News

Palo Alto to shop around for housing proposals on downtown lots

Council endorses idea of building apartments, with 375 Hamilton Ave. as the leading contender

Architects Peter Baltay and David Hirsch have developed a conceptual drawing showing an 83-apartment complex on a city-owned parking lot on Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street. Rendering courtesy Peter Baltay and David Hirsch.

The idea of building housing on downtown parking lots in Palo Alto hasn't always enticed city leaders, who briefly considered and quickly discarded the proposal when they were devising the city's housing plans in 2018.

The suggestion of constructing large parking structures on these lots has fared only slightly better, with the City Council spending more than $1.3 million to design a five-story, 324-space structure that was supposed to occupy the surface lot on 375 Hamilton Ave., only to pivot away from the project in 2019.

On Monday night, however, both concepts resurfaced with a vengeance as the council endorsed the concept of building housing over parking at one or more of the city's 12 downtown parking lots. And while the location has not been finalized, the lot at 375 Hamilton Ave., across the street from the post office, remains a leading contender, the council indicated on Monday as it directed staff to issue a request for proposals from developers.

The council's 6-1 vote, with Eric Filseth dissenting, reflected members' growing recognition that city-owned parking lots may represent the city's best shot at actually constructing housing, particularly at affordable levels. The city is facing a regional mandate of building 6,086 housing units between 2023 and 2031, up from 1,988 units in the current eight-year cycle. With city officials and citizen volunteers now developing a strategy for building these units, housing over parking has reemerged as a promising solution.

The concept has picked up fresh momentum in recent months thanks to the efforts of architects Peter Baltay and David Hirsch, who have spent months evaluating downtown lots and who estimate that the city can build more than 1,000 housing units on downtown's 12 lots without losing any parking spaces. One potential project that they sketched out is a five-story housing complex at 375 Hamilton Ave. with 83 apartments and 130 underground parking spaces.

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Baltay and Hirsch, who both serve on the city's Architectural Review Board but who pitched the proposal in their individual capacities, both stressed that because the city owns the downtown lots, it would have all the leverage when it comes to attracting exactly the type of housing development that it wants to see. Hirsch noted that the project would also bring the added benefit of supporting existing downtown retailers, who have been pummeled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What we would be doing is building in a population that would additionally support commercial that is here already," Hirsch said in a September interview.

Much like the Housing Element Working Group, which voted 12-3 in September to advance the idea, the council broadly agreed on Monday that it's worth pursuing. At the same time, council members rejected the proposal of simply reviving the old garage project for the Hamilton lot.

In addition to supplying land for the potential housing and parking project, the city would also provide some funding to would-be partners. Palo Alto already has about $6.3 million in in-lieu parking fees that it has collected from developers and these funds, by law, must be used to increase parking supply. The city is expecting to receive another $9.2 million in in-lieu fees from the Adventurous Journeys Capital Partners, which is redeveloping the historic President Hotel building at 488 University Ave. into a boutique hotel.

"We do need to spend those fees for that purpose or we'll have to return them at some point," City Attorney Molly Stump said Monday.

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Yet despite the city's growing wherewithal, the idea of actually building the garage has been falling out of vogue even before the pandemic. The council included a downtown garage on its 2014 list of infrastructure priorities, a list that also includes a new California Avenue garage, a pedestrian/bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 and a rebuilt fire station at Rinconada Park. But while all three of those projects have already been completed and the largest project on the list — a $118 million public safety building — is now in the works, the prospect of building a new downtown garage fizzled in February 2019, when the council agreed to halt the project and explore more comprehensive solutions to the area's parking shortages.

After commissioning design work, the City Council abandoned in 2019 the idea of building a garage at 375 Hamilton Ave. Rendering by Watry Design Inc.

With housing now added to the mix, the council is now preparing to resurrect and modify those garage plans. While some members, most notably Mayor Tom DuBois and council member Greg Tanaka, suggested that they would be interested in supporting a parking structure even without housing, most of their colleagues strongly favored alternatives that include both housing and parking. Even Filseth, who dissented, said he generally supports the idea — just not the order of the city's operations.

"The danger is it's going to get driven by, 'We've got money and maybe some land, what can we do with it?' as opposed to the other way around, where we say, 'We identified what our needs are in this area and how can we use this money and this land to accelerate stuff that we've already determined we need?" Filseth said. "My intuition is it's the right direction, but I think we're doing it out of sequence."

