Few projects better encapsulate everything that locals love and loathe about new developments than the three-story building proposed for an eclectic block of Page Mill Road.
With its combination of retail, office and apartments and its prime location near California Avenue, El Camino Real and a Caltrain station, 441 Page Mill Road would be a true mixed-use project that adds both density and activity to land where four dilapidated homes currently sit.
But by requesting to build at greater density, seeking two exceptions to the city's design rules, and proposing less parking than would normally be required under local zoning regulations, it is exactly the type of project that land-use watchdogs and the City Council's slow-growth "residentialists" have been railing against in recent months. And for residents in the Ventura, Evergreen Park and other neighborhoods near the congested intersection of Page Mill and El Camino Real, any project that would add more cars to their streets is never an easy sell.
The development proposed by Norman Schwab has already earned the endorsement of the city's Architectural Review Board, the Planning and Transportation Commission and planning staff. Yet given the council's increasingly skeptical stance toward new developments, the application should generate plenty of skepticism when the council reviews it on June 15.
The project has evolved since January, when the council last reviewed it and demanded a fresh economic analysis to justify the requested density bonus. Though its size remains roughly the same, at about 35,000 square feet, the number of apartments has been increased from 10 to 16, which includes five below-market-rate units. Office space has been reduced by nearly 3,000 square feet, while the retail space on the ground floor was increased by about 400 square feet.
Though the developer is not seeking a zone change, he is proposing to exceed the density that would normally be allowed at this property. To do so, he is relying on a state law that grants builders automatic concessions in exchange for building affordable-housing units. In this case, the concessions consist of more lot coverage as well as more density. Normally, the project would be allowed to cover half of the lot. With the concession, it will cover 69 percent.
Schwab also plans to provide 91 parking spaces for the development, 15 fewer than the city's code would normally allow. To justify that, he is relying on state law and a local provision that grants parking exemptions to mixed-use projects. The building would also include 46 bike-parking spaces and a transportation-demand-management program aimed at encouraging tenants to switch from driving cars to using other modes of transportation.
The project won a mixed reception at the Jan. 26 hearing, with many residents arguing that the project would result in traffic and parking problems that the area can't handle. Joe Hirsch criticized the project for its shortage of parking and for proposing more density than the residents want to see there.
"The developer will be reaping a major benefit at the expense of the residents of Palo Alto," said Hirsch, who was one of the leaders of a 2013 referendum that shot down an approved housing development on Maybell Avenue.
Others said the project is just what the area needs. Ian Carroll, who lives in the College Terrace neighborhood, argued that the city badly needs more housing and that the 400 block of Page Mill is perfectly suited for that.
"Change is always scary, but the truth is the place as it exists now is an eyesore," Carroll said.
In considering the project in January, the council struggled to determine whether the applicant is asking for too much in concessions. While an economic analysis commissioned by the city suggested that the cost to the developer of building the affordable housing will exceed the value of the requested zoning exemption, the council questioned the data and requested a new study using a different methodology. The new analysis, performed by the firm Keyser Marston Associates, reached the same conclusion as the first: the expense of the affordable housing exceeds the value of the concessions granted to the developer.
Because of state law, the council must approve the concessions unless members determine that these concessions aren't necessary to provide the affordable housing; the concessions run afoul of state or federal law; or they would have a "specific, adverse impact upon public health or safety or the physical environment or on real property listed in the California Register of Historic Resources, and there is no feasible method to satisfactorily mitigate or avoid the specific adverse impact without rendering the development unaffordable to low- and moderate-income households."
According to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment, city staff does not believe these findings can be made.
The council has plenty of discretion when it comes to approving the "design-enhancement exceptions" proposed by Schwab. Local law states that such requests should only be allowed in "exceptional or extraordinary circumstances or conditions," though until recently the city has been fairly liberal about letting developers exceed regulations regarding building height and distance from the property line when staff and commissioners felt the exceptions would improve the project's design.
That changed on June 1, when the council signaled its intent to follow the zoning code more strictly and rejected a proposed design-enhancement exception for a development it ultimately approved at 2555 Park Blvd., effectively wiping out a proposed roof terrace.
The Page Mill development is requesting two exceptions, both relating to the building's placement. One would allow the building to be set back farther from the sidewalk than the zoning code dictates, creating a wider sidewalk. The second would allow the driveway ramp for the building's underground garage to encroach into the landscape buffer at the rear of the building.
The city's planning staff is recommending the council approve these exceptions and allow the development to move ahead, despite its deviation from zoning standards and design guidelines. The staff report lauds the project for providing a "strong street edge along Page Mill Road," outdoor eating, storefront entries facing the street and various amenities for pedestrians.
"Decaying single-family homes would be replaced by new mixed-use development that is better suited to the adjacency of a busy street," the staff report states.