A developer’s plan to build hundreds of apartments on the El Camino Real site currently occupied by Creekside Inn appeared doomed on Monday night after city council deemed the project too big, too dense and too controversial to be approved.
Presented by Oxford Capital Group, the development calls for the demolition of the hotel at 3400 El Camino Real and its replacement with two buildings, one with 316 apartments and the other with 66. Each building would have six floors and a height of 61 feet.
The Oxford development is the latest in Palo Alto’s recent wave of “planned home zoning” (PHZ) projects, which are allowed to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for providing housing. Over the past two months, council members had offered generally positive feedback on other PHZ projects, including a proposed 20-condo development near Town & Country Village and a 75-condo project launched for 800 San Antonio. Road.
In both cases, board members used their “screening” hearings to encourage developers to submit formal applications with some revisions. In each case, they cited the need to dramatically increase housing production to meet a state mandate of 6,086 new homes between 2023 and 2031.
But when it came to the Creekside Inn project, council members agreed the developer was asking too much. Echoing neighbours’ concerns, council members denounced the potential demolition of Creekside Inn, Driftwood Deli and Market and Cibo Restaurant, three businesses that are expected to make way for the new housing. Critics also noted that the proposed development would require the removal of more than 100 trees, that the El Camino site is close to a toxic underground plume, and that the builder’s proposal to place a vehicle entrance on Ave. Matadero would endanger a popular bicycle corridor.
“We’re in an election cycle now, so there’s been a lot of talk about supporting good projects but not necessarily all projects,” council member Eric Filseth said during Monday’s discussion. “This council has seen some good proposals over the last two months that we’ve indicated our support for. The one ahead of us, as defined tonight anyway, has some real challenges there.”
The developer has also faced intense opposition from the immediate neighborhood, with the Barron Park Association voting last month to formally oppose the project. In a letter to council, the neighborhood association’s board described the project as “massively out of scale” and argued that it would “present a myriad of issues related to density, environment and traffic in this area”.
“If built as proposed, this project will eliminate two local businesses upon which the surrounding neighborhood depends, as well as a 136-room hotel that serves business travelers and other visitors to Palo Alto and Stanford and provides revenue to the city and state,” the letter from the ward reads. “The profound impact on area water use, waste management, parking, the environment (with potential toxic damage to Matadero Creek) and privacy will disrupt lives, bring factors unnecessary stress to the neighborhood and will increase traffic tenfold.”
John King, president of the neighborhood association, said Monday that the Barron Park neighborhood generally supports the addition of new housing throughout the city as suitable sites are identified.
“The currently proposed shortlist to redevelop Creekside Inn just doesn’t seem feasible in many ways,” King told the council.
Others have argued that there is a serious lack of development when it comes to affordable housing. By law, each planned residential area project must offer 20% of its units at a below-market rate. In this case, that would mean 76 apartments with income restrictions.
As proposed, however, half of these units would be for residents in the “moderate” or “above moderate” categories, which target residents between 80% and 140% of the area’s median income (for a household of two people, the 140% standard equals a total income of $188,729). Sheri Furman and Rebecca Sanders, co-chairs of the leaders of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods umbrella group, were among those who argued that this did not represent real affordable housing.
“The proposal essentially asks residents and the city to buy into a private developer’s massive project of primarily market-priced housing,” Sanders and Furman wrote. “Instead, we should reserve the upgrade for applicants who offer homes that are 100% below market price to ensure they win the bidding wars for redevelopment land.”
While opponents argued the project is significant to the site, project manager Ted O’Hanlon countered that its density is similar to other residential projects the city had recently reviewed and, in some cases, approved. . This includes the Wilton Court development, which is now nearing completion at 3702 El Camino Real and offers 58 apartments for low-income residents and adults with disabilities. The main difference, O’Hanlon said, is the size of the project site.
“The biggest thing about this site is its scale,” O’Hanlon said. “It’s a 3.6 acre site.
There aren’t many in Palo Alto. If you look at any of the planned home zoning proposals that have come forward in the last one, two or three years – if it’s an acre, they’re big. This is three times higher.”
Economist Steve Levy also urged council to move the project forward, noting that concerns raised by residents could be assessed and mitigated as part of the approvals process.
“This project brings huge benefits in terms of number of units, number of units below market price – that’s more than Wilton Court – a location with great access to jobs, shops, services , amenities and public transit on a major corridor, El Camino, which the city has identified for many housing,” Levy said.
Council members, however, were not swayed. While council member Alison Cormack praised the healthcare worker accommodation project and council member Greg Tanaka praised Oxford for including many studio apartments (which he said would naturally be affordable), their colleagues have uniformly rejected the proposal, making it highly unlikely that Oxford will go ahead with a formal request.
Mayor Pat Burt noted that as part of the application, the developer asked the city to waive some or all of the approximately $21 million in impact fees it would have to pay for the project. The fees are intended for the construction or expansion of parks, libraries and community centers.
Burt strongly rejected the waiver request, noting that the city would already lose the hotel taxes that Creekside Inn currently brings in if the request progresses.
“We don’t have the resources to be able to not only lose that hotel tax, but also subsidize market rate developers and their obligations for proportionate investments in new infrastructure needs,” Burt said.
Some of his colleagues were even stronger against the project. Council member Greer Stone lamented the potential loss of Driftwood, a neighborhood staple. While Oxford discussed the possibility of Driftwood occupying the 4,000 square foot commercial part of the project, Stone suggested it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the business to stay alive during construction, which is expected to take at least two years.
“I’d like to see a bit of a concrete plan rather than a bit of a hollow promise that they can have a place to go back to,” Stone said. “Because we all know that’s not going to happen.”
Vice Mayor Lydia Kou called Oxford’s fee waiver request “inadmissible” and fully agreed that Matadero Avenue is too valuable as a bicycle route to accommodate the housing project.
“We want Safe Routes to School to succeed,” Kou said. “So let’s keep the streets safe and stop putting these outrageous developments in these places.”