News

Plan to add housing, retail on El Camino gets a boost

Commission endorses The Sobrato Organization's proposal for housing, retail in Ventura neighborhood

Palo Alto's effort to chip away at what many in City Hall acknowledge to be a "housing crisis" advanced on Wednesday night, when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission threw its support behind a plan to construct two buildings with 50 apartments at an El Camino Real site that until recently was occupied by Mike's Bikes.

The plan from The Sobrato Organization calls for replacing the building and parking lot at 3001 El Camino Real with a four-story development with 19,800 square feet of retail and 30 apartments and a three-story building with 20 apartments.

While the commission had a few concerns about some of the details in the plan, members agreed that in many ways, this project is exactly what the city should encourage and voted 5-0 to recommend approval (Eric Rosenblum and Asher Waldfogel were absent).

From the perspective of the commission and city planning staff, the project designed by Steinberg Architects achieves two important goals: It addresses the city's housing crisis and helps to enliven a stretch of El Camino in the Ventura neighborhood that many believe is perfectly suited for development. And it does that without requesting any zone changes or major deviations from code.

Another selling point is the relatively high number of small residential units -- an amenity that the City Council has been trying to encourage as part of its strategy to address the affordability problem in the local housing market. Of the 50 apartments, 24 would be studios and 10 would be one-bedroom units. The average size for the studios, located in both the mixed-use building and the apartment complex, would be 543 square feet and 557 square feet, respectively. The one-bedroom apartments would be between 700 and 750 square feet.

The two buildings would also include 15 two-bedroom units and one three-bedroom unit. The would replace two one-story commercial buildings that, between them, include about 9,100 square feet of space.

"We talk about housing a lot on this commission and this is exactly what I have been yearning for," commission Chair Michael Alcheck said during Wednesday's discussion.

Alcheck and Commissioner Przemek Gardias were also struck by how little opposition the development has generated thus far. The one opponent present at the meeting, Sandy Lockhart, said the proposed buildings are too massive for the neighborhood and would overwhelm Olive Avenue, where she lives.

The area, she said, has already suffered from a departure of neighborhood-serving businesses and an injection of mass and traffic,

"We don't want monster housing developments engulfing us," Lockhart said.

The fact that she was the only person who spoke out against the project prompted Gardias to wonder whether the neighborhood had been adequately notified of the public hearing (planning staff assured him that it had sent out notices to nearby residences, in accordance with law).

Alcheck and Planning Director Hillary Gitelman had a more hopeful explanation for the muted reaction from the public.

"This is consistent with zoning for the area and it is something that many of us think the region really needs -- more rental housing," Gitelman said.

"Maybe it's an omen of things to come."

Alcheck acknowledged it's possible that the public isn't showing up because it is waiting for the project to get to the City Council, which will have the final say. But another explanation, he said, could be that the project "isn't particularly bothersome to the community."

"In fact, maybe the community supports it," Alcheck said.

Whether or not the project signifies a shifting public opinion, it does reflect an emerging trend along one of Palo Alto's most prominent and -- in the view of many -- underutilized thoroughfares.

Two weeks ago, Stanford University celebrated the opening of a 70-unit below-market-rate complex on El Camino, just north of Page Mill Road. Across the street from the Stanford development is a parking lot that developer Windy Hill Property Ventures is now eyeing for a 60-unit development aimed at "car-less" professionals -- a project that the council has encouraged.

These projects, in and of themselves, will not come close to solving one of the city's most complex and seemingly intractable problems, but they do represent some measured progress on a top council priority.

And notably, none of these projects include office space -- a key factor at a time when Palo Alto has about three jobs for every housing unit. The jobs-housing imbalance is often cited as a leading cause of the city's traffic and parking problems.

"Knowing that the city is very interested in preserving retail ... we are committing that all commercial space in this project would stay and become retail only," said Tom Steele, senior vice president at Sobrato.

The project was made possible by a merger of three parcels that, between them, have three different zoning designations: service commercial, multifamily residential and single-family residential. In designing the buildings, architect Rob Steinberg navigated not only the requirements of the different zoning designations but also the design guidelines for both El Camino Real at large and for this specific segment of the boulevard.

The result was a four-story building on the corner of El Camino and Olive Avenue and a three-story building with frontage on Acacia Avenue. One unique feature, Steinberg said, is the raising of the grade in the middle of the site to an elevation of about 2 feet, which he said pushes activity to the flatter parts near the corners.

"That's a very large opportunity for us to create gathering spaces, plazas and areas for socialization," Steinberg said.

