When Palo Alto officials approved in 2013 a block-long development on El Camino Real featuring 48 apartments, retail and office spaces, they hailed the project as a rare example of a "true mixed-use" project.
During a sequence of public hearings, planning commissioners, members of the Architectural Review Board and council members agreed that the 74,122-square-foot development proposed around Equinox Gym, at 3159 El Camino Real, is perfectly appropriate for the location, which is near the sprawling campus that includes Fry's Electronics.
Former Councilwoman Gail Price called the building "well-designed," while Lee Lippert, former chair of the architecture board, said the development "has the ability to be the driving force for other mixed-use projects."
Two years later, one of the largest commercial projects to win approval in Palo Alto in recent years appears to be dead. Its entitlements have expired and the hard-fought approval that the developer secured in 2013 is officially null and void, the Weekly has learned.
"The project will not get built," Senior Planner Russ Reich told the Weekly. "At least not unless it goes through the entitlement process all over again."
John Tarlton, whose company, Tarlton Properties, owns the site, did not respond to a request for comment. But Tarlton's failure to bring the project to life adds another wildcard to an area that council members view as among the most promising in the city for new housing. The city had spent years putting together a "concept area plan" for the nearby Fry's site, a vision document that spells out the desired land uses for the sprawling 15-acre property.
While that plan became less urgent when Fry's announced an extension of its lease until 2020, the council agreed in June to resume the work on a master plan after it completes the revision process for the city's Comprehensive Plan, Palo Alto's official land-use bible.
The city's Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lists sites that could potentially accommodate housing units, notes that the Fry's site can accommodate a "realistic capacity" of 221 housing units.
But while one El Camino Real project near the Fry's site is effectively dead in the water, another one is making steady strides through Palo Alto's approval process. A proposal for 3225 El Camino Real, the current site of Foot Locker, scored a victory on Dec. 9 when the Planning and Transportation Commission held a site-and-design hearing for the project and recommended approval.
The project includes a four-story building with ground-floor retail and eight housing units (four rental units and four condominiums), and a two-story office building. Designed by Ken Hayes, the development features nearly 12,000 square feet of commercial space, including 8,600 square feet of retail (surpassing the 7,000 square feet of retail space that currently exist in the Foot Locker building). It would have a total floor area of 29,249 square feet.
The two buildings would be connected by a second-story walkway. There would be 73 parking spaces between the two buildings, 19 on a surface lot and 54 in an underground garage. Earlier this month, the planning commission voted 6-0, with Commissioner Kate Downing recusing herself, to support the project, which still has to undergo reviews by the Architectural Review Board and, ultimately, the City Council.
The commission expressed a few minor concerns about the project, with Commissioner Asher Waldfogel wondering how the new project would fit in with the future "concept plan" for the Fry's site, and Chair Greg Tanaka recommending that the residential units be relocated so that they would be further away from traffic on El Camino. In the existing design, the residential units in the larger building face El Camino.
"Keeping residential away from traffic is generally a good rule," Tanaka said.
Hayes responded that the placement of units was driven by a desire to contain all units in one building and to ensure that the units get light and air from more than two sides. In the application for the project, he also wrote that the project "strengthens the El Camino street frontage and Portage corner with its four-story massing."
"Existing neighboring uses should benefit from this proposed project; its uses will attract new residents and commercial patrons," Hayes wrote. "The project will be constructed at a time when commercial space and housing are most needed. By using new materials, modern forms, and varied depth this project will be a desirable place to live, work and shop."
Even though the Hayes project is far smaller than the development approved for the Equinox site, it will face a hurdle that did not exist in 2013, when the latter was approved. Earlier this year, the council adopted an annual cap of 50,000 square feet on new office developments in downtown, around California Avenue and along El Camino. This means that to be eligible for approval next year, the proposal for 3225 El Camino will have to undergo all the relevant environmental analyses, commission reviews and a council hearing by March 31, 2016.