Few projects epitomize the hopes of Palo Alto's housing advocates and the anxieties of the city's land-use watchdogs as clearly as 2755 El Camino Real, a four-story housing project proposed for the busy intersection of Page Mill Road and El Camino Real.
The proposal from Windy Hill Property Ventures aims to provide 60 apartments at a time when the city faces a severe housing shortage. The apartments would be small (average size: 570 square feet) and thus potentially more affordable than typical units in Palo Alto. And they would be located within walking distance of bus lines and Caltrain, thus providing an opportunity for a "car-light" lifestyle.
The council had already agreed that the site, which was formerly owned by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, is suitable for housing. During an informal "pre-screening" last September, council members were cautiously optimistic about the project, which Mayor Greg Scharff said "can be a great pilot project."
This week, however, it became clear that the developers still have a lot of work to do to alleviate concerns about the project's parking, traffic and aesthetic impacts. Both the city's Planning and Transportation Commission and the Architectural Review Board discussed the proposal this week. And while members of both panels expressed support for adding much-needed housing near a prominent intersection, they also indicated that Windy Hill has plenty of work to do when it comes to working out the details.
The biggest concern came around parking. Windy Hill has offered to build a one-level garage with 65 parking spots, more than the 45 it had initially considered but far fewer than the 102 that would be required by code. Moreover, it proposes to create a "puzzle lift" system for 61 of the spots in the new building.
By proving less parking than the zoning code would normally require, the Windy Hill proposal banks on residents adopting what Spieker called a "car-light" lifestyle. They plan to encourage that lifestyle by providing all residents with transit passes for Caltrain and VTA buses; to have a transportation coordinator and a kiosk on site; and to have a bike shop occupy the ground level, an operation that would be leased to a local business and that would be available to the public.
"We feel we're implementing what Palo Alto leadership had asked for," Spieker told the commission on Wednesday night, citing the council's frequent calls for more housing and its desire to get more people to switch from cars to other modes of transportation.
"Obviously, this project won't fix the problem but it will help bring 60-plus people working in Palo Alto and looking for a place to live closer to their work," he later added.
Spieker said the units are intended for single-, and in some cases, double-occupancy. Because of their size, they will be more obtainable for tenants who would have a harder time affording typical studios or one-bedroom apartments in Palo Alto.
"They are meant for people looking for a place to live where they work," Spieker said.
Planning Commissioner Eric Rosenblum lauded the proposal and said that the site is "the ideal place for this kind of an experiment." But he pushed the developer to go further with its offering of benefits. The "windfall" that the developer would be saving by not providing parking should be spent on amenities like subsidies for Uber and Lyft as well as for services such as grocery and dry-cleaning deliveries.
Commission Chair Michael Alcheck also lauded the project and thanked the applicant for bringing it forward.
"It's no small thing to try to build something in Palo Alto these days," Alcheck said. "It takes incredible bravery to decide to invest any amount of money into the process because there's a lot of unknowns now."
Others were more skeptical about the project traffic-management goals. Commissioner Przemek Gardias said he would like to see the building's parking comply with codes. Noting that the building is currently zoned for "public facility" (a designation that the council would have to change to accommodate a housing project), Gardias also supported having more amenities, particularly retail, for the general public.
"When I see this project, it's a missed opportunity," Gardias said. "There should be retail all over this building."
Commissioner Ed Lauing found himself somewhere in the middle. Broadly speaking, he said, this is the kind of "pushing-the-envelope" project that Palo Alto should be considering. The details, however, are tricky, he noted.
"Right now, it violates the Comprehensive Plan, it violates zoning, it's underparked for residents, there's no guest parking and it's already a high-traffic area," Lauing said. "What's not to like?"
Architectural Review Board member Peter Baltay had no difficulties in answering that question. On Thursday morning, he strongly criticized Windy Hill's proposed site layout, which he noted lacks spaces for Uber drivers or service workers to pull in. The parking scheme doesn't work, he said, noting that the "stacked parking" arrangement proposed by the developer requires training and experience.
While sometimes a garage can be "augmented" with puzzle lifts," "that doesn't mean the whole thing can be a Lego garage stacked full of cars," he said.
Board Chair Alexander Lew was more sympathetic toward the proposal. He said he is "generally supportive" of the concept and lamented Palo Alto's "suburban" parking standards.
"There are people here who want this type of housing," Lew said. "It's just embarrassing that we don't have any zoning that fits this type of use."