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Palo Alto looks to industrial sites to address housing shortage

Areas zoned for manufacturing, industrial uses could accommodate up to 2,500 new residential units

On East Meadow Circle, some areas which were previously commercial, like the Anacor building on the left, are becoming residential units, like the Echelon condominiums on the right. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

East Meadow Circle is no stranger to housing booms.

Two decades ago, the neighborhood was Palo Alto's hottest area for residential development, with newly constructed housing complexes known as Echelon, Vantage and Altaire bringing more than 500 apartments and condominiums to what has historically been one of the city's few industrial neighborhoods. A few blocks away, on Fabian Way, the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life had just gone up — a major development that would ultimately include a 193-unit senior community known as the Moldaw Family Residences.

The courtyard facing the Moldaw Family Residences features an outside space for residents. Embarcadero file photo by Veronica Weber.

The area, which was developed in the 1960s and 1970s as a business park, became such a housing magnet that the city attempted to pump the brakes by revising the zoning code to prohibit residential uses in industrial zones and by launching a new neighborhood plan for the East Meadow Circle area. The document aimed to, among other objectives, snuff out residential growth and boost commercial development. The draft plan, which was never officially adopted, cites the recent conversion of industrial land to residential uses as a "chief concern" and its recommendations included increasing the allowed density of commercial development. Notably, its preferred alternative included no residential projects.

Now, the pendulum is swinging hard the other way. The city is now putting together its new Housing Element, a vision document that includes an inventory of potential housing sites that will help it meet its regional housing targets of 6,086 new dwellings between 2023 and 2031. For city officials and residents, East Meadow Circle and other streets around it are a key piece of the puzzle.

Last week, a citizen panel that is working on the Housing Element update endorsed a staff proposal to once again allow housing in manufacturing and light-industrial zones. According to calculations from planning staff, if the city's general manufacturing (GM) and retail, office and light manufacturing (ROLM) zones are allowed to include residential use, they could potentially accommodate 2,579 dwellings — more than a third of the city's total allocation.

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The vast majority of these residences would be concentrated in the area around East Meadow and just north of San Antonio Road, which includes 102 of the city's 155 general-manufacturing sites and all 27 sites zoned for light manufacturing. Unlike the GM zone, which does not permit residential use, the ROLM zone allows it through approval of a conditional use permit. The new proposal would continue to allow all existing uses while adding residential to the mix.

The proposal is still in its early phase and subject to reviews by the Planning and Transportation Commission and, ultimately, the City Council. But it cleared an initial hurdle on Nov. 18, when the Housing Element Working Group endorsed further exploring it by a 13-1 vote. Even the sole dissenter, Arthur Keller, generally supported the concept, though he wanted to see stricter density provisions in commercial areas next to single-family neighborhoods.

The proposal to allow housing in industrial sites is just one of numerous strategies that staff and the working group have been discussing over the span of nine meetings. Other strategies that are expected to advance as part of the Housing Element process include upzoning existing residential parcels and allowing greater residential density in areas near Caltrain stations and along transit corridors, according to a Nov. 18 presentation from senior planner Tim Wong, who is leading the update process. They are also considering allowing housing development on city-owned parking lots and at faith-based institutions.

The residential units at Echelon on East Meadow Drive were part of Palo Alto's residential boom in area in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Embarcadero file photo by Veronica Weber.

In discussing the proposal to allow residential development in industrial zones, city staff and working group members acknowledged a few key challenges that the proposal would need to overcome. One is the potential health hazards of locating residential development near companies that handle hazardous materials. As part of the proposal, staff is now working with the Fire and Public Works departments to identify areas of concern and consider mitigations. Wong noted in a report that a 300-foot minimum distance from commercial uses is typically required for residential developments.

Another problem is the relative dearth of public transportation and the somewhat meager biking amenities in the area, notwithstanding the city's new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101, which opened to the public on Saturday and which offers East Meadow Circle residents convenient, year-round access to the Baylands. Ed Lauing, who chairs the planning commission and who co-chairs the Housing Element Working Group, suggested that it's not enough to simply build thousands of units. The city needs to build the infrastructure to support its residents.

