With its narrow sidewalks, industrial warehouses and nonexistent public transportation, the eastern stretch of San Antonio Road looks like a most unlikely destination for Palo Alto's next big housing boom.
Rather than boutiques, supermarkets and restaurants, the segment between Middlefield Road and U.S. Highway 101 boasts a flooring company, a commercial printer, a gas station and an eclectic mix of industrial, commercial and low-density residential uses. There are no stucco walls or red tiled roofs, just utilitarian one- and two-story buildings with some of the city's most affordable commercial space.
It's also an area where the City Council is doubling down on residential construction. On Monday night, as council members contemplated their strategies or meeting state mandates on housing, they agreed that the city's typical development standards such as a 50-foot height limit for new buildings should no longer apply here. By loosening zoning, they are hoping to generate thousands of new housing units and meet the city's Regional Housing Needs Allocation of 6,086 dwellings between 2023 and 2031.
The policy change, which the council supported by a 5-1 vote, with Vice Chair Lydia Kou dissenting and council member Alison Cormack recused, is by far the most dramatic and ambitious proposal that the council contemplated during its discussion of the Palo Alto's new Housing Element, a state-mandated document that outlines the city's strategies for housing and identifies sites where they expect residential construction to occur.
Shifting properties in the manufacturing zones to residential use has long been seen as a key strategy, which city staff had previously estimated would generate about 1,500 new dwellings. On Monday, however, council members decided to supersize this strategy with the hopes of generating hundreds of additional units. The council agreed to allow residential density of up to 90 dwellings per acre in this area, more than double of what the city currently allows in its highest density residential zoning district, which is RM-40. The decision went well beyond a staff recommendation to increase density here from the existing level of 32 to 50 dwelling units per acre to 50.
"I think this makes a huge amount of sense to double down in this area," said council member Eric Filseth, who made the proposal to go big on housing along San Antonio.
Some of the changes that the council wants to see are already occurring. Last week, the council encouraged a developer to move ahead with its proposal to build a five-story 75-condominium development at 800 San Antonio Road, a project that also exceeds the city's height and density regulations. And in 2020, council members approved a similarly sized development at a nearby site, 788 San Antonio Road, that includes 102 apartments.
"I think we're going to have to go aggressive here on the development standards," Filseth said Monday, in reference to the broader San Antonio area around Fabian Way and Charleston Road. "The worst case is that we put a little bit here and it's not enough to bring in all the other stuff that we want to have happen, the transportation and retail and so forth, over time."
For Palo Alto, massive redevelopment of San Antonio would represent a dramatic policy change. While Mountain View has been aggressively building residential, commercial and retail projects along its stretch of San Antonio, most notably in the El Camino Real area, for well over a decade, Palo Alto has been far more cautious. Unlike its neighbor to the south, it does not currently have a "specific plan" to guide growth or any tangible proposals for transportation improvements or community amenities.
Despite these challenges, Mayor Pat Burt and others argued Monday that sites zoned for "general manufacturing" and "research, office and light manufacturing" uses could become suitable for housing.
"It does have the Mountain View shopping center area," Burt said of the area. "It is an area of low-cost offices right now and it's right off a very major freeway exit. I actually think there's a lot of opportunity there."
He and others pointed to the large number of jobs in the area, primarily on the Mountain View side, where Google and Intuit have expansive campuses.
By focusing its energies on south Palo Alto, the council also agreed to scale down some of its plans in the north. One area that will not see any projected housing in the new Housing Element is the downtown transit center at 27 University Ave., an area that Stanford University had projected could accommodate up to 270 apartments.
The council and city staff have gone back and forth over the past year on whether the transit center should be part of the city's housing vision. Last year, members agreed that the site is so critical to the city's housing and transportation goals that it requires an extensive planning process before it could be included in the Housing Element. In recent months, however, the city moved to include the site as one of three Stanford-owned properties that could accommodate significant new housing development, along with sites at 3128 El Camino Real and on Pasteur Drive, near the Stanford University Medical Center.
On Monday, council members went back to their original plan and took the University Avenue site out of Housing Element, dealing a blow to the housing advocates who have been calling for residential development near the transit center. Planning Director Jonathan Lait called the site "ripe for redevelopment," noting its proximity to the second busiest Caltrain station along the entire line. He suggested, however, that relying on it for the current Housing Element would be premature.
"I don't think it's had the proper public process to really rely on that as a site," Lait said.
Council members hope that by further loosening the zoning laws on San Antonio, they can still meet the housing target even without the transit center site. Lait suggested that doing so would likely involve allowing residential buildings with heights of about 85 feet.
Not everyone is thrilled about the council's sudden shift to the south. Winter Dellenbach, a Barron Park resident, said her neighbors are worried that the city is expecting their area to absorb most of the city's residential growth.
"I'm expecting a lot of housing, as much as possible, to be also built in north Palo Alto," Dellenbach said. "I understand that Cal. Avenue, San Antonio and El Camino are going to be seeing a lot of housing, but I don't want to see it as the only place."
Scott O'Neil, member of the group Palo Alto Forward, argued that the city should also consider loosening height limits in the transit-friendly downtown area.
"Housing near transit is good for climate change," O'Neil said. "Walkable resident customers are good for struggling businesses in our downtown. It's good for reducing car dependence and hence traffic impacts, all things that are shared values by even the people who tend to disagree with me on housing."
The council's plans, however, are far more modest in the north than they are in the south. The proposed Housing Element programs envision 168 dwellings on city-owned parking lots, with the lot on Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street as the leading candidate. There's also the Pasteur Drive site, which Stanford believes can accommodate up to 425 dwellings.
Other proposals take a citywide approach. The council envisions 512 new accessory dwelling units over the eight-year period, a trend that has been accelerating in both north and south Palo Alto. The city also hopes to generate more than 1,000 dwellings through more conventional upzoning efforts such as reforming its "housing incentive program," which loosens development standards for residential projects in commercial areas and which offers builders an alternative to the state's density bonus law.
Currently, the program applies only to commercial properties along San Antonio, El Camino Real and downtown. Under the change, it would expand to other neighborhoods and include multifamily zones, said city planner Tim Wong, who is leading the Housing Element update.
Council member Tom DuBois suggested that while these efforts may help, the city should also identify areas where it can go bigger with residential construction: namely San Antonio.
"Having a site where we can consider larger projects, specifically designed to serve some of these job centers, I think it's an experiment worth doing," DuBois said.
He and other also acknowledged the many challenges that the city will face as it tries to bring housing to San Antonio. There are, for example, no bus lines or biking amenities. Burt, who represents the city on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority board of directors, has been lobbying the transit agency to run a bus line along San Antonio, from the Baylands to Foothill College, but he acknowledged on Monday that the VTA does not see the project as a priority.
"It's not going to fall on our lap," Burt said. "We're going to have to work it."
He also pointed to the fact that some of the businesses along San Antonio use hazardous materials in their operations. The sites around these areas would not be suitable for housing, he said.
But while council members agreed that the area begs for further planning, particularly on biking improvements, Kou suggested that the city should not move forward with major housing plans until these amenities are in place.
"Planning in this manner is really difficult, with just thinking about housing sites and not looking at everything else that goes into making livability and making a community," Kou said.