New zone change proposed for busy El Camino Real intersection

Developers hope to build four-story building at busy corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road

With Palo Alto's controversial "planned-community" process suspended indefinitely, a developer who was hoping to win the zoning designation for a four-story project at the prominent corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road is now pursuing a different strategy.

The City Council will consider early next year a new plan for a largely commercial development that is slated to go up at a site long used by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority for a parking lot. The predominantly commercial building at 2755 El Camino Real, would include three levels of underground parking and two residential units in addition to office space.

The proposal from Pollock Financial Group and architect Ken Hayes has been in planning limbo since the council decided in February not to accept any more "planned-community" (PC) projects until the process for approving them is reformed. The process, which critics have long derided as "zoning for sale," allows developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated public benefits. Recent developments that have relied on this designation include the new Survey Monkey headquarters 101 Lytton Ave.; the College Terrace Centre development at 2180 El Camino Real and the renovated Edgewood Plaza.

Recent history has not been kind to PC proposals. The Palo Alto Housing Corporation saw its proposed housing development on Maybell Avenue (which relied on planned-community zoning) overturned in 2013 after a citizen referendum. And Jay Paul Company withdrew last year its PC proposal for a new office complex at 395 Page Mill Road (a project that included as a public benefit new police headquarters), citing the city's political climate.

When the council adopted by a 7-2 vote (with Larry Klein and Gail Price dissenting) a moratorium on PC projects in February, 2755 El Camino Real project was the only proposal for this zoning designation in the city's pipeline. The council also specified by a 5-4 vote (with Pat Burt, Klein, Price and Greg Scharff dissenting) that the moratorium should apply to this project. At the time, the proposal called for four stories of commercial space and the tenant was slated to be First Republic Bank.

Reflecting the view of the council majority, Councilman Marc Berman acknowledged at the February meeting that a "time-out" on PC projects is needed because "the process we are currently using is broken and needs to be fixed." He added that it doesn't seem "appropriate" to consider any PC projects until that's done.

Now that the PC process remains suspended, the development team behind 2755 El Camino Real has come forward with a Plan B. It is asking the city to rezone the site from "public facility" to "community commercial," a designation that would allow the desired density without the ad hoc negotiations associated with PC zoning. The project is still four stories, but now it also has a small residential component.

The proposed development is one of many in the area around California Avenue. Hayes has also proposed adding a commercial development at the Olive Garden site on the 2500 block of El Camino Real.

Developer Harold Hohbach currently has several large mixed-use developments in the midst of construction and the council recently signed off on a block-long development at 3159 El Camino Real, around Equinox Gym.

Though the developers behind 2755 El Camino Real filed their revised designs in early November, a formal application for a community-commercial zone change isn't expected to be submitted until after the council holds its "prescreening" session, a public hearing at which members will offer their early thoughts on the project without taking any votes. The council agreed earlier this month to "prescreen" the new proposal for 2755 El Camino Real and the hearing is currently scheduled to take place on Feb. 2.

A recent report from city planners notes that if the council approves the new zoning proposal, the developers will still provide the "public benefits" that it had offered under its PC application. These items, according to the report, include "land dedications, subsurface rights, and curb gutter and sidewalk replacement, all of which will enable needed improvements to the intersection of Page Mill Road and El Camino Real."

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6 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 25, 2014 at 9:38 am

How about getting the developers to fund grade separation on Caltrain as a benifit? No too practical.

6 people like this
Posted by What a team
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 25, 2014 at 11:31 am

Still true now:
"I'm concerned some of things you've listed are either in the developer's interest or are essential mitigations," Council Member Larry Klein told Jim Baer, who is representing the Pollock Financial Group as it looks to build a four-story, 33,500-square-foot office building on a former VTA parking lot at 2755 El Camino Real.
Web Link

Jim Baer and Ken Hayes, what a team.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 25, 2014 at 7:00 pm

PC zoning is the not problem, so much as it getting used to vastly exceed zoning restrictions in a way it was never intended. PC zoning was supposed to provide flexibility, not an excuse to throw zoning principles out the window. Had the Maybell rezoning been a proposal much closer to zoning, even all affordable housing, especially all affordable housing, it never would have been opposed, even as a PC.

The other problem is in the City Council deciding what constitutes a "public benefit" -- if they had to ask the public, and if there were automatic (rather than having-to-be-litigated-for) and major compensatory damages to the public if those benefits didn't materialize, then PCs wouldn't be as controversial either.

But once the cat is out of the bag, people are rightly disinterested in having to keep putting it back in.

I hope new Councilmember Eric Filseth will be successful in giving our City tools to analyze every development as part of a system. It may not be everyone else's fault that this Council allowed all those exceptions, but neither is it the public's fault, and we need to understand the cumulative impacts of all these existing ways the zoning was exceeded. This understanding has never been quantified, though we have all witnessed it in the huge increases in traffic, noise, and other degradations in quality of life (and ignoring of the Comp Plan vision and principles).

Like this comment
Posted by confused
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 25, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Once more companies allow their employees to work remotely, what will happen to all the empty office buildings in Palo Alto?

9 people like this
Posted by Surly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 25, 2014 at 10:37 pm

Pretty soon we're going to need personal helicopters to get across El Camino without going to nearby communities.

Embarcadero's already impassable, University's clogged and now we're going to jam up Oregon even more. Brilliant.

6 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 26, 2014 at 7:11 am

If you think it is difficult to cross El Camino now, just try it in a few years when another half-million people move to the Bay Area and the center lanes on El Camino are confiscated for buses only. You will not want to attempt to cross El Camino during commute (6 hours/day).

3 people like this
Posted by Concerned
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 7, 2015 at 1:39 pm

Practically speaking, I can't imagine how cars are going to exit from what is sure to be a steep up ramp from the 3 stories of underground parking into a corner of the page mill/el camino intersection that has an almost constant flow of traffic. If exiting onto El Camino, they will be almost blind to the cars making a right turn from Page Mill Westbound onto El Camino. Already, it takes several light changes to cross Page Mill from the other side of El Camino and make a left turn from Page Mill Eastbound onto El Camino in the middle of the day, not to mention commute hours. Wondering if this will be taken into consideration in light of the other 2-3 developments that are scheduled/proposed within a few blocks of that intesection.

2 people like this
Posted by Surly
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 7, 2015 at 2:23 pm

Obviously such practicalities aren't of interest to our traffic/planning officials who recently changed the Cal Ave. diagonal parking near El Camino to parallel parking.

Or they like creating backed up intersections.

Gotta be one or the other.

2 people like this
Posted by Annette Ross
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 12, 2016 at 8:20 pm

@What a Team makes a good point. When the College Terrace Centre at 2180 El Camino (fka JJ&F) wanted to push the deal through to the end zone, they paired up with Jim Baer. The results are there for all to see. Baer knows the city inside out and has credibility with key decision makers. If I were a developer with a controversial project I'd probably seek a partnership with him, too. Something to think about: if a project needs Baer to reach the end zone it may well be that there's either something fundamentally lacking (such as parking) or something overdone (such as density) that needs to be remedied before the project is approved. Do we really want other corners to look like 2180 El Camino?

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