When the City Council last discussed the affordable-housing development proposed for El Camino Real and Wilton Avenue in April, the project by Palo Alto Housing was still in the concept phase and the city's affordable-housing laws were still in flux.
Now, with the city's new "Affordable Housing Combining District" in place, the nonprofit has filed an application for the development, which is currently being processed by city planners and which is set to go undergo formal reviews in the coming months. Planning staff expect the project to reach the council by the end of the year, potentially giving the council's pro-housing bloc a rare victory in what has been another slow year for residential production.
The proposal from Palo Alto Housing would include 58 studios and three one-bedroom units, including one manager's unit, according to the project application. The development at 3705 El Camino Real will be three stories in height and will include two levels of parking -- one on the ground floor -- with a total of 50 parking spots. The units will all be designated for residents making no more than 60 percent of the area median income.
The project is the first local development by Palo Alto Housing since 2013, when city voters overturned in a referendum a zone change that would have enabled a 60-unit development for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes on a former orchard site on Maybell Avenue. For the council, it also represents an important test case in the newly established Affordable Housing Combining District, which relaxes parking requirements and other development standards for below-market-rate projects. The new zoning district also allows developers to seek waivers from Palo Alto's ground-floor retail requirement.
The nonprofit plans to seek that waiver. It is proposing to designate the ground floor uses for the residential community, with features such as a management office, a mailroom, bike storage, computer lab and building-associated service spaces, according to the application. The building would also have a podium level with a community room, gym and laundry facilities.
Rob Wilkins, director of real estate development at Palo Alto Housing, said the nonprofit is still considering other options for the ground floor, including having a nonprofit occupy the space. Palo Alto Housing had initially proposed moving its own administrative offices to the development. While Wilkins said that idea is still on the table, it is also considering having another nonprofit rent the space.
"We are still looking at the various options, but we prefer not to have retail there," Wilkins said.
The application still has to clear several hurdles before it reaches the council. Planning staff had requested that Palo Alto Housing provide more information, including an application to combine the two existing lots at 3703 and 3709 El Camino into one lot, where the new development would stand, and a historic review for the existing buildings on site.
The project is also set to be reviewed by the Architectural Review Board, with the first hearing set for Aug. 16, Wilkins said. The Planning and Transportation Commission will also consider the applicability of the new affordable-housing district.
If the council approves the project by the end of the year, it will be the second multifamily residential development to receive the green light this year. In June, the council approved a 57-unit development by Windy Hill Property Ventures for the corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road. That project, often referred to as "workforce housing," consists largely of small units, some of which are designated for those making less than 120 percent of area median income.
Despite the two projects, the council is still slated to fall well short of its goal of producing 300 housing units annually, which is roughly what's needed to meet the goals in the city's Comprehensive Plan.
So far, the project has received a mixed response, with some residents warning at prior hearings that the El Camino project would worsen traffic conditions in the Ventura neighborhood. Critics had also maintained that the relaxed parking standards in the new affordable-housing zone would result in cars parking in nearby neighborhoods. The city's planning commission was so concerned enough about the new zone that it narrowly voted in March not to approve it, but the council nevertheless adopted it in April.
Many others had argued that the project from Palo Alto Housing is exactly what's needed and that the new zone is necessary to make it possible. That is the view that appears to be shared by the council majority, which had the Wilton Court project in mind when it voted on April 9 to approve the affordable-housing zone.
Councilman Adrian Fine, an outspoken proponent for more housing, said the new zone will change some of the city's parameters "so that we can actually begin to have some affordable housing in Palo Alto."
"Our community has spoken loudly and clearly about the need for affordable housing," Fine said at the April meeting. "This overlay is aimed at 100 percent affordable housing. It doesn't get much better than that."