The latest development to win the green light in Palo Alto's bustling California Avenue Business District aims to meet two goals near and dear to the hearts of city leaders: boosting the city's housing stock and getting people out of their cars.
The three-story "Birch Plaza" project at 305 Grant Ave. will feature office space on the ground floor and eight apartments on the second and third floors, along with courtyards, a pocket park and new street trees. It would also include an underground garage with 19 regular parking spaces and 15 "tandem parking stalls."
The City Council unanimously approved the new development Monday night.
"This project achieves many of the goals we have in terms of using the Pedestrian and Transit Oriented District in terms of increasing housing density and also making a more pedestrian-friendly environment," Councilwoman Gail Price said. "It is my belief that the project before us is an improvement to the immediate neighborhood."
The project, proposed by developer Harold Hohbach more than two years ago, is the second development to apply for a zone change to Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Development district. The designation allows a greater density and a broader mix of land uses for projects close to a transit corridor, with the goal of getting residents to abandon their cars and shift to trains and buses.
One condition of approval requires the property owner to provide occupants of the new development with transit passes.
But this "transit oriented" project is causing a stir from area neighbors, who ironically point to car congestion as their number-one concern. The project, some have argued, relies too much on transit use and would, ironically, saddle the neighborhood with parking problems.
Joe Villareal, who lives at an apartment complex next door to the proposed development, said the area already suffers from a major parking shortage because of poor planning. When his building was built, Villareal said it only included 19 parking spaces for 57 units because the city assumed the building's senior residents wouldn't be driving. Now there is a large waiting list of residents hoping for assigned parking spaces, he said.
Many residents and workers in the area park their cars in the largely vacant lot where the new development would go up, Villareal said. The lot currently includes three single-family homes and space for cars.
"The corner of Sheridan and Birch -- every day between 25 and 30 cars park here," Villareal said. "Where will they go when this building is built?"
Land-use watchdog Bob Moss also said he opposes the project for a different reason: The number of housing units proposed by the developer is too small.
City officials consider the California Avenue area as the perfect area for new mixed-use projects and housing developments because of its proximity to Caltrain. The city previously determined that the site could accommodate between 12 and 18 housing units, but Moss noted that the developer is only offering eight.
Palo Alto faces a mandate from the Association of Bay Area Governments to identify locations for 2,860 housing units. Given this requirement, Moss said, the city should seek to place more units at the Grant Avenue site.
But others agreed with the council that the project would improve the area. Chris Gaither, who lives close to the proposed project, acknowledged that the neighborhood has a "systemic parking problem" but argued that the new development would not add to this problem. Instead, it would create a better entrance to the busy neighborhood, he said.
"For so many years, it's been a vacant lot with overflow cars parked at this vacant lot," Gaither said.
"It's not a great entryway to the California Avenue shopping and business district."