While the response was overall positive, commissioners had a few quibbles. Gardias suggested that the plans don't reflect the impacts of building lighting on existing homes on Olive. Commissioner Doria Summa questioned whether the city should grant Sobrato an exception that would allow a garage ramp to intrude into an area designed for setback (a buffer between the building and the property line).

Commissioners also had some questions about parking, which Summa noted remains a hot topic in Palo Alto. Sobrato plans to provide a total of 189 spaces, four short of what the code requires. Most of the spaces would be inside the larger building's underground garage and in the smaller building's partially covered garage.

These cavils were not enough, however, to prevent the commission from endorsing the project.

"Mixed-use is good and we need that," Commissioner Ed Lauing said. "And more housing units are essential. We need that."

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Comments

37 people like this
Posted by Just a Thought
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 13, 2017 at 1:21 am

Since both this project and the proposed Windy Hill project next door are aimed and single, high income, car-light professionals is it possible to limit the studios and one bedroom floorplans to a single student enrolled into the school district. That would address school overcrowding and day time school traffic concerns. With 110 (50 for Sobrato + 60 for Windy Hill) units between the two projects, what we don't want is these units being used as workaround, temporary weekday residences for families from outside the school district to get 2 kids or more into the already overcrowded Palo Alto junior high and Paly/Gunn. Otherwise that could lead to over 220+ additional students.


46 people like this
Posted by local
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 13, 2017 at 9:28 am

Neighbors were not notified about this. We live VERY nearby this and NEVER received notification. Disappointing that Mike's Bikes was kicked out for yet another high-density, traffic causing development.


52 people like this
Posted by Ugh!
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 13, 2017 at 9:36 am

Kick Palantir out before building anything else!

Demand that Facebook and Google to expand somewhere with more space and infrastructure to support growth. We don't have space or supporting infrastructure here!!


42 people like this
Posted by A couple more
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 13, 2017 at 10:52 am

@ Just a thought "we don't want is these units being used as workaround, temporary weekday residences for families from outside the school district to get 2 kids or more into the already overcrowded Palo Alto junior high and Paly/Gunn."

Good point! I agree.

Not sure where and how all these new people are supposed to enter and exit El Camino. It is usually backed up north and southbound at that locations, and regularly gridlocked during morning, evening and lunch time. The construction will be quite disruptive to El Camino as well.

"and they tried to tear the mountains down,
to bring in a couple more.
More people.
More scars upon the land."


54 people like this
Posted by Scotty the Boot
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 13, 2017 at 11:28 am

We do not have a "housing crisis". We will NEVER be able to accommodate everyone who wants to move here so stop trying to cram everyone in for pets sake!

What about taking a hard line of curbing development? Am I the only one who thinks that's a good idea? What are the pitfalls of curbing development?

What do you think?


35 people like this
Posted by Jen
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 13, 2017 at 12:35 pm

Why are all the citizens not protesting the added developement utntil there is concrete plans in place to deal with the current existing nightmare of traffic all along the El Camino Corridor?

It is ruining our communities, our environment and overall quality of life........yet no one demands that the planning commission address the traffic increase due to all the composite development !


22 people like this
Posted by Anke
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 13, 2017 at 1:09 pm

"Palo Alto's effort to chip away at what many in City Hall acknowledge to be a "housing crisis" advanced on Wednesday night"

What?! How on earth is this "chipping away". It's making it worse. Tech keeps bringing in newcomers at a jaw-dropping rate. There can never be relief to the housing shortage as long as the demand is growing far faster than the supply ever can. And that's before we even start talking about transportation, infrastructure, community, parks and open spaces, local shops and everything else that's important for a region to function.


12 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 13, 2017 at 1:28 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

I don't have any skin in the game or serious complaints, except for added traffic, so I only offer an opinion or two from the outside. Good! No office space planned! Good try on retail, but I would like to know what kind of retail is planned? I can't imagine what would be successful there.

Units...predominantly studios and 1 bedroom apartments. What will the rental prices be? Never heard a word about low income (affordable) units, unless I missed it.


27 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2017 at 1:33 pm

I agree that we don't have a housing crisis. What we do have is a potential resident crisis.

These potential residents are hoping to live here and all over the Bay Area. We are adding to Bay Area population by 90 people each and every day. That is not just more births than deaths, but people wanting to move into the Bay Area for many reasons.

In my own neighborhood, two homes have just become 3 generational as grandparents have moved here from elsewhere either to look after grandkids (as nannies) or because they are too infirm to live on their own and are moving in with their family.

On top of that, we have homes being bought as investments by people not even planning to occupy them.

