Page Mill Road could see commercial influx | August 31, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 31, 2012

Page Mill Road could see commercial influx

Palo Alto considers rezoning residential site, seeks neighbors' input

by Gennady Sheyner

The bustling block of Page Mill Road just east of El Camino Real looks like an unlikely place for quiet single-family homes, with its high traffic volume, a scattering of shops such as the AT&T store and Kelly Moore Paint Store and the towering AOL office building just a stone's throw away.

But the largely commercial block does include four single-story houses, which, in a hint of zoning irony, stand out precisely because of their nondescript nature. Unlike other properties in the area, the four parcels at 423, 433, 441 and 451 Page Mill Road are currently zoned for residential use, a designation city planners view as odd given the surrounding area.

Now, plans are afoot to change that. The owner of the four residential parcels, Norm Schwab, and local architect John Northway of Stoecker and Northway Architects have asked the city to rezone the pocket of residential properties to "service commercial," a change that would allow construction of another dense office development in an area that has seen an influx of them in recent years. In addition to the AOL building at Park Boulevard and Page Mill, the city is also preparing for a major proposal from developer Jay Paul.

That proposal will include a request for a "planned community" or PC zone change, allowing the developer to exceed Palo Alto's zoning regulations in exchange for a negotiated set of "public benefits," which the council hopes will include a new police headquarters.

The City Council is scheduled to discuss the application Sept. 10.

Meanwhile, Northway's firm is planning its own commercial development on the Page Mill block, on the site that currently houses the four residences. The city's Planning and Transportation Commission considered the request for a zone change Wednesday night, Aug. 29, and largely supported the zone change. Commissioners expressed concern, however, about the lack of neighborhood outreach and voted 6-0, with Alex Panelli absent, to delay any decisions about potential zoning changes until October.

Northway said the new development will be a "multi-use type of building," though he noted that "it hasn't been taken too far yet" because the zone change hasn't been made yet. He said that after considering various potential zoning designations, the applicants felt that Service Commercial (CS) would be "the best zone to use for the business plan being developed."

"You don't want to spend too much money designing a building until you know you have a zone it can fit into," Northway said.

City Planner Russ Reich said the zone would allow a development with a height limit of 35 feet. Reich said that while the city typically doesn't support converting residential land, it is making an exception with this one because of location on a busy arterial roadway and its proximity to public transit.

The commission agreed that a zone change could be suitable. But Vice Chair Mark Michael was one of several commissioners who urged the developers to get the neighborhood involved in the project before proceeding. He and his colleagues seemed puzzled by the fact that not a single neighbor attended the meeting centering on a zone change that could significantly impact the block.

"Doing outreach upfront helps promote a more successful project," Michael said, channeling the sentiments of his colleagues.

Commissioner Samir Tuma agreed with staff and the applicants that the single-family homes in this area "have never really made much sense" from a zoning perspective and said he was "generally supportive of the idea of that changing to something else."

But Tuma was particularly adamant about the need to get neighbors involved in the process. He rejected the assertion from Northway that the commission is dragging the process out by requiring the developers to perform outreach before concrete plans for the commercial project are in place. Tuma also alluded to a proposal in 2008 to build a five-story hotel on the block, a proposal that the city ultimately shot down after community criticism about the project being too massive and too dense. Though the residential sites are flanked by commercial developments, they also abut single-family residences on Pepper Avenue to the rear.

"We've had projects in this area before where the neighbors, once they found out about them, were very engaged," Tuma said. "Which leads me to believe that they don't know (about this)."

Even so, the commission was sympathetic to the zone-change request, which city planners have also recommended.

"It's a unique site," Planning Director Curtis Williams said Wednesday. "Having these single-family lots sitting in a major commercial thoroughfare is an unusual situation."

He noted that the city's new planning guidelines, including the concept plan for California Avenue, all encourage dense multi-use developments in this area because of its proximity to the California Avenue Caltrain station.

