South Palo Alto housing proposal shot down

City Council sides with neighborhood residents, rejects plan to build 23 houses near Greenmeadow, Greendell neighborhoods

After seeing hundreds of housing units pop up in their part of the city over the past decade, dozens of south Palo Alto residents breathed a collective sigh of relief Monday night when the City Council shot down the latest residential proposal.

The 23-home proposal for 525 San Antonio Road, near the Mountain View border, wasn't nearly as massive or dense as housing complexes that have been built around East Meadow Circle and on El Camino Real, at the former site of Hyatt Rickey's. Applicant SummerHill Homes, Inc., argued that the modest development -- six one-story homes and 17 two-story homes -- would provide a perfect transition between the small Eichler community in the Greendell neighborhood to the west of the site and the apartment buildings to the east.

SummerHill had also agreed to reduce the number of houses from 26 to 23 and to position its one-story homes between the new two-story homes and Greendell's one-story Eichler houses -- a move intended to protect the privacy of the Eicher residents.

"We worked hard to deliver thoughtful land-use solutions and to try to respond to the neighborhood concerns that have been raised," said Katia Kamangar, SummerHill's vice president. "We are not proposing high density here at this site."

But after hearing from dozens of residents, the council voted unanimously to deny the application, arguing that SummerHill's application is not consistent with the city's Comprehensive Plan and that the project's site doesn't have enough amenities to warrant more housing. In doing so, the council followed the recommendation of its planning staff, the Planning and Transportation Comission and about 30 residents from the Greendell and Greenmeadow neighborhoods. Project opponents cited overfilled schools, insufficient public facilities and a lack of good transit service in the area as reasons for rejecting the plan.

Karen Sundback, a member of the Greenmeadow Community Association, said association residents voted 60-3 in March to adopt a position against the SummerHill project.

"Approval of this project will exacerbate a critical problem of unplanned housing developments that is already impacting south Palo Alto's child care services, playing field availability and transportation systems," Sundback said.

Osborne Hardison, a resident of Greendell neighborhood, agreed. He stressed that the site has no good transit options around it, SummerHill's contentions notwithstanding. The San Antonio Caltrain station is about half a mile away, but train service at the station is infrequent and the walk to the station is not pedestrian friendly.

"This is the wrong place for the wrong density for the wrong time," said Hardison, whose neighborhood is adjacent to the plot.

The site is currently occupied by Peninsula Day Care, a business that plans to close this month after 37 years of operation. The 2.65-acre property is also adjacent to Greendell School, and Palo Alto Unified School District officials have expressed interest in purchasing the site for a new school facility. SummerHill's attorney had argued in a letter to the council that the school district's interest in the site was the main reason for staff's opposition to the project. Michael Patrick Durkee accused the city of intending to "either delay the application or deny the project so that the District can obtain the Property at a reduced price."

Curtis Williams, the city's planning director, disputed this allegation and said the council's recent direction to focus dense developments to sites around transit corridors and away from single-family zones as the main basis for staff's recommendation.

"Our recommendation was not based on the school issue," Williams told the council.

The council agreed with city staff and neighborhood residents and quickly shot down the proposal, which would have required a zoning change to allow greater density.

"I just don't see any redeemable features in this project and community benefits so to speak for why we want to upzone this project," said Councilman Greg Scharff, who moved to reject the application.

Councilman Pat Burt said the council had already made some policy changes to stem the flow of multi-family housing projects in south Palo Alto. The city's zoning ordinance, he noted, had previously allowed industrial or commercial sites to be used for multi-family housing -- an option local developers didn't exercise before the dot-com bust. That changed in the last decade, bringing an influx of residential properties to previously industrial sites.

After seeing several major residential projects completed over the past decade, the council closed the loophole.

Burt, who sat on the Planning and Transportation Commission before joining the council, opposed changing the zoning at the site even as he acknowledged that the project is far smaller than most of the recent south Palo Alto developments.

