After hitting a wall earlier this year, developer SummerHill Homes scored a major victory Wednesday evening when its bid to build houses on a coveted south Palo Alto property earned the backing of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission.
SummerHill's proposal, which the commission swiftly approved by a 6-0 vote with Arthur Keller absent, is far less ambitious than the one the City Council unanimously struck down in May. At that time, the builder requested a zone change that would enable construction of 23 townhouses -- far more than the zoning typically allows -- at 525 San Antonio Road.
That proposal faced heavy opposition from the community and was panned by both the planning commission and the council. The new plan, which calls for 10 homes and no zoning changes, sailed through the commission hearing with little discussion and no neighborhood opposition.
The property, located near the Mountain View border, has been the subject of much debate in recent years, with SummerHill, the Palo Alto Unified School District and the surrounding neighborhoods offering disparate visions for its future. While SummerHill has consistently maintained that the site's proximity to the Caltrain station at San Antonio Road makes it ripe for dense housing, residents have argued that their area is too crowded and has insufficient services to accommodate an influx of new houses. The school district, meanwhile, has been eyeing the site -- which abuts Greendell School and Cubberley Community Center -- for a possible school expansion.
The 2.64-acre site was most recently used by the Peninsula Day Care Center, which closed in June after 35 years of operation.
The commission's approval of SummerHill's request could deal a blow to the plans of the school district, which earlier this month formally announced its interest in buying the site. This week, however, school Superintendent Kevin Skelly sent a letter to the commission saying that the district remains undecided about the possible purchase. He also stated in the letter that the district's expression of interest in the site was not related to SummerHill's most recent application.
"We again wish to emphasize that the PAUSD Board has made no formal decision to acquire the site and is still in the exploratory phase," Skelly wrote. "We understand that SummerHill Homes, Inc., remains under contract with the property owner, A&D Protocol, Inc., to purchase the property."
"Should development on the property be proposed by any party, including the owner or SummerHill, we again wanted to emphasize the fact that PAUSD has not made a decision to acquire the site. The City should remain free to process any applications for development as it otherwise would."
The new proposal calls for 10 single-family lots, five on either side of a cul-de-sac. Lot sizes would vary but would average about 9,700 square feet, said SummerHill Vice President Katia Kamangar. The cul-de-sac would be surrounded by a five-foot sidewalk. SummerHill has also agreed to include a public easement at the end of the cul-de-sac to allow future pedestrian and bike paths to Cubberley and Greendell, according to the project application.
The commission approved the project with few questions and little discussion. Commissioner Greg Tanaka said the project "seems to be heading in the right direction," while Commissioner Samir Tuma lauded the new plan for adhering to feedback from commissioners, council members and neighborhood residents, who overwhelmingly demanded a more modest proposal. He said he is very supportive of the new plan.
"To me that's the right project for here," Tuma said.
The school district had also reached out to SummerHill about its interest in the site. Kamangar told the commission Wednesday that the company will continue to hold talks with school officials about the district's interest.
"The school district has the ability to buy that land now," Kamangar told the commission. "They had that ability previously as well and we will continue to work with them."
The council is scheduled to discuss the project within the next month.