Palo Alto officials would like to see larger developments near the city's transit stations, but they are still trying to hash out exactly who should occupy these buildings.
The question of what types of developments the city should encourage downtown bubbled up Wednesday night, when the Planning and Transportation Commission discussed a proposed four-story building that a developer hopes to construct at the site of a former Shell station on Alma Street and Lytton Avenue.
The developer, Lytton Gateway LLC, is seeking a zone change to a planned community (PC) zone, which would enable him to exceed the city's zoning regulations in exchange for a set of public benefits. Because the dense project would be next to the downtown Caltrain station, it would comport with the wishes of the City Council, which last year directed staff to explore allowing greater building heights and higher density near major transit centers.
The Lytton Gateway project at 355 Alma St. was proposed in March as a 64-foot tall, five-story building with a cafe on the ground floor, office space on the first four floors and five apartments on the fifth floor. At that time, the commission voted 6-1, with Susan Fineberg dissenting, to initiate the zone change.
Lytton Gateway LLC -- which consists of Boyd Smith, Lund Smith and Scott Foster, with consultant Jim Baer of Premier Properties -- has since scaled back the proposal to four floors and 50 feet in height. The retail component was roughly doubled and the number of apartments went up to six, which includes three units of affordable housing. The developers have also offered two electric vehicle recharging stations and new street trees. The project's biggest selling point, however, is the location. In a memo to the council, the applicants said the new building will "further entrench Palo Alto as a regional leader in progressive planning and design, unquestionably aided by the Bay Area's premier transit center across the street which beckons the features discussed below."
These features would include widened sidewalks, more street trees, ground-floor retail and shortened pedestrian crosswalks at Lytton and Alma.
Planning commissioners agreed that the proposed building's location presents the city with great opportunities, but they had different opinions about how to take advantage of these opportunities. Some called for more apartments, others said they would like to see even more height and others lobbied the applicants to reserve the apartments for seniors. The commission did not take any votes on the project Wednesday, but provided a series of comments -- some of them conflicting -- to the applicant's team.
Vice Chair Lee Lippert was the most enthusiastic about the latest proposal and praised the applicants for listening to the commission's earlier comments. At the March meeting, several commissioners said they would like to see more housing, more retail and more public benefits.
"You listened to our comments and you responded to them very appropriately," Lippert said. "I think you've done a great job here."
Others were less pleased and characterized the proposal as a wasted opportunity, given its prime location next to the Caltrain station. Commissioner Dan Garber said he would like to see the project exceed the city's allowed height limit of 50 feet.
"This is one of a few spots in Palo Alto where that argument can be made, and I think this is the place to make it," Garber said.
Chair Samir Tuma agreed, calling the project a "golden opportunity" to break the 50-foot limit. But Fineberg was more cautious and said the city hasn't fully evaluated the impacts of building beyond the currently allowed limits.
"I think it would be a mistake to start implementing project-based design, skipping the steps of doing the analysis and seeing what the impact is," she said.
Commissioners also split over the building's residential component, with Eduardo Martinez saying he'd like to see 10 or 12 units in this building rather than the proposed six. Lippert and Commissioner Greg Tanaka both encouraged the applicant to make the residential units senior housing.
"Having these units downtown would really help seniors who are less able to drive still live a fulfilling life," Tanaka said. "That would be a real public benefit."
The development will likely see further revisions before it goes to the City Council for a vote. Both the city's planning commission and the Architectural Review Board are currently reviewing the project and are scheduled to issue their own recommendations before the council rules on the zone change.