For the first time in two years, a significant housing project is being proposed to Palo Alto’s City Council. On Monday Sept 12 at 6p, City Council will have a study session for a 60 unit housing project (30 studios and 30 one-bedroom rentals) at 2755 El Camino Real ( at corner of Page Mill.) Read the Staff Report here.
For decades, this former VTA Park & Ride lot has been an empty blight on one of the busiest intersection on the Peninsula. At a time where our housing shortage has never been more severe, this is one of the best empty sites to develop housing. The location is superb – both neighboring parcels are housing developments: Sunrise senior housing community on ECR and an affordable housing project on Page Mill. The lot sits next to a VTA bus stop, half a mile from the California Avenue Caltrain station, and a couple of blocks from the California Avenue shopping district. In short, it’s a perfect area for a large number of new housing units.
This housing project would fill several needs for Palo Alto. The project is right across the street from Stanford Research Park, which has the highest concentration of jobs in Palo Alto. More homes near jobs are critical to reduce inbound commuting, which currently makes up 67% of Palo Alto’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions. And because city council set a goal to reduce Palo Alto’s GHG Emissions by 80% by 2030, more local housing can be a great way to reduce excess commute trips.
This project sounds like a no-brainer. But in the world of Palo Alto politics, even a hugely beneficial project like this has to clear many hurdles. Here are a few:
Hurdle 1: Zoning Designation: this site is zoned as Public Facility (PF) and housing is currently prohibited under that designation. The site would either need to be a Planned Community (PC) zone or be assigned a commercial mixed use zoning designation, like CC2.
Hurdle 2: Density Limits: A proposal of 60 units on a half acre site, yields 120 units/acre. This is three times more than Palo Alto’s maximum multifamily designation RM-40, which only allows 40 units per acre. A special micro-housing overlay zone or update to the CC2 zoning designation would need to be made to allow this many “units per acre” on this particular site.
Hurdle 3: Affordability: Currently this project does not have affordable (below market rate) units proposed. While Palo Alto has an inclusionary zoning mandate for for-sale apartment units (minimum 15% per PAMC 18.13.040.g), rental units are exempt from this. The affordability component of this proposal could be strengthened by allowing, for example, city employees and teachers first preference. But the lack of BMR units at this stage in the proposal is not a good reason to oppose the proposal.
Hurdle 4: Parking: The proposal has 45 parking spaces, or 0.75 parking spaces per unit. Currently, studios are required to provide 1.25 spaces per unit and one bedrooms 1.5 units. These parking requirements are difficult to meet, very expensive to build (about $60,000/space) and often, the parking is not used. With good transit access and incentives like ride share coupons, Zip Car, bike share, and subsidized Caltrain or VTA passes, the project’s 45 parking spaces can be enforced to meet the total parking needs of all future residents.
Hurdle 5: Retail: Some will argue that there should be ground floor retail, and while a residential over retail configuration is desirable, the location currently does not attract much foot traffic to support retail, and the two adjacent housing projects (which were allowed by PC zoning) do not have retail either. Retail uses also have high parking requirements, which would mean less space for housing people, and more space for housing cars.
Hurdle 6: Neighbor Opposition: There will be many people who come out in force to oppose this project. Letters will be written and public comment given against it, claiming it blocks views of the foothills along Page Mill, it will cast shadows over the adjacent housing projects, that it will bring in too much traffic. Others may oppose it for issues mentioned above, like lack of parking spaces required by code or no retail.
This project underscores the intricate web of issues and numerous hurdles that housing proposals have to navigate in order to be approved in Palo Alto today. Without consistent support, this project will be subject to a slow death by a thousand cuts. It may not be perfect, but should we continue to let perfection be the enemy of the good, and continue to prevent housing proposal after housing proposal from being built in our community? Or will you join us and voice your support for these new homes?