Others characterized downtown lots as a great opportunity to make progress on both housing and parking.

"Our surface parking lots are one of a few candidate locations in both downtowns, where we can over time provide the land for affordable housing sites and so I think that's what we'd need to do …" Vice Mayor Pat Burt said.

Unlike some members of the Housing Element Working Group, who insisted that residential development on city-owned lot should exclusively consist of below-market-rate housing, the council indicated that it would entertain proposals that include a market-rate component.

"I am open the idea of some market-rate housing, but I think it does need to require a substantial but meaningful requirement of deed restricted below-market-rate units if the city is going to commit to this investment of city resources," said council member Greer Stone, who also indicated that he would not consider developments that don't include housing.

While the suggestion of adding housing proved generally popular, some residents urged the council not to build any more large parking structures. Andrea Gara, a member of 350.org's Palo Alto's chapter, which advocates for environmental sustainability, noted that the business climate has changed during the pandemic, with significant implications for parking demand.

"We could be spending a lot of money to build a garage that is going be permanently underutilized," Gara said. "It seems like it would be great to put some of that money toward some of our other goals, particularly sustainability goals."

But while most council members and residents focused on housing, John Shenk, CEO of property manage company Thoits Brothers, argued parking remains a major problem and that a new downtown garage is sorely needed, particularly as businesses return after the pandemic. He noted that the area has lost 79 parking spaces during the pandemic, with restaurants converting these spaces into parklets to accommodate outdoor dining.

"We need parking in the long run," Shenk said. "Getting going on this garage that you all have already invested a tremendous amount of money in is smart, (as is) taking advantage of the in-lieu fees that you have … before they must be returned."

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Palo Alto to shop around for housing proposals on downtown lots

Council endorses idea of building apartments, with 375 Hamilton Ave. as the leading contender

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Dec 7, 2021, 1:13 am

The idea of building housing on downtown parking lots in Palo Alto hasn't always enticed city leaders, who briefly considered and quickly discarded the proposal when they were devising the city's housing plans in 2018.

The suggestion of constructing large parking structures on these lots has fared only slightly better, with the City Council spending more than $1.3 million to design a five-story, 324-space structure that was supposed to occupy the surface lot on 375 Hamilton Ave., only to pivot away from the project in 2019.

On Monday night, however, both concepts resurfaced with a vengeance as the council endorsed the concept of building housing over parking at one or more of the city's 12 downtown parking lots. And while the location has not been finalized, the lot at 375 Hamilton Ave., across the street from the post office, remains a leading contender, the council indicated on Monday as it directed staff to issue a request for proposals from developers.

The council's 6-1 vote, with Eric Filseth dissenting, reflected members' growing recognition that city-owned parking lots may represent the city's best shot at actually constructing housing, particularly at affordable levels. The city is facing a regional mandate of building 6,086 housing units between 2023 and 2031, up from 1,988 units in the current eight-year cycle. With city officials and citizen volunteers now developing a strategy for building these units, housing over parking has reemerged as a promising solution.

The concept has picked up fresh momentum in recent months thanks to the efforts of architects Peter Baltay and David Hirsch, who have spent months evaluating downtown lots and who estimate that the city can build more than 1,000 housing units on downtown's 12 lots without losing any parking spaces. One potential project that they sketched out is a five-story housing complex at 375 Hamilton Ave. with 83 apartments and 130 underground parking spaces.

Baltay and Hirsch, who both serve on the city's Architectural Review Board but who pitched the proposal in their individual capacities, both stressed that because the city owns the downtown lots, it would have all the leverage when it comes to attracting exactly the type of housing development that it wants to see. Hirsch noted that the project would also bring the added benefit of supporting existing downtown retailers, who have been pummeled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What we would be doing is building in a population that would additionally support commercial that is here already," Hirsch said in a September interview.

Much like the Housing Element Working Group, which voted 12-3 in September to advance the idea, the council broadly agreed on Monday that it's worth pursuing. At the same time, council members rejected the proposal of simply reviving the old garage project for the Hamilton lot.

In addition to supplying land for the potential housing and parking project, the city would also provide some funding to would-be partners. Palo Alto already has about $6.3 million in in-lieu parking fees that it has collected from developers and these funds, by law, must be used to increase parking supply. The city is expecting to receive another $9.2 million in in-lieu fees from the Adventurous Journeys Capital Partners, which is redeveloping the historic President Hotel building at 488 University Ave. into a boutique hotel.

