Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 5, 2013

Urban development proposed for El Camino block

Building would add 48 apartments, restaurant, offices around Equinox Fitness

by Gennady Sheyner

A quaint, eclectic and sparsely developed block of El Camino Real near Fry's Electronics in Palo Alto could get a hefty injection of urbanism.

The city is about to launch a review of a mixed-use project at 3159 El Camino Real, a four-story building that would include a restaurant, office spaces and 48 apartments targeting young professionals. The development, pitched by the Silva family, would occupy the block between Portage and Acacia avenues currently occupied by Equinox Fitness and We Fix Macs. The land once housed the low-slung Pet Food Depot and the cubic Banana Records.

While a proposal to build about 70,000 square feet of development on El Camino Real is unlikely to confound council members or land-use watchers, the specifics of this project could surprise them. Most "mixed-use" proposals that the city has evaluated in recent years have consisted largely of office space, with a few residential units or a small retail component added in to sweeten the deal for the city. (The planned College Terrace Centre on El Camino Real and the Lytton Gateway building near the downtown Caltrain station are two notable examples.)

This proposal, by contrast, will include 48 rental units mostly studios and one-bedroom apartments designed for an "urban lifestyle" along with a glassy restaurant on the corner of El Camino and Portage, a corner plaza, office space on the third floor and an underground garage that will connect to existing parking.

The project is unusual in several other ways. The underground garage will stack cars in mechanical lifts and allow owners to retrieve their vehicle by using key fobs. The mechanism, which functions a bit like a gumball machine, is already common in Japan and in Oakland, though it would be relatively new for Palo Alto.

The new building, unlike other major projects, is not requesting a change in zoning. Requests for "planned community" zoning have been particularly contentious recently.

Furthermore, the construction itself represents a novel challenge. The development would leave the 6,600-square-foot Equinox intact while construction of all the other components of the development, including the garage, would take place around the gym.

Heather Young, a partner at architects Fergus Garber Young Architects, told the Weekly that the gym had expressed interest more than a year ago in expanding toward El Camino Real. The design for the expansion, Young said, included a seismic improvement to that structure, including shoring that would enable it to be "safely maintained during construction and excavation."

The project team engaged a team of engineers and soil specialists to work through the challenges so that Equinox would be able to maintain operation should new construction take place, she said.

Young, a former chair of the city's Architectural Review Board, said the proposed development looks to address the city's well-documented housing shortage. Because the 48 units will target "urban professionals" rather than families (only one apartment would have two bedrooms) they are unlikely to affect local schools and public facilities. The development's location, within walking distance of California Avenue and close to the prominent and busy intersection of El Camino and Page Mill Road, is another plus, Young said.

"It is a good location. It's close to some of our stronger urban centers, with California Avenue being nearby, but it's also close to Stanford Research Park and a lot of the financial and venture-capital institutions," she said.

The project will also be well-linked to transit, Young said, with proximity to both Caltrain and to the city's two major north-south and east-west corridors El Camino Real and Oregon Expressway, respectively.

Young said the development will, if anything, affect parking positively. The underground garage would create space for long-term parking for residents and employees. The underground lot would connect to an existing two-story garage on Portage, as well as to an existing surface lot, which would be used by patrons of businesses for short-term parking.

"You'll have few-to-no all-day parking" on the surface lot, Young said.

Another major concern that designers tried to address with the project is the building's distance from the road, a sensitive topic when it comes to El Camino Real. The city's zoning ordinance requires a setback of 8 to 12 feet from the thoroughfare, and recent developments along El Camino, most notably the Arbor Real townhouses near Charleston Road, have faced heated criticism for being both too massive and too close to the street.

To meet the city's guidelines and lessen the visual impact of the added mass, the new building would feature a small corner plaza at El Camino and Portage, a "dining arcade" along El Camino and a central courtyard. These design elements, Young said, would address the City Council's recent concern about narrow sidewalks on El Camino.

Most of the area around the development site hasn't been developed in more than half a century, Young said. For the Silva family, one complication to expanding and redeveloping the site around Equinox was the fact that it did not own several adjacent parcels, including that of the 900-square-foot "We Fix Macs" building and a vacant lot on Acacia. To enable the project, the Silva family had to reach a land-swapping agreement with the Robert Wheatley Group, which owned the adjacent lots and which formerly owned the nearby property housing Fry's Electronics.

The next big challenge will be Palo Alto's approval process. Even though the proposed development is consistent with the underlying "service commercial" zoning, the number of residential units means the city will have to conduct a site-and-design review, with hearings in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission, the Architectural Review Board and the council. The planning commission is scheduled to discuss 3159 El Camino Real next Wednesday night.

Planning staff, meanwhile, sees plenty to like in the new proposal. Senior Planner Russ Reich said the project offers a rare example of a mixed-use project that really includes a real mix of offices, retail and housing. He noted that the retail part would consist of about 15,000 square feet, and offices would make up another 16,000 square feet or so. The number of residential units, he said, is the maximum allowed by the zoning code.

"We never see this in mixed-use projects where they're building small, relatively affordable units and providing housing stock that is rare in Palo Alto," Reich said. "It's really kind of exciting to see that kind of combination of studios and one-bedroom apartments."

The project, Reich said, is consistent with the city's vision for this part of El Camino.

"City guidelines encourage buildings that create that urban edge, with more mixed-use in this area, so it was kind of a good opportunity," Reich said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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