City Council Planning

Council Puts 4880 El Camino Plan on Hold

4880 El Camino shown with neighbors
Rendering of Proposed 5-story project at 4880 El Camino shown in center with existing neighbors
Written by lalahpolitico

In fear of setting a new precedent for allowable building height in commercial and multi-unit housing buildings in greater Los Altos, about 150 residents have expressed their opposition to the 5-story 4880 El Camino project to Los Altos City Council on the night of June 27, 2016 meeting. Most did so by signing a couple of opposition petitions; about 20-30 people came to the 4 hour meeting to speak pro and con.

FYI: This topic is spread across three posts. You are on Part 1.

Part 1 – Council Meeting June 27, 2016 Summary/Action/Analysis

Part 2 – An Aside: 4480 El Camino Plan vs. Colonnade Development

Part 3 – Minutiae of Public & Council concerns June 27/ Diagrams, Photos

Lalah: Fix the Zoning codes…

We estimate that half the community seems to think “First Street is becoming a canyon” and probably agrees with the ad hoc Downtown Buildings Committee that the height limit in that zone should be lowered to 35 feet from 45 feet. Given that El Camino and First Street have similar zoning, half the community is sick with fear of a precedent being set by the 4880 El Camino project.

People fear that the affordable housing “developer incentives” and “zoning waivers” mandated by the State of California and being used for the first time in Los Altos at the 62 foot high, 4880 El Camino project could also be used on First Street in the future. OMG!

4880 El Camino N and S elevation 62 feet

Dahlin Group Architects rendering of South rear and North front on El Camino. 62 feet to the roof deck. Partial parapets surround a 5th floor roof terrace

Lalahpolitico agrees that part of City Council’s response to this public outcry should be to give El Camino much more differentiated zoning from that of First Street. The MTA / ABAG regional planning group’s “Grand Boulevard” scheme – denser urbanized housing, commercial and transit – is imposed on El Camino, NOT on First Street. The Council seemed very receptive to the idea of tinkering with current El Camino zoning.

Also…Council probably should change First Street height limit to 35 feet; that way we’ll be forcing more affordable units downtown than with the 45 limit. [But we’ll still have 45+ foot buildings.!] Jean Mordo is now more receptive to the idea of a 35 foot limit to the roof deck…if this State BMR developer incentive law works the way we fear it works.

Council voted 4-1 to “Continue” till August 23

Jean Mordo Los Altos City Council interrogates LASD Tamara Logan

Jean Mordo Los Altos City Council

But before bothering to tinker with zoning codes, the City Council is asking staff to research whether allowing “13 extra feet” of height at 4880 is, as Councilmember Jean Mordo said, “incentives exceeding the degrees of reasonableness.” The law says local jurisdictions must grant density incentives and zoning waivers to compensate for the developer’s cost of providing extra BMR units, “but the law does not say HOW MUCH of an incentive.” Several citizens spoke arguing the height incentives granted were excessive and that legally the city could “give” less height; the developer was overstating his case.   Staff will do research on the issue and is scheduled to return a report for the August 23 council meeting.

The burden of proof is on the City to show that the developer profit from the 21 planned units with  3 BMRs with waivers/incentive is not the same profit as from the 17 units with 2 (?) BMRs without zoning waivers/incentives.  All the councilmembers felt this economic cost-benefit outcome was difficult or impossible [Mary Prochow]  to prove. By law, the developer apparently has these “rights” to be excused from some local zoning when providing more BMRs.  Local zoning is not supposed to “thwart” State’s mandate for more affordable housing. Do we have Politically Correct zoning?

Getting “Educated” on BMR case law…

The 4880 El Camino developer said his company spent over a year working with the Planning Dept. and the nearby neighbors to redesign many parts of the project many, many times. Also his company “educated” City Staff and the Planning Dept. on the case law around the BMR developer incentive/waiver laws being applied. The developer obviously feels his “ask” for incentives/waivers is “reasonable” and will stand up in court.

The developer pointed out one of the 45 foot buildings now on First has an 8 foot high parapet [rooftop wall] all around the perimeter to hide HVAC, so it appears from the ground as if 53 foot high to the roof deck. [4880 El Camino would be 62 feet to the roof deck with 4.5 foot parapet around a partial rooftop terrace; so that’s “just a 13-foot incentive.” Semantics? All how you look at it?  ] But NOBODY, NOBODY wants to go to court. As the developer said, their preferred policy is to “use honey, not vinegar.”

