Under normal circumstances, many in Palo Alto would frown at changing the designation of land that is intended for conservation so that it could accommodate an industrial operation.
But as the City Council considered this week an amendment to its land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, members unanimously agreed that the change being considered for a property near the Baylands, at 1237 San Antonio Road, is fully warranted. It will allow the city's hauler, GreenWaste, to occupy the southern portion of the former Los Altos Treatment Plant site for sorting or construction debris and other activities. More importantly, it will free up the north portion of the site for a project that city leaders are excited about: a transitional housing project for homeless individuals and families.
In swiftly approving the land-use designation, council members and city staff observed that the site has not been living up to its current designation as "public conservation land." The triangular, 11,000-square-foot site at the back of the treatment-plant property is adjacent to sites that are designated for research park use and for "major institutions," which allows for government, educational and hospital uses, among others. The "conservation" designation has been ignored for years, with the city and GreenWaste using the site for construction staging and for truck parking. A report from the Department of Planning and Development Services states that the change will bring the designation "into alignment with the adjoining portions and align with the existing and proposed future use."
The discrepancy between use and designation probably would've been ignored if not for the housing project, which is being developed by LifeMoves, a nonprofit organization that last year opened a similar facility at a nearby location on Leghorn Street in Mountain View. The Palo Alto project, which the council has broadly backed, would include 88 dwellings, of which 64 would be designated for individuals and couples and 24 for families.
The city has been working with LifeMoves on the project for well over a year and the development received a major boost in August when the state Department of Housing and Community Development authorized a $26.6 grant as part of the Project Homekey program. Although the funding is expected to cover most of the capital costs, city staff suggested this week that the project may be more expensive than initially anticipated. Deputy City Manager Chantal Gaines noted this week that "construction costs have escalated and increased over time," though staff did not have an updated cost estimate Monday.
"This is a very important project of the city and it's important that we continue to have our commitment on this project as we go through," Gaines said.
The land use change had already been vetted by the Architectural Review Board and the Planning and Transportation Commission, with both panels recommending moving ahead with the revision. At its September meeting, Chair Ed Lauing called LifeMoves a "phenomenal organization" and suggested that the transitional-housing facility is "badly needed."
Commissioner Bryna Chang called the revision a "no-brainer" because it brings the Comprehensive Plan "into alignment with reality."
The council reached a similar verdict on Dec. 19. Council member Greer Stone called the proposed project "absolutely critical" and said the city needs to do everything in its power to turn it into reality.
"Any time we are changing land use designation, especially for public conservation land, I would be very concerned about that," Stone said. "I think it's very clear here that this is conservation land in name and designation only, not in any real practical sense. This is going to serve an incredible purpose."