"Really, when we look at it objectively, this is not going to break the camel's back," Burt said. "The camel's break may already be broken, but this isn't going to do it."

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Like this comment
Posted by Janet
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 3, 2011 at 1:23 am

This is fantastic--we go from 23 homes to 12-14 homes. What a major victory. Can you believe it- 10 or so less homes. We can now live in peace and quite without all these new 10 or so homes. What a Victory! God Bless Palo Alto. With 10 less homes in Palo Alto victory is assured.

Like this comment
Posted by NIMBY
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 3, 2011 at 8:32 am

NIMBYs win again!

Like this comment
Posted by no NIMBY
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 3, 2011 at 9:34 am

No NIMBY, the area just isn't zoned for high-density housing. If no zone-change was required it would have passed. SummerHill chose to ignore the current zoning and put forward a plan that didn't abide by it.

NIMBYism is objecting to valid land use.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 3, 2011 at 10:47 am

The whole NIMBY thing is amusing -- of COURSE we should be concerned about what lands in our backyard. South Palo Alto has been invaded by hundreds and hundreds of new, high-density housing units in recent years. It's time for other neighborhoods to pay their fair share in density if that's the path Palo Alto is determined to travel. It is reasonable to expect controls on development that allow us to retain a reasonable lifestyle -- the one we pay a fortune to maintain (good schools, small-town feel, reasonable flow of traffic). There are options for those who want to buy into high-density housing like that proposed for the San Antonio center and is rampant in Sunnyvale and San Jose. People live in Palo Alo, or Los Altos, or where ever for a reason. That shouldn't be compromised to satisfy those wanting to come in, build big, take a huge profit, and leave the rest of us to live with the results.

Like this comment
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of University South
on May 3, 2011 at 10:48 am

YIMBY is a registered user.

I'm with Janet here - and lets be clear, this is NOT high density - these are just additional housing unit, modestly more than currently zoned. Why is PA so hostile to new housing?

Like this comment
Posted by facts
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2011 at 11:01 am

It IS high-density if you were to reference city planning materials: it is zoned SFR with minimum standard lot sizes of 5000 square feet allowing their 12-14 homes (with streets). The big question is the rewards vs detriments of trying to overlay dense infill projects on the predominant zoning of 6-10K lots, including the impacts on infrastructure (schools, sewers, roads) which was built to support the less dense plan. I've yet to see convincing data that we can shift to dense transit-oriented development even around the train stations such that these new residents primarily use public transit. And really, does anyone think that market rate housing buyers in PA are going to take the bus regularly? Do you see crowded bus stops at the new condos on the old Hyatt site?

Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on May 3, 2011 at 11:10 am

We are growing - either we build more homes for the folks who want to come here or we watch our city become even more unaffordable - where will our children live?

Although I do agree South PA has born the majority of the new dense housing. But don't worry, south Palo Alto will also have the majority of the voters and will eventually elect a council that will agree it's time for the other neighborhoods to share the growth.

Like this comment
Posted by transit taker
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2011 at 11:11 am

Can someone please explain to me what the issue with public transit is? The "site has no good transit options" is used as an argument against the development. I live on the opposite side of San Antonio from this site, and I consider our transit options very good - absolutely superb compared with other locations in Palo Alto. San Antonio and Middlefield are both bus routes. There is a bus stop just a few yards from 525 San Antonio. The Caltrain station is within walking distance, and the route there is quite easy from 525 San Antonio - sidewalks all the way and a traffic light to get across Alma. Why is that not pedestrian friendly? Sure, the schedule at the station is not great at one train/hour, but that's not going to improve unless more people live close enough to the station to use it.

The stated lack of amenities is also very puzzling with Charleston Plaza less than a mile in one direction, San Antonio shopping center less than a mile in the other, plus places like Costco, OSH, REI, etc., are very close. What is it that's missing besides school space?

