After a bruising 2013 defeat of its proposal to build affordable senior apartments in south Palo Alto, the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing plans to unveil preliminary proposals to add nearly 45 units to a housing complex it owns at the eastern end of California Avenue. The agency will offer its ideas to the City Council on Oct. 24 in a study session.
Palo Alto Housing will also present a concept for building housing along El Camino Real, at an as-yet-undisclosed location, President and CEO Candice Gonzalez confirmed Wednesday.
The proposals mark a shift away from trying to find vacant land, as the agency did in 2013 with the controversial Maybell housing project, and toward creating more infill housing on properties the nonprofit owns. One of the developments, the existing California Park Apartments at 2301 Park Blvd., would double the number of apartments currently on the 1.7-acre property. Gonzalez said California Park Apartments was built in 1989. Because the council later approved new zoning for the site, known as a Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Development Combining District overlay, the nonprofit is allowed to nearly double the number of units (currently 45).
The development would take place on a lot that backs up to the Caltrain fence line, she said. The location, which appears to be a parking lot, is near California Avenue where shopping and other amenities are within walking distance, making it perfect for additional affordable housing, she added.
Palo Alto Housing has not developed drawings or formal plans for either site, Gonzalez said. The agency plans to proceed cautiously, especially considering the past contentious debate around the Maybell project.
In November 2013, voters overturned the City Council’s unanimous approval, given that prior June, to rezone a 2.46-acre site on Maybell and Clemo avenues for 60 apartments for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes. The defeat coupled with financing considerations caused the agency to sell the property.
Palo Alto Housing has since worked to develop other affordable- and low-income housing in Mountain View and Redwood City, but it has shied away from new developments in Palo Alto, where land hasn't been available, Gonzalez said.
As of 2014, there were 17 residential complexes in Palo Alto providing 1,332 lower-income units, according to the city’s Housing Element. Palo Alto Housing owns and manages nearly 700 of those units, according to the agency's website.
Gonzalez thinks the city and its residents might be willing to address affordable housing again, perhaps with compromises that did not exist during the Maybell fight.
City Councilwoman Liz Kniss agreed that there may be a more receptive council now, which would include any new members after this November's election.
"Of all of the candidates, no one says they are opposed to affordable housing," said Kniss, who herself is running for re-election.
Gonzalez said she could not yet disclose the exact locations of two sites along El Camino Real. But she disclosed that they are contiguous and currently are commercial properties. The sites are south of Page Mill Road but are not in Barron Park, the Maybell project neighborhood, she added.
The housing agency wants to float the idea of a mixed-use development for the combined half-acre site, but it would need a zoning change because the location currently only allows a maximum of 11 units with a density bonus.
"That is not a financially feasible project," Gonzalez said of trying to build with the existing zoning. In other cities, the nonprofit has deemed about 60 units for half-acre lots to be financially feasible. At 1701 El Camino Real, the City of Mountain View approved 67 units. About half will be for veterans, and construction is slated to begin in spring 2017, Gonzalez said. Similarly, a half-acre project in Redwood City proposes 60 units.
Gonzalez thinks that, as the Mountain View project does, the Palo Alto project would fit in with the Grand Boulevard Initiative for El Camino Real, with its proximity to public transit and other amenities.
Gonzalez said her nonprofit hopes it can build in Palo Alto.
"It's critical here," she said of the housing need. "We want to finally put Maybell behind us and find community-wide solutions. It's time."
Palo Alto Housing currently owns or manages 260 units in the downtown area; 60 in Midtown; 122 in the California Avenue district; 131 south of Oregon Expressway to San Antonio Road between the Alma Street/East El Camino Real; and 98 west of El Camino Real between Oregon Expressway and San Antonio Road. In July, Palo Alto Housing took responsibility for converting and managing 20 former hotel rooms at the Hotel California on Ash Street in the California Avenue district that are now affordable housing.
To see an interactive map of the locations and number of affordable-housing units at each Palo Alto Housing property, click here and scroll through map.