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.