The city's Planning and Transportation Commission voted March 23 to recommend that the City Council deny a proposal by SummerHill Homes, LLC, to build a residential community at 525 San Antonio Road, present site of Peninsula Day Care. The plan faced opposition from the nearby Greenmeadow and Greendell neighborhoods, with dozens of residents claiming at the commission meetings that the area cannot accommodate more housing.
SummerHill argued the project would provide a perfect "transition" between the single-family houses in the nearby Eichler communities and the dense, multi-family housing developments on San Antonio. The company also cited the proximity to Charleston Shopping Center on Middlefield Road as a good reason for bringing more housing to the area.
SummerHill sought to placate the community by reducing the number of houses from 26 to 23 and by positioning seven one-story houses between the existing residences and the 16 proposed two-story houses.
But the planning commission voted 6-1, with Eduardo Martinez dissenting, against the development, with the majority agreeing the proposal is inconsistent with the city's Comprehensive Plan and that the area doesn't have sufficient public transportation and amenities to justify the density of the housing.
The council is scheduled to review the project Monday (May 2).
SummerHill is alleging that the commission's rejection had "no reasonable basis." The company's attorney, Michael Patrick Durkee from the firm Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis, sent the city a letter challenging the commission's denial and arguing that SummerHill's proposal "will conform to the city's planning and zoning regulations and promotes the city's critical goal of providing adequate housing."
Durkee wrote that the commission's finding that the project is not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan — the city's official land-use bible — is "not a basis for denial" because the application seeks to amend the Comprehensive Plan. He calls the commission's denial of the application based on the Comprehensive Plan a "circular argument."
"By definition, an amendment proposal is inconsistent with what it seeks to amend," Durkee wrote.
The letter also alleges that the city's opposition to SummerHill's zone change was influenced by the Palo Alto Unified School District's interest in the property. The Peninsula Day Care site abuts the rear of the Greendell School property, which in turn is next to the district's Cubberley campus. With recent housing growth in south Palo Alto, district officials have been eyeing the 2.65-acre property as a possible site for a new school facility. The day care center is slated to close in May after 37 years in operation.
In January, school district Superintendent Kevin Skelly wrote the city a letter expressing the district's "potential interest" in acquiring the site. Skelly specified, however, that the school district's board has not made any formal decisions about buying the property.
"We understand that SummerHill Homes, Inc., is currently under contract with property owner, A&D Protocol, Inc., to purchase the property," Skelly wrote. "Should development on the property be proposed by any party, including the owner or SummerHill, we wanted to emphasize the fact that (the district) has not made a decision to acquire the site, and the City should feel free to process any applications for development as it otherwise would."
But Durkee claims in his letter that Palo Alto's planning staff has "informed SummerHill that the District's interest in the project site is the primary reason for the City's abandonment of support for the project." To investigate the matter further, Durkee's firm has submitted a Public Records Act request to the city to get more information about the project.
"Based on the events that have transpired, the concern is that the City intends to either delay the application or deny the project so that the District can obtain the Property at a reduced price," Durkee wrote.
Palo Alto's planning director, Curtis Williams, disputed this assertion.
"This was not based on the school-district issue," Williams said, referring to the staff's recommendation to deny the application. "It was based on the Comprehensive Plan direction we got from the council."
In May 2010, council members agreed that new developments should be focused within half a mile of Caltrain. The direction will be integrated in the city's Comprehensive Plan, which is being revised.
Williams said at the beginning of the March 23 planning-commission meeting that the school issue is "not something we can consider as part of our deliberation."
The commission's discussion, and a new staff report released this week, instead focused largely on the site's proximity to transportation.
"Though bus service is provided, the closest train station is located more than 1/2 mile away from the subject property, in Mountain View, and that station is not afforded frequent train service," the report stated, referring to the San Antonio Caltrain stop.
Durkee argued in his letter the project is, in fact, consistent with existing city policies. He also claimed that the commission was wrong to use the council "direction" as basis for denying the project because this direction "does not rise to the level of adopted planning or zoning regulations."
"Thus, the project will conform to the city's planning and zoning regulations and promotes the city's critical goal of providing adequate housing," Durkee wrote. "The city recognized this and supported the project until the district expressed interest in the project site.
"Although staff and the commission have attempted to provide justification for their recommendation to deny the project, none of these justifications have merit, and it is clear that the district's interest in the project site has caused staff to withdraw its support for the project."