars. Plus it's too high. It will look like Sunnyvale.


Posted by Jim, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 7, 2011 at 2:13 pm

The developer is a greedy commercial real estate agent/developer at Cornish and Carey in Palo Alto. I hope the City doesn't allow this oversized project to be approved.


Posted by Dan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 7, 2011 at 2:27 pm

The revenue brought in by allowing more business into downtown is great. Sad to loose the guy who ran the gas station, but there are others not that far away to satisfy your vehicle. And they're only talking about 5 housing units on the top floor - that's not going to break the schools. Keep it to the correct zoned height and let it go at that. Everything else is fine, but we have zoning rules for a reason. As long as we don't have the idiot who approved the zillions of people who will take over Alma Plaza and the school system making the decision, we're fine.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2011 at 6:48 pm

> You realize PA has a lottery for kids from other cities such as
> EPA to attend their schools?

This is not true. The VTP (Voluntary Transfer Program) is the result of a court settlement that results for a law suit that was brought against several school districts that refused to allow students from East Palo Alto to attend schools in their districts. The number of VTP students is fixed.

The school district always a goodly number of students from other cities/school district whose parents work for the PAUSD. This number is slowing becoming large, costing the PAUSD taxpayers millions of dollars to pay for these students educations.

The school district has the option of allowing inter-district transfers under the so-called "Allen Act". However, the PAUSD has not chosen to allow many (if any) students to attend school in Palo Alto under this authority.


Posted by rem, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 7, 2011 at 9:04 pm

NO - NO - NO - NO - NO - no !!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Posted by Jeff, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 7, 2011 at 9:49 pm

I hope our city requires all new construction to provide adequate parking. I don't see how a four plus story office building could have adequate parking without a multistory parking structure. Profits are higher though if you can sell what you didn't pay for.

Multistory development along Alma could be reasonable but why should developers be granted a windfall just because they want to ignore the plan. Require them to plan a development which doesn't ruin the quality of life for the current occupants.


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 7, 2011 at 10:23 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

To the housing and transit advocates who argue that this sort of project is needed to reduce Palo Alto's jobs-housing imbalance:
For 2 workers in each of the 5 housing units, this works out to the 3 floors of office and 1 floor of retail having less than 2.5 workers per floor.

To advocates claiming that residents would use Caltrain:
Before the schedule cut-backs, the probabilities were that there was roughly a 70% chance that not even one of the residents would commute via Caltrain (10 workers, roughly 3% Caltrain usage). And assuming there still is a usable Caltrain.

I know, I know, arithmetic is so old-school and fuddy duddy and shouldn't be used because it has been used before to critique similar projects.

And I just can't adapt to the thinking that the primary role of government is to virtually guarantee the profits of the well-connected few by shoving a significant portion of their costs and risks off onto the less powerful many.


Posted by changeup, a resident of Duveneck School
on Mar 8, 2011 at 12:02 am

We don't need any more high rise buildings in Palo Alto on the West side of town which will block the sunsets from the rest of the existing residences and offices.

Plus, what will happen to the building when the high speed rail goes in? Plus, why would anyone want to live right next to the noise and commotion on the tracks, Alma and El Camino; let alone see them all? Would you, the urban planners of Palo Alto?


Posted by changeup, a resident of Duveneck School
on Mar 8, 2011 at 12:11 am

How about finishing the houses on Bayshore? Rent out all the excess, vacant office buildings on Bayshore that have been standing empty since 2000? How about renovating and revitalizing the old plaza area on Embarcadero and Bayshore? Renovating and revitalizing the apartment buildings and housing on Bayshore between Embarcadero and University? More housing could go up there and not be an eye sore but help the residences.

And revitalize the office area from Page Mill to Charleston and El Camino to Park Blvd, not to forget the office areas on California Ave from El Camino to the tracks. There are so many places in Palo Alto that already have vacant office buildings that were built in the 80's to 2000's that stand empty with huge lease signs on them!!! They could be converted into living spaces like SOHO in NY or SOMA in SF!!! Let's use ingenuity to renovate and reuse what we already have standing. Turn the Shell gas station into a green area for people to relax in and watch the sunset and trains go by!


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 8, 2011 at 1:12 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

To those that deride gas stations: On the last list that I saw of top-10 generators of sales tax, several of the entries were gas station companies (eg Valero, Arco). Offices generate little if any sales tax revenue and little of the property tax comes to the City--only about 8% goes to the City, with almost all going to the school district, the State and the County. Recent presentations by the City Manager show that multi-unit housing cost the City more than they bring in.

To please developers who get higher returns on office space, the City was very very late in instituting even minor policies to retain retail and other sales-tax generating businesses and routinely gives exceptions on a project-by-project basis on the rationale that there is no such thing as the single straw that provably breaks the camels back.


Posted by Too much traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2011 at 6:57 am

What also needs to be looked into is whether this gas station is historic. Perhaps our council member who thinks that everything is historic should look into this.
Maybe Ms Briones used that lot or maybe Hewlett or Packard got gas there.


Posted by resident, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 8, 2011 at 9:54 am

I appreciate Douglas Moran's sentiments and his math! Since i have not seen the plans for this project i cannot comment on its specific merits or lack thereof, however in general PC's have been used to fatten the wallets of developers with little or no consideration of the public benefit.

I would welcome a developer who purposed a project within the restrictions of the zone in which they are situated. There would be much less objection to such projects.
The city council and the planning department needs to send a strong message to developers encouraging compliance.

The so called "palo alto Process" has been created by developers who propose inappropriate badly designed projects which are not welcomed by residents.

A question, isn't there a state law that requires a former gas station location be undeveloped for a certain number of years due to underground contamination?


Posted by Unhappy Neighbor, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 8, 2011 at 10:16 am

If South Palo Alto is forced to accept 60 foot high buildings that exceed Palo Alto's height limit at the Campus for Jewish Life, then North Palo Alto should also.


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2011 at 11:22 am

TMT: Nicely done! I laughed out loud on that one...


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2011 at 11:23 am

Perhaps the project includes an underground garage?


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2011 at 11:26 am

Turn the gas station into green space? Are you kidding?

Do you have any idea how much that land is worth? Who is going to buy the land and make it a park? We're talking million$.

50' limit and let the developer work within the current codes.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2011 at 12:53 pm

According to an article in today's Daily Post, there will be over 100 parking spots underneath the building, and more than 10 spots at street level.


Posted by Ann, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 9, 2011 at 10:09 am

All the new developments, and I can only think that what we really need is a shelter for the unhoused community. People are sleeping in parks every single day. They use the parks at night to rest and to go to the bathroom. The Opportunity Center turns them away, because they have no beds, they are not a shelter. They only help the unhoused who can follow their many rules. Some of those folks are mentally ill and cannot follow too many rules, but they need a place to sleep. They have no place to go and no where to sleep. Those folks are unhoused, but they live here in Palo Alto. They are not leaving our town to find shelter elsewhere, because they consider themselves Palo Altans. They want to be here. There must be a way to provide a bed for them. They have no families and they need a place to rest.


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