Palo Alto reached a rare milestone in its effort to encourage more housing on Monday night when the City Council approved the city's first development for low-income residents in more than seven years.
By a 6-0 vote, with Councilwoman Liz Kniss absent, the council threw its enthusiastic support behind a 59-unit proposal from the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing for low-income residents and adults with disabilities. The council's resounding approval will allow the developer to pursue its first Palo Alto project since 2013, when voters overturned the zoning for its approved development on Maybell Avenue in a referendum.
The new development will be located at 3705 El Camino Real, in the Ventura neighborhood, and will include at least 21 apartments for adults with developmental disabilities. It will also include 41 parking spaces and a community room that will be open to the broader Ventura neighborhood.
By approving the project, the council moved to address one of its biggest priorities for the past two years: A housing shortage that members believe has reached a crisis level. But despite acknowledging the problem, the city has been slow to address it. Last year, the council had set as its goal the production of 300 housing units annually. It only approved one multifamily project: a 57-unit "car-light" development geared toward the local workforce at 2755 El Camino Real.
While that car-light development focused on the "missing middle" — those whose incomes are too high to qualify them for below-market-rate housing but too low to allow them to afford market rates — the Palo Alto Housing development focuses on those at the lower end of the income scale. Fifty-eight units will be devoted to residents making between 30 and 60 percent of the area median income, between $28,000 and $55,000 for a one-person household (the only unit that isn't is designated for below-market-rate is the manager's apartment).
Sheryl Klein, chair of the Palo Alto Housing board of directors, said the organization is "passionate about keeping the community diverse." The nonprofit currently has 650 units throughout the city that house about 2,000 residents, she said. It also has about 3,000 people on its waiting list.
"You know that stable housing allows people to thrive," Klein said. "This project will allow 59 households to strive in the community. It's a great way to start the new year."
The council planted the seeds for the project known as Wilton Court last year when it created a new "affordable housing overlay" that relaxes zoning restrictions for affordable-housing projects in commercial corridors. The Palo Alto Housing development is the first project submit an application under the new zone.
But while the new zoning district helped make the project feasible, it was the nonprofit's leadership team who made it popular and politically possible. Despite initial misgivings about the development's height, density and traffic impacts, residents of the Ventura neighborhood on Monday rallied behind the project. Many credited the development team for listening and constructively responding to their concerns.
Becky Sanders, moderator of the Ventura Neighborhood Association, was among them. She said neighbors were concerned at first about the new project becoming a "big industrial shoebox" that infringes on the daylight plane of neighboring properties. The architect responded by reducing the massing at the top two stories in the back of the property.
Sanders thanked Palo Alto Housing's recently hired CEO Randy Tsuda, Klein and Palo Alto's planning staff for getting to a compromise.
"It's going to be real homes with lovely amenities — an outstanding home for residents," Sanders said.
Nicole Ventre, whose building is just behind the project site, had some reservations about the proposed four-story project, which she called a "very dense building for such a busy corner." Ventre said that once the building goes up, she and her tenants would get no direct sunlight during a good portion of the year.
"I highly implore you to drop the building by one story, to three stories," she said.
But almost every other speaker focused on the project's benefits. This included several residents whose family members have disabilities. Leora Ross talked about her sister, who had a traumatic injury as a baby that left her with a disability.
"She'd love a place to live on her own with the support she needs," Ross said. "When we talk about 59 units, we're really talking about 59 people like my sister whose lives would be completely changed with this."
Noah Fiedel, a Wilton Avenue resident who represented his neighborhood in discussions with Palo Alto Housing, told the council that he didn't initially expect to be backing the project. On Monday, however, he said he was "excited" to support it and called the nonprofit's leaders "incredibly collaborative" and "very flexible" in making sure the project works for neighbors.
Former Mayor Pat Burt, who was on the council during the 2013 controversy over the Maybell development, also praised the approach of Palo Alto Housing in pursuing the project and winning over the neighbors.
"The Ventura neighborhood and their leadership have shown that they are sincere — that they truly value diversity in the community and want to support it and are willing to accept certain trade-offs to achieve that," Burt said. "The willingness to listen to them and respond to them has just been a breath of fresh air and really bodes well for these projects going forward."
Given the broad community support, the council wasted little time in moving the project forward. Vice Mayor Adrian Fine, a housing advocate whose November 2017 memo prompted a broad revision of the city's zoning code to encourage more housing, made the motion to approve the Palo Alto Housing proposal, calling it a "great project."
Councilwoman Alison Cormack concurred.
"There were many people who made it easy for us to say yes this evening," Cormack said.
Despite broad support, council members agreed to add a few conditions to ensure that the project's parking and traffic impacts would be properly addressed. Councilman Tom DuBois added a clause directing staff to evaluate a Residential Preferential Parking program in the neighborhood and Councilwoman Lydia Kou insisted that the approval include a direction to staff to conduct a "comprehensive traffic study" for Ventura — an idea that many in the neighborhood had clamored for.
Those cavils aside, the council agreed that the project is well worthy of support. Mayor Eric Filseth called it "a model for how these things are going to be done."
"What you've done is going to benefit everyone in Palo Alto, in Ventura and all the other neighborhoods," Filseth said.