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2011 at 11:25 am

I am glad that the city of Palo Alto has voted to decrease tax revenue (from the new homes) and increase litigation costs (when Summerhill Homes and the owner of the property sue Palo Alto). This will surely have a positive long term impact on local schools!

Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2011 at 11:43 am

Anonymous midtown resident -

Palo Alto does not make money on housing, sorry to say. It gets about 9% on every property tax dollar, which does not make up for the services required.

Like this comment
Posted by Transit watcher
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 3, 2011 at 11:59 am

If you think the San Antonio train station is a permanent fixture, you'd better take a closer look at long-term Caltrain plans. PAY ATTENTION to what Caltrain is doing.

Even IF Caltrain gets the adequate, reliable,long-term funding source it needs, service to that station will continue to be reduced over time due to increasing higher speed trains and electrification. The history of the station shows that each time Caltrain added faster trains, stops at San Antonio were reduced. The service to the station is quite limited now. Most people I know in the area DRIVE to the Cal. Ave. or Castro Stations. The probability that San Antonio station will be closed in the near future is HIGH.

Further, if the station closes, it is very likely VTA will reduce their bus service which is designed to serve the station (not that buyers of $1.2-$1.4 million homes fall into the demographic that are likely to use VTA buses anyway). This was another HIGHWAY-ORIENTED project. "Buy here! Easy access to 101!" Infill only reduces car trips if it is done right.

Council made a good call. Well done.

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 3, 2011 at 12:29 pm

"NIMBYs win again!"

NIMBYs are merely people who don't want the things in their backyard that their accusers desperately hope won't wind up in their own backyards.

This is indeed a new city council, rid of the ideologues (no names, but initials like John Barton and Peter Drekmeier come to mind) who uncritically pushed their dogmas regardless of the consequences.

Like this comment
Posted by carrying capacity
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2011 at 1:00 pm

re:"We are growing - either we build more homes for the folks who want to come here or we watch our city become even more unaffordable - where will our children live?" sad to say the simple laws of physics and economics won't allow 2.x children issued per one house (and their children in your lifetime) plus all the people who want Gunn's API plus those who want to be at Tech Ground Zero, to inhabit Palo Alto. High prices are a natural outcome of that. no we can futilely attempt to serve everybody who wants to live here by adding "just a few more residents" (and offices) every year until the point at which new schools and infrastructure investment costs skyrocket, and gridlock traps us in our city. Very high density works perfectly in places like Manhattan where the original infrastructure supported it,and people chose to be in an urban setting, especially making life without cars a, well, way of life. It is possible to lead a vehicle free existence here but very challenging especially with kids in several dispersed locations a day.

Like this comment
Posted by Cindy
a resident of Barron Park
on May 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm

I don't have as much trouble with adding more housing, but how are people going to get around? With the changes in the streets, going from 4 lane to 2 lane both to and from 101 and to and from 280, it takes forever to get anywhere in South Palo Alto any more. If you are going to approve the additional housing, then deal with the traffic issues first!

Like this comment
Posted by Terry
a resident of College Terrace
on May 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Let me see if I have the facts straight:

12 Homes at 3200 Sq Feet will be built. That equals 38,400 Sq Feet

23 Homes at 1800 Sq Feet were going to be built. That equals 41,400 Sq
Feet. Wow! It just about the same Sq. Footage and there will be
about the same amount of people in those 12 homes combined than in
23. Why, because children will be in far greater numbers in larger
homes than smaller homes.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2011 at 2:15 pm

That's interesting. I've always thought larger homes contained fewer children than smaller homes. How many children lived in Hearst Castle?

Like this comment
Posted by Dennis
a resident of Downtown North
on May 3, 2011 at 4:09 pm

To Terry & musical:

A quick call to the old woman in a shoe will resolve this question. I think the original proposal lacked a covenant regarding children per sq. ft., otherwise, it might have garnered greater approval.

