After meeting community opposition in its most recent bid to build an affordable-housing complex in its home town, the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing is hoping for a better reception -- and outcome -- for its new proposal: a 67-unit development on El Camino Real, in the Ventura neighborhood.
Known as Wilton Court, the development planned for the 3700 block of El Camino Real would replace two one-story buildings currently occupied by Euromart, the Fashion Cuts salon, Nouvelle Bridal Boutique and Treasure Island, a stamp-and-coin shop. The small structures would be replaced by a five-story building with retail on the ground floor and about four stories of housing.
The residential component of the project would consist mostly of small studios, according to plans that Palo Alto Housing submitted to the city last month. The plans show 63 studios, each with 410 square feet of floor area, along with three two-bedroom apartments and one two-bedroom apartment.
Altogether, the average unit would have an area of 428 square feet, according to the plans.
The new project by the Palo Alto Housing is in many ways a response to the City Council's recent push to encourage more affordable housing, with a special emphasis on small units for service workers. Earlier this year, the council signaled tentative support for a proposal by Windy Hill Property Ventures to construct a development with 60 small units (average size 540 square feet) on the prominent corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road.
The project from Palo Alto Housing goes even further, both in small size and unit affordability. Candice Gonzalez, president of Palo Alto Housing, told the Weekly that the units will be dedicated to residents making no more than 60 percent of area median income.
At the same time, the nonprofit also faces significant challenges. For one, it would require a zone change. The existing zone, "neighborhood commercial," would allow for between 11 and 13 residential units, Gonzalez said, making construction cost-prohibitive. In addition, the site's proximity to Ventura's residential neighborhoods means that the project would normally have a height limit of 35 feet. The suggested height for the Palo Alto Housing proposal would be about 50 feet under the tentative plans.
In the past, Palo Alto Housing (formerly known as Palo Alto Housing Corporation) and other developers of affordable housing dealt with these limitations by requesting (and usually getting) changes to "planned community" zoning, which allow builders to exceed zoning requirements for projects that offer public benefits. Most of the city's major senior- and affordable-housing facilities -- including Lytton Gardens and Channing House -- were built under this process.
That was also the approach Palo Alto Housing took with its 2013 bid to construct 60 housing units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes on a former orchard site on Maybell Avenue. But after that project fizzled in the face of a citizen referendum in the November 2013 election, the council moved to freeze the "planned community" process and reform it.
Given that "planned community" zones are no longer allowed, the Palo Alto Housing is effectively asking for a zoning designation that does not exist in exchange for a commodity that council members say the city desperately needs: affordable housing.
The council's recent discussions should give Palo Alto Housing some reasons for optimism. Earlier this year, the council set "housing" as one of its top priorities for 2017. Since then, Mayor Greg Scharff had set a goal of approving at least two housing projects this year.
The council has also agreed to ease restrictions on construction of accessory-dwelling units and to add a new planning scenario -- with more housing units -- for evaluation as part of its update to the city's Comprehensive Plan. During a March discussion of the plan, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss noted that during her re-election campaign the prior year, the biggest issue that came up was "housing, housing and more housing."
Candice Gonzalez said the project is still in its very earliest phases and subject to revisions based on feedback from residents, the City Council and Palo Alto's various board and commissions. Given the heavy pushback it experienced with the Maybell project, Palo Alto Housing is planning to hold a design charette with the surrounding neighborhood in the coming months to solicit feedback.
Gonzalez said the big question that Palo Alto Housing hopes to answer as part of the outreach process is: Is there truly support for affordable housing? Since the Maybell referendum, Palo Alto Housing had shifted its focus to other communities, successfully developing affordable-housing complexes in Mountain View and Redwood City. The one proposed for Palo Alto would be similar to those.
"We thought it's time to come back to Palo Alto, because the crisis is everywhere, including here," Gonzalez said. "It sounds like there's been a shift in mentality and thinking, and more support for affordable housing.
"I think it'll be the first test-case scenario for 100 percent affordable housing that will serve no more than 60 percent of median income," Gonzalez said.
One big questions that Palo Alto Housing has yet to answer is: Who will be the tenants? The organization hasn't yet determined whether the units will be limited to seniors or whether they will be open to younger low-income employees. Gonzalez said the organization is also exploring reserving some units for adults with disabilities.
That questions, along with a myriad design details, will be hashed out over the course of the community-outreach process, with ample feedback from neighbors, Palo Alto Housing officials said. The council is also scheduled to give some early feedback on the project in late August or September.
Gonzalez said the organization has deferred decision on what population it wants to serve pending community feedback on the topic.
The organization did, however, draw up some preliminary plans as a starting point for the discussions. One option calls for the units to be constructed in two wings that are separated by a large, green central courtyard. The other would keep the units close together -- toward the El Camino side of the property -- and have the courtyard toward the back of the property.
Even though it's still early in the game, Palo Alto Housing has already made one significant revision. Its initial plans called for office space on the ground floor, which the organization was hoping to use for its headquarters. Given feedback from planning staff and the city's recent adoption of a retail-protection ordinance, which prohibits non-retail use on ground floors in commercial districts, that organization is now looking at retail options.
"I think with this, we're taking a very cautious approach and really wanting to get feedback and not feel like we've already designed it and made all the decisions," Gonzalez said.
One issue that is certain to attract significant attention from the council and the community is parking. The current plan calls for 55 spaces through a "split-level" design, said project manager Danny Ross. This would effectively mean going underground for half a level and having another level above that one. For an affordable-housing project, building an underground garage is generally cost-prohibitive, he said.
Whether or not the 55 spaces will suffice will depend on some measure on what type of population the new complex serves. Gonzalez noted, however, that Palo Alto Housing has plenty of data demonstrating that parking needs are lower for affordable-housing projects. Its Oak Court complex, for instance, has 20 parking spaces that are not being used and that the organization is leasing out to the Palo Alto History Museum.
Gonzalez said the organization was a bit hesitant at first about going forward with the project, given its experiences on Maybell. At the same time, the city's shifting conversation about housing have given it some hope.
"We thought, it's been a few years. Let's take a step back and really try to address this need," Gonzalez said.