"The California Avenue plan will ultimately recommend something more intense in nature on these parcels," Williams said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 30, 2012 at 10:52 am

I thought this street was called Oregon Expressway and changed to Page Mill at El Camino. Where does the street name change?

Or is this another way to get people to assume these offices are West of ECR?

Posted by WilliamR, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 30, 2012 at 11:03 am

I'm pretty sure the name changes at the interchange with Alma.

Posted by resident, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2012 at 11:40 am

why can't we get some of those run-down properties on El Camino between Page Mill and Los Robles to change hands. they are so depressing looking.

Posted by AH, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm

>why can't we get some of those run-down properties on El Camino >between Page Mill and Los Robles to change hands. they are so >depressing looking.

If you through enough money at them you probably could get them to change hands.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> why can't we get some of those run-down properties on El Camino between Page Mill and Los Robles to change hands. they are so depressing looking.

Several major local developers have tried, and failed. A common problem is that the property is inherited, often through at 2 generations that have no ties to Palo Alto. And often it is in a trust for multiple people and getting an agreement from all of them can be difficult, even if they aren't feuding.

The City has also tried to contact the owners and we were told that in multiple cases they couldn't get the administrator of the trust to reveal who the owners were.

Posted by jamesp, a resident of another community
on Aug 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Its the city's responsibility to notify the neighbors. To throw it back on the developer is just a form of obstructionism driving up the cost of development. Where do these people come from?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

One of the big problems with development in this area (Page Mill to Lambert) is traffic routing. When the City was rezoning the Fry's site for high-density housing, they couldn't come up with a credible plan for handling the traffic, and punted. The basic problem is that the congestion is such that you can't add traffic lights because they would make it much worse and the El Camino/Page Mill intersection is close to failing. Note: El Camino is a state highway and during the redesign project in the early 2000s, Caltrans took this position. PageMill/Oregon is a county highway, and during the consideration of the Fry's rezoning, I queried them (via Supervisor Liz Kniss) and they didn't have a definite position but that their initial inclination was to not allow a new light.

Realize that the City is encouraging substantial development in this area already. During the early consideration of the 195 Page Mill Project (between Park and the tracks) there was a meeting onsite and we the residents pointed out to City Planning staff that the on-ramp to Oregon was already failing -- during that meeting the backup extended over 2 blocks down Park (past both Sheridan and Grant). Despite this, the City refused to update its rating of that intersection from essentially "able to handle much more traffic".

BTW, the name change from Page Mill to Oregon occurs at Birch, where the expressway curves to go under the tracks and Page Mill continues on straight to the tracks -- readily visible in Google Maps.

Posted by Paco, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Curtis Williams wonders aloud in this article why residential properties are in this "major" commercial thoroughfare? Well Curtis, if you grew up or were fromn Palo Alto, you would know that the only commercial properties on this corner for decades was a 2nd hand store (Polly and Jakes) and a small Banzai tree and plant nursery. Sorry you missed out on Palo Alto history, however, your ignorance regarding these properties and the sense of community provided by the remaining residences to adjoining neighborhoods seems to elude the city manager, yourself, planning staff, and new senior management who are neither from Palo Alto or live in Palo Alto. Perhaps reading up on Palo Alto history might benefit your perception of what it takes to make a neighborhood.

Posted by We need more office space? , a resident of Midtown
on Aug 30, 2012 at 11:27 pm

I don't think the City should change the zoning from residential to commercial for Mr. Schwab's four parcels. We are constantly hearing and reading about how the City needs to build more housing to meet State mandates and how new housing should be built near transit hubs and retail centers. So, I'm completely floored by City Planner Russ Reich's statement that we should "make an exception with this one because of location on a busy arterial roadway and its proximity to transit."

