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."