City Council Planning

What 4880 El Camino Means for Downtown Los Altos and Housing

4880 El Camino, Jean Mordo explains waivers vs. incentives
Jean Mordo clarified for the public how the City granted only waivers, no incentives to the developer.
Written by lalahpolitico


At the Sept. 13, 2016 meeting,  Los Altos City Council gave the final approval to the 21 unit, 5-story 4880 El Camino condo project. At a previous Council meeting, the developer gave City Council a tough choice.  In order to build the 3 affordable ‘Below Market Rate’ units (BMRs), the developer said he needed either 1) a waiver of the 100 foot rear setback in order to build a shorter 4-story or 2) a waiver of the height limit to build the original taller 5-story plan.  The council preferred the 5 story approach. But…

But Councilperson Mordo extracted a developer concession :

” Lower the height of the 5-story plan from from 63 to 58 feet, in other words by one foot per floor of the 5-story , and you’ll get my vote for approval.”  – Jean Mordo

The developer agreed.  Other than the height adjustment, there were very few additional tweaks to the plan.  [Some of our prior coverage of this project is at  4880 as a 4 story  and at 4880 Citizen Concerns.]

At the Sept. 13 meeting, Mordo took a moment to clarify for the public, how the State density bonus law (Section 65915(e))  – an INCENTIVE- was granted by the State to 4880 El Camino. The City only granted “waivers” deemed necessary for the project to be built.  These waivers include a roof top structure height of 11 rather than 8 feet [for the elevator]; enclosing rooftop area of 6% rather than just 4%, [there is a lounging area amenity on the rooftop.]  In other words, the City gave no developer incentives, the