A plan to build a "car-light" housing development at one of Palo Alto's most car-heavy intersections received a big boost Wednesday night, when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission signaled its support.
By a 6-1 vote, with Commissioner Doria Summa recusing, the commission threw its support behind a proposal to build a 57-unit apartment building on the central intersection of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road. The new development would feature 40 studios and 17 one-bedroom apartments and would occupy a parking lot that was owned by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority until 2014.
For the city, the project at 2755 El Camino Real represents a bold experiment. Billed as the city's first car-light project, the development will offer each resident a suite of incentives to promote alternative transportation modes. These include Caltrain GoPasses, VTA EcoPasses, bicycles for residents to use and carpool services. Residents who don't own cars would get monthly $100 stipends for ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.
The project also represents the type of housing that the council has been trying to encourage of late: units that are smaller and thus, presumably, cheaper.
Critics of the proposal from Windy Hill Property Ventures pointed out that even with their small sizes, these apartments will not be "affordable" by most standards. Unlike most of Palo Alto's below-market-rate apartments, which serve individuals with incomes below the area median, this one focuses on renters who are relatively well off – just not affluent enough to afford Palo Alto rents.
Specifically, it aims to serve "the missing middle" -- workers who make too much to qualify for below-market-rate housing but who aren't affluent enough to afford market-rate housing. Six of the 57 units will be deed restricted for renters with income levels at 120 percent of the area median income (for a single renter, this would mean an income of $95,150). And because all units would range from 502 square feet to 645 square feet, they are expected to fetch lower-than-typical rents.
The commission agreed that even if the proposal doesn't exactly constitute "affordable housing," its goals are laudable. Moments before they approved the project, Commissioner Michael Alcheck argued that the apartments in this project will be "affordable by design."
"A 300- or a 400- or 500-square-foot unit is going to rent for less than a 700-, 800- or 900-square-foot-unit," Alcheck said. "Although this is market rate, there is nothing like this in the city."
The project is also breaking new ground when it comes to zoning. Just before approving the project, the commission voted 6-1, with Summa dissenting, to adopt a new "workforce housing combining district" – a zoning designation that would allow multifamily housing but require 20 percent of the units in the new development to be deed restricted for individuals with incomes at 120 to 150 percent of area median income. The site at 2755 El Camino was zoned as a "public facility" before the commission agreed on Wednesday to amend the zoning map and designate it as a new "workforce district" – the first of its kind in the city.
The reaction from the community was decidedly more mixed, with some residents saying they would love to see more housing in the area and others challenging the project's assumptions about parking and traffic. Rob Wilkins, director of real estate at Palo Alto Housing, said his agency fully supports the project and the workforce-housing program. He called it "an innovative and unique way for the city to show its commitment to provide affordable housing."
"More housing in Palo Alto is needed for all affordable levels," Wilkins said. "The workforce-housing overlay will be one more."
Others were less sanguine. Resident Jeff Levinsky predicted that the new building will "provide luxury-priced tiny units that will make everything else in Palo Alto look like a bargain." Terry Holzimer, who lives three blocks from the site, called it the "wrong kind of housing."
"We need housing for low-income, hard-working people who work in our service industry," Holzimer said. "We don't have enough of that housing."
The commission's unanimous vote provides fresh momentum for a project that already has some support from council members. When Pollock Financial Group bought the property from the VTA in 2014, it was planning to develop a commercial building. Over the next two years, as the council signaled its desire to see more housing, Windy Hill began putting together its car-light plan. In September 2016, the council held an informal hearing on the project and indicated tentative support for the idea of car-light microunits. Even so, there was some skepticism among residents and council members about whether the goal of having residents who don't own cars can actually be achieved in Palo Alto.
Tod Spieker of Windy Hill listed for the commission the many ways in which the project has changed since last year. The number of units was reduced from 60 to 57 and the density of the building was slightly lowered. Whereas the prior rendition of the project included 45 parking spaces, the new one had 64, of which 60 would be provided through a "puzzle parking" lift system. Windy Hill has also proposed dedicating an easement to Santa Clara County for future construction of a right-hand turn lane and bike lane on Page Mill Road.
"Obviously, this project will not fix the problem but it can help 57 people working in Palo Alto and looking for a place to live close to where they work. … There may be a debate about how much housing Palo Alto should be responsible for building, but there is consensus that some level of housing is needed, so why not here?" Spieker said.
The commission agreed. Vice Chair Susan Monk noted that the project addresses two of Palo Alto's toughest issues: traffic and housing.
"There are many people who say they support housing but not this ordinance," Monk said, "If not this ordinance, what ordinance? It might not be perfect but it's a start."