As Palo Alto offers a new vision for housing growth, two local architects come up with an idea that they believe could generate up to 1,000 new homes near downtown and California Avenue: build homes rather than homes. car parks on land belonging to the city.

According to the proposal from Peter Baltay and David Hirsch, who both sit on the city’s Architectural Review Board, the city would issue a request for proposals from developers to construct three to five story buildings filled with small apartments on parking lots. All existing parking lots would be maintained on these lots, although much of it would be moved underground, with housing built above it.

Baltay and Hirsch started exploring the concept about six months ago. They visited all the lots on California Avenue and downtown to count parking spaces and create estimates of how many units each can accommodate. They estimate that the 12 surface parking lots in the city center, which now have 707 parking spaces, can potentially accommodate around 740 housing units as well as 1,070 parking spaces. On California Avenue, the five surface parking lots can be developed to include 263 residences as well as 397 parking spaces, compared to 282 currently (the parking lots in the two business districts are not included in the proposal).

“We have to stress again and again that we will not lose parking,” Baltay said in an interview on Wednesday. “It doesn’t require the loss of a single parking space.”

The two architects believe their idea can not only generate hundreds of new homes in each of the two business districts, but it can also help revitalize retail at a time when the business world is in shock. the growing popularity of online shopping and economic conditions. damage caused by COVID-19. More importantly, they said, their plan would allow the city to dictate the terms of the new development, including the design of the buildings and the levels of affordability of the new housing complexes.

This, they say, is especially important at a time when the state is setting aggressive housing targets for local jurisdictions and passing new laws that limit the power of cities to reject development proposals. As part of the state’s regional housing allocation process, Palo Alto will need to plan 6,086 new homes between 2023 and 2031, making their proposal particularly timely.

As members of the Architectural Review Board, Baltay and Hirsch know intimately both the difficulty of getting through the approval process and the importance of ensuring that new buildings have ample parking. In advocating for exploring the use of parking lots, they note that they are acting as individuals and not as board members (they have not discussed the proposal with anyone else on the board, Baltay said).

However, they are preparing to go through their own verification process to move their concept forward. The first step came earlier this month, when they pitched the idea of ​​the parking lot to the Housing Element Working Group, a panel of citizens who are helping Palo Alto adopt its housing element, a state-mandated document that lists the city’s housing policies and includes an inventory of sites that can accommodate housing.

In the September 2 presentation, Baltay noted that because these lots are in commercial areas, the new development will not have a negative impact on the city’s existing residential communities.

“We can control the development parameters of new buildings,” Baltay said during the presentation. “Since the city owns the land, we are able to insist on projects that reflect the physical and social character and values ​​of our community.

Hirsch highlighted during the presentation the economic benefits the plan could bring to retail areas and noted that by focusing dense multi-family developments on sites around the downtown area and in the California Avenue area, the city can avoid significant growth in corridors adjoining small-scale residential neighborhoods. neighborhoods, including Middlefield Road, Alma Street and El Camino Real.

“The downward trend in brick and mortar retail activity combined with the catastrophic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our local shopping districts,” Hirsch said. “Bringing new residents to city centers can help reverse this trend, creating variety and vitality in our urban neighborhood. “

The idea of ​​building housing on land owned by the city is not entirely new. In 2018, as the city prepared to adopt a new housing work plan, the city council reviewed and rejected a policy that would make parking spaces available for new housing. At that time, council members expressed concern over the abandonment of a rare and valuable commodity, public lands, before council voted 6-3 not to include the policy in the plan.

Other cities have been more receptive to the idea. Mountain View recently approved a project by the nonprofit Alta Housing that would bring 120 affordable housing units to a city-owned parking lot near Castro Street. Hirsch also highlighted housing projects in Burlingame and San Mateo which rely on parking lots to create 132 and 54 apartments, respectively.

To show what such a project would look like in Palo Alto, the two architects created a concept plan for the parking lot on Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street, which the council had previously considered a site for a new parking lot. The illustration shows a five-storey building with 83 apartments with skylights, skylight windows and a roof terrace. The project would also include 130 underground parking spaces.

Baltay and Hirsch said they believe it is time for Palo Alto to reconsider the idea of ​​housing rather than parking on public land. Rather than forcing it to cede control of public lands, the plan allows the city to exercise control and shape its own housing destiny, they argued.

“If it’s important for you to demolish the building to make it fit for a neighborhood, you can do that. You own the land, you decide,” Baltay said. “You wait for the state to tell you what the rule is, you lost. It is so important that the city has the ability not only to do these things, but to do them according to Palo Alto standards.”

The housing component working group proved broadly receptive to the proposal, with 12 members supporting further exploration of the concept and three opposing it. For many, the support came with caveats. Arthur Keller, a former planning commissioner who is part of the working group, insisted that the projects do not include “elevator puzzles” for cars as part of their parking programs (Baltay and Hirsch have confirmed that they are not). Another group member, Hamilton Hitchings, insisted that all housing projects developed on parking lots be 100% affordable housing projects, targeting residents who earn no more than 80% of the region’s median income.

“If we’re using public land, it really has to be for low-income residents.… It has to be developed by a non-profit organization and has to receive state funding,” Hitchings said.

Kathy Jordan, who is also in the housing group, suggested that the plans do not provide enough parking, given that the architects are only offering 0.5 parking space for each new apartment on the public lot. She also criticized the plan to privatize a public good.

“We have a private party that would make a profit, earn an income, on public property and amenities,” Jordan said.

Although the draft proposal does not explicitly require that new apartments be offered at a price below the market rate, Baltay stressed that the city can set this as a condition when issuing a request for proposals. Hirsch said that in the preliminary concept 93% of the apartments are studios and one-bedroom apartments, which means they would at the very least be relatively affordable compared to other local apartments.

Hirsch also said in an interview that although the concept has the potential to create over 1,000 apartments, these would be developed over a long period of time. One possible route, he said, is to select a downtown lot and one in the California Avenue business district and see what proposals the city receives for housing developments.

“It will never happen all at once,” Hirsch said in the interview. “It’s a long term process.”


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