Like this comment
Posted by no NIMBY
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 3, 2011 at 4:23 pm

So, Terry, why didn't SummerHill just go with the current zoning and propose to build 12 homes? Why are they trying to re-zone?
After all it's all that matters is the square footage and that's the same. Which must mean it will cost the same to build and the resulting profit must be identical. They can just go back and build those original 12 houses and everyone will be happy!

Like this comment
Posted by Get Real
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Thank goodness our elected officials actually listened to the concerns of South Palo Alto families.

Those of us who have seen these tightly packed over-developed housing pop up in our end of town know that they ALWAYS introduce more kids into the local stores than predicted by the developers. It is a FACT.

Another fact is that the new homes do not provide sufficient tax revenue to support the added service burden.

In the end...the ONLY party that benefits from these sardine housing projects is the developer.

We should all be thanking the City Council for listening to our collective concerns and tossing this project into the round file where it belongs.

(At this point...five or six Summerhill Homes paid bloggers will appear to troll this post...very

Like this comment
Posted by Grumpy Granny
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 3, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Meanwhile, why not try to acquire the property for school use? When they closed Greendell and Cubberly and sold school sites for housing, surely somebody besides my pal and I were thinking about future changing now we need more schools? Good grief!

Like this comment
Posted by Terry
a resident of College Terrace
on May 3, 2011 at 6:22 pm

"I've talked before about the risky business of developing housing. I won't get into explaining the costly risks developers take to build housing and the time consuming and uncertain process of bringing a home to the marketplace, from buying land to finally handing the keys over to the happy new homeowners - usually at least a year and a half later or more. The risk-reward equation associated with supplying the most expensive product a consumer will ever buy is not a complicated one but it seems to be lost on most.

Whenever there is a debate over land use -usually land that someone owns privately -the public interest seems to almost always question the developer's legitimacy in the debate. When we talk about developing housing and meeting one of society's most basic needs -shelter -there's this unspoken but lingering resentment about the profit the developers stands to make. Somehow, there's a belief that developers should be apologizing for being in business and especially for making a profit.

This same resentment and negativity doesn't seem to be associated with many other free-market actors who meet some of society's most basic needs. You don't hear people talk about barring medical doctors from commenting on hospital matters, yet the hospitals in which they ply their trade are public institutions in Canada. Rarely do you hear people say that auto manufacturers make way too much money supplying cars. In fact, I am surprised at the lack of public debate about the tens of millions of dollars governments have spent propping up inefficient auto manufacturers in recent years.

When we struggle as a community with trying to find ways of meeting the needs of those most in need of shelter -the homeless and those with special needs -we seem to believe that we must accept some kind of grim reality that developers are to blame and only a silver bullet magically conceived by government will finally provide a solution. In fact, almost all of our housing needs in this country have been met through the free market where the forces of supply and demand have reigned."

Like this comment
Posted by Terry
a resident of College Terrace
on May 3, 2011 at 6:41 pm


Perhaps they thought 23 homes on that particularly site was more appropriate than 12. With 12, we have more of the elite coming to town. Do you think those 12 homes will be less or more expensive than the proposed 23 per unit?

This was not a large development. Look where it is at. Its not Los Altos or Palo Alto Hills.

Geez! This town is wonderful to live in and we set here and whine and whine about it. Greendell and Greenmeadow the Eichlerville community is so upset that there were going to be another 10 houses in there precious little community. My oh My! How selfish we have become.

Like this comment
Posted by JD
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 3, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Terry......your condescending self-righteous attitude speaks volumes about yourself, and your misunderstanding of public economics is embarrassing.

Like this comment
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 3, 2011 at 9:50 pm

"We are growing - either we build more homes for the folks who want to come here or we watch our city become even more unaffordable - where will our children live?."

Keeping PA affordable is a pipe dream to say the least. Even with the housing market collapsing this place is still unaffordable for most. Building more homes is not the solution. Refusing to pay extraordinary prices for PA homes is.

