Ever since Palo Alto introduced its "planned home" zone last year and invited developers to pitch residential projects that exceed the zoning code, it has received a diverse array of proposals, from the 24-apartment project proposed in College Terrace to a 290-apartment development eyed for Fabian Way.
Most applicants so far have relied on the new zoning designation to propose projects with more than 100 residences, with the most promising one preparing to bring 113 apartments to a Ventura neighborhood site near El Camino Real and Olive Avenue.
By contrast, Tarlton Properties is thinking small. Really small.
Its proposal for 955 Alma St., which the City Council plans to review in a "pre-screening" hearing next month, would replace an existing office building with a mixed-use complex that includes 36 "innovation" microstudios and office space on the ground floor. Consistent with the council's recent push to discourage new offices and encourage new housing, developer John Tarlton would reduce the total office space from the current level of about 8,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet, while adding the tiny units.
Located in SOFA-2 neighborhood, on the southern edge of downtown and across the train tracks near the Town & Country Village shopping center, the new building would feature apartments with an average size of 342 square feet. Each of them, despite the small size, will contain a bathroom, a washer, a dryer, a galley kitchen and a sofa that folds out into a queen-sized bed.
Heather Young, the project architect, said each residence is designed to be a "very adaptable space."
"We have no wasted interior space," Young told this news organization. "We're planning for storage of removable tables and chairs that come out during the day and are tucked away at night, and a foldout desk that tucks away at night."
Each apartment, according to the application, would have about 34 linear feet of storage, with a retractable coffee table that is convertible to a dining table and that "slips snuggly into a media wall to make more floor space." On the adjacent wall, a fold-down desk will convert to a home office work station, with recessed storage for a computer and books. Four fold-out chairs will stack above the desk, hidden from view when the cabinet is closed, the application states.
Young said the project was inspired by the developer's personal experience. Her firm had designed an even smaller microstudio for John Tarlton's personal property in Palo Alto several years ago. He has been surprised by the strong demand he has received for the unit, which tends to rent out quickly.
"The couples or the singles who rent there always speak very highly of its efficiency," she said.
To build the four-story project, the applicant is seeking two zoning exceptions that would allow it to exceed the city's regulations for, respectively, height and density. The property's zoning designation allows a maximum height of 35 feet; the developer is seeking an increase to 50 feet, consistent with the citywide height limit. It is also requesting that the building density be allowed to increase, with floor-area-ratio going up from 1.15 to 2.68.
Like other developers pitching "planned home" projects, Tarlton and Young face a long road ahead of them. After the council offers early feedback at the May 18 hearing, the developer's team will decide whether to submit a formal application, which would then go through the city's gamut of boards and commissions before returning to the council for approval.
Recent hearings on other planned-home projects should, however, give the team some reasons for optimism. Earlier this month, the council reaffirmed its commitment to steer planned-home projects away from single-family neighborhoods and toward commercial corridors and areas that are zoned for high-density residential use. Numerous council members — most notably, Greg Tanaka — have also talked frequently about their desire to see projects with smaller units because this would enable more — and more affordable — residential spaces.
When the council was reviewing the planned-home project proposed for 2951 El Camino Real, Tanaka asked the applicant, Acclaim Companies, to consider increasing the number of units by having more studios in its proposal.
"In general, smaller units are naturally more affordable," Tanaka said.
Young noted that studios are generally underrepresented in Palo Alto and the proposed project helps create a "balance of units types" in the community. Seven of the 36 studios would be designated at "affordable housing," with three of those targeting residents in the "very low" income level of 50% or lower than Santa Clara County's average median income.
The project, she said, is particularly suitable for the Alma Street location because of its proximity to the Caltrain station downtown and major retail areas. It is also more than 150 feet away from other residential buildings, she said.
"This site in particular is an excellent opportunity for the city to gain some much-needed multifamily housing with the win-wins of reduced current quantity of office space and the positive impact on the jobs-housing ratio," Young said.