Faced with traffic problems, parking shortages, and public angst over new developments, Palo Alto officials swiftly swatted down on Tuesday night a proposal to build a four-story building at the chronically congested intersection of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road.
In a pre-screening session that didn't feature any votes, the City Council sent a strong signal that it will not approve any proposal that favors offices over housing and that would worsen the traffic.
The feedback means that the project envisioned for the former Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) parking lot at 2755 El Camino Real will need to undergo major revisions before it wins the green light.
The council didn't reach any clear consensus on what exactly they would like to see at the site, which is currently zoned for "public facility" and would require a zone change before a housing development or a commercial project can be built there.
Two years ago, Pollock Financial Group approached the city with a proposal for a "planned-community" (PC) zone change, a highly controversial process that allows developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for public benefits negotiated with the city. In February 2014, the council put a moratorium on PC zoning, leaving the Pollock proposal in planning limbo.
To emerge from that limbo, the developer proposed a different type of zone change: community commercial (CC2). The designation would enable Pollock to build a 32,456-square-foot, four-story building with retail and office space on the ground floor, four residential units on the top floor, and offices everywhere else. The development would also include three levels of underground parking.
What would the city get in return? Primarily, a strip of land on Page Mill that would be turned into a right-turn lane, potentially easing the congestion.
"We are prepared to give this valuable land if we can agree together on a viable project such that we can afford to give it up," applicant Jeff Pollock told the council during his presentation Tuesday.
Pollock also offered to install neighborhood traffic-calming devices and contribute $250,000 for an intersection study.
But the council, which now enjoys a slow-growth "residentialist" majority, was in no mood for negotiating. Most council members agreed that "spot zoning" should be generally avoided, unless the property is part of a larger area plan.
Council members also took issue with the particular zone the applicant was requesting. Of the various commercial zoning designations in the city code, CC2 is at the higher end of the density scale. It would allow 39,126 square feet of commercial space. By comparison, an alternative zoning designation, service commercial (CS), would allow 7,825 square feet.
A report from the city's planning staff noted that CC2 zoning is intended for "larger shopping centers and districts that have a wider variety of goods and services than the neighborhood shopping areas." It gave as examples sites like Stanford Shopping Center and Town & Country Village. It didn't take long for the council to conclude that this zoning designation would not be appropriate for the location.
Several residents also urged the council not to approve the project. Becky Sanders, a resident of Ventura, was among them.
"With all the development under construction and in the pipeline for the California Avenue area and abutting neighborhoods, the collective impacts haven't fully been measured," Sanders said. "Please don't allow business interests to override our residential quality of life."
Also in attendance were about 30 members from the Carpenters Local Union 405. Wearing CIA (short for Carpenters In Action) T-shirts, the group stood up while field rep Genaro Diaz urged the council to support the project. He called the project's mix of commercial and residential a "progressive step forward."
"The issue of more housing is not only a Palo Alto concern but a Bay Area-wide concern that has no easy and short-term solution," Diaz said.
After hearing from both sides, the council made it clear that it will not be supporting the proposed zone change. Councilman Eric Filseth characterized it as a PC by a different name. Much like with PC projects, he observed, a developer here is requesting exemptions from the city and is offering things in return.
"Whatever the reason, the fact is that these PC deals had a lot of skepticism in Palo Alto and we told residents we don't want to do them," Filseth said.
Filseth also characterized the proposal as a conflict between the interests of a developer and the interests of the community.
"Our role in zoning itself ought to be the focus on the best interests of community," he said.
Most of his colleagues, however, didn't have a problem with changing the zoning designation on the site. They just didn't like the one Pollock chose. Mayor Karen Holman, and councilmen Marc Berman, Greg Scharff and Cory Wolbach all made a case for building housing at the site to address what Berman called an "acute housing crisis."
"I think this is an area where it makes a lot of sense to address that," Berman said.
Holman and Scharff both said they'd like to see a housing project with ground-floor retail, while Wolbach suggested a scheme in which the building's residential tenants would be prohibited from owning cars. Scharff also made it clear that the office-heavy project currently on the table won't be advancing.
"I wouldn't spend another dime on moving toward a CC2 zoning," Scharff said. "I don't think it's going to happen."