In 20 years most of 'our' children will live in another state

Like this comment
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2011 at 10:13 pm

"Get Real" is right on the money.
It's about time we had a city council and planning commission that listened to South PA voters. With overcrowded schools and impossible traffic why do we need more housing?
So what if people can't buy lower cost homes in Palo Alto. Is this the only town on the peninsula? PA is attractive because we have been able to maintain a certain life style, school system, etc.. Why ruin it?
And especially, why ruin it in the name of some specious "regional plan?"

Like this comment
Posted by too crowded
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2011 at 10:24 pm

Good. I'm glad the City Council voted to uphold existing zoning and density plans for once in South Palo Alto.
The proposed plan was asking for ANOTHER EXCEPTION to zoning laws. Look around. We have been buried in these exceptions.

Sure, the developer isn't a criminal for trying to maximize the profits of his business. At the same time, he certainly isn't any kind of saint "seeking to provide a basic need". Let's be real here.

Like this comment
Posted by Crossings Resident
a resident of Mountain View
on May 3, 2011 at 10:51 pm

My kids have attended PDCC for about 5 years now. Pastor Shaw and his family have done a tremendous service to this community for over 35 years. I'm sad to see PDCC close, but it is with great disappointment that I read these hateful comments. The proposed development is much like my own neighborhood. It is a proposal for smart growth in an city with far more jobs than housing. Changing the zoning from R-1 to R-15 was a reasonable request. Most of the homes along the San Antonio frontage road are rentals in serious disrepair. Now it will likely have a vacant former church to add to the blight. Nice job!

Many of my neighbors grew up in Palo Alto. They were able to afford to buy into the Crossings because of the smaller less expensive homes available here. Frank's point is very evident to me.

Like this comment
Posted by I agree
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 4, 2011 at 8:19 am

Bob Moss had it right. If you start rezoning every R.1 neighborhood, where will it end. Most of our single family homes are zoned R.1, to rezone would open a flood gate.

Like this comment
Posted by Aggregates Matter
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 4, 2011 at 11:12 am

1). The developer made a speculative proposal that required an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan (a very big deal)AND an increase to the zoning on a site that had already been reviewed and received no approval for upzoning in the recent past. It was a bad gamble on their part.

2). The so-called transit-oriented nature of the project is highly questionable. This is a complex issue that was thoroughly vetted at the hearing and Council made the right call.

3). The homes proposed were to be $1.2-$1.4 million each. This is not affordable housing. They were trying to cram in the maximum number of market rate units to maximize profit. This is about PROFITS. Housing is the the most profitable land use in Palo Alto. A developer is a fool not to try to upzone every single site in the city, given the economics. However, if the city continually allows this kind of repeated upzoning, long-term planning for services is undermined. Zoning provides the predictabliity to growth that permits us to PLAN For growth.

4). Council Member Pat Burt made a thoughtful statement at the hearing about the Comp Plan and the strategic direction that Council is choosing to take to facilitate long-term planning for growth. (of course, the paper didn't pick up on that--but it was IMPORTANT to this thoughtful decision.

5). The city is not obligated to upzone a property to accomodate a developer's speculative bid for higher profit margins. Zoning is supposed to provide predictability that protects nearby property owners AND makes it possible to plan for long-term impacts of growth. Repeated, unplanned upzoning undermines the city's ability to do long-term planning.

Finally,so many "small" projects like this have been approved in south Palo Alto, we now have more than TWICE the number of new housing units that the Comp Plan projected in this part of town for this planning period. The aggregates are staggering. Schools, streets, preschools, playing fields are overflowing--literally. This is a problem.

Council made the right call. Well done.

Like this comment
Posted by Pecuniac
a resident of Midtown
on May 4, 2011 at 11:44 am

The city council's inability to say no to a development is like Lockheed saying no to a war. The overcrowding in schools, traffic, local air pollution from auto congestion are all reasons why we left Palo Alto.

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