Palo Alto gives green light to Stanford housing project

Mayfield development can proceed with slight modifications

A resident's challenge of a proposed 180-unit housing development in Stanford Research Park won a few concessions from the university and the Palo Alto City Council Monday, while losing a main objection based on fire safety issues.

City Council members voted unanimously to reaffirm approval of Stanford's plans to build the faculty housing on upper California Avenue -- eight two-story single-family homes and 112 units of multi-story housing -- shooting down an appeal filed by College Terrace resident Fred Balin that claims the project violates city fire code. Councilman Larry Klein recused himself because his wife works at Stanford.

Stanford's applications for architectural review and a tentative map of the upper California Avenue project unanimously passed muster with the Architectural Review Board on March 20. The plans were further approved by Director of Planning and Community Environment Hillary Gitelman after a hearing on April 18. Balin filed the appeal on May 2, alleging that the project doesn't properly follow city fire codes, that it does not accommodate school routes in the area and that it would increase congestion on Columbia Street, among other issues. The appeal cites the findings of traffic engineer Tom Brohard of the firm Tom Brohard and Associates, who was commissioned by Balin and his wife to review Stanford's plans.

On Monday evening, Palo Alto Fire Marshal Rich Dean and Fire Chief Eric Nickel disagreed with the appeal's main points. Balin has said that the project violates fire codes related to road width and turnarounds for fire equipment at the end of dead-end streets more than 150 feet long. Two dead-end driveways more than 250 feet long constitute fire-access roads and must have turnarounds, city fire code states.

The roadway widths on Columbia and Amherst streets also violate fire code because they are 24 feet wide, while city fire code states that the minimum road width "shall be 26 feet where a fire hydrant is located on the fire access road," Brohard wrote in his report. Stanford could easily resolve the code violations by adding a new curb cut near Dartmouth Street and move four residences in its path by shifting them elsewhere or including them as part of the multi-family complex, Balin said. Columbia and Amherst streets could be widened to 26 feet in all areas, he added.

Dean said he determined that fire vehicles would not need to travel more than 150 feet along the driveways to meet a hose-reach requirement, and city municipal code allows the fire code official to increase the 150-foot length if the building is equipped with automatic fire sprinklers. A generally accepted interpretation of the road-width measurements allow rolled curbs and engineered sidewalks that can bear the weight of fire vehicles to be included, Dean and Nickel said.

State Fire Marshal's Office has confirmed by email that Palo Alto Fire is within their purview to make interpretations and implement locally adopted fire code, Dean noted Monday.

Council members said they would not second-guess fire department officials and trusted their judgment. But they were more open to Balin's and other residents' concerns regarding bike and pedestrian safety. Architectural-review policy requires the city to make 16 findings before approval. Balin has maintained that the project does not satisfy one of those findings -- that access and circulation at the considered property are safe and convenient for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.

In addition, the city's existing "Walk and Roll" maps, which identify the safest pedestrian and bicycle routes to schools, libraries and other amenities, do not account for the new California Avenue housing and were not used to evaluate the proposal, Balin and others said.

Staff said they believe students will use Columbia Street as the main route to schools. But Balin noted that Palo Alto Unified School District has not determined which schools will serve the new community -- Escondido or Nixon elementary schools. The Walk and Roll school map published by Escondido Elementary School show Bowdoin and Hanover streets as the designated safe routes for children and campus employees, he said.

Balin suggested that council direct staff to work with the neighborhood to develop the best and safest paths in and out of the development and from Stanford Avenue. Stanford representatives said they would work with residents.

Several community members expressed concern Monday regarding the lack of a sidewalk along the western portion of Amherst Street in the new project. Stanford has proposed a single sidewalk along that section to preserve mature trees. But Chris Wuthmann, associate director of design and construction for Stanford's real estate operations, said the university would be willing to add a second sidewalk at that location.

