Nestled between a Starbucks and Nine Minute Oil & Lube, the aged and long-empty building in south Palo Alto's Ventura neighborhood offers few hints today of its former glory.
The sole exception is the sign on the red-tile roof, which still says "COMPADRES," the name of a beloved Mexican restaurant that routinely topped readers' polls and that closed its doors for the last time September of 2008.
Now, plans are afoot to redevelop the L-shaped lot on El Camino Real and Curtner Avenue. Under the proposal that the city's Planning and Transportation Commission will consider Wednesday night, the vacant restaurant would be demolished and replaced with a three-story building featuring 4,035 square feet of commercial area and six residential units. Behind that building, there would be 11 residential two-story townhouses. An underground garage would include 62 parking spaces, enough to accommodate each residential unit, the commercial component and guests.
Even though the area around the site is predominantly commercial (there are no other mixed-use projects around) the site at 3877 El Camino Real includes two zoning designations: commercial and residential. According to planning staff, the project meets with all the relevant requirements and development standards, with one exception. The applicant, Zinj, LLC, is seeking a "design enhancement exception" that would allow the company to provide a smaller setback between the rear of the basement garage and the property line than the code normally allows (zoning rules require a 10-foot setback; Zinj is proposing a setback of 6 feet 2 inches).
Project architects Stuart Welte and Mark Wommack, both from the local firm Environmental Innovation in Design Architects, wrote in their project description that the proposed design will "transform this blighted parcel into a vibrant and sustainable mixed-use community." The project, they said, will "complement and support the existing urban fabric, and will be harmonious with the new developments underway in close to proximity to our site."
In making a case for the design-enhancement exception, the architects point to the parcel's unusual L-shape and argue that its narrow width "affords few options for resolving vehicular parking and circulation while balancing the need to create an attractive pedestrian environment." The 6-foot setback, they wrote, would only apply to the below-ground parking structure and would be "completely invisible to all neighbors."
That deviance from requirements notwithstanding, the city's planning staff believe the project is generally consistent with the area, which is populated mostly by two- and three-story buildings, and are recommending approval. It's also consistent with zoning, which allows 22 units on the site -- five more than is being proposed.
A report from Planning Director Hillary Gitelman notes that the mixed-use building proposes a mass and scale that is larger than the surrounding structures. However, she wrote, "the project transitions well from the El Camino Real frontage to the rear and toward Curtner Avenue."
"The project supports the goals of a well-designed, compact city that provides a place to live, work and shop with open spaces," the report states. "The comprehensive plan supports the development of mixed-use."
The 17-unit project would provide two units at below market rate. The project also qualifies for California's "density bonus," which allows the applicant to seek a development concession from the city. In this case, the applicant has requested a density bonus that would add 2,596 square feet of area to the project.
If the planning commission approves the project, along with the sought design-enhancement exception, the application will then to to the city's Architectural Review Board for further evaluation.