When Palo Alto created the "planned housing" zone a year ago, it signaled to residential developers that it wants to see more applications for housing developments, even ones that exceed the city's typical height, density and parking regulations.
But in evaluating the latest such proposal on Monday night, a 290-apartment complex eyed for the corner of Fabian Way and East Charleston Road, members of the City Council generally agreed that the developer is, quite literally, aiming too high.
The building proposed by Jeff Farrar would be 62 feet high, or 68 feet if its parapet is taken into account. As such, it would be higher than another large and dense development on the block: the Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life, which includes the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center and Moldaw Residences. The 290 units in Farrar's proposal include 160 one-bedroom apartments, 85 two-bedroom apartments and 45 studios. Twenty-nine of these apartments, or 10% of the total, would be allocated to individuals and families in the "very low" income level.
Farrar, whose company, Far Western Land & Investment, owns the property, said that he grew up in the area and had a "front row seat while the imbalance of jobs to housing in Palo Alto has developed."
"I recognize the tremendous need for housing and the need to locate housing close to jobs in an effort to ease traffic congestion and environmental impacts," Farrar said. "I've come to believe that this may be the right time and ideal location for a new apartment project."
In considering the city's most ambitious planned-housing project to date, the council found plenty to like. The location, most council members agreed, is appropriate for housing. They also liked the idea of transforming a commercial site into a residential one, a move that is consistent with the council's effort to lower its high jobs-to-housing imbalance.
The problem, council members agreed, is the building itself. While they acknowledged that the planned housing zone allows for some zoning concessions, most concluded that the building envisioned for 3997 Fabian Way is too tall and massive for the neighborhood.
Many area residents shared that view. The project's critics included numerous residents of Moldaw Residences, which is located near the project site and consists of 193 units of senior housing.
"Moldaw strongly supports the addition of housing in Palo Alto but we believe the project, as currently proposed, would be detrimental to Moldaw, the neighborhood and Palo Alto," Elyse Gerson, executive director of Moldaw Residences, said at the Monday meeting. "We believe the proposed project puts the residents' sense of security, health and comfort at risk."
Judith Krongold, a resident at Moldaw, suggested that the proposed building would "eliminate direct sunlight" at her home and those of dozens of nearby residents.
"Instead of bright light, we'd be in shadow," Krongold said. "Our balconies, which are very close to the proposed project, would not be private, as only the delivery and emergency lanes run between our homes and the proposed building."
Even some of the residents who typically support housing projects suggested that the Fabian Way proposal needs refinement. Randy Popp, former chair of the Architectural Review Board and a frequent advocate for more housing, advised the council to provide clear direction to the property owner to "reduce and revise so the project will be contextual and will do better."
The council largely shared this view. While council members concurred with Farrar that the site could be suitable for housing, they also suggested that the project would need major revisions and that the developer would need to do far more community outreach before the project could advance. The Monday hearing was a "pre-screening," which allows the council to provide early direction to the developer so that they can decide whether to file a formal application.
While council members didn't take any votes, they largely agreed that they would like to see a housing project at the site — just not necessarily the one that Farrar is proposing.
Mayor Tom DuBois called the five-story building an "outlier" in the area in terms of its size and density. The idea behind the planned housing zone, he said, was to "make some modest tweaks around the edges (of the zoning code) to get projects moving, to get them over the starting line."
"I'm concerned this project is very aggressive and it pushes too far," DuBois said.
Council member Eric Filseth said his biggest problem with the proposed building is its height. In other respects, however, the project is largely consistent with the council's housing vision, he said.
"It is a good location. It's a good use of this location. It fits our thinking about shifting some commercial to residential," Filseth said.
The project is one of three "planned housing" proposals that the council has received in recent months. In January, the council gave generally rave reviews to a proposed 113-apartment project in Ventura, near the intersection of El Camino Real and Olive Avenue. It also plans to review in the coming weeks a proposal from Cato Investments, which is hoping to build a 24-unit apartment building in a single-family zone at 2239 Wellesley St., in the College Terrace neighborhood.
While council members didn't preclude the idea of advancing a housing proposal on Fabian Way, they proposed numerous changes. Council member Lydia Kou suggested that the developer devote more units to affordable housing than currently proposed. Council member Greg Tanaka recommended smaller units, which he argued would inherently be more affordable.
Vice Mayor Pat Burt, representing the majority view, suggested that the entire building be reduced in scale. He said he is concerned that the project is "significantly above what we have put in the framework" for the new housing zone.
"I'm not close-minded to a significant project here, but I think it needs to be not breaking the bank," Burt said.