Palo Alto Commons plans expansion | June 18, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 18, 2010

Palo Alto Commons plans expansion

Commission: Forty-five rental units necessary to house city's graying population

by Sue Dremann

Plans for a 45-unit senior rental-housing development won unanimous recommendation from the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission Wednesday evening, with commissioners citing affordable senior housing as a priority as Palo Alto's population grays.

The new housing would expand the existing Palo Alto Commons, a housing and assisted-living center, and would be located on 0.83 acres at 4041 El Camino Way, adjacent to the current Commons facility.

The existing senior assisted-housing facility has 121 rental units with 140 beds, according to a city staff report. The need for additional affordable senior housing is exemplified by the more than 50 deposits on Palo Alto Commons' waiting list, project architect Rob Steinberg said.

The average age of Commons residents is 87, according to Steinberg.

The facility addresses the needs of a population of seniors who can't afford to move into costlier Palo Alto facilities such as Channing House or Classic Residences by Hyatt (now called "Vi of Palo Alto"), which require huge upfront payments. Many seniors are also beyond the age when they could be accepted to those facilities, said resident Steve Player, who supports the new project.

"This rental opportunity ... was a lifesaver for my mother. She was eligible to move in on a month-to-month basis," he said.

Commissioners gave the Commons Addition project the go-ahead with some caveats and recommended a zoning change from Neighborhood Commercial (CN) and Multi-Family Residential (RM-15) to Planned Community (PC), which would match Palo Alto Commons' current zoning.

Currently, two aging commercial buildings sit on the land.

The PC zone has a controversial history in Palo Alto, as it allows for denser — and typically more lucrative — projects. But making exceptions for the project requires the developer to provide "public benefits" in exchange.

The Commons Addition project proposes to improve a bus stop and access along El Camino Real.

Jennifer Cutler, project manager for the city, said Wednesday that granting the Commons Addition a PC designation would conform to the city's guiding land-use plan. It would also allow for a smooth transition between the existing Palo Alto Commons and the surrounding neighborhood, said

The building is proposed as a C-shaped structure around a courtyard that preserves a large heritage oak tree. Its design would "step" from two stories to three stories.

Residents living in adjacent Jacobs Court, a 19-home neighborhood with many families with young children, said they oppose the project's 34.5-foot height, which they said would tower above their homes and create the equivalent of a three-story wall.

Residents said developers are comparing their project to other PC-zone projects approved by the city, including the Campus for Jewish Life on Charleston Road, which includes senior housing. But those developments are adjacent to commercial properties or are otherwise separated from residential housing, residents said.

Commissioner Eduardo Martinez said he had visited the Jacobs Court site on Saturday and wants to see developers break down the long block of the third story with a different design.

Commissioner Arthur Keller said he was particularly uneasy with two units directly facing Jacobs Court.

Commissioner Susan Fineberg also had reservations and said the design will need work, but she favored the development.

"There is something very special with this project," she said, adding that additional support services won't be added because they already exist at the other Palo Alto Commons site.

Resident Tom Reese, a founder of Avenidas Village, a citywide assisted-living program, agreed. The likelihood of any stand-alone assisted-living such as Channing House being built is slim, considering costs to build such facilities, he said.

The project would eliminate a small amount of existing retail-tax revenue by removing the commercial buildings, but commissioners doubted that retail such as the Love Bug Lice Control was producing significant tax revenue.

Any loss would be lessened or made up by recurring annual revenues of $159,000 and one-time impact revenue of $592,000 from the senior-housing project, according to a city staff report. Commissioner Keller said the revenue is likely to exceed current sums from the retail properties.

Some commissioners agreed the bus-stop upgrade might not be enough of a public benefit. But the intrinsic value of providing moderately priced housing could potentially be considered a public benefit in itself, they indicated.

Several residents spoke in favor of the project.

Marguerite Fletcher said her 92-year-old mother lives at Palo Alto Commons and would have moved in earlier if space was available.

"We scoured to find a space that felt residential and felt like a home," she said.

Nancy Mueller's mother entered Palo Alto Commons in 2000.

"There really is nothing like (the Commons). How we care for our elders is a metric of our society. We owe it to our parents to care for them in their sunset years," she said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at


Posted by Kari Martell, a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 18, 2010 at 10:42 am

Just to clarify that Avenidas Village, mentioned in the article above, is a membership program offered through the non-profit agency Avenidas that helps people stay in their homes as they age. For less than $3 a day, members have access to support on a 24/7 basis, a huge network of vetted vendors who offer discounts to members, transporation assistance, daily check in calls, social events and cultural outings, a medical advocacy program, and so much more that allows seniors to maintain their independence, mobility and sense of community.

Posted by Palo Alto Senior, a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 18, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Dear Sue,
You do not understand, nor did I, at your age. We maintain our dignity in many helpful ways. Do not disqualify us by giving us such a handle. I want you to give thoughtful consideration.

Posted by jardins, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 18, 2010 at 12:48 pm

This is really cheering--good for the Planning & Transportation Commission for recommending this expansion go ahead! Avenidas Village is certainly a wonderful program, but not all elderly people want to live alone; they want and need a more immediate community of their age-cohort. And certainly, not many people can afford residences like Vi or Channing House.


Posted by Paul, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 18, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Notice also the reference to "too old" to move into Channing house or VI - Palo Alto Commons (where my parents moved last summer) is an option, with levels of care, which is not easily found. It has been a godsend, and I think it's great that more people will have an opportunity to take advantage of their great level of care.

Posted by localmom, a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 18, 2010 at 10:24 pm

I am so pleased to see this. I have visited PA Commons, my parents are in their 70s and are thinking ahead to where they would like to spend their older age. It looks like a fantastic community with friendly, caring staff. I can only compare the welcoming warmth of Palo Altans with the negativity I see when driving near Pilgrim Haven in Los Altos, and seeing signs the neighbors paid for themselves, advocating AGAINST its expansion for seniors and particularly those w/dementia. I think anyone w/a sign in their yard should be blacklisted from the Commons. Palo Alto is to be commended for their community spirit and inclusiveness of all age levels and needs in society.

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