http://paloaltoonline.com/print/story/print/2007/03/30/unchanged-alma-plaza-heads-for-city-council-review


Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 30, 2007

Unchanged, Alma Plaza heads for City Council review

Planning commission calls for more retail, fewer single-family houses and better design

by Becky Trout

Following two evenings and more than 10 hours of Planning and Transportation Commission review, a proposal to redo Alma Plaza, with few if any changes, is scheduled to reach the Palo Alto City Council April 16.

That doesn't mean it's close to construction, or even approval, however.

The commission dislikes developer John McNellis' plan to build 39 single-family houses and a building with 14 below-market-rate apartments above a moderate-sized market and other retail space.

The center's neighbors aren't fond of it, either. They testified en masse at the commission's March 8 meeting, demanding more retail and less market-rate housing.

In a 5 to 1 decision, with Commissioner Paula Sandas absent on a planned vacation, the commission voted Wednesday to approve McNellis' zoning request with a slew of recommendations, including moving and expanding a park, boosting the amount of retail space, and adding a variety of houses types to transition from retail to single-family housing.

The commission said it was keen to keep the 14 proposed below-market-rate apartments, which are thought to exceed the number required, according to Assistant Planning Director Curtis Williams.

Nonetheless, under the particular zoning type proposed for the 4.2 acres on Alma Street near East Meadow Drive, the commission doesn't have the ability to impose specific requirements.

The "planned community" (PC) zone is a blank-slate designation that requires both the property owner and the city to agree on its terms, city staff told the commission.

Several commissioners realized their hands were tied when Planning Director Steve Emslie confirmed McNellis' intention to proceed to the council if the Planning Commission did not accept the zoning as proposed.

"I suspect the recommendation of the commission is not going to slow (McNellis) down in getting to a ... decision that will be given to him by the council," Commissioner Dan Garber said.

The details of the development project were not under consideration Wednesday, as city staff repeatedly reminded the commissioners.

But the commission did have the option of rejecting McNellis' choice of a PC zone and initiating a rezoning to "neighborhood commercial," a switch that would mandate a certain percentage of the property be developed as retail. In its current incarnation, the project falls about 9,000 square feet short of the retail requirement for that zone.

The property is currently zoned PC, under a 1950s-era agreement that would not cover the proposed project.

If the council approves the plan, it will return to the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Architectural Review Board for refinement.

Early Thursday, McNellis directed questions to his representative Jim Baer.

"Can we do this not at midnight?" Baer asked.

By 11:45 p.m. -- nearly five hours into the discussion -- McNellis was lying down on one of the cushioned benches in the Council chambers, his hands above his head.

Now the center is mostly vacant, a state that attracted two would-be burglars Sunday evening, apparently after copper wiring or pipes. They were caught on the roof of the closed Albertsons.

Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at btrout@paweekly.com.

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