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"The essential aspect here is to build a neighborhood," Lauing said. "We don't want to warehouse our citizens in any kind of structures, particularly just some things that look like old-fashioned housing projects in Chicago."

Sheryl Klein, his fellow co-chair, agreed. Klein, who serves as chief operating officer at the housing nonprofit Alta Housing, said it's important to create an environment where people can walk to amenities.

"Because right now, all those people are going to need to use their cars to go to the grocery stores, to go to the library, to take those kids to schools," Klein said.

Some believe this will soon change. With Google buying up properties on East Meadow Circle over the past decade, several working group members suggested that the area may soon see an expansion of transportation options in the area.

"Just because there's no transit today, doesn't mean there won't be transit in two years, three years, five years," Keith Reckdahl, who serves on the working group, said at the Nov. 18 meeting. "The VTA (Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority) is looking at running transit to Google and those VTA buses will go right by here. So by the time they are built, there may actually be very good bus service."

Scott O'Neill, who lives on East Meadow Circle, said he would welcome the change. Addressing the working group at the Nov. 18 meeting, O'Neill said he would like to see more walkable services in the area, which will require more density.

He warned however, that any plans from the city to create housing in the area hinge in many ways on Google, whose logo he said he could see from the window of his home. As a sign of its investment in the neighborhood, the company contributed $1 million toward the new $23 million bike bridge over Highway 101.

"Unless you can secure a clear pro-housing representation from this major landowner, you should assume a low probability of development," O'Neill said.

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Palo Alto looks to industrial sites to address housing shortage

Areas zoned for manufacturing, industrial uses could accommodate up to 2,500 new residential units

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Nov 23, 2021, 9:37 am

East Meadow Circle is no stranger to housing booms.

Two decades ago, the neighborhood was Palo Alto's hottest area for residential development, with newly constructed housing complexes known as Echelon, Vantage and Altaire bringing more than 500 apartments and condominiums to what has historically been one of the city's few industrial neighborhoods. A few blocks away, on Fabian Way, the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life had just gone up — a major development that would ultimately include a 193-unit senior community known as the Moldaw Family Residences.

The area, which was developed in the 1960s and 1970s as a business park, became such a housing magnet that the city attempted to pump the brakes by revising the zoning code to prohibit residential uses in industrial zones and by launching a new neighborhood plan for the East Meadow Circle area. The document aimed to, among other objectives, snuff out residential growth and boost commercial development. The draft plan, which was never officially adopted, cites the recent conversion of industrial land to residential uses as a "chief concern" and its recommendations included increasing the allowed density of commercial development. Notably, its preferred alternative included no residential projects.

Now, the pendulum is swinging hard the other way. The city is now putting together its new Housing Element, a vision document that includes an inventory of potential housing sites that will help it meet its regional housing targets of 6,086 new dwellings between 2023 and 2031. For city officials and residents, East Meadow Circle and other streets around it are a key piece of the puzzle.

Last week, a citizen panel that is working on the Housing Element update endorsed a staff proposal to once again allow housing in manufacturing and light-industrial zones. According to calculations from planning staff, if the city's general manufacturing (GM) and retail, office and light manufacturing (ROLM) zones are allowed to include residential use, they could potentially accommodate 2,579 dwellings — more than a third of the city's total allocation.

The vast majority of these residences would be concentrated in the area around East Meadow and just north of San Antonio Road, which includes 102 of the city's 155 general-manufacturing sites and all 27 sites zoned for light manufacturing. Unlike the GM zone, which does not permit residential use, the ROLM zone allows it through approval of a conditional use permit. The new proposal would continue to allow all existing uses while adding residential to the mix.

The proposal is still in its early phase and subject to reviews by the Planning and Transportation Commission and, ultimately, the City Council. But it cleared an initial hurdle on Nov. 18, when the Housing Element Working Group endorsed further exploring it by a 13-1 vote. Even the sole dissenter, Arthur Keller, generally supported the concept, though he wanted to see stricter density provisions in commercial areas next to single-family neighborhoods.

