City Council signals support for 113-apartment project | January 22, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 22, 2021

City Council signals support for 113-apartment project

Proposal by Acclaim Companies could be the first development to advance under Palo Alto's 'planned housing' zone

by Gennady Sheyner

When the Palo Alto City Council created the "planned housing" zone a year ago, it sent a signal to developers that it is ready to negotiate over aspects such as height, density and parking requirements if that means getting more affordable housing.

On Tuesday night, as the council considered the latest proposal for a planned-housing project — a mixed-use development with 113 apartments at 2951 El Camino Real — council members declared that they are ready to deal. In doing so, they handed the developer a preliminary victory and increased the odds that the concept presented by Menlo Park-based Acclaim Companies will become reality.

For a council that has frequently clashed over land use issues and that has consistently struggled to approve new housing, the Acclaim project on the edge of the Ventura neighborhood represented a rare point of consensus. Even those council members who regularly scoff at exceeding zoning regulations found something positive in the latest iteration of the proposal.

Both the project and the council have changed since Oct. 5, when Acclaim first presented its plan, which in addition to the apartments includes 1,000 square feet of retail space and 5,000 square feet of office space. After getting a lukewarm reaction, Acclaim reduced the building's height, cut the number of apartments from 119 to 113 and slightly decreased the project's floor area and density. The revised proposal consists of 24 studios, 65 one-bedroom units and 24 two-bedroom apartments. A total of 23 apartments would be offered at below market rate.

While the council saw two of its most passionate housing advocates, Adrian Fine and Liz Kniss, conclude their council terms since that hearing, the roster change has not impeded Acclaim's momentum.

Council member Lydia Kou, the council's most consistent critic of new developments, lauded the developer for working with nearby residents to address their concerns about height (which has been reduced since the initial filing) and parking (the project does not seek a reduction in parking requirements).

Even though she maintained that "upzoning" properties to allow for more development increases land values and makes the construction of affordable housing more difficult, she thanked the developer for revising its plan.

Mayor Tom DuBois, who like Kou belongs to the council's groups of "residentialists," said he would like to see the project move ahead as a formal application. While he said that he generally opposes using R-1 zones to facilitate higher density projects, he called the Ventura property an "interesting opportunity" because most of it is commercially zoned.

The project site consists of five parcels: three along El Camino Real that are zoned "service commercial" and two along Olive Avenue that are zoned for single-family residential use.

"I think this is the kind of proposal we asked for when we talked about this planned housing zone," DuBois said.

For a council that has struggled for years to meet its own housing goals, the Acclaim development would represent a rare accomplishment if it moves ahead. It would be only the second major residential development to earn the council's support in the past year, following its approval in November of a 119-unit project on San Antonio Road.

It would also be the first project to utilize the "planned housing" zone, which, like its predecessor the "planned community" zone, allows the city and the builder to haggle over exceptions to zoning standards such as height, density and parking requirements and public benefits.

But whereas under the "planned community" zone, the list of potential public benefits included public parks, grocery stores and sculptures, the "planned housing" zone specifies that housing is the chief benefit.

Projects using the new zoning designation are required to offer at least 20% of their units at below market rate. And while they are allowed to include commercial space, they should not worsen the city's notoriously high jobs-housing imbalance.

Of the nearly 30 residents who addressed the council on Tuesday night, the majority suggested that the Acclaim project checks all these boxes and urged the council to advance it. Jessica Clark, a south Palo Alto resident who works for the Palo Alto Unified School District, said she and her family have been on the waiting list of the city's below-market-rate purchase program for 10 years.

"We as a city have built close to nothing. Compromises and tradeoffs have to be made," Clark said. "I hope this project moves forward and provides as much housing as possible. My family and many others can't afford to hang on to the BMR list for another 10 years."

Keith Reckdahl, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission who serves on a working group that has been putting together a new land use vision for a 60-acre portion of Ventura, said the project, while imperfect, is worth advancing.

"We're much better off refining this project instead of killing it," Reckdahl said. "Palo Alto does not have the luxury of only accepting housing projects that have no challenges."

Daniel Allen, a renter who lives in Old Palo Alto, said that the project's proximity to the California Avenue business district and the Caltrain station make it particularly appealing.

