A proposal to bring 98 affordable-housing units and a handful of stores to the site of a former electric substation on Alma Street earned a small but hard-fought victory Wednesday when the city initiated a zone change for the site.
But most members of the Planning and Transportation Commission agreed with neighborhood residents that the project as submitted is too dense, too tall and needs to be altered before it gets all the approvals it needs.
The planning board, which heard its first presentation on the project Wednesday, voted 4-3 to initiate planned community (PC) zoning at the site, a necessary step to allow both commercial and residential use.
At the same time, commissioners agreed with both the project's supporters and critics, praising the proposal for its lofty goals while expressing concern about its size and potential traffic impacts.
The project proposed by a partnership of nonprofits, Eden Housing and the Community Housing Alliance would bring 49 affordable-housing units for families and 49 more for seniors to 801 Alma St., between Homer and Channing avenues.
The development would consist of two five-story buildings, each of which would be 53-feet tall and feature stores on the ground floor. The family-housing building would also serve as the new, larger site for Palo Alto Hardware, now at Alma and Channing.
Though the commission was asked not to consider any specific project features but to focus on whether the proposal is appropriate for a PC zone, commissioners spent several hours criticizing the development's lack of open space, potential traffic issues and high number of units.
Commissioners Karen Holman, Arthur Keller and Susan Fineberg said they need more information before they could support beginning the zone change.
But Commissioner Lee Lippert enthusiastically praised the project for giving the city exactly what it needs and encouraged his colleagues to speed things along.
"If you look at the number of units being proposed for this project and our deficit in terms of unmet need for very low-income housing, (the project) begins to put a dent in that number without impacting the rest of the city in a significant way," Lippert said.
Vice Chairman Samir Tuma also supported initiating the zone change, characterizing it as a good way for city officials to "walk the walk" and demonstrate how serious t he city is about bringing more affordable housing. He also praised the project for its proximity to downtown and public transportation, factors that would reduce traffic and benefit the environment.
"The concepts are right, the idea is right, the opportunities are fantastic and we need to take advantage of these opportunities," Tuma said
At the same time, he said the applicants will have to revisit numerous issues, including the number of units and the building heights.
The developers have already trimmed three units off the project since its presentation to the Architectural Review Board in September. But that isn't enough to satisfy Joseph Mallon and other residents of 800 High St., the building next to the proposed development site.
"It's just too much in too little space," Mallon told the board. "It's a good project gone bad by being too big."
Other speakers, including Channing House resident Janet Owens, said they were thrilled to see an affordable-housing project coming to a city that desperately needs such housing.
"I can't tell you how pleased I am about the many changes in standards that this housing project will bring," Owens said. "I'm delighted that this will be an introduction of a different type housing to Palo Alto and not only the residents but the neighbors will become used to it."
(Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at [email protected])