City Council Planning

4880 El Camino Condo Revisited as 4-story

4880 El Camino - building mass of 4 story plan plus neighboring building envelops
4880 as 4-story with a 50 foot setback concession sits behind...the allowable building envelop of neighboring Mohr Clock parcel
Written by lalahpolitico

The 5-story 4880 El Camino condo project will be back before City Council on August 23, 2016.  The economic report which the City had commissioned found that the height concessions requested by the developer [62 feet whereas 45 feet is zoned]  are necessary. Specifically, the report found that the 3 affordable BMR units at 4880 are costing the Dahlin Group developers $2.1 million while the value-added of the height concessions is at best $1.75 million.

4880 El Camino - Dahlin Group - 4 vs. 5 story along El Camino

From the perspective of person traveling along El Camino, a 4 story-plan doesn’t feel all that different


As had been requested by City Council, the Dahlin Group developer did prepare a 4-story  54 foot version of the 4880 El Camino project plan, where the major City concession would be a ~50 rear feet setback for all floors. […Whereas the Commercial Thoroughfare zone normally requires 100 feet rear setback for upper floors]. In the alternate 4-story plan each floor has 11+ foot  foot ceilings, while the 5-story plan has 10+ foot ceilings. City planning staff prefers the original 5-story version, mainly because there is much less impact on the rear neighbor when the normal 100 foot rear setback is retained. The developer also prefers the 5-story version.

Figure 1 – 50 ft. setback vs. 100 ft. setback

4880 El Camino - 4 story plan - shows 50 ft. setback - Dahlin Group

If the City granted a rear setback concession [ 50 ft. whereas 100 ft. is required], yes, the developer could get the 21 units, including 3 BMR units…into 4 rather than 5 stories.

Looking at Figure 1, it is plain to see that the 50 foot setback of the 4-story alternative plan has a lot less privacy for the neighboring 2-story apartment buildings. The rendering also shows the building envelope of the two neighbors, assuming they develop at the required 100 foot setback.

In my previous posts about 4880 El Camino, I mentioned how much better a project in this 5 parcel area of El Camino could be  if all the neighboring parcels were to be aggregated. Apparently some aggregation has begun. The Mohr Clock Property has been sold to a neighbor recently.  In Figure 1, the square-shaped, aggregated Mohr site looks like it could accomodate a very nice project.  Who knows? Maybe if this 4880 project is approved by Council, nearby owners will go noodle with Dahlin Group?  The art of the deal?

LALAHPOLITICO:  This CT zone with its 100 foot setback for floors above 30 feet was set only in 2010. It’s pretty unfair to change the “tune” so quickly.  Lennar with its Colonnade project adhered to the required setback.  [Actually it also adhered to “mixed use”; however, except for the Vitamin Shop, those Colonnade commercial spaces are empty. Strip retail is considered “dead” per the experts, killed by online shopping. ] What if on August 23  the City Council says it likes this privacy-depriving 4-story plan for 4880 El Camino? And Dahlin Group builds the 4-story? What then?


4880 El Camino - view of project by a rear neighbor

4-story version: Although the redwoods still do provide some screening, now there are 4 condos on floors 3 and 4 than can look straight down on the rear neighbors coming and going in the parking area…and probably can look into each others’ windows. Lalahpolitico: This Dahlin rendering does not tilt the pedestrian’s head UP to look at the upper floors…so understates the privacy impact of the reduced 50 foot set back of this 4-story alternative 4880 El Camino project.

Will the two neighboring parcels shown in Figure 1 be asking for the same reduced rear setback concession in the near future?  Yes, likely.  Apparently the owner of Mohr aggregated site is noodling on a project right now. Imagine how it would be for the rear neighbor of these 5 parcels when all the parcels get the same 50 foot setback concession.  Now also imagine if this 50 foot setback were allowed along the whole ~1 mile strip of El Camino that is in the City of Los Altos.  That would be unfair to all those many, many rear neighbors, some of which are single family homes. I think the 2010 Commercial Throughfare zone should have a 30 to 60 year lifetime before fooling with it. 

4880 El Camino Project Tweaks

The developer, staff and consultants did respond to virtually all council and some citizen concernsbut not always the way the concerned party may have hoped. Both the 4-story and 5 story plans have 21 units including 3 BMRs….

