Affordable-housing project on the cusp of approval

Proposal by Palo Alto Housing would bring 59 below-market-rate units to El Camino Real

Palo Alto officials will have a chance on Monday to approve the city's first purely affordable-housing project in more than five years when they consider a proposal for a 59-unit development on El Camino Real.

The proposal from the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing would be the first to apply for approval under the new affordable-housing overlay zone, which the City Council introduced last spring. Located at 3705 El Camino Real, in the Ventura neighborhood, the development would also be the first local development proposed by Palo Alto Housing since 2013, when the council approved 60 units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes for a former orchard site on Maybell Avenue. Voters subsequently overturned zoning that enabled the project in a referendum.

For the new City Council, the project represents a rare opportunity to make progress on its goal of producing 300 housing units annually. Last year, the council fell well short of the goal and approved only one multifamily project: a 57-unit development for the "missing middle," those whose incomes are too great to make them eligible for below-market-rate units but too low to allow them to afford market-rate housing.

The proposal for Wilton Avenue represents about 19 percent of the total housing that the city is targeting for approval this year, according to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment.

The new affordable housing overlay district allows the developer to build at a greater height and density than would otherwise be allowed on the commercially-zoned site. It also allows the applicant to avoid the requirement for ground-floor retail, an option that Palo Alto Housing is exercising. Instead of retail, the project will include "community amenity space," parking for vehicles and bikes and other ancillary uses, according to staff.

If the council approves the project, as is widely expected, it would also help Palo Alto make some progress it meeting its regional housing obligation, as dictated by the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process. In the first three years of the current RHNA cycle, which runs from 2015 to 2023, the city has only met 15 percent of its total allocation, according to a critical report that the Santa Clara County grand jury released last year.

To date, city officials have been largely supportive of the project, as evidenced by their creation of the new affordable-housing overlay in April and by its effort last month to revise the zoning code to promote more housing.

Councilman Adrian Fine, who on Monday was elected to serve as vice mayor, was among those who lauded the overlay — and the projects it will enable — as exactly what the city needs. Among the changes that the council approved is a more streamlined process for projects that rely on this zone to win approval.

"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."

The project also scored a victory on Dec. 6, when the Architectural Review Board approved the design for the four-story building. Board Chair Wynne Furth, a supporter of the project, said she was "delighted to see it move ahead."

"All of us know that we're all in favor of affordable housing and we find particular proposals difficult," Furth said. "The question is always, 'What about the real proposal in front of us? Does this meet our standards?' and I believe it does."

Not everyone is thrilled about the new development. While housing advocates called it a much-needed project at a time of a housing crisis, several neighbors worried about the proposed location of the building's garage, which they argued would create an unsafe situation on Wilton Avenue.

"We all support the project and the idea of low-income housing, no doubt about that," Todd Lewis, who owns property across the street from the site. "What we have a problem with is the height, the density, the number of people, the number of cars, and the competing vehicles and pedestrians in our alleyways and up and down the street."

Others, however, pointed to the importance of expanding housing, particularly for developmentally disabled adults. The Wilton Avenue development will devote about 25 percent of its units to individuals with disabilities.

Joy Wright is among the supporters who submitted letters to encourage approval. Her son, Russel, she wrote, is autistic and "in dire need of affordable housing."

"Unfortunately, my family can no longer afford to rent in Palo Alto, but would very much love to see Russell reside in Palo Alto, a city he's called home all his developing years," Wright wrote.


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16 people like this
Posted by Think
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2019 at 5:32 pm

Once again, the description of the Maybell situation is slanted to the point of being deceptive. The neighborhood didn't change the zoning in relationship to affordable housing, the affordable housing proposal was only a minority of what was a rezoning for the benefit of a for-profit developer; the profits of the for-profit development were not going to the affordable side, either, just the much smaller profits of the land. The whole thing reeked, especially since the same neighbors had been a part of creating JUST affordable housing and saving a school in a similar development conflict.

I am on the face of it for this project because we desperately need housing for people with development disabilities, and wish this were 100%, not 25%, and I worry that shenanigans will be played with who qualifies. I wish a different affordable housing developer was part of this, PAHC behaved in such an untrustworthy and contentious way at Maybell, it's impossible to ever create a community collaboration that would result in that. Using affordable housing and inclusionary housing in order to shoehorn in bad market-rate development will eventually hurt the cause of affordable housing, as it already has in this town.

12 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2019 at 6:51 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I am all in favor of low income housing and this one sounds good. However, it will also be a good test of the need for automobiles for the people fortunate enough to land on of these units. I urge the city council to insist on surveys as to how many residents own vehicles and how many park on the streets.

Similar surveys should be done for existing market rate and low income housing close to train and bus stops, such as the multi-unit properties on Park. How many cars are parked in the parking lot is pretty meaningless if many residents have cars that do not have reserved spots and thus park on the streets.

And how are the car elevators working? We now have several of those plus another proposed at the new development on University and El Camino. Are people using them? Is there any backups as parking this way takes much longer than a normal parking garage (speaking from experience having used these elevators in Europe).

We need data before we make decisions - not "oops" when parking predictions based on poor surveys turn out to be wrong and not data from around the country. We have plenty of cases here in Palo Alto that can help us make good decisions about what parking is needed. I have high hopes that scooters and bikes and Lyft etc will make a big difference but we need to know that it will work and if not, find other solutions.

20 people like this
Posted by rsmithjr
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 11, 2019 at 8:49 pm

rsmithjr is a registered user.

We simply don't know how practical the anti-automobile approach is. My guess is that the city is completely overestimating the possibility of people doing without cars to any significant extent.

Housing and office space should be built with adequate numbers of automobile spaces, period.

4 people like this
Posted by 5th Generation
a resident of Mayfield
on Jan 13, 2019 at 5:57 pm

That thing is MASSIVE! Gives you an even more clear idea of what they want El Camino to look like. Currently, that area is all single story buildings.

4 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Resident
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jan 13, 2019 at 6:27 pm

This development will be a great addition to the community. Two things come to mind:

- Is it not a requirement that all proposals for retail and commercial development include a traffic impact study? I moved into PA only last year, so forgive me for not knowing. This was a requirement in my previous city, and it seems like common sense. I can tell you from experience that a traffic impact study is sometimes more important to the success of a project than making sure a building is aesthetically pleasing.

- Since this new development will be home to a significant number of residents with disabilities, the property's driveways and its entrances/exits should accommodate - if it doesn't already - commuter vans and vehicles that transport folks using wheelchairs, with sight issues, and so on. I bet the staff at Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired on El Camino would be a wealth of knowledge on this.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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