A plan to construct a 50-apartment complex for low-income residents and individuals with disabilities next to Mitchell Park passed its first test Monday, when the Palo Alto City Council gave the project its enthusiastic blessing despite some concerns about traffic impacts.
Proposed by the nonprofit developer Eden Housing, the proposal for 525 E. Charleston Road would bring a mixed-use, four-story building to a site currently occupied by AbilityPath, a nonprofit that provides services to individuals with developmental disabilities. Once the Eden Housing development is complete, the nonprofit would occupy office space on the building's ground floor. The rest of the building would consist of 50 apartments, 25 of which would be occupied by individuals with disabilities.
The project was conceived by Santa Clara County, which owns the land and which last year put out a request for proposals to housing developers. In April, the county chose Eden Housing to manage the project. Since this summer, Eden has been holding community meetings and talking to neighborhood stakeholders to discuss the project and solicit feedback for the building's design.
The new building will stand next to Mitchell Park and close to Greenmeadow, a neighborhood dominated by single-story Eichler homes. Kate Conley, project architect, said the design team took some cues from the neighborhood when it came to designing the building.
"We're exploring natural building materials, as seen in surrounding Eichler homes … and based on participants' strong overall desire to see the mid-century Eichler aesthetic brought on the building, we have here incorporated strong rooflines with extended eaves and exposed beams as well as clerestory windows to highlight the main entry to the building," Conley said Monday.
For the council, the project represents a rare opportunity to add truly affordable housing. The complex would offer units to residents making between 30% and 60% of area median income, which amounts to between $34,800 and $69,600 for a one-person household and between $39,780 and $79,560 for a two-person household. The building would consist of 39 studios, six one-bedroom apartments and five two-bedroom apartments, according to project plans.
While the council did not take any votes on the proposal Monday, members clearly indicated that they fully support the proposal from the county and Eden Housing. Though the city had approved another below-market-rate development at El Camino Real and Wilton Court in 2019, it remains well behind its targets for affordable housing. To date, the city has met only 15% of its regional housing allocation for individuals in the "low" and "very low" income groups for the period between 2015 and 2023.
"It's no secret that Palo Alto desperately needs this type of housing," council member Greer Stone said.
While the project is being driven by the county and Eden, the city will have to make some concessions and contributions. Staff said that based on its conversations with the applicant, the city will be asked to contribute about $2 million for the new development. It is also preparing to sign off on several zoning concessions and design exceptions that Eden has applied for, including ones that allow the developer to exceed density regulations and height restrictions.
One zoning exception pertains to the building area. The Eden project would have a floor area ratio of 1.35 in an area where the ratio is typically 1.0. Eden also plans to exceed the city's limits on lot coverage and on height. Whereas the height limit in an area next to a residential zone is typically 35 feet, the sloped roof of the proposed building would reach a height of 49 feet.
For some residents, that's a bit too much. Andrew Voltmer, who lives in Greenmeadow and across from the project site, said that the Eden building would be one of the tallest in the area. The neighborhood, he noted, has single-story zoning to "protect the privacy of our Eichler homes, which are designed with large floor-to-ceiling windows." He called for the project to be scaled back.
"I feel the project is way beyond the height it should be to maintain harmony with the neighborhood," Voltmer said.
Others suggested that adding a four-story development next to a busy school corridor would increase potential for conflicts between cars entering and exiting the building and the many bicyclists who rely on the Charleston corridor. Bike advocate Penny Ellson suggested that the project could actually improve circulation if it relied on an existing fire lane in the interior of the site to lead cars toward Middlefield Road — a proposal that Eden officials said they will study further.
Despite the traffic concern, the vast majority of speakers at the Monday meeting heartily endorsed the project and urged the council to swiftly approve it. Kevin Ma, a congregant at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, which is near the project site, was one of about a dozen speakers who advocated for the project.
"We should be encouraging some of the people who work as our cashiers or people who are developmentally disabled to have a place in our community that is not cost prohibitive, so that anyone from any other walk of life can have space here," Ma said.
The council concurred, with many members suggesting that they would happily endorse the project once the formal application is completed.
"It's 100% affordable, it's for special at-risk groups," Stone said. "If this was a project that was coming to us for approval, especially given that the concessions are not extreme, I think this would be something that we would be happy to support."
Stone and others also agreed that the zoning concessions that Eden is requesting are both relatively reasonable and fairly few in number (The developer is allowed by state law to get up to four concessions for its 100% affordable-housing development. It is officially requesting just one, pertaining to lot coverage; the rest are considered design exceptions.). Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who championed the Mitchell Park development, lauded Eden for generally conforming to the city's zoning rules.
"I thought it was noteworthy that the developer team has worked so hard to not ask for three concessions that they were otherwise entitled to by law," Simitian said. "Really trying to avoid that to the greatest degree possible."
Council members also indicated that the zoning exceptions in the proposal are relatively minor. Mayor Tom DuBois said he wished Palo Alto had more projects like the one proposed by Eden. Vice Mayor Pat Burt agreed and urged Eden Housing to further explore Ellson's plan to divert traffic from Charleston Road.
"Improving circulation is not an encumbrance or an obstacle, it's an opportunity for this project and it could also help serve Challenger (School) and (AbilityPath)," Burt said, referring to current site occupants. "Fortunately, all three of those properties are on county land and we hope the county can help facilitate some of that improvement to the circulation."