Staff observed that one-bedroom units don’t make sense in a high density zone like this one, but there are a couple in the 4 story plan anyway. Both versions of the plan  meet fire standards. Low-growing plant material in the front yard area will be increased by a few percent from 52 to 57 percent, and hardscape will be reduced.  The 2 front yard palm trees will stay, but in addition 2  plane trees are to go in along El Camino.  Garbage collection will be three dumpsters rather than a bunch of 96 gallon bins; as before, these will be moved out to the curb on collection day(s). The parking plan — with its two separate, car-stacking lift systems and the driveway — was confirmed to be adequate.  Ingress and egress would not cause delays for residents or El Camino traffic. Getting in and out of a building parking spot would take from 1 minute to 3.5 minutes. [Traffic on the building driveway and on El Camino is projected to be less than that of the Hunan Restaurant which was on the site before.].  One City parking stall on the El Camino will be a loading zone. A “Garage Full” sign is suggested.

Council Action Options Aug. 23 per Staff

1) Approve 5-story as recommended by PTC and Staff and preferred by developer

2) “Remand” [reject] the project, send developer back to PTC, and/or direct applicant to consider a mixed use that includes commercial space, not just housing units

3) Approve 4-story version with the 50 foot rear setback concession

4) Request a peer review of the economic analysis

Lalahpolitico: I sort of hope for option 1, but I think option 2 and option 4 are quite possible; perhaps together. Option 1 seems legal,  helps the City meet new housing unit goals set by ABAG, and it is apparently ok with a majority of neighbors.

Lalahpolitico:  This is a very controversial project, and council may “duck and cover” till after the November election. Two Council incumbents — Jeannie Bruins and Jan Pepper —  are running.  A third seat is wide open for a newcomer. Plus the community still does not not understand if these kind of State mandated developer concessions can be exercised in the downtown area. Further delay of the 4880 decision looks so tempting…as long as delayed in a way that does not risk litigation.



The City and Dahlin Group documents are large and may be slow to download.  That’s why I’ve provided the reader with the summary above…and choice excerpts below.

Full Staff Report on Agenda .

Original 5 story Plan, Alternate 4-story Plan

Are the Concessions Necessary? To get the Affordable Units?

• The concession analysis shows that the proposed height concession is needed to offset the cost of the three affordable housing units. The height incentive is economically justified under both the five-story and four-story alternatives.

• The five-story alternative is the preferred alternative by the applicant. From a staff perspective the five-story alternative minimizes the project’s impacts on the surrounding residential neighborhood.

• The Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) held a hearing on the proposed project on DATE and recommended approval by a vote of 6-1.”

Consider a four-story alternative that uses exceptions to the rear yard setback area to minimize building height;
The four story alternative project has: a roof height of 54 feet compared to the roof height of 62 feet in the original proposal; an elevator tower that reaches 69.5 feet versus the 73 feet of the original project; and interior ceiling heights in the units of 12 feet versus the originally proposed 10 feet, nine inches. The four story alternative has its third and fourth floors set back 50 feet from the rear property line, where a minimum of 100 feet is required. The applicant favors the original five-story proposal.

At the request of the City Council, staff commissioned a Density Bonus and Concession Analysis prepared by Keyser Marston Associates, dated August 12, 2016. The analysis concludes that the proposed height concession is necessary to offset the cost of the three affordable housing units. The report analyzed the original five-story project, the developer’s four-story alternative, a conforming project and an alternative without a density bonus. The concession analysis is included as Attachment 2.

According to the analysis, the cost of providing the three affordable housing units is approximately $2 million. Considering the height concession for both alternatives, the report calculates the value increment between $1.35 and $1.7 million.

This supports the conclusion that the height concession for taller floors is reasonably necessary to address the cost of the three affordable housing units.

The application provides enough affordable units to entitle the project to the density bonus requested, and it meets the requirements of the City’s affordable housing ordinance. Given this, the City does not have a basis to require additional affordable housing units.


What about One-Bedroom Units in the Mix?

The City Council inquired about diversifying the housing unit size, or mix of bedrooms, specifically, whether one bedroom units could or should be added to the mix.

In Los Altos, typically the lower density districts have smaller units (mostly one and two bedroom units) largely due to the limited building envelope area of the lot, with the exception of single-family districts. Downtown and along El Camino Real, where more building area is allowed, the City has typically seen larger units mostly ranging from two, three and sometimes four bedrooms.
The original five-story plan has nine, two-bedroom units and 12 three-bedroom units. The original plan offers three affordable housing units: one, three-bedroom, moderate income; and two, two- bedroom low income. The applicant revised the original plan to relocate one of the two-bedroom affordable units from the east side to the west side of the third level, which increases the size of the affordable unit by 44 square feet.

The alternative four-story plan has two, one-bedroom units, 10, two-bedroom units, and 9, three- bedroom units. The alternative plan offers the same mix and orientation of affordable housing units as the original: one, moderate-income, three-three bedroom unit; and two, low-income, two bedroom units.