Brent Barker, president of the College Terrace Residents Association, also said new subdivision sections of Amherst, Bowdoin and Columbia streets have bulb-outs that cause the road to narrow. Wuthmann said the bulb-outs are there to eliminate parking on corners, but council members asked for alternatives such as signs or red curbs. The council voted to reduce the size of the bulb-outs where the streets intersect with California Avenue, but without eliminating them completely.

Residents also asked for bike lanes on California Avenue, which would likely eliminate street parking on the street's south side. The council directed staff to look at potentially eliminating the parallel parking in that area. Stanford and city staff will also engage the neighborhoods and Safe Routes to School groups to design safe bike and pedestrian pathways to schools.

Councilman Greg Scharff made a motion to approve the project map and architectural review with a sidewalk on Amherst, which Councilwoman Gail Price seconded.

The proposed development at 1451-1601 California Ave. is part of the Mayfield Development Agreement, which the council adopted in 2005. Under the agreement, Stanford was granted permission to build 250 units on two sites around Stanford Research Park (the other housing project is on El Camino Real) and requires the university to lease to the city the 6-acre "Mayfield site" on the corner of Page Mill Road and El Camino for $1 per year for 51 years. The university was also required to build soccer fields on the site and turn them over to the city, which it did in 2006.

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Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 25, 2014 at 9:36 am

Will CPA be liable if an incident happens or a delay in safety service response because they allowed sub-standard streets to go in?

Or can/will a lawsuit be brought to force the city to follow standard safety protocol?

Another reason to vote against/remove these jokers.

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 25, 2014 at 9:45 am

The city council invariably rejects these citizen appeals. A council that cannot muster the courage to perform its primary duty--evaluate and critique the city manager--cannot be expected to "second guess" the goofups of its panels and staff.

Like this comment
Posted by Typical
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 25, 2014 at 9:51 am

CPD-- not sure why you are attacking the council,over this. They addressed some of the issues raised. Ae you suggesting that the fire department people do not know their business? Does anyone know anything about the expert that Fred found to produce this study? Remember that you only hear from an expert that tells you what you want to hear
To me this is just a not surprising attempt by College Terrace to avoid having the city honor an agreement that they have been benefiting from for years. [Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 25, 2014 at 9:54 am

Surely the same can be said about the houses on Alma Plaza and other townhouse developments around town. I would like to see a fire truck turn round in the parking lot outside the Alma Plaza housing.

Like this comment
Posted by Enough!
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 25, 2014 at 10:15 am

Oh goody! MORE housing. It only takes 40 minutes to travel 3 miles across Palo Alto during peak commute times now...absolutely, KEEP BUILDING more overpriced units for the wealthy to occupy while pushing the rest of us away from our jobs, friends and family.

Like this comment
Posted by Crooks
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 25, 2014 at 11:03 am

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Jon Parsons
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 25, 2014 at 11:23 am

The issues are complex and nuanced in their details. At the higher policy level, however, the City - distinct from the people who live within Palo Alto - always wants MORE. More housing, more business, more revenue, more spending, more power, more influence, more activities. It seems concerned what other Cities think about it and about its place in the world. Perhaps it is time to ask again, as if for the first time, just what it is our City should be doing, why, and for whose benefit. What are the basic "police powers" for which each city should be accountable and why do we, the residents who live here, need more?

Like this comment
Posted by Adrian
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 25, 2014 at 12:48 pm

@Enough - this housing is for Stanford faculty.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jun 25, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Jon Parsons - don't forget that your elected reps are part of the City, and they do indeed live in town.

Like this comment
Posted by local parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 25, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Whoa. You mean Stanford is building a site this big, with this many people, and all they're giving us is a soccer field? When we're overbooked in our schools and will obviously have to build a few more new school sites?!!

Like this comment
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 26, 2014 at 12:36 am

Local parent,

Stanford is not giving Palo Alto a soccer field. The soccer fields are on a 50 year lease, with 4-5 years already expired. The enormous Mayfield project is forever.

When the soccer field lease expires (and all of the toxins have been sucked out of the ground), Stanford will bulldoze the soccer fields, and build the hotel they have always wanted to build at the corner of El Camino and Page Mill, and Palo Alto will begin another costly search for playing fields.

