A commercial site at the busy corner of Fabian Way and Charleston Road may soon be redeveloped to create one of Palo Alto's largest apartment projects in decades under a proposal that the City Council is scheduled to consider next month.
The proposal by property owner Jeff Farrar for 3997 Fabian Way would bring 290 apartments to a south Palo Alto site that most recently was occupied by Maxar, a space technology company. The property owner, Jeff Farrar, had informed the city in a December letter that the company was set to vacate the property by the end of the year and that he is looking to convert the industrial site to residential use.
The preliminary proposal, which the council is scheduled to consider on Feb. 8, calls for demolishing the 35,000-square-foot commercial building and replacing it with a 259,192-square-feet development, according to project plans. The complex would have two courtyards and an underground garage with 373 stalls. According to the plans, the building would have 160 one-bedroom apartments, 85 two-bedroom apartments and 45 studios.
"The site would be an ideal location for multifamily housing, as it is within walking and biking distance of thousands of jobs and could provide housing within Palo Alto that would contribute to improved traffic patterns for regional commuting," the letter from Farrar's company, Far Western Land & Investment Company, states. "Additionally, the community has greatly benefited from the Oshman Family JCC and its related housing. The site is well-suited to add multifamily, near other housing and buildings of similar height and density."
Under the proposal, 29 apartments will be reserved for "very-low" income residents, those making under 50% of area median income. Because the developer is focusing on this income category, the project is required to dedicate only 10% of the units to below-market-rate housing, as well as contribute housing impact fees. Housing developers that target higher income levels are generally subject to a 20% requirement for affordable housing under the rules of the city's new "planned housing" zone.
Far Western's plan is the fourth and, by far, the largest proposal that the city has received under its "planned housing" zone, a newly adopted tool that allows the city and residential builders to negotiate over development standards such as height, density and parking rules. One project, which was proposed by Sand Hill Property Company and which included 187 apartments and office space at Stanford Research Park, has been withdrawn after mixed reviews from the council. Another, a 113-apartment development at 2951 El Camino Real, earned generally positive reviews from the council earlier this month during a pre-screening session.
The council also has received a proposal from Cato Investments for a 24-unit complex on Wellesley Street in the College Terrace neighborhood. That project, however, faces tough odds given that the proposed site is in a single-family neighborhood and that several council members underscored earlier this month their opposition to seeing planned housing projects in R-1 zones.
The topic came up during the council's Jan. 19 review of the 113-apartment project from Acclaim Companies, which combines three commercial parcels along El Camino Real with two R-1-zoned properties in the Ventura neighborhood.
"I think this property is an interesting opportunity because most of it is commercially zoned, but I don't think we should be bringing R-1 projects under the planned housing zone and I think we should be really clear about that," Mayor Tom DuBois said during the pre-screening review.
Council member Greer Stone also said that he wants to see the city avoid projects in R-1 zones as an assurance to residents that "their R-1 zone won't be threatened."
The Fabian Way developer, by contrast, is targeting a commercial site that is currently zoned for general manufacturing use. While this could make the project more palatable, the size and density of the proposal will likely give some council members and nearby residents pause.
Far Western would require significant zoning exceptions to make the project a reality. It would consist of a five-story building that would be 67 feet in height, well exceeding Palo Alto's 50-foot limit. The project's density, both in terms of building area and unit count, would also go well beyond what's typically allowed under the zoning code. By placing 290 units on a 2.15-acre site, it would have a density of 135 units per acre, well exceeding the 40 that is normally allowed in the city's high-density multifamily zones.
Furthermore, while Farrar's application states that the proposed development is within biking distance of jobs, the intersection of Fabian Way and East Charleston Road is notoriously hazardous for bicyclists to navigate. Council members acknowledged as much this week and took a step to remedy the situation when they approved funding for biking improvements on a stretch of Fabian, near Charleston. Construction on these improvements is expected to launch in early 2023.
In his letter, Farrar touted the various benefits of the project: most notably, a needed boost to Palo Alto's housing supply. The city has a goal of approving about 300 housing units annually, a bar it has consistently failed to reach. Approving a 290-unit development would go a long way to reversing that trend.
Farrar also noted that the project would replace about 115 jobs with housing in a city that has one of the highest ratios of jobs per housing unit in the region. The project also includes the replacement of "outdated industrial buildings with new state-of-the-art housing that is well positioned for decades to come," he wrote.
The council's pre-screening hearing will help Far Western determine whether to file a formal application. If the developer proceeds, the project would undergo reviews by the city's Planning and Transportation Commission and its Architectural Review Board before returning to the council for final approval.