Faced with a graying population and a shortage of housing for seniors, the Palo Alto City Council swiftly and happily approved a plan Monday night to expand the Palo Alto Commons development on El Camino Way.
Calling it a desperately needed project, the council unanimously green-lighted a proposal by Palo Alto Commons to build a three-story addition to its existing 121-unit facility on El Camino Way, between El Camino Real and West Meadow Drive. The new 44-unit building will feature eight studio apartments, 17 one-bedroom apartments and 19 two-bedroom apartments, as well as a lounge, a fitness room, an indoor pool and a dining room.
The new building will also include an underground parking garage with 38 parking spots. Another three parking spots would be available outside.
To make the project possible, the council approved a proposal by applicant Steven Reller to extend the "planned community" (PC) zone at the site of the existing Palo Alto Commons to incorporate the proposed 0.8-acre addition. The zoning designation allows developers to build at a greater density than the city normally allows in exchange for "public benefits."
Though PC-zoned projects typically entail lengthy negotiations over public benefits and, at times, community opposition (Alma Plaza and the College Terrace Centre are two recent examples), the senior-housing proposal sailed through the city's approval process at a comparatively brisk pace. Both the city's Architectural Review Board and the Planning and Transportation Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the project, and the city's planning staff also advised the council to approve it.
While PC-zoned projects typically include such benefits as new public plazas, landscape improvements and public art, in the case of Palo Alto Commons, the main public benefit is the project itself. Palo Alto's shortage of senior housing factored prominently in staff and the planning commission's decision to support the project.
"It is so dog-gone difficult to get rental housing, let alone senior rental housing, and there's clearly a strong demand for it," Planning and Transportation Commission Chair Samir Tuma told the council.
Councilwoman Gail Price said the project helps the city achieve its goal of providing diversity in housing. Councilman Greg Schmid called it a "terrific project," while Councilman Greg Scharff said the city is lucky to get a project like this.
"Senior rental housing is something that's very difficult to build," Scharff said. "I don't think people realize how difficult it is to get a project like this."
While the senior units constitute the primary public benefit, the proposal includes a scattering of secondary benefits, including pedestrian improvements along El Camino Way, upgrades to the bus stop on El Camino Real, landscape improvements and new walkways and a crosswalk in front of the addition. Palo Alto Commons will also contribute $100,000 to the Palo Alto nonprofit Avenidas to fund an age-at-home program for low-income seniors.
Though land-use watchdog Bob Moss urged the council to require the new building to include low-income housing, every other speaker who addressed the council on the subject favored the proposal.
One of these speakers was Bill Hahn, who moved into Palo Alto Commons in 2007 with his wife. Hahn said his wife suffered from dementia and from arterial fibrillation. After she died in 2009, Hahn fell in love with another Commons resident, Colleen Coleman. The two got married last year.
"The Palo Alto Commons has taken care of us in a very good way during this time together," Hahn told the council Monday.
Both Hahns called the proposed addition an answer to the shortage of senior housing in Palo Alto.
The council agreed and voted 8-0, with Karen Holman recusing herself, to support the proposed expansion.
"This is an important project for this community, and I'm glad to see it will move forward this evening," Mayor Sid Espinosa said just before the vote.