Adhere to the letter of the existing zoning…?

Enough of semantics, zones, and law! What about the merits/demerits of the project? Do we want to derail this project, or make it wait till Council can sort out if/how it wants to redo First Street and El Camino zoning law? Is there going to be another call for a building moratorium?! Plenty of people who opposed approval of this project said, “Make this project adhere to the letter and intent of the local zoning law, or change the local zoning laws.” Is this a false choice?

4880 El Camino Plan Setbacks by Floor

The 100 foot rear setback of floors higher than 2-story protects the existing rear neighbor, an older two-story condo/apts complex. Dahlin Group Architects

Bargaining with the Developer- Let’s make a deal

Councilmember Jean Mordo asked the developer to consider any one of the below changes to reduce the “degree of incentives/waivers” and make the project more attractive to Council. [This was a discussion suggestion, not a promise of approval made by anyone on Council.]

4880 El Camino has 11 ft. ceilings like several of these Los Altos Condos

100 First and 86 Third have 11 foot interior ceilings. 960 N. San Antonio also has high ceilings. 100 First and 960 S. San Antonio were designed by Dahlin Group Architects, just like this 4880 project. Councilmember Prochow said she thinks Dahlin designs excellent projects, and she supports 4880 as currently planned.

Mordo queried the developer…Could you consider one of three changes?…

  1. Lower the interior ceiling height from 10.5 to ~8.5 on each of the 5 stories to reduce building height to the roof deck from 62 ft. to about 52 ft. [Lalah: unlikely as all R.E professionals speaking at the Council meeting – including Councilmember Mary Prochow – said ~11 foot ceilings were an de rigueur at new luxury condos in the $2 million price range. You need high ceilings to be competitive. ]
  2. Floors 3, 4, 5 in the current 4880 plan have a 100 feet setback from the rear neighbors — the same as was required of the recent Los Altos Nursery/Colonade project in order to protect Chester Circle rear neighbors. Would a lesser 4880 project setback, say 50 feet or whatever, allow the 4880 developer to put the 21 units on 4 stories rather than the current 5 stories? [Lalahpolitico: I find this proposed setback change unpalatable as it is an unequal rear setback treatment vs. the Colonade. More important, the current El Camino 100 foot setback really does minimize the impact on 4880’s rear RESIDENTIAL neighbors – namely some older, two story condo/apt. buildings. Chester Circle was protected; why not protect the folks living behind this 4880 project?]
  3. Leave the 4880 plan as it, but instead of 3 of the 21 units as BMR units, make it 4 of the 21 as BMRs. [Lalahpolitico: Ok. This is probably acceptable to almost all political and neighbor interests, but might make the developer choke… Unless the architect takes the 3 BMRs’ total square feet, and makes 4 BMRs by switching from all 2-3 and bedroom units to some one-bedrooms or even studios?

Resources: City Web Site

Full Plan

Correspondence. You can find letters from lawyers and citizens explaining/questioning the law around the granting of development waivers and incentives for affordable housing.

Staff Meeting Presentation

What’s Next?

We all have to wait till at least August 23 to see if City Staff determines it can “find” that the incentives for 4880 are “too much.” In parallel the City staff will start to consider the whole housing supply issue. Zoning in the First Street Zone and on El Camino may get tweaked eventually. Any such changes would be heavily noticed and take at least 3 “public hearings.” As urged by the League of Women Voters, City Staff will look into changing BMR unit status to last longer than 30 years. [Currently, whoever owns the BMR unit in year 30 can expect a windfall gain when it converts to market-rate. ]

We have to wait see the developer’s reaction to the lack of Council approval of their 4880 plan. Lalahpolitico guesses the developer will probably want to learn what the staff “findings” are at the August 23 Council meeting. They’ll also be keeping an eye on the potential for zoning changes that could help or harm the profitability of the project.

End of Part 1. This topic is spread across three posts.  Go to…

Part 1 – Council Meeting June 27, 2016 Summary/Action/Analysis

Part 2 – An Aside: 4480 El Camino Plan vs. Colonnade Development

Part 3 – Minutiae of Public & Council concerns June 27/ Diagrams, Photos

About the author


Norma Schroder is an economics & market researcher by trade and ardent independent journalist, photographer and videographer by avocation. Enthralled by the growth of the tech industry over the decades, she became fascinated with the business of local politics only in the past several years.

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