"We do need to spend those fees for that purpose or we'll have to return them at some point," City Attorney Molly Stump said Monday.

Yet despite the city's growing wherewithal, the idea of actually building the garage has been falling out of vogue even before the pandemic. The council included a downtown garage on its 2014 list of infrastructure priorities, a list that also includes a new California Avenue garage, a pedestrian/bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 and a rebuilt fire station at Rinconada Park. But while all three of those projects have already been completed and the largest project on the list — a $118 million public safety building — is now in the works, the prospect of building a new downtown garage fizzled in February 2019, when the council agreed to halt the project and explore more comprehensive solutions to the area's parking shortages.

With housing now added to the mix, the council is now preparing to resurrect and modify those garage plans. While some members, most notably Mayor Tom DuBois and council member Greg Tanaka, suggested that they would be interested in supporting a parking structure even without housing, most of their colleagues strongly favored alternatives that include both housing and parking. Even Filseth, who dissented, said he generally supports the idea — just not the order of the city's operations.

"The danger is it's going to get driven by, 'We've got money and maybe some land, what can we do with it?' as opposed to the other way around, where we say, 'We identified what our needs are in this area and how can we use this money and this land to accelerate stuff that we've already determined we need?" Filseth said. "My intuition is it's the right direction, but I think we're doing it out of sequence."

Others characterized downtown lots as a great opportunity to make progress on both housing and parking.

"Our surface parking lots are one of a few candidate locations in both downtowns, where we can over time provide the land for affordable housing sites and so I think that's what we'd need to do …" Vice Mayor Pat Burt said.

Unlike some members of the Housing Element Working Group, who insisted that residential development on city-owned lot should exclusively consist of below-market-rate housing, the council indicated that it would entertain proposals that include a market-rate component.

"I am open the idea of some market-rate housing, but I think it does need to require a substantial but meaningful requirement of deed restricted below-market-rate units if the city is going to commit to this investment of city resources," said council member Greer Stone, who also indicated that he would not consider developments that don't include housing.

While the suggestion of adding housing proved generally popular, some residents urged the council not to build any more large parking structures. Andrea Gara, a member of 350.org's Palo Alto's chapter, which advocates for environmental sustainability, noted that the business climate has changed during the pandemic, with significant implications for parking demand.

"We could be spending a lot of money to build a garage that is going be permanently underutilized," Gara said. "It seems like it would be great to put some of that money toward some of our other goals, particularly sustainability goals."

But while most council members and residents focused on housing, John Shenk, CEO of property manage company Thoits Brothers, argued parking remains a major problem and that a new downtown garage is sorely needed, particularly as businesses return after the pandemic. He noted that the area has lost 79 parking spaces during the pandemic, with restaurants converting these spaces into parklets to accommodate outdoor dining.

"We need parking in the long run," Shenk said. "Getting going on this garage that you all have already invested a tremendous amount of money in is smart, (as is) taking advantage of the in-lieu fees that you have … before they must be returned."

Comments

Alice Schaffer Smith
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 7, 2021 at 10:41 am
Alice Schaffer Smith, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 7, 2021 at 10:41 am

I wholeheartedly support this effort for housing in downtown Palo Alto. If only San Jose City Council were to exercise the same progressive thinking: opposite the California Theater on 1st Street are proposed 2 20 story, >1m sq feet buildings of office space and across the street at the corner of Santa Clara and Almaden and 1st Street 1.4m of business plus parking on 2 always full parking lots. Each of these schemes seems to me to be post Covid-19 madness. Office space is passé.


William Hitchens
Registered user
Mountain View
on Dec 7, 2021 at 11:22 am
William Hitchens, Mountain View
Registered user
on Dec 7, 2021 at 11:22 am

I'll bet the remaining downtown merchants and their customers all over PA and surrounding communities really hate this proposal. Most people aren't willing to walk, bike, or ride a long slow shuttle to downtown. This is another "just what was the City Council thinking?!" moment. The City Council should be rethinking this proposal too, if they're capable.