The proposal to allow housing in industrial sites is just one of numerous strategies that staff and the working group have been discussing over the span of nine meetings. Other strategies that are expected to advance as part of the Housing Element process include upzoning existing residential parcels and allowing greater residential density in areas near Caltrain stations and along transit corridors, according to a Nov. 18 presentation from senior planner Tim Wong, who is leading the update process. They are also considering allowing housing development on city-owned parking lots and at faith-based institutions.

In discussing the proposal to allow residential development in industrial zones, city staff and working group members acknowledged a few key challenges that the proposal would need to overcome. One is the potential health hazards of locating residential development near companies that handle hazardous materials. As part of the proposal, staff is now working with the Fire and Public Works departments to identify areas of concern and consider mitigations. Wong noted in a report that a 300-foot minimum distance from commercial uses is typically required for residential developments.

Another problem is the relative dearth of public transportation and the somewhat meager biking amenities in the area, notwithstanding the city's new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101, which opened to the public on Saturday and which offers East Meadow Circle residents convenient, year-round access to the Baylands. Ed Lauing, who chairs the planning commission and who co-chairs the Housing Element Working Group, suggested that it's not enough to simply build thousands of units. The city needs to build the infrastructure to support its residents.

"The essential aspect here is to build a neighborhood," Lauing said. "We don't want to warehouse our citizens in any kind of structures, particularly just some things that look like old-fashioned housing projects in Chicago."

Sheryl Klein, his fellow co-chair, agreed. Klein, who serves as chief operating officer at the housing nonprofit Alta Housing, said it's important to create an environment where people can walk to amenities.

"Because right now, all those people are going to need to use their cars to go to the grocery stores, to go to the library, to take those kids to schools," Klein said.

Some believe this will soon change. With Google buying up properties on East Meadow Circle over the past decade, several working group members suggested that the area may soon see an expansion of transportation options in the area.

"Just because there's no transit today, doesn't mean there won't be transit in two years, three years, five years," Keith Reckdahl, who serves on the working group, said at the Nov. 18 meeting. "The VTA (Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority) is looking at running transit to Google and those VTA buses will go right by here. So by the time they are built, there may actually be very good bus service."

Scott O'Neill, who lives on East Meadow Circle, said he would welcome the change. Addressing the working group at the Nov. 18 meeting, O'Neill said he would like to see more walkable services in the area, which will require more density.

He warned however, that any plans from the city to create housing in the area hinge in many ways on Google, whose logo he said he could see from the window of his home. As a sign of its investment in the neighborhood, the company contributed $1 million toward the new $23 million bike bridge over Highway 101.

"Unless you can secure a clear pro-housing representation from this major landowner, you should assume a low probability of development," O'Neill said.

Comments

Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 23, 2021 at 10:09 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 23, 2021 at 10:09 am

It was not until more than half way through the article that Google was mentioned. From my memory, this circle was being eyed by Google for expansion into Palo Alto and mentioned many times in respect of funding of the new foot/bike bridge.

When the JCC was first opened we were told that new public transport would service this area. This has not been the case and parking is already difficult for anyone other than those who work at the offices on Fabian. I suspect that street parking is already a problem near E. Meadow Circle and this will only make it worse. The new bridge and any type of shuttle will do very little to alleviate traffic/parking concerns in the area regardless of any new developments.


Carol Scott
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Nov 23, 2021 at 11:23 am
Carol Scott, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Nov 23, 2021 at 11:23 am

Thank you, Commissioner Lauing, for understanding and advocating for neighborhoods and not just any kind of housing. Creative thinking is needed to provide not just housing, but housing and a city that people will actually want to live in. I appreciate thought being given to all of the infrastructure that is needed, including not just transit, but also schools, parks, electrical grid capacity, sewer system improvements, etc.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on Nov 23, 2021 at 11:36 am
Native to the BAY, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on Nov 23, 2021 at 11:36 am

GS no mention of the far distance from Cal Train. Will there be an hourly shuttle? We are talking about a small sub-city. The ROLM GM is wedged between a noisy freeway and Mountain View. Bay land is not a place I’d send my 10 year old, across a freeway, to kick around a ball. I would be hesitant to have my 86 year-old mother cross Charleston to shop for cleaning supplies at hardware store. Except for Costco, it’s a fresh food desert as well as lacking in good near public transit . Look to Windsor Calif for that planned community. It would be nice to have let your readers know when up-coming meetings are held: Council, PTC, HEWG and its ad hoc take place — for public added comment and discourse. After-all it’s everyone’s future.