These four houses are close to the Caltrain station and California Ave. They are within easy walking distance to retail/service/and restuarants along El Camino. There's even a movie theater across the street. Yes, the houses are on a busy street, and they are boarded by a small animal hospital and paint store, so they might subjectively seem out of place to some. But should that alone be the sole reason to rezone the land? Rezoning should be taken very seriously, especially when it includes the loss of four detached single family homes. Kudos to Vice Chair Mark Michael for urging the neighbors involvment before making a decision (although I agree w/ the other comment that the City should be responsible for getting the input, as the land owner would be quite biased in putting together any outreach efforts to the neighbors). I would hope that the Planning Commission and City Council would seek and obtain real input from the citizens of Palo Alto.

I personally don't think one land owner should get such special treatment. He obviously bought the houses knowing full well what the zoning was. I'm also sure that the tenants that have had to move out and find other housing would agreee that they were fine living there despite being on a busy street. If beeing on a busy street is reason for rezoning residential land, then let's knock down all the houses on University Ave, and Embarcadero, and Middlefield, etc., etc. and really turn Palo Alto into a commercial hot spot. I say keep the residential zoning and keep the housing!

Posted by Observer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 31, 2012 at 8:46 am

Up until 1962/63, Oregon Expressway was a normal Palo Alto street, called Oregon Avenue. HP was growing at the time, and wanted better access for its employees from Highway 101. An HP VP by the name of Neil Porter was elected to the City Council with the goal of having a high-speed road built through Palo Alto, allowing for higher traffic volumes and easier access for HP/Business Park employees and customers.

The decision for this project went to a vote in 1962 (or 63). It was a very polarizing election--which passed with a margin of only a few hundred votes. The project had originally proposed eight lanes, requiring the removal of just over 90 homes. However, given the trauma of the election, the planners ended up only building six lanes.

It might be interesting to find some old parcel maps (and photographs) that would show where the homes were on Oregon Avenue, and how the road building project of 1963 changed that landscape in that part of town.

Posted by jardins, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 31, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Any commercial development where those "abandoned" 4 houses currently stand will only make the traffic congestion on Page Mill/Oregon Expressway even worse.

Instead of changing the zoning of this land to commercial, keep it as housing-zoned, and build some set-back apartment/condo complexes that don't exceed 35' height limit and don't crowd out the long-time single houses on Pepper Avenue. Moderation is important in this project!!

Posted by George, a resident of Ventura
on Sep 1, 2012 at 9:09 am

Tuma talks about the need to get the neighbors involved in the process, but it's just talk. He'll vote yes when the time comes for action.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 1, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Curtis Williams “noted that the city's new planning documents, including the concept plan for California Avenue, all encourage dense multi-use developments in this area because of its proximity to the California Avenue Caltrain station."

Would this be the same Curtis Williams whose department told the consultants doing the CA Ave traffic study that “there are no pending projects or planned projects in the foreseeable future. Therefore, traffic volumes on California Avenue between El Camino Real and Park Boulevard will remain unchanged with the current land uses.”?

Would it be the same Curtis Williams who said, “Regarding the northbound right turn lane on El Camino at Page Mill, unfortunately that improvement was not effectuated when those projects were processed, as transitions in transportation staff at the time resulted in that oversight. Staff has since required an increased radius at the corner with the new AT&T project, so there will be some facilitation of right turn movements at the intersection.”?

Also see Doug Moran’s comments re that corner at
Web Link
"There were plans to have a right turn lane at that location and it was waiting for the buildings on that block to redevelop, at which point enough space for the lane was to be acquired. But when the Old Pro property was redeveloped, reserving the space quietly disappeared. The City Staff review of the site used an old city-wide traffic study to say that such was not needed, ignoring a newer traffic study that targeted El Camino (I was on the Citizens' Advisory Group for that study). I never got any sort of answer for why this happened."

Who's minding the store at the “planning” department?

Posted by Planners--Talking-Through-Both-Sides-Of-Their-Mouths, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2012 at 11:55 am

Will be interesting to see if just how many people expected to occupy these commercial buildings will be projected to ride bicycles to work by our forward-thinking Planners?

