A south Palo Alto building once renowned for enchiladas and margaritas will soon be demolished to make way for townhouses and condominiums under a proposal that the City Council approved Monday night.
The City Council voted 7-0, with Lydia Kou and Eric Filseth absent, to allow the demolition of the vacant building at 3877 El Camino Real that once housed Compadres Bar and Grill, a popular Mexican restaurant that shuttered in 2008 after more than two decades of operation on the corner of El Camino and Curtner Avenue. The building will be replaced with a three-story development featuring 4,035 square feet of commercial space and six condominiums on the El Camino Real side of the L-shaped property; and 11 two-story townhouses at the rear of the site.
The council's decision concluded more than three years of public hearings and affirmative votes by the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, Architectural Review Board and Historic Resources Board.
On Monday night, the council swiftly followed suit and gave the project its final stamp of approval.
For project architects Stuart Welte and Mark Wommack of EID Architects, the discussion got off to an auspicious start when the council's very first speaker -- Councilman Adrian Fine -- made a motion to approve the project, prompting immediate support from Vice Mayor Liz Kniss.
Kniss observed that the Compadre's site has been vacant for a long time, while Fine called the proposal by property owner Zijin, LLC, a "pretty good project" that is sensitive to community concerns.
"In the community, folks are talking about housing, good design, projects being responsive to traffic and parking woes," Fine said, alluding to the proposed underground garage with 62 spots. "This is probably one of the better projects in response to those (concerns) that we've had in a while."
In a letter accompanying the application, Wommack, argued that the project "will transform this blighted parcel into a vibrant and sustainable mixed-use community." It will include a mix of commercial and townhome-style condominiums, which will be provided with ample parking located within the basement below grade, Wommack wrote.
"These units are planned to maximize energy efficiency and provide a range of entry level housing options that will promote a healthy living environment for residents," Wommack wrote. "This, in conjunction with the inclusion of two affordable housing units within the project, will provide housing for a diverse range of income levels."
The project, he told the council Monday, will also improve a streetscape that for many years hasn't seen much change or improvement.
"The building itself has been vacant for a number of years -- an eyesore that has attracted vagrants who have been difficult to keep out of the building," Wommack said.
He also observed that this particular Ventura site is one of very few that are zoned for high-density housing. The 0.75-acre property is split between service commercial (CS) zoning on the El Camino Real side and RM-30 zoning (which allows a density of 30 housing units per acre) at the rear.
"This is one of the few areas of the city where you do have high density," Wommack said.
Not everyone was bowled over by the project. Councilwoman Karen Holman observed that by providing two below-market-rate units, the project is able to benefit from both local and state laws that grant development concessions for affordable housing (the local law allowed the developer to add 2,596 square feet of residential space). In a nod to the historical significance of the 1938 adobe building, Holman added a condition ensuring that the structure be made available for photography prior to demolition.
Councilman Cory Wolbach was somewhat frustrated by Wommack's explanation of how the developer chose 17 housing units for a site that under code can accommodate 22. Wommack said the unit count was based on market demand, an answer that Wolbach called "opaque."
A few residents also took issue with the project -- particularly its reliance on density bonuses. Becky Sanders, who heads the Ventura Neighborhood Association, argued that the developer had not demonstrated that the development concession he is receiving from the city (extra residential square footage) is supporting the affordable-housing component, as code requires. Sanders said she has formally requested from the city documentation justifying the requested concession but has not received it.
Providing developers with concessions produces no additional affordable housing, she said. It actually drives up the price of housing, she argued, because it allows the construction of larger and more expensive units.
"The Ventura Neighborhood Association supports building more housing, however we seek transparency and adherence to the zoning code," Sanders said.
The council, however, saw nothing improper about the developer receiving floor-area bonuses and a "design enhancement exception" to reduce the setback in the rear of the basement from 10 feet to 6 feet. The biggest dispute had to do with process.
After Mayor Greg Scharff opened the discussion by inviting his colleagues to ask questions and make comments and motions, Fine led off by moving to approve the proposal. Kniss, who regularly joins Scharff and Fine in approving development projects, instantly seconded Fine's motion.
The process irked Councilwoman Karen Holman, who observed that council members often have a chance to ask questions and discuss items before anyone makes a motion. She also wondered why Scharff called on Fine first and said that she had turned on her light (indicating a wish to speak) before Fine. Holman called Scharff's expedited process "inconsistent" and cited a recent meeting in which he had kept her from making a motion before other council members had a chance to weigh in.
Scharff did not dispute her characterization.
"The process is not consistent -- depending on how the mayor views the evening," Scharff said, who then disputed that she had asked to speak first.
While the exchange between Holman and Scharff stopped there, two council colleagues alluded to it in later conversations. Both Wolbach and Councilman Tom DuBois said they would prefer a more "consistent process."
This is particularly important, DuBois said, when the item being debated is quasi-judicial -- that is, when the council effectively plays the role of a judge rather than legislators, such as when they rule on the legal merits of a development.
"I find it useful to hear questions before making a considered decision," DuBois said.