We can build, build, build, but still they will come. Not just to Palo Alto but every community in the Bay Area. It is a regional problem. Building a few more condos/townhomes/apartments in Palo Alto is not going to do anything to the problem.


31 people like this
Posted by RT
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 13, 2017 at 3:07 pm

Obviously the Planning Commission does not care about traffic.
Do you know how 100+ cars will get:
To 280? Winding through neighborhoods to get to Page Mill.
To 101? Via Olive already crowded with cars cutting through in the morning.
To North El Camino? Not directly to El Camino because that is already a mess in the morning - winding through neighborhoods.
To South El Camino? - winding through neighborhoods.

This is simple....I will vote against any and all City Council members who vote to approve this project


10 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 13, 2017 at 3:37 pm

@ just a tgought sure knows the score - see first post on this thread for the hard truth.


23 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 13, 2017 at 4:04 pm

This will just make an intractable problem worse. The best solution, and this is far from perfect is to stop all new commercial development, and pressure companies, Palantir ahead of all others of all to relocate out of Palo Alto, and hopefully the Bay area.

Palo Alto's infrastructure iat all levels is highly inadequate to accommodate our overpopulation, permanent and the one that comes in for work and shopping. Palo A lot never had a housing shortage, it has an overpopulation problem, its real estate is perceived as a safe investment for foreign buyers and many want to have a glamorous Palo Alto zip code.

This terrible plan will just make everything worse and solve absolutely nothing.


14 people like this
Posted by Give us a chance
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 13, 2017 at 4:31 pm

To all of you who are negative about building more housing, especially this mixed use space:

Maybe I am just young and naive, but I think that myself, and my brand new family, deserve to live here just as much as any of you. Just because I don't have millions of dollars to purchase a house (or was lucky enough to have my family purchase when it was a little bit affordable) doesn't mean that I should live an hour driving commute to work. You think traffic is a problem, it's because the housing market it so high and no one can afford to live where they work. By creating more mixed use retail/housing this will boom walkable, enjoyable neighborhoods.

A lot of young people WANT to bike or train to work. They don't want to drive. They want a sense of community where they can walk to dinner or to pick up groceries. ElCamino is currently a useless, ugly space, so give it and us a chance, jeez!


8 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 13, 2017 at 4:43 pm

Palo Alto has three times as many jobs as beds. Building more beds will reduce traffic as it will allow people who work in PA to actually live here. I'd bet good money that most of the people who move into those apartments will bike or walk to their jobs instead of driving in from elsewhere.


1 person likes this
Posted by Todd
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2017 at 4:55 pm

[Post removed.]


3 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Jul 13, 2017 at 5:08 pm

Just a Thought doesn't seem to realize that enrollment in the school district has strarted trending down, particularly in the lower grades.


23 people like this
Posted by Anke
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 13, 2017 at 5:31 pm

Building more beds can only reduce traffic if the number of people working in the region (not just Palo Alto) stabilizes. But tech is adding jobs ten times faster than housing can ever be built. The end game of this trend is a Bay Area consisting solely of giant tech campuses and skyscraper ant farms where tech workers live in 8x20 studios.

It makes no sense to concentrate all tech growth in one small area that's already busting at the seams. The growth should be distributed to make jobs available in areas that need them.


32 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 13, 2017 at 5:49 pm

"Just because I don't have millions of dollars to purchase a house (or was lucky enough to have my family purchase when it was a little bit affordable) doesn't mean that I should live an hour driving commute to work."

Welcome to the world, kiddo. If you don't like driving an hour to work, move to a job closer to your home. Preferably one that pays more. Adjust your home address if need be. It's that simple.

But I do sympathize with you. Myself, I'm chronically disappointed I don't have millions of dollars to purchase a house (or was lucky enough to have my family purchase when it was a little bit affordable) with an ocean view in Pebble Beach right beside a Spyglass fairway. But I've managed to cope.


2 people like this
Posted by Todd
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2017 at 6:09 pm

[Post removed.]


16 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 13, 2017 at 6:20 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Google is opening a Boulder, Colorado Campus and is encouraging their employees to move there. That youngster complaining about housing can find a job in the Denver Tech Center ( DTC ) as many companies are creating jobs with shorter commute times. Building is up in the I-25 corridor and the money you pay to rent a house in the SFBA and Silicon Valley areas will BUY you a house near Boulder/Denver.


2 people like this
Posted by Just a Thought
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 13, 2017 at 6:41 pm

@chris: It is true that enrollment is dropping and so the goal of regulation is to reduce any community concerns that are blocking the approval of these buildings.