Posted by bike to work, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 2, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Isn't it really easy to bicycle or walk to these properties from the California Ave Caltrain station via Olive Ave and Pepper Ave (the next street south of Page Mill).

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "Isn't it really easy to bicycle or walk to these properties from the California Ave Caltrain station..."

The problem is that those who live near a Caltrain station are unlikely to work somewhere that is reasonably accessible to Caltrain, either directly or by other public transit. Experience is that 3-10% of the workers living "near" (various definitions) a Caltrain station will use it for commuting (Caltrain's stats and other surveys).

Another part of the problem is Caltrain's schedule: If you work a 9-5 job, there is good service, unless you need to take your bike on the train to use at the other end, in which case prepare to be bumped. However, for those that need to work flexible schedules, Caltrain's schedule is grossly inadequate.

Posted by bike to work, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 2, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Not sure what is your problem with Caltrain. Caltrain ridership is at an all time high this year, so lots of people are figuring out how to use it. They are expanding off-hour schedules; I think 4 or 6 new trains starting this year, though they are of course limited by their budget, which is much lower than what Caltrans spends on highways. The new bike share system that starts this year will give train users more flexibility. If you think Caltrain needs a bigger budget, then express that to your county supervisors.

Posted by Adina, a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 2, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Also please note that traffic congestion is sensitive to marginal use. Diverting 10% of the traffic from 101 is enough to alleviate a traffic jam. Adding 10% of traffic back to the 101 is enough to create a massive traffic jam.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 3, 2012 at 3:45 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

To "Bike to Work" and "Adrina"

Your logic is wrong. It is not a question of whether a few more people can ride Caltrain, the question was whether people at a particular location will use Caltrain vastly above the rate seen in any similar situations.

And recognize that the schedule at Cal Ave is vastly inferior to the one at University, to the extent that some people working in the Cal Ave area take a cab to/from University Caltrain.

And recognize that there will is unlikely to be much of a schedule improvement. The current schedule is about the max that can be done without grade separation. And grade separation is unlikely because the funds supposed marked for Caltrain improvements are available only if the tracks-to-nowhere don't have cost overruns. And this is hardly the first time that funding for purportedly for Caltrain improvements haven't been hijacked, for example,by BART-to-SJ.

Posted by Planners--Talking-Through-Both-Sides-Of-Their-Mouths, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2012 at 6:33 am

> Not sure what is your problem with Caltrain

The problem with Caltrain is that it is a massive boondoggle--funded mostly by the taxpayers. The Administration is neither competent, nor is it accountable. There is no comprehensive safety program in place, endangering motorists up and down the line.

As to this site's being close to Caltrain--so what? The suggestion that it is shows how silly this poster's answers are. Just because there is a building within a couple miles of a Caltrain station does not mean that the occupants of the building are likely to live closely enough to a Caltrain station to be able to use Caltrain.

As to Caltrain's ridership being "high"--the current ridership is barely 5,000 unique people over what it's been for the past few years. The use of relatives, without basing the comparison in real numbers is simply an act of intellectual, and possibly real, fraud.

Posted by Sad but true, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 4, 2012 at 12:47 pm

George says: "Tuma talks about the need to get the neighbors involved in the process, but it's just talk. He'll vote yes when the time comes for action."
Sad and true. And Tuma's not the only one. They listen politely then give the developers whatever they asked for. Making money is what it is about.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 7, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Our fair city justifies overdevelopments near train stations on the mantra that the new employees or residents will of course take the train instead of driving their cars. Staff and council can get totally giddy over it.

However, the city has no statistics about transit use in existing developments to back up its wishful thinking. The excuse is it cannot get enough data for a solid gold "scientific" survey.

Thus the Crown Jewel of Silicon Valley lurches on with no data at all, while a growing flood of commuters compete for parking in nearby neighborhoods.

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