A developer's plan to replace Creekside Inn with 382-apartments is offering Palo Alto a rare opportunity to merge parcels and bring a major housing complex to a large site along El Camino Real.
But for neighborhood residents, the project represents something else: a massive overreach that would threaten Matadero Creek, increase traffic, upend existing zoning and decrease retail in their neighborhood. These concerns, as well as others, were aired at Tuesday's meeting of the Barron Park Association, which received an update from city staff about the largest project currently going through the city's development pipeline.
The project on a 3.6-acre site at 3400 El Camino Real is set to gets its first review in front of the City Council on Sept. 19. It is relying on the "planned home zoning" (PHZ) designation, which allows developers to exceed typical zoning rules and development standards and which give the council wide discretion to deny projects or demand revisions.
Although the Creekside Inn proposal is part of a wave of "planned home zoning" projects currently going through Palo Alto's planning pipeline, staff acknowledged that it stands out for its size. City planner Garrett Sauls noted that most parcels along El Camino and other major corridors are too small to accommodate this much housing.
"It's really interesting to see a project of this magnitude proposed anywhere in the city," Sauls said. "We don't have many parcels that can accommodate to some degree, well or not well, a development that looks like this."
The proposal comes at a time when the city is actively exploring ways to encourage housing and meet a state mandate that requires it to plan for 6,086 new dwellings between 2023 and 2031. The council will consider strategies for boosting residential construction this Monday, Aug. 22, when it reviews the city's new Housing Element.
Planned home zoning (PHZ) projects, which offer developers flexibility, are expected to be a major part of the solution. Earlier this week, council members gave generally positive reviews to another PHZ project: a 75-condominium development at 788 San Antonio Road. Another PHZ project has recently been proposed for the site of Country Inn Motel at 4345 El Camino. That development will include 55 condominiums, six townhomes and six accessory dwelling units, according to project plans.
Jodie Gerhardt, Palo Alto's current planning manager, observed at the Tuesday meeting that the city is now seeing more housing proposals and that these tend to be larger than in the past.
"Fifty units used to be a huge project in Palo Alto, but no longer in the last year," Gerhardt said. "We see pretty significant projects going on El Camino Real and we also have some big projects going along San Antonio."
The Creekside Inn proposal, as the biggest of these, may face the highest hurdles to approval. The plan calls for two buildings, one with 312 apartments and two levels of underground parking and another with 66 apartments. Both would be 64 feet in height, exceeding the city's 50-foot height limit. The buildings currently housing Cibo Restaurant & Bar and Driftwood Deli & Market would both be demolished, though the new development includes 4,000 space of retail and the developer is giving Driftwood the option of occupying that space.
While some residents said they would support seeing some housing at the site, most agreed that the project is trying to do too much. Mircea Voskerician, who lives near the project site, said the proposal is "beyond anything that is reasonable." The project, he argued, is too tall, too close to single-family residences and would require removal of too many mature trees.
"It's absolutely dead on arrival," Voskerician said. "It's wishful thinking what he's trying to do here."
Cheryl Lilienstein was among the residents who said they would oppose the rezoning of the site. Currently the three parcels are zoned, respectively, for commercial, hotel and multifamily residential use, which allows up to 20 dwellings per acre. The proposal would raise the residential density at the merged parcels to 106 dwellings per acre. If the developer wants to build housing, they should do so under existing zoning, she said.
"Most people on my block are shocked to see something of this massive size," Lilienstein said.
Others lamented the loss of retail that would result if the housing proposal advances. The two buildings that make up Cibo and Driftwood add up to about 8,735 square feet of retail space. Under the redevelopment proposal, retail would be reduced to less than half that.
"Anything that we plan has to include keeping Driftwood Market with a lease that's more than a couple of years so that we don't lose a business, so that we don't lose a place where we can get milk," resident Rob O'Connor said. "Because there isn't any place we can walk to."
But Samir Tuma, a former planning commissioner, lauded the project for bringing much needed housing to Palo Alto. The city, he said, has done "an abysmal job over the decades in building housing." Even though many elements of the project would need to be changed, the high number of dwellings that the project would offer to the local workforce is a significant benefit, he said.
"I implore my neighbors to keep an open mind as to how we can shape this and mold this so it can be beneficial to the community but also live up to our moral obligation to provide housing," he said.
Representatives of the applicant, Oxford Capital Group, did not attend the meeting. The developer argued in the application, however, that the zone change is necessary to facilitate "a single vision that maximizes the residential potential, respects Matadero Creek and provides substantial public benefit, which would not otherwise be attainable under existing zoning."
"These are a deviation from underlying zoning but are necessary for the comprehensive redesign of the property," Ted O'Hanlon, the consulting project executive, wrote in a letter accompanying the application.