The already sizzling construction climate around California Avenue is set to heat up even further after the City Council approved on Monday night a proposal to demolish the Olive Garden restaurant on El Camino Real and replace it with a mixed-use development featuring offices, condominiums and retail space.
Despite a laundry list of anxieties about the new development's mass, appearance and potential traffic impacts, the council voted 5-4 to approve a proposal for 2515-2585 El Camino Real, between Grant and Sherman avenues. Once up, the new building would roughly quadruple the amount of development at a key site just north of one of Palo Alto's busiest intersections: El Camino and Page Mill Road.
For the developer, ECRPA, LLC, the council's approval of the 39,858-square-foot mixed-use development represented a mixed victory. Though the council's vote cleared the path for ECRPA to demolish the 9,694-square-foot restaurant and construct the new building, it also ensured that the new development would have some key differences from the one that was proposed.
The most significant difference is the replacement of office space with retail. The proposal from ECRPA called for nearly 10,000 square feet of office space, including some on the ground floor of the development. The developer requested a "conditional use permit" from the city to exceed the amount of office space that the city's zoning code allows at the commercially zoned site, a tough sell at a time when the council is actively trying to moderate the pace of office development around downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real.
Instead, the council demanded that ECRPA reduce the office component and required that all ground floor in the block-long development be devoted to retail. This would limit office use to less than 1,000 square feet.
That change -- as well as a series of less dramatic conditions and modifications -- made the project just palatable enough to win approval from the bare majority of the council. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff, who led the parade of revisions, pushed for making the entire ground-floor retail space. He also proposed a condition requiring the developer to create a "robust" transportation-demand-management program, which would reduce the level of anticipated traffic by equipping the building's residents and office workers with Caltrain passes, bus passes, biking amenities and other incentives not to drive alone.
While the developer had proposed a program that would reduce anticipated traffic levels by 20 percent, Scharff pushed for 30 percent. His colleagues quickly concurred.
"I think if we combine a robust TDM (transportation-demand-management) program with ground-floor retail and with residential, this is the type of projects we have been talking about wanting as a community and therefore I think we should support it," Scharff said.
The proposed development, he said, has many elements that the council always purports to want: more housing, a mix of uses and retail on the ground floor. If the council says it wants these things and then votes against a project that delivers them, Scharff said, it would erode trust and deter developers from coming forward with the type of amenities that the council wants to encourage.
Even as the council called for a stronger transportation-demand-management program, it also maintained that the new building should provide off-street parking to all of its occupants (be "fully parked," in council parlance), a requirement meant to assuage neighborhood anxieties about parking spillover.
Mayor Pat Burt pointed out that if the transportation-demand-management measures work, the project will end up being "overparked" and the landlord could end up leasing spaces to neighboring developments (the project includes an underground garage with 108 spaces).
To address this expected overabundance of parking, Burt proposed removing four parking spaces from the surface lot and creating a landscaped public plaza. He also added a condition that up to 25 percent of the retail space should be allowed to accommodate a restaurant or a coffee shop -- uses that typically require more parking than traditional retail. The council majority adopted these changes.
Another revision entailed real-time negotiations between the council and the developer. The city code required the developer to devote 1.95 units in the 13-unit development to below-market-rate housing. ECRPA was planning to designate one unit as below-market-rate and pay the city an in-lieu fee for the remaining 0.95 units. Upon urging from Councilwoman Liz Kniss, the developer agreed to pay a fee for an entire unit. But several hours later, with the application's outcome in doubt and Councilman Cory Wolbach calling for more housing, the developer agreed to devote two units to below-market-rate housing.
Even with this catalogue of changes, the project barely got the votes it needed to advance. All four members of the council's slow-growth "residentialist" wing -- Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid -- voted against the project, characterizing it as too massive and incompatible with the area. Filseth said that while the site offers a reasonable location for housing, the development is simply too massive.
"It's block-long and 40-foot high and there's no other building like it in this area," Filseth said.
DuBois led the charge against the development and said the biggest issue for him was "scale, mass and compatibility." He and Holman pursued a substitute motion that would have sent the project back to the drawing board and a fresh round of reviews. While Schmid questioned whether the traffic-reduction measures would actually work, Filseth and Holman worried about the precedent that the new development would set on El Camino.
"If this project gets approved, we'll set up standards so that next projects are going to be block-long buildings of the same design," Holman said.
Though Burt sympathized with some of the arguments about the building's lack of architectural compatibility, he ultimately voted in favor of the amended project and the motion by Holman and DuBois failed by a single vote.
In explaining his support, Burt observed that the project ended up with less office space that is permitted under existing zoning.
"It may not be the project that we all would design if we didn't have zoning, but we do," he said.