A 17-unit project entirely conforming to the existing zoning could have units averaging 1,545 sf in size. The units in the proposed project average approximately 1,527 sf in size. This supports the need for a fifth story to accommodate the additional four units, in that the increased height is not due to an increase in unit size over what could be included in a conforming project.
In 2010 the City increased the height limit in the subject Commercial Thoroughfare district to 45 feet to facilitate mixed-use commercial and housing potential. In doing so, the City also increased the setback requirement for buildings over 30 feet tall to a minimum 100-foot rear yard setback.

The increased rear yard setback [100 feet]  was to help mitigate the more intensive development impacts from the adjacent residences.

Staff Recommendations – Stay with 5 story, 100 ft. setback

Based on the intent of the setback requirement, staff recommends the applicant’s original approach that maintains the 100-foot rear yard setback. Although the proposed four-story alternative is eight feet lower than the original proposal, its 54-foot roof height is roughly a one-to-one setback (horizontal to vertical) from the rear property line, which will appear massive and difficult to buffer from the two-story residential apartments behind. From the sides, the approximately 150-foot long four story building is less articulated (more uniform in height appearance) and appears out of context for the scale of the smaller, narrow property.

Traffic…include one on-street loading space

In staff’s view, it is appropriate, however, to include an on-street loading space due to the limited potential of on-site parking opportunities. By condition of approval, the project would be required to establish a loading space adjacent the project, which would double as guest parking after normal business hours on weekdays and unrestricted parking on weekends.

Open space…in lieu park land fees satisfy

Staff’s evaluation is that in-lieu fees are required to satisfy the park land dedication requirement.


As described in Section III.a. of this memorandum, the cost of three BMR units is estimated at approximately $1.98 million. The value increment that could potentially be realized for the Developer’s two alternatives with the density bonus only (no height concession) range from $780,000 to $1.3 million. Including the height concession, the value increment is estimated at $1.35 million and $1.7 million. Since the value increment in all cases is less than the cost of the three BMR units, the conclusion of the analysis is that the height concession is reasonably necessary to address the cost of the three BMR units in the both the 5-story and 4-story project alternatives.

Lalahpolitico:  Yes the Marsten Econ report seems to say the Developer is not getting enough of a concession for the 5-story with the affordable units!


User Imposed Garage Delays. City staff have questioned whether user delays, including time required to load/unload goods, children (including infants/toddlers), elderly and mobility- impaired persons would significantly disrupt garage operations. Mobility impaired individuals could be expected to use one of the two ADA compliant parking spaces provided in the garage.

During Hexagon’s observations at an existing two level auto lift system at the Avalon Development at 651 Addison Street in Berkeley, there were no instances where people caused unusual delays when parking. Thus, it is expected that such delays would be somewhat infrequent. Many activities that require longer loading times, such as unloading groceries, occur during non-commute periods when traffic accessing the garage is lower.

automated auto stacking system

The 4880 El Camino building uses  Klaus automated stack systems to provide half of the required parking spaces.

It is also noteworthy that the 4880 project would have TWO puzzle lift systems; one side of the garage would have a 12 parking bay system, and the other would have 10 parking bay system. Each of the two systems may load vehicles simultaneously. In addition, each parking bay will have its own lift. About half of the users would open the gate in front of the parking stall and enter the stall in the same manner as a typical parking space. These users would have very brief delays. It is only when lift activities are engaged that the time spent in a parking stall significantly affects traffic queues in the garage.

During the highest hour of the day, ITE trip rates project that the garage would accommodate 17 vehicle trips. This translates to an average vehicular headway of one trip every 3.5 minutes. While some users may take extra time for the reasons staff have noted, for the garage to provide insufficient hourly capacity, every user would have to take an average of 3.5 minutes, instead of one minute, to access the garage. It is our opinion that, based on Hexagon’s observations, this would be unlikely.

Traffic Conclusions…

Relative to the existing restaurant use [Hunan Home], the project would result in a traffic reduction on a daily basis. Therefore, its impact on the greater transportation network in the context of the City’s level of service policy would be negligible.

There is no designated turn around space within the garage if guest parking cannot be located. In the event that all guest spaces are occupied, vehicles would be required to make multiple point turns to exit the garage. While not ideal, this situation is generally considered acceptable in urban areas where land is scarce and the traffic volumes are very low. To reduce the likelihood of a vehicle turning around in the garage, a parking guidance sign could be provided outside the garage to alert drivers when guest parking in the garage is full.


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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