Council not sold on changing zoning for El Camino housing project

Palo Alto officials lean toward maintaining existing zoning on vacant site

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.


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10 people like this
Posted by Supply & Demand
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 14, 2017 at 3:20 pm

Why in downtown looking to build less but more here?

Barron Park and south neighborhoods don't want more either!

11 people like this
Posted by not here
a resident of Mayfield
on Feb 14, 2017 at 3:58 pm

Those of us near Caltrain are fed up with all the new high-density housing and office developments. It's time those in South Palo Alto take some as well. Micro-units will allow young tech workers to build up housing equity to stay in Palo Alto once they "graduate" into larger homes.

5 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 14, 2017 at 5:54 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

There was good discussion last night and I hope it was useful, helpful, and offered guidance to the owner and developer moving forward. I too, being very old and familiar with the property (you can see my comments on an earlier article) am concerned about the egress onto El Camino Real. There's a big difference in how many cars would be there depending on the zoning...all the way from R-15 to R-40, as Adrian Fine suggests. I think the newbies on council should do a little more research on this. I'm fine with my good friend, Cory...he's more understanding of the housing situation than he was 2 years ago.

Don't get me started on the Hyatt development...I can do that on my own. Ugly, ugly, ugly, and just a few feet setback from El Camino Real. I have too many fond memories of the restaurant, the ballroom where my company had Christmas parties, etc. Oh, and when the Clintons' drove into town when Chelsea was enrolling at Stanford. Garnet and I watched the escort service of limos bringing Chelsea to town, and the Clintons stayed at Rickey's Hyatt Hotel then.

Now I know I'm getting old if I can remember all that stuff.

38 people like this
Posted by Enough
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 14, 2017 at 7:36 pm

For the love of God, STOP BUILDING. We're choking on traffic and the solution IS NOT to add more people.

The fact that housing is expensive and scarce should be a strong market signal to companies that they should reconsider starting/growing here. If they insist on having a Palo Alto presence, then prepare to pay for it by increasing worker salaries -- yes, above their already ridiculous levels. If you're not ready or able to do than, then aim your sights elsewhere.

It is right time for the Invisible Hand to act without restraint.

15 people like this
Posted by Jack
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 14, 2017 at 11:33 pm

Home-owners oppose housing because they want housing crisis to worsen and house prices to go up, so they can enrich themselves. Shame on Palo Altans for refusing sensible land use and refusing more housing to alleviate the ongoing housing crisis.

11 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 15, 2017 at 9:05 am

@Jack, I wonder if the same residentialists who decry developers and their so-called greed lump themselves into the greedy category as well. After all, they are the ones wealthy enough to have afforded a home in Palo Alto and they will reap the financial reward of that decision many times over. Protect your property values Palo Altans, but don't label developers the only greedy ones.

20 people like this
Posted by RDK
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2017 at 9:05 am

While @Enough's comment is a bit brash, I tend to agree. Palo Alto is bounded by other cities and fully developed from within. Any increase in housing can only come from densification. The Palo Alto City Council should take pause and have a discussion with the voters on what kind of Palo Alto all of us want. 20 years ago, the population of Palo Alto was 58k. It is now 66,000. That isn't a lot of growth, but we certainly can feel its impacts. And so I, for one, would certainly like to know what the City Council envisions for the future of the city. Where to they see Palo Alto in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. In 20 years time do they see us reaching 75,000, 90,000, 150,000? What are they aiming for and is this what all of us want?

9 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 15, 2017 at 9:10 am

@RDK, I think your point is a very sensible one. What do we want to be? I think these arguments about quality of life because traffic is so crazy that people can't go to the grocery store when they want is a bit of entitled thinking.

Why has everyone conveniently forgotten how Palo Alto was just in 2009 and 2010? The economy ebbs and flows. Palo Alto and much of downtown in general was a semi-ghost town. You could get from one end to the other very quickly, but the local economy was not thriving. Is that what people want? When traffic goes away, you can bet that the local economy is in the dumps.

Then you will have these same residentialists decry how the city has no budget and money to do anything.

12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 15, 2017 at 9:19 am

I have no objection to increasing the population when we improve the infrastructure to take the increase.