Another thought is if both the Downtown area and the California Ave area required residential parking permits and existing residents in the neighborhood would be given 2 parking permits. Residents from these two buildings would not be allowed residential parking permits. Also the new buildings would require dedicated car share parking spots for Zipcar. Both Downtown and Cal Ave. would be great for senior housing and Stanford students.

It would reduce the instances of multiple single people occupying single family homes as room-mates and allow real families to move back in. Right now our neighbor rents to 6 Stanford students who drive up rent and have 6 cars parked in front of our house.


5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 13, 2017 at 7:51 pm

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Todd
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2017 at 8:15 pm

[Post removed.]


18 people like this
Posted by Gus L.
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 13, 2017 at 8:46 pm

"Car Light"
What a Joke, all of those 150 parking spaces will be filled, the neighboring streets will have "Light Cars" in front of their homes.
Another bad plan shoved in our face.
What about traffic study? All of the traffic cutting through Olive to go to Page Mill is bad already..


3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 13, 2017 at 8:53 pm

[Post removed.]


3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2017 at 9:02 pm

[Portion removed.]

No seniors like ground floor with enough space that they can more around with a walker and surrounded by their own familiar things that they have had for most of their lives. Their community is their neighborhood where things change slowly and they can face the changes one at a time not all at once.

Seniors and students do not make for good neighbors.


22 people like this
Posted by Jen
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 13, 2017 at 9:05 pm

This planning commission needs to be replace with proactive elected official who give a dam about quality of life,
Environment, and creating a infrastructure plan that is in place BEFORE accepting all the demand of the developers proposal.
The owners, developers of all approved plans for these El Camino plans do not even live in the community . they will not suffer the consequences of their developments. WE the residents of PA and all our neighboring communities will .
The funding of the elections of our elected officials campaigns and any future promises of reward are driven by the developers...not the taxpayers of PA

We are moving from Palo Alto shortly........it's become I place I no longer wish to live due to all the crime, parking, traffic issues.
for all the intelligence in the community it is severely shortsighted on urban plannning, its elected officials are bought and paid for by developers, Done with this overpriced mess of a town.......one where it's own citizens are too busy to actively act as a community to protect the place we used to cherish.


8 people like this
Posted by Marlene Glez
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 13, 2017 at 11:16 pm


I think that the " overcrowding " is not the fault of new people or families coming, the real fault belongs to Big companies like Facebook, Google, Yahoo, etc that are growing in Bay Area and are inviting people to work from other cities. If they are bringing more people, they need to build more housing. There is not enough room to build! They built houses or apartments on parking areas, old buildings of one or two floors were torn out and transformed into three or more floors. They already used everything! The only "room" left is the cemeteries, but I'm afraid they already put an eye on ! Traffic now is a nightmare...! There is not enough room to construct wider roads unless they start building bridges and subways. Soon the Bay Area will be transformed into another New York... :(


11 people like this
Posted by Mimi Wolf
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 14, 2017 at 10:14 am

Nearly every day the news is about the City supporting another development, but scarce news of efforts toward alleviating traffic gridlock. The two go hand in hand. If the City allows more housing, what is being done to encourage these families to use alternatives to driving? School buses? Safe bicycle/pedestrian routes? Increase shuttles and VTA buses during commute hours? Work on coordinating VTA schedules/routes with SamTrans?


12 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 15, 2017 at 2:34 pm

margaret heath is a registered user.

@Chris

"Residents from these two buildings would not be allowed residential parking permits."

Not being allowed a parking permit, but with free 2 hour parking in RPP neighborhoods, still allows person to park from 4 pm until 10 am, and all weekend long. In other words, drive to work before 10 am and arrive home after 4 pm, and park overnight.

That is, unless the city designates all impacted neighborhoods as RPP from 6 am until midnight, and our taxes are spent on hiring ever more parking enforcement personnel. Persuading city staff and council that they should approve under parked developments because commuting by car and car ownership will decline appears to be the latest exercise in magical thinking, incompetence, or cynicism, because there is no comparable city with data to back up this "car light" claim. At best it's an experiment and at worst a giveaway to developers since reducing the amount of land required for parking or the cost of excavating basement parking is money in their pockets.

It is enlightening to watch live broadcasts of council meetings and match the members who received considerable financial support from these business interests, and contrary to what they said or implied while campaigning, appear to consistently support new developments with components that are not in compliance.


4 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 15, 2017 at 3:35 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Where are the low income apartments? As long as they meet the low income requirements with actual apartments, not cash donations inadequate to build the equivalent apartments to the city, and add the four required parking places, I will gladly support this project.


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