Steve
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 23, 2021 at 11:55 am
Steve, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Nov 23, 2021 at 11:55 am

I’m against any development unless we have a perfect community with schools, libraries,shopping, and workplaces close enough to walk to, but far enough away so that the associated noise, parking , and traffic congestion are in somebody else’s neighborhood.
East Meadow Circle is a 6 minute bike ride from Fairmeadow school which is way to long for our very busy children. Dos Ramos park is a distant 11 minute walk away which will discourage all but the super fit.
It’s clear from the declining home prices in Palo Alto that no one would want to move into a new neighborhood unless it has ideal amenities.
Let’s make sure new homes are as expensive as possible by creating a perfect environment. That’s the Palo Alto way!


rsmithjr
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 23, 2021 at 5:23 pm
rsmithjr, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Nov 23, 2021 at 5:23 pm

Has the city thought about what the owners of these properties might think about this proposal? They might start by watching the tapes from the Buena Vista and Hotel President hearings.


JB
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Nov 27, 2021 at 9:00 pm
JB, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Nov 27, 2021 at 9:00 pm

Hello, Native to the Bay and others. The next Palo Alto Housing Element meeting is on December 2. You can find the link below. It's good to be part of this process!

Web Link


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Midtown
on Nov 28, 2021 at 7:40 pm
Native to the BAY, Midtown
Registered user
on Nov 28, 2021 at 7:40 pm

It’s more efficient for the City to waste time volunteer resources on bad , futuristic ideas than it is to expand for economic and social good. Case in point. Keep underutilized parking structures near empty than it is to work to confront real solutions like : building affordable homes in transit rich areas like Cambridge Ave. It’s the grease that keeps automobiles king and R1 NIMBY homeowners happy — Mayfield Place has a parking robot that houses 195 small to medium sized cars. Unsafe for children, pets, unloading groceries and very bad for busy, busy working, on the go families. Yet. Might be Perfect for employees, retail parking. 8 residents store autos on a long term basis there. The machines is NOT designed for residential purposes but for long term parking (like at airports) . Rip it out and put apartments in the now wasted, hollow space or, hire human valets 8am-9pm for Cal Ave retail shopping or commuting workers. Even better lease it out for Sunday farmers market. My vote is better housing solutions. ROLM and MF is a climate disaster in the making. The PA Fire Department is not the Operational Emergency Services or OSHA even if there is a bit of cross over duties.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 28, 2021 at 8:54 pm
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 28, 2021 at 8:54 pm

@JB. thanks. I have been listening to said, HEWG meetings. Counting every time the word “parking” has been raised by each over and above the word “ “Housing”. It’s about a 3 to 1 ratio so far, three public parking spaces for one person potentially housed. Ironically the same as the pre-pandemic, 3 jobs to every one person housed. Clearly parking a car in retail, commercial, on the street is far superior and critical, controllable to this group than climate change or housing one human being. The group is more of a PEWG (Parking element working group) than anything else. I have the chicken scratch to prove my findings. Listen in and see what you find. To me, the group is 75% about id’ing parking stalls for thier automobiles to 25% of the group id’ing sites for feasible housing solutions. I am not speaking to the state mandated reduced residential ratio of parking, either. It appears not only do PA R1 residents not care for affordable multi family homes on thier streets, they also want a assurances of a guaranteed free parking space for themselves, anytime anywhere in the city. The fear that Transit oriented affordable housing will suck up thier perceived auto space is pervasive and wrong. BTW the word bicycle travel is near non-existent w the group, unless it has to do w the $23 Million Bike Bridge to Google. With said group, The notion of local bike travel has nothing to do with mixed use, climate friendly, sustainable affordable housing for people. My count above: 8 homes for every 6 car slots. Not bad, eh?!


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