"It's close to transit; it's close to jobs; it's close to retail. And the developer seems to have made significant compromises to address some of the concerns raised by the City Council and some of the community," Allen said. "I feel like compromise like this is needed to actually act on this long-term, big-scale project, and I think this is the type of development that the city should be encouraging."

Not everyone was as thrilled. Suzanne Keehn, a member of the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, was among those who called the zoning exceptions excessive and suggested that the proposed 54-foot-tall building "does not fit in Palo Alto."

"It shouldn't be next to a residential area, and if it is going to be next to one, it should be a lot lower," Keehn said.

The umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods also issued a letter that criticized the project and cataloged the zoning exceptions that Acclaim is seeking.

"Steady upzoning of properties along El Camino Real disproportionately affects neighborhoods nestled behind El Camino Real in South Palo Alto," PAN Co-Chairs Sheri Furman and Becky Sanders wrote in the letter. "Upzoning is not allowed in other neighborhoods; why in these neighborhoods?"

Gary Johnson, a partner at Acclaim Companies, said the project is intended to help teachers, police officers, firefighters and other community service workers who cannot afford to live in Palo Alto and have to endure "punishing commutes." The city's housing shortage, he said, has "obviously stressed our community."

"Although no single project is a panacea and no project is perfect, this project provides the housing and BMR housing near a transit corridor. ... This project is the first housing project to deed restrict over 20% of its units without a subsidy from the city of Palo Alto or a housing nonprofit," Johnson said.

The council's positive response to the project paves the way for Acclaim to present a formal application, which would then go through reviews by the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Architectural Review Board before returning to the council for formal approval.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at [email protected]


Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Jan 20, 2021 at 8:03 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

Bravo!! The council created new incentives for housing and finally new projects are being brought forward. Last night the council built on its approval of housing on San Antonio using one of the council’s new housing incentive zones to give the move forward approval for these apartments including 20% BMR units. I hope the trickle of projects becomes a surge and council continues to show HCD that Palo Alto can make good faith efforts to expand housing opportunities and affordability. And thanks to council for doing the right thing despite continuing negative voices in the community.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 20, 2021 at 11:10 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

This apartment complex makes sense and responds to the location on El Camino - a major transit road. Mr. Levy's goal is to respond to a state goal of the HCD as the over-riding policy for the state in total. The HCD is a single focus activity which does not address the total business picture for the state, county, or city. Single focus goals are missing the bigger picture of the economy of the state and fail to recognize the changing developments that are on-going, the departure of major corporations.

We have a group of legislators which keep pitching single focus policies which have no supporting tax base. The state legislators are driving business out of the state who keeps tryin to micro-manage and fail in that activity.

Side note: major projects ae being approved for El Camino because it is a major transit highway for the state. Meanwhile we have RV's on that road that are rentals and inoperative as to being on a highway. The city needs to address that bizarre policy and move all of the RV activity to a different location - possibly the PA Business park which as a huge unused parking lot.

Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Jan 20, 2021 at 11:24 am

Rose is a registered user.

It's too bad that only 20% of the project is BMR.

Posted by Mama
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 20, 2021 at 11:43 am

Mama is a registered user.


Posted by To Resident 1 Adobe Meadows
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 20, 2021 at 12:43 pm

To Resident 1 Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

El Camino Real is a STATE of California highway. The City of Palo Alto does not control it. Take up your concern with Caltrans, the agency that manages El Camino for the state.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 20, 2021 at 12:46 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

City and county officials can take up the issue of the rv's with the state. One wonders why they haven't.

Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 20, 2021 at 2:28 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

Let's see now, 113 housing units, 5,000 sq ft offices, 1,000 sq ft retail. That's at least 113 residents commuting out to jobs--half of them out of town, statistically--and bunches of other workers and customers commuting in for the office and "retail," in an already traffic gridlocked area. That's progress, all right.

BTW, how does this affect our jobs-housing balance?

Posted by Marie
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 20, 2021 at 2:51 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Please note: despite predictions from the doom and gloomers disappointed with the loss of the pro-developer majority on the council, every single councilmember supported this not perfect but good enough (mostly housing) project, even though half of the "BMR" units were for moderate and workforce housing who can earn up 120% of the median county income. Still it is a start. I hope it is approved asap.

