As Palo Alto gets ready to rule on a contentious housing project at the Ventura site formerly occupied by Fry's Electronics, city leaders are also preparing to consider a very different residential proposal about a block from that site.
The City Council will get its first look on Sept. 11 at a plan by the developer Half Dome Capital to construct 44 apartments for Palo Alto educators at 3265 El Camino Real, a commercial site that was most recently occupied by a Travelodge motel swimming pool. The five-story building would include 24 studios, 20 one-bedroom apartments and a rooftop deck for residents, according to project plans.
The Half Dome proposal isn't the first attempt to redevelop the site. In 2019, the city had approved a proposal from the Denardi Group to construct a mixed-use three-story building with commercial space and three residential units. The project, however, never advanced and the approval has since expired, according to a new report from the Department of Planning and Development Services.
Jason Matlof, managing director at Half Dome, told this publication in an April interview that his own experiences inspired him to pursue a teacher housing project. He has three children who went through Palo Alto schools and he recognized that the vast majority of local teachers cannot afford to live here. Some commute from as far away as Tracy and Modesto.
Matlof said he hopes the project could serve as a precedent for other developers to provide housing for critical workers without city subsidies.
"I'm hoping this will find a healthy balance between doing well and doing good," Matlof said.
Prior to submitting the application in April, his firm had formed a partnership with the local teachers union, the Palo Alto Educators Association, to pursue the project, which would require numerous zoning concessions from the city. These include a height exemption to allow the building to be 59 feet tall, an increase in allowed building density, and an exemption from the city's requirement for ground-floor retail space.
But unlike other recent applications, Half Dome is looking to work within the city's regulatory framework rather than rely on state laws to override local concerns. The proposal is a "planned home zoning" application, which involves reviews by the city's various land use boards and which gives the council wide latitude to request revisions or deny the project.
The El Camino site also lies about a block from the Portage Avenue cannery building that until 2019 housed Fry's Electronics and that is now eyed for a 74-townhome development. There are, however, key differences between the two projects. The Portage project is part of a broader development agreement that, among other things, allows The Sobrato Organization to retain commercial use of the building, which is zoned for multi-family housing. The Half Dome project, by contrast, would take a site that is currently zoned for commercial use and convert it to residential use.
The application from Half Dome makes the case that the site's location at El Camino – and its relative proximity to California Avenue – makes it ideal for its new proposed purpose.
"This project would provide a quality infill development on an empty and underutilized site, which is located on a major arterial street, El Camino Real, with close proximity to restaurants, shops, and transit located along both California Avenue and El Camino Real," the project architect, Isaiah Stackhouse of the firm Trachtenberg Architects, wrote to the city in a project description. "It would also contribute much needed new housing to the city's stock."
The report from city planners also highlights the fact that unlike other residential proposals in the area, the Half Dome plan is not invoking "builder's remedy," a legally untested state provision that allows developers to override local zoning regulations in municipalities that don't have an approved plan for constructing more housing. Palo Alto's recent influx of builder's remedy applications include a 185-apartment complex at the Creekside Inn site at 3400 El Camino Real and a 380-apartment complex pitched for 3150 El Camino Real, site of The Fish Market.
"This project is seeking a PHZ approval at a time when other projects with lesser affordability have asserted that the ‘builder's remedy,' under the Housing Accountability Act obviates the need for such rezoning," the report from the planning department states. "While there are unresolved legal questions surrounding the applicability of the ‘builder's remedy' following the City‘s adoption of a Housing Element on May 8, 2023, the applicant‘s decision to utilize the City‘s PHZ process is notable."
The Sept. 11 pre-screening hearing will give the council a chance to offer early feedback on the project, allowing the developer to determine whether to file a formal application. If Half Dome proceeds, its development would be the second teacher-focused housing project to advance in the California Avenue area.
Last month, city and Santa Clara County officials celebrated a groundbreaking development plan for 231 Grant Ave., spearheaded by Mercy Housing California (MHC) and Abode Communities, that would create 110 apartments for teachers and other school employees from participating districts.