After years of struggling to promote housing development, Palo Alto is now awash with proposals — nearly all of them targeting the rapidly changing area near the California Avenue business district.
The City Council has already approved two residential developments — a "workforce housing" project with 57 apartments at 2755 El Camino Real, on the busy corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road — and 59 apartments known as Wilton Court for low-income families and adults with disabilities. And over the past few months, council members gave favorable reviews to plans to build 119 housing units at 2951 El Camino Real through the new "planned housing" zone and to Santa Clara County's teacher-housing project proposed for 231 Grant Ave., which consists of 110 apartments.
Now, the council is preparing to review another proposal. Smith Development, which owns numerous properties around California Avenue and in the nearby Ventura neighborhood, is hoping to merge three properties, demolish the small office buildings currently on site and construct a mixed-use development with 75 housing units and 35,996 square feet of office space near the California Avenue Caltrain station. The properties are at 150 Grant Ave., 123 Sherman Ave. and 2501 Park Blvd.
Much like the 119-unit project proposed by Acclaim Companies for 2951 El Camino, the proposal from Smith would require a zone change to "planned community," a designation that allows developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for community benefits. While the council unofficially abolished PC-zone projects in 2013, council members revived the zoning designation under a new name — the "planned housing zone" — and specified that they would only consider projects that offer housing as a public benefit.
According to project plans, the Smith proposal would create two buildings around an existing office building at 2555 Park Blvd. The new office project would occupy the corner of Park and Sherman, with a five-story housing development immediately behind it, stretching toward Grant Avenue. Because the entire site is zoned for commercial use, a zone change of some sort would be needed before any housing gets built there.
The council is tentatively scheduled to hold a "prescreening" for the proposal at its March 22 meeting, which is designed to provide applicants with early feedback so that they can determine whether to file a formal application.
As part of the proposal, Smith Development is requesting a zone change to allow housing and the city's permission to exceed Palo Alto's typical development standards for new buildings. The residential portion of the development would be 54 feet in height, exceeding the city's 50-foot height limit. And while the office component of the project would be well within the area's density limits, the residential portion would exceed the density threshold.
The development also includes an 86,617-square-foot underground garage with 154 spaces, which is 30% fewer than the city's regulations would normally allow. Developers plan to introduce a transportation-demand-management plan to encourage alternatives to solo commuting, according to plans.
Smith Development noted in its application that under existing zoning, it can build up to 70,858 square feet of commercial office space.
"Yet, Smith Development has elected not to pursue an exclusively commercial redevelopment so they can provide housing units for the community," Boyd and Lund Smith wrote in a letter to the city. "With great proximity to the California Avenue Caltrain Station, Smith Development feels that this location is well suited for a mixed-use project that allows Smith Development to exercise some of its non-residential development rights while also providing Palo Alto with 75 units of new housing."
If approved, the project would further accelerate the transformation of the area around Sherman Avenue and Park Boulevard. Palo Alto has recently completed the construction of a six-level parking garage at 350 Sherman Ave. and the city is planning to launch construction of a new public safety building at 250 Sherman Ave. in the coming months. The county, meanwhile, is planning to launch construction of its teacher-housing development at 230 Grant Ave. in August 2022.
The city also is concurrently moving ahead with a coordinated area plan for a 60-acre portion of Ventura just southeast of Smith Development's proposed project site. A working group of stakeholders, which includes Lund Smith, has been working on the plan for nearly two years and has prioritized housing — particularly, affordable housing — as a critical component of the plan.
The city's Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to hold its next hearing on the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan this Wednesday, March 10.