Palo Alto Housing scored a major victory on Thursday morning when the Architectural Review Board unanimously approved its proposal to build a 59-unit project for low-income and disabled residents in the Ventura neighborhood.
The development at 3705 El Camino Real is the nonprofit's first bid to build in Palo Alto since 2013, when voters overturned in a referendum its plan to construct 60 units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes on Maybell Avenue. Unlike that project, the new four-story building near Wilton Avenue would consist entirely of below-market-rate units, some of them designated for individuals with disabilities.
With the board's endorsement, the project has overcome its most significant hurdle before it goes to a largely sympathetic City Council. But the board's approval spells good news for local proponents of affordable housing, several of whom testified at the hearing. The design didn't sit well with some area residents, who complained about the neighborhood impacts of the new development.
Todd Lewis, who owns two residential buildings on Wilton Avenue, told the board that while he supports the goals of the project, he and other neighbors have a problem with height, density, the number of people and the number of cars the project would bring.
One board member, Robert Gooyer, also voiced some reservations about the project's mass.
"It still looks like a large, four-story shoebox to me," Gooyer said.
His colleagues noted that the size and density of the building are fully consistent with the council's recent zone changes, including the creation of the new "affordable housing overlay zone" that allows more density. The Palo Alto Housing project is the city's first application under the new zone.
"This is what the council wants us to build at this time. This is the shape of it," board member Peter Baltay said.
Ultimately, Gooyer joined the rest of the board in supporting the project, which would bring affordable housing to a city where the housing shortage had become a top priority.
Earlier this year, the City Council adopted a goal of building 300 units annually — a target that it has failed to meet. So far this year, it had not approved any below-market-rate projects. The only significant residential development that advanced was a 57-unit market-rate project at El Camino Real and Page Mill Road that the council classified as "workforce housing."
Despite a year of anemic production, council members gave housing advocates some reasons for hope when they approved on Monday night and Tuesday morning a series of zone changes that they hope will spur the creation of more residential units in the future. These include the creation of a new "housing incentive program" that gives participating developers generous density bonuses and a new "minimum density" provision for projects zoned for high-density residential use.
On Thursday, board Chair Wynne Furth said she was "delighted" to see the Palo Alto Housing project move ahead.
"All of us know that we're all in favor of affordable housing and we find particular proposals difficult. The question is always, 'What about the real proposal in front of us? Does it meet our standards?' I believe it does," Furth said.