Like this comment
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 26, 2014 at 12:42 am

Stanford took the PACC to the cleaners.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 26, 2014 at 3:00 am

Stanford should consider giving PAUSD some money to build a bigger (two story) school on the Nixon site. Nixon school seems like it is in their own little zone of solitude, while the rest of us suffer in the "traffic hell" of overpopulation.

Building up Nixon will help contain the kids of Stanford employees and students to one zone in town.

This place is incredible (shake head)!

Like this comment
Posted by local parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 26, 2014 at 10:40 am

"city municipal code allows the fire code official to increase the 150-foot length if the building is equipped with automatic fire sprinklers."

And in the 1991 Oakland Firestorm, that city was able to keep their hydrant hose connection that didn't fit any of the neighboring cities', so long as there were adapters available. This is why thousands of homes burned in Oakland and only a few dozen in Berkeley -- mutual aid from surrounding communities was able to plug in the Berkeley hydrants but not the Oakland ones, because it turns out that in a large event where one would need a lot of mutual aid, it was logistically impossible to get the adaptors distributed in time where they were needed.

I'm sorry, but you never want safety of hundreds of people to hinge on an asterisk, especially in a densely built area. After a seismic event, one of the biggest reasons a large number of homes would be threatened, many individual sprinkler systems are likely not to function properly.

"Councilmembers said they would not second-guess the fire department officials and trusted their judgment."

In the Maybell situation, it became clear to residents that the fire department is not an independent city power. Council puts pressure on the fire department to go along with what they want, and fire has to take its cues from them and planning and transportation. Then City Council uses fire like they are an independent verification of what Council wants. I think this power dynamic is unconscionable, unsafe, and unfair to our fire professionals.

During the Maybell debates, the developer side made a sweeping claim on more than one occasion that the fire department had made an independent review of the traffic and found the development didn't present any problems. Among other things, neighbors had concerns about emergency vehicle access times to the neighborhood and elementary school if traffic from a large development at that bottleneck to the neighborhood were routed onto already substandard and heavily used Maybell. Proponents of the rezoning made it seem like the traffic in the area and emergency response had been evaluated by the fire department and found fine.

Upon calling the fire department, neighbors found that fire never does that kind of review, they only look at access time to the development itself (across the street from the fire station), not the neighborhood. And they don't look at traffic at all, planning and transportation does that - fire takes its cues from planning and transportation, which as we all know always say everything no matter how egregiously overbuilt has "no impact". In that particular situation, the fire department spokesperson said point blank that they take their cues for P&T and they said there was no impact.

The neighbors who went over to the fire department further reported that the City contacted the fire department the morning of that meeting to put pressure on the fire people that Council wanted the project to go forward. The fire spokesperson was extremely guarded almost to the point of seeming muzzled by City staff pressure in regards to that development. Basically, fire in the power structure of the city is subordinate to Council's wishes and planning and transportation, i.e., everyone's safety plays second fiddle to development interests.

Given what we've all seen in what anti-stewards our Council has been in regards to "traffic circulation" - another mandated element of our Comp Plan - we should all be up in arms about the troubling way safety is handled.

After what we witnessed at Maybell, it's clear we desperately need a Council that will put safety first. We need a separate element in the Comprehensive Plan for Safety, as the state mandates anyway. And we need to find a way to reorganize the city structure so that fire and police are able to be accountable but more independent, especially so that fire is independent of development and planning.

In the meantime, citizens are the only ones minding the store. The safety recommendations were very reasonable. The traffic engineer the Balins hired is one of the most respected in the state. What a smack in the solar plexus.

I truly hope it doesn't take an epic disaster for us to realize how urgently we need to start prioritizing safety and dealing with a lot of the problems this Council has wrought. Much of Palo Alto is in a liquifaction hazard zone that will expand with rising seas in the coming decades. We can all see the traffic circulation and quality of life problems. Safety is usually left unexamined until too late.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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