The sizzling construction climate around California Avenue turned even hotter Tuesday morning when the City Council narrowly approved a three-story development near one of Palo Alto's busiest intersections.
The council voted 5-4, with Mayor Karen Holman, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and Councilmen Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth dissenting, to approve Norm Schwab's application for 441 Page Mill Road. Once built, the mixed-use project will replace four dilapidated homes on an eclectic and mostly commercial block just east of the intersection of Page Mill and El Camino Real.
The approval came at a time when new developments are facing significant scrutiny from the council, which now wields a slow-growth "residentialist" majority. In January, the project at 441 Page Mill was the first to face the new council, which proceeded to pick apart its economic analysis and kicked the project back for further study.
This time, the outcome was just as suspenseful but more conclusive. Even though the project proposed a higher density than the city's zoning normally allows and requested two "design-enhancement exceptions," it managed to overcome the final hurdle and win a favorable vote.
In approving the development, the council acknowledged the changes made by the applicant since the January review. These changes include less office space, more retail space and an increase of apartment units from 10 to 16. These include five affordable-housing units. The prior proposal included three.
Schwab also agreed in the waning moments of the hearing to designate these five apartments for affordable housing for 50 years rather than the 30 initially proposed -- a change that was proposed by Holman.
Because of the affordable-housing component, the project was able to take advantage of a state law that automatically grants density bonuses to developers. It also requested design exceptions that would allow a greater setback from the road, creating a larger sidewalk.
Though the council last month took a stand against exemptions, the council majority agreed with Councilman Greg Scharff that in this case the exception is requested to comply with the council's explicit call for wider sidewalks, which makes the circumstances "extraordinary."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss said the project is "a tough one to vote for" because of the density and the exceptions, but she lauded it for providing more housing and responding to the council's direction in January.
Councilmen Pat Burt and Greg Scharff each thanked the developer for listening to the council's January instructions and adjusting the application accordingly. Councilman Marc Berman concurred that the applicant did "what's necessary to meet the criteria."
Dissenting council members, however, weren't swayed by the new economic analyses, which confirmed the conclusions of the earlier study. The city's consultant, Keyser Marston Associates, found that the density concessions requested are needed financially to provide affordable housing.
But the council's staunchest residentialists challenged the new economic analysis and argued that the building does not need the added density to build affordable housing units and still be economically feasible. DuBois said he was concerned about the fact that by approving the project, the city is setting a precedent for acceptable analyses.
"The key question is: Are the concessions necessary?" DuBois said. "From what I heard from different people, I don't think they are."
Council members also raised flags about the project's traffic impacts. Several speakers, including area residents, brought up concerns about the issue and spoke out against the project.
Chris Donlay, who lives in the adjacent Ventura neighborhood and who has been surveying the neighborhood's available parking, handed the council a map showing most blocks in his area are completely congested. Though the development would include an underground garage with 91 spaces, Donlay and others argued that this would not prevent workers in the new development from taking up street spots in the residential neighborhood.
"We are a parking lot," Donlay said, "We're already there."
Traffic was also a major theme of opponents, with several residents urging the council not to approve projects that would further deteriorate the area's traffic conditions. Barron Park resident Lydia Kou pointed to bottlenecks that already exist in the area during rush hour and suggested that cars will start relying on neighborhood streets, including bicycle boulevards on California and Margarita avenues.
A traffic study that showed that the project would not significantly affect traffic conditions did little to alleviate the council's anxieties. Schmid pointed to the myriad projects now being developed in the California Avenue area and stressed the importance of considering their "cumulative impacts" on area traffic before approving new projects.
Councilman Eric Filseth shared Schmid's concern about traffic. He also criticized the proposal for requesting design exceptions.
"I don't think it's a good process," Filseth said. "I think we should have a code that produces a good process so that we don't need variances. We're playing a game we shouldn't be playing."