MidtownMadness
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 7, 2021 at 2:45 pm
MidtownMadness, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 7, 2021 at 2:45 pm

@William Hitchens - Why would downtown merchants hate this? I've never had too much of an issue finding parking downtown (even in peak times), before or after the retail/office landscape changed due to covid. I'm not at all convinced that we need to prioritize adding more parking. However, more downtown housing like what's proposed here will add more people just steps away from of all those merchants. People who will go past these stores and restaurants on a daily basis, and maybe even see them from their windows and be enticed to stop in to buy something, sit down for a meal, or pick up dinner on their way home. Sounds like a win for merchants.


blah
Registered user
another community
on Dec 7, 2021 at 3:03 pm
blah, another community
Registered user
on Dec 7, 2021 at 3:03 pm

Of course it makes complete sense to build housing on top of parking garages given we have already enacted bans on smoking in order to protect people from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke because clearly, cars and the fumes they emit are definitely less toxic than cigarettes.


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Dec 7, 2021 at 5:49 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Dec 7, 2021 at 5:49 pm

"without losing any parking spaces."

But does that address the additional parking spaces that will be required for all these new residents? It's not enough to replace existing parking spaces. Almost everyone has a private car, even if they commute by other means of transport.


Amie
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 7, 2021 at 9:43 pm
Amie, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 7, 2021 at 9:43 pm

Build HIGH-DENSITY housing downtown near transit, retail, and services - this is a brilliant plan and deserves quick and serious action. It is the only was to strengthen our retail/service core centers and create a walkable, livable community for all ages. More people living downtown = more customers and more community!


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Dec 7, 2021 at 10:11 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Dec 7, 2021 at 10:11 pm

@Amie: Downtown was more vital when housing density was lower than it is today, so it's not clear that increasing housing density even more will improve that situation. Maybe other factors, like insanely high rents, too many high-density offices, and the retail shift to online stores, are responsible for the deterioration.


Gail Sredanovic
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Dec 7, 2021 at 10:18 pm
Gail Sredanovic, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Dec 7, 2021 at 10:18 pm

re we could use the housing but if the city keeps approving more and more offices it won't make any difference. Many residents understand this but leaders don't want to touch the third rail of city jobs/housing imbalance. The offices. Sheesh.


NeilsonBuchanan
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 8, 2021 at 9:10 am
NeilsonBuchanan, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2021 at 9:10 am

One thing should be obvious to Council. Stop taking parking "in-lieu" fees which must be used to build more parking capacity. This weakens climate control efforts and restrains floundering mass transit efforts..

Palo Alto's current in-lieu fee policies guarantee displacement of commercial parking into the adjacent residential neighborhoods. These neighborhoods will be challenged sufficiently by new housing developments with minimal onsite parking requirements.

Palo Alto's current in-lieu parking incentives are Modern day Trojan Horses for least needed land use: downtown high-end office parks. And just wait for traffic congestion to rear its ugly head in 2022. How many years behind is Caltrain modernization?


Sunshine
Registered user
Barron Park
on Dec 13, 2021 at 1:40 pm
Sunshine, Barron Park
Registered user
on Dec 13, 2021 at 1:40 pm

Just make certain that you do not decrease the total number of parking spaces in downtown areas when you build more housing.
Please note that some people do not feel comfortable parking underground. No one can see what is happening where you are parked. I think it could decrease safety for residents as when you go to your car you are not visible to anyone who is not underground.


tmp
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 14, 2021 at 11:46 pm
tmp, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 14, 2021 at 11:46 pm

What an awful idea. We don't need to cover every open area that gives one some breathing space downtown with giant towering buildings. Besides if all of the people who used to work downtown are no longer coming there, then change those buildings into housing.

This is just another developer driven scheme to cheat the taxpaying citizens out of community parking spaces so they can build for profit buildings on top of them. They make a fortune and the community has a degraded, overcrowded environment with not enough parking , too many people and has to pony up extra taxes to pay for added infrastructure and the needs of more residents. It is a lose, lose, lose for the citizens of Palo Alto.

Stop giving away our town to developers. We have stopped adding any jobs in Palo Alto (due to the moratorium on office development) and so the city is not responsible for housing the new residents that are working in Mtn. View and Menlo Park. Plus our rents are leveling out so there is more available. Rents in Palo Alto are the same as Mtn. View and Menlo Park.

Don't be fooled by developers and their payed for growth loving sycophants. Tell the city council this is a bad idea all around. Fill in empty office space and stop adding more density. Less is more to save the planet in this over-consumptive world..


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