To do this we have to decide where the people will send their children to school, where they will be able to have an outdoor party, where they will be able to buy a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas, where they will be able to buy an affordable meal for their children or an affordable pair of sneakers for their child who outgrows them within a couple of months. How will these children get to school? Where will they play soccer? Where will they hang out with their friends as teenagers? How will they get to these places?

You see, at present, we are suffering from infrastructure that is not acceptable for the numbers of people we have here - no sensible public transportation plan and things like water, sewers, traffic, parking, power supply, etc. are even thought mentioned when it comes to population growth.

Look at what is happening at Casti and all our schools. Can we really have more housing and not take school facilities into account? Or is that some other entity's problem? PAUSD are in denial about their future enrollment growth because they look on historical data, not projected housing data. And we all know that single bed apartments will be housing more than one person and quite possibly that will be a school age child.

17 people like this
Posted by allen
a resident of Monroe Park
on Feb 15, 2017 at 10:49 am

On behalf of the "greedy" residents of Palo Alto, I personally wish houses still cost 3x a high tech starting salary like mine did when I bought it basically right out of college. The fact it is worth 50x a starting salary does me no good at all. I am not enriching myself by staying in my house. Maybe my kids will enjoy the money after I die but I won't. I would prefer if they could become home owners themselves. What I get is traffic so bad we can't go out after 3:00. A California Ave district that is good for nothing except expensive dinners, and parking downtown so difficult that I dread going there. Bring back the cheap houses and the quality of life that made Palo Alto such a nice place to live. Have you seen the latest surveys of resident satisfaction? This city is going down just like all wonderful places that are so desirable everybody wants to go there and in doing so, ruin it. Of course I understand that nothing goes back to the way it was, that progress is a one way trip. I just resent being called greedy for living in my house.

10 people like this
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of Monroe Park
on Feb 15, 2017 at 10:49 am

So quickly everyone forgets...

Rickey's is what it is because the NEIGHBORHOODS killed the mixed-use idea. The developer was trying to get a conditional use permit for a retail and housing project but the neighborhood created so many roadblocks to that concept that the developer went with all-residential because it conformed to the zoning. The version that exists today met all the regulations for setback, scale, massing and FAR. No public hearings at PTC or Council.

Just a reminder that you loose control if you say no to everything you see...Change is inevitable and the best approach is to be collaborative and reasonable.

2 people like this
Posted by long view
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2017 at 12:15 pm

long view is a registered user.

I think Cory Wolbach needs to take the bus more. Route 22 on El Camino runs every 12 minutes even during the middle of the day. That's right on the edge of where you don't even need to look a schedule - you just go get the bus. El Camino is a viable transportation corridor already. Adding development - and let's hope that means multifamily housing - will only add riders and help maintain or improve the viability of this core route, as well as responding to our housing crisis.

8 people like this
Posted by wow
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 15, 2017 at 12:42 pm

Adrian Fine suggested that the density be even greater. RM 40 or more.
Hard nosed developer support despite his pre-election statements.

18 people like this
Posted by allen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 15, 2017 at 12:50 pm

Not that this is the place for such a comment but the city doesn't need more housing, it needs FEWER JOBS. The daytime load on the city is what is killing the quality of life. OK, so fewer jobs isn't happening but I would sure like a policy that no new development can add jobs and ones that cut the number of jobs, convert office space to retail for example, get some priority. But let's certainly not oppose a housing project and turn it into an office building. Not sure if that is a possibility for this piece of land...

3 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 15, 2017 at 1:01 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

I'm glad Tanaka wants to get neighborhood buy-in for the project. I think that alone will kill the proposed project. What retail, however it's defined in the new ordinance, would ever have a chance of success in that location? Shoppers need parking. Where would they park? Bad idea when there's already a major problem in getting retail preserved on University Avenue.

The ideas by Fine and Tanaka for more density in that location is just plain crazy. They haven't thought thru the whole process of getting the project approved and the ramifications of it. Higher density in the transit hub areas that are close to companies where the techies work makes sense. This doesn't. Its location is far removed from the work centers. Who would make an investment to purchase a micro unit in this location. Think about it! If this was a rental project it might make a little more sense, actually very little, but it's not.

