A developer looking to build a 57-unit apartment building on the prominent corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road eked out an important victory Thursday morning, when Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board endorsed the project.
The board voted 3-2, with members Robert Gooyer and Osma Thompson dissenting, to recommend approving the development at 2755 El Camino Real, a site that has long served as a parking lot for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. If approved by the City Council, the development would be Palo Alto's first example of a "workforce housing" development, with units ranging from 502 square feet to 645 square feet in floor area. In addition, six units would be designated for residents making 120 percent of area median income (which for a single renter, amounts to about $95,000).
The project is also the city's first example of a "car-light" development, with a reduced parking requirement (the development includes 64 spaces) and an ambitious "transportation-demand management" program with incentives for tenants to avoid owning cars. These include Caltrain and VTA passes, car-share services and bikes for residents to use.
The board's decision followed three public hearings and numerous design revisions, which included a new decorative band along the roof line and a sun shade on the southward-facing walls of the building. The features were added to respond to the board's earlier concerns about the need to better define the top of the four-story building.
Even with the changes, the project almost failed to win the board's approval. Gooyer and Thompson both argued that the architects still haven't gone far enough to address its earlier critiques. Board Vice Chair Peter Baltay also said he cannot support the project, noting that the project is setting an important precedent and, as such, the bar for granting approval should be high.
But just as the project was on the verge of getting voted down, Baltay changed his mind and voted to support it. Even though he argued that the design could be better, he also noted that the project has improved over the course of the hearings. He also noted that the project by Windy Hill Property Ventures is one the community needs.
"This is a project that's made every effort to come together," Baltay said. "I want to see it move forward."
Board Chair Wynne Furth and board member Alexander Lew were far less ambivalent. Both lauded the recent design improvements and said they can support the project. Furth said the location of the development, just blocks from the California Avenue Business District, is good for the proposed use. She said she is happy to see the project move ahead.
"I've been working with people who want to build housing for 50 years. There's always something wrong with every housing project; they're never perfect," Furth said. "But you're not required to make me happy, you're required to give me a project good enough for me to make the findings we're required to make. And I can make these findings."
Thompson acknowledged that the project is very important but argued that the architecture is "not high quality." Gooyer agreed and, like Baltay, argued that as a precedent setter, the project should be "cream of the crop" when it comes to design.
"If we keep allowing projects that we don't really think are the top quality available to come through, it'll become the norm," Gooyer said. "We have to put our foot down somewhere and say, 'We want high-quality architecture.'"