Palo Alto's battle between its appetite for new housing and its general disdain for densification came to a head Monday night, when the City Council considered a plan to rezone an El Camino Real site for 21 condominiums.
At the end of the day, skepticism prevailed.
In a "prescreening" session on a proposal for 4146 El Camino Real, most council members said they would not support rezoning the now-vacant site from RM-15, which allows 15 residential units per acre, to RM-30, which allows 30. The zone change would allow the developer to construct 21 condominiums on the 0.75 acres, which under current zoning would only accommodate 11 units.
Architect Ken Hayes, representing the applicant Su Chen Juan, made a case for the project, calling it an "opportunity for better land use" in that it would create much-needed housing in a city that last month named the issue one of its top priorities for 2017. He argued the property is located near transportation services (most notably the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority buses that run along El Camino) and other amenities. About a third of these units would be one-bedroom condominiums (with floor area of about 618 square feet); the rest would be two-bedroom units (about 1,100 square feet).
Councilman Adrian Fine showed the most enthusiasm for the proposal, calling the lot an "ideal site for housing density" given its proximity to transportation and other amenities.
While other council members showed caution about rezoning the site, Fine encouraged the applicant to go further and pursue a RM-40 designation, which would allow even more units than proposed. To obtain affordable housing, he said, the city needs to build "more housing overall."
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss also said she liked the idea of exploring "intensification" for the area, though she took some issue with the design of the buildings and said the proposal, as it stands, "is not ready for prime time."
"I think this is one of those areas where we ought to look at more rather than less, but I'd like to see a different kind of a design," Kniss said.
Councilman Greg Tanaka also said higher density makes sense, though he encouraged the applicant to think "smaller" in terms of actual units. He encouraged Hayes to consider "microunits" of about 300 square feet. He also said he would not support the project unless the surrounding neighborhood does as well.
"When you're looking at upzoning, I think getting the neighborhood buy-in is super important," Tanaka said.
He urged Hayes to modify the project to get neighborhood buy-in, either by providing retail on the site or creating a larger underground parking lot with some spaces made available for the public.
So far, there's been little evidence of neighborhood buy-in. The handful of area neighbors who attended the Monday meeting urged the council to request more information about the potential problems the development could create and to maintain the current zoning.
Doing the latter, Barron Park resident Ruth Lowy said, "will better allow for more adequate underground parking for residents and their guests and for more open space above." Too much density would negatively affect the neighborhood, including the people living in the new condominiums.
Some council members said they shared the residents' concerns. Mayor Greg Scharff agreed with Tanaka about the benefits of adding retail space and said he would not support "just a wall of housing on El Camino Real." He compared the proposal to the nearby Arbor Real, a much-maligned townhouse development that replaced Hyatt Rickey's on El Camino and Charleston Road.
Even Cory Wolbach, who often advocates for more housing, said he is "not excited" about rezoning the site. He criticized the project's design and argued that, contrary to the applicant's assertions, the transit services on El Camino leave much to be desired.
"While I'd love to see El Camino Real be a more efficient and active corridor in the future, I'm still not sure how we're going to get there and how it would look like in the future and how we can do that in a way that helps congestion," Wolbach said.
Wolbach said that he hasn't heard a compelling case yet in favor of this project as it has been proposed. Councilman Eric Filseth agreed, though he said he would be "delighted to support a high-quality project that's within the existing zoning."
Councilwoman Karen Holman agreed and urged Juan and Hayes not to make all the housing look the same. She also indicated she would have a problem approving a zone change without a firm commitment from the developer about what exactly would be built, particularly after the state's density-bonus laws are taken into consideration (these laws entitle housing developers to build beyond what local codes allow).
"It's kind of tempting to say, 'We need housing, we have a piece of land here, let's get a few more units instead of the RM-15 zoning,'" Holman said.
But given the state bonus law, Holman said, the council just doesn't know what kind of project with which it will ultimately end up.
"At this point of time, knowing what I know, I think I can't commit to anything beyond RM-15," Holman said.