Let's hear what the purchase price will be for the 1 bdrm and 2 bdrm units.

I'm glad this was just a 'pre-screening' presentation. It allows time for sanity to come back to those high density proponents on CC, and those in favor of rezoning...which I see as only a benefit for the owner and developer. Council members, do your homework. I know that means staying up late, but you must be used to that by now if you're on council. lol!

14 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 15, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Quality of Palo Alto daily life is far worse than it was 10, 20, or more years ago. Remember Niven's Market, on Lytton before it moved to Stanford Shopping Center? That was a good place to shop & avoided the necessity of going to the Menlo Park Safeway for grocery needs. Yes, there's always WF which is fine for deli & produce, but lacks variety in ordinary staples.
When I did need to go somewhere, I could get there in a reasonable time when I needed to drive. No more. I don't care if there's a bus every 12 minutes on El Camino, because that doesn't help for travel perpendicular to ECR. Better to make them every half hour or 40 minutes anyway because most are empty or have fewer than 4 passengers. I don't care to subsidize transport for so few in huge lane-hogging vehicles.
The lack of parking keeps me away from downtown, and sometimes T&C. Sure, there are garages but if I can't find a spot anywhere in the first I attempt, get to another, still can't find a spot, I leave downtown. Not worth the time & frustration. Stanford Shopping Center or Amazon beckon instead. I'd prefer to support local merchants if I could get to them.
PA has allowed too many businesses (and hotels) to build with insufficient parking for employees & patrons. No more!
High density housing adds to the problem. Stop!

25 people like this
Posted by Lose the Offices
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 15, 2017 at 2:18 pm

Before we build any more housing, we need to GET RID of some, if not most, of the office space in Palo Alto-- and not add one more square inch of it!

Then, somehow, there needs to be a widening of major thoroughfares-- NOT a narrowing-- wherever possible!
Some of our most heavily-travelled roads don't have enough room for Google buses, VTA buses, Apple buses, etc!

Stanford keeps expanding their school, their hospital and their medical center! They need to atone for the extra traffic they cause in Palo Alto by helping to fund the infrastructure improvements! If they are going to treat Palo Alto as their own, lock, stock and barrel, they MUST help with road improvements!

2 people like this
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 16, 2017 at 1:59 pm

"Those of us near Caltrain are fed up with all the new high-density housing and office developments. " SMH

6 people like this
Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 17, 2017 at 4:31 pm

During the week El Camino is a parking lot from 3PM until at least 7:30PM. We don't need more jobs or more houses or more cars. Stop the building. Find some land on the other side of 101 and build apartments there for low income housing.
Just stop all the horrible development on El Camino from Redwood City to San Jose. We have had 7 years of unbridled development, enough is enough.

2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 19, 2017 at 5:47 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

@ Chip

I think your frustration is resounding with many people. I have written off University Avenue and T&C as places to shop. What is there to shop for there anymore? Sorry, I forgot about the dozens of restaurants, coffee shops, salons, et al. And the parking is also a big problem. When Avenidas moves down to my end of town, SPA, I will never have a reason to drive downtown anymore. I live in a very quiet part of town, I call it my village, and I like it that way. I don't have to drive, but can just walk, for most of my needs. That new ordinance to save retail will go nowhere. Rents will still be high or higher. The folks on the retail side who actually owned stores there, Roxy Rapp, for example, know what it takes to be successful, but even their opinions are outdated with box stores, online buying, etc, having a big impact on real old time retail as we knew it. That was when we walked into a store, were greeted by someone asking how they could help us, and then they really did help us. There were many items to see, touch, feel, and try on for fit. Now, you go into most low end stores and the only people working are ones at the checkout counters to take your money. The shopping're on your own.

Like this comment
Posted by JJ
a resident of another community
on Feb 28, 2017 at 10:26 pm

"Bring back the cheap houses and the quality of life that made Palo Alto such a nice place to live."

Ain't gonna happen.

Not on the table.

You can have low density or you can have cheap housing for all comers.

No amount of politics is going to get you both.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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