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."