However, the developer, was spouting nonsense when he said "the project is intended to help teachers, police officers, firefighters and other community service workers who cannot afford to live in Palo Alto and have to endure "punishing commutes." BMR units are available to anyone in Santa Clara County and the list is full. One speaker stated they have been on the list for 10 years without finding a spot. And I guarantee the full market price will be far more than teachers, community service workers and lower paid health workers will be able to afford. New teachers and other professionals, the most likely people to be willing to live in postage stamp apartments, will never qualify for the market rate apartments.

The only answer to making any inroads in our deficit of BMR housing, IMHO, is for the government to pay for the land and hire non-profit housing to build and manage the housing for a variety of very low, low, moderate and workforce housing. I would hope that a varied group of these renters could pay enough rent to pay for the construction and maintenance of rental apartments.

With our underparked streets, full parking (one space per bedroom plus some visitor parking) will still be necessary. If the millenia comes, and fewer people own cars (as opposed to switching to electric etc cars and mass transit), they can always rent out the parking to nearby businesses or build ADU's. The latest Apartment Owners Association magazine had an ad that offered apartment owners a way to turn parking lots into ADU's for more income. Hopefully these would not be approved unless they can show that renters indeed don't need the parking.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 20, 2021 at 3:00 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

If a person drives up El Camino to SF they will not see a RV. It all about the sign-age on the road. Drive down El Camino - we used to have signage next to SU - no parking on game days. Now those signs are gone. Then you see parking for up to two hours in the Stanford Avenue to Oregon section. Then no signage except in certain sections where stores are located. Sorry - it is the city that is putting up the signage - and taking it down. And the people who had the signage removed are probably the people who are renting out those RV's. Try again to push this problem out of our cities responsibility.

Posted by This is a mistake
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 20, 2021 at 5:49 pm

This is a mistake is a registered user.

You would think with the new slow growth majority that this project would have been scaled down to a reasonable size. So apparently we really don't have a city council that cares about the people who live in Palo Alto already. What they have done is allow a building that is 2 times the size that is legally allowed to be built there, that is under parked, that provides no funding for roads, schools, parks and that doesn't really help poor people. This is just another give away to developers that will further degrade quality of life in the city.

The reason that the city is allowing this is they are scared to death of ABAG and the state government that has taken away local zoning with threats to allow developers to build even bigger apartments if the city doesn't relent and let them build these monstrous projects.

Please write your local representatives in the state house and senate and tell them we need funding for low income housing and not giveaways to developers of market rate housing. Plus they need to stay out of local zoning by not allowing cities to apply fees to fund roads, schools, parks and infrastructure to these massive developments.

Posted by Here SInce 1979
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 21, 2021 at 8:25 am

Here SInce 1979 is a registered user.

Again, I ask the question of where the water for the new development going to come from? Water is a finite resource. I've been through three major drought here when we were taking military showers and keeping buckets out for any rain water. Your plan shows 113 units. That's approx. 226 people who will need to access water. Another drought is looming. We can't rely on water contracts from other counties or states. Why are we allowing this other than developer fees and votes?

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 21, 2021 at 8:49 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Suggest that people who are complaining go up to Redwood City and look at the development in the downtown location. Large apartments and condos in the downtown area on El Camino then going through to Veterans' Blvd. All of the apartments are in proximity of the Caltrain tracks and station. By concentrating the building downtown they are leaving the residential area as is. And the home prices are going up. That is called good city planning. Clearly defined locations for apartments, houses with little overlap.

Posted by Samuel L
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 21, 2021 at 12:21 pm

Samuel L is a registered user.

The City definitely controls the parking on El Camino. The do need approval in order to implement a restricted parking zone, say 2-hour or permit parking. However, the City tickets and controls the 72-hour restriction.

Caltrans maintains the road, it does not police the road.

CHP does not hand out parking tickets. And, when was the last time you saw CHP patrolling El Camino? PAPD takes care of El Camino outside of maintaining the actual road.

However, the City DOES control the sidewalks along El Camino where many of the RV's tend to park half on the sidewalk along with storing their belongings which blocks access to the sidewalks.

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