A two-building development featuring 50 apartments and retail space, will soon replace the Mike's Bikes shop on El Camino Real in Palo Alto -- the latest sign of change in the Ventura neighborhood.
The new development, which includes 19,800 square feet of retail space in addition to the apartments -- is the second mixed-use project on El Camino Real within walking distance of Oregon Expressway to win recent approval. In March 2016, the council gave the green light to a development with office space, condominiums and retail at 2755 El Camino Real, the former site of Olive Garden, and approved Stanford University's proposal to demolish and replace the six-story Brutalist building on El Camino and Page Mill Road.
And the neighborhood should expect an even more significant transformation in the coming years, when the city moves ahead with a "concept area plan" with a new land-use vision for "the Fry's site," a sprawling commercial campus off Portage Avenue commonly known for its anchor tenant.
The Sobrato Organization, which owns the underdeveloped campus, is also the developer behind 3001 El Camino Real, the project just west of Fry's that the council approved by an 8-0-1 vote, with Councilwoman Karen Holman abstaining. In approving the project, the council followed the lead of the Architecture Review Board and the Planning and Transportation Commission, each of which has also recommended approval.
The development consists of two buildings on the east side of El Camino, between Olive and Acacia avenues -- a site occupied by Mike's Bikes and surface parking lots. One of these would be four-stories tall, with retail, 30 apartments and 116 parking spaces in an underground garage. The other would have three stories with 20 units of housing and partially below-grade parking.
Similar to the two advisory panels, the council found much to like in the Sobrato development, which is designed by architect Rob Steinberg. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, who made the motion to approve the proposal, noted that it conforms with all the zoning requirements and addresses the city's most critical need.
"We speak constantly about needing housing," Kniss said. "This is in a particular part of town that I think can use this type of housing very well."
Mayor Greg Scharff, who seconded her motion, lauded the project and said he was impressed by the fact that the planning commission gave it its unanimous support. He and others also praised the applicant for addressing the disparity between the proposed buildings and the single-story homes on Olive Avenue. Steinberg's design includes a larger setback than the zoning code allows and buildings that fall well short of the height limit.
"It seemed the applicant worked hard to pull the stuff back from the single-family neighborhood, which I think is important," Scharff said.
Other council members tempered their enthusiasm. Coucilman Tom DuBois was concerned about the "pedestrian hybrid beacon" proposed for the intersection of El Camino and Olive Avenue -- a pedestrian-activated device that flashes a red light when someone approaches the crosswalk. He questioned how this would affect traffic flow on El Camino.
Councilwoman Karen Holman was the only member to pan the design, suggesting that its lack of differentiation in entrances and roof segments makes the entire development look "monotonous." The city, she said, has been striving to "get away from projects that have that 'big block' feeling."
"For me, I think, buildings are friendlier to the community and friendlier to the passerby, if there's a deviation in setback, a deviation in roof height and roof form," Holman said. "It kind of gives it less of a monolithic kind of feel to it."
She also said she liked the fact that the new buildings respect zoning requirements and provide housing. Her ambivalence ultimately led her to take the rare step of abstaining from a vote on a new development.
In responding to her critique, Steinberg noted that the design team has had to follow three different sets of design guidelines, as well as directions from the Architectural Review Board.
"Design is not a science, it's an art. ... We tried our best and I think it's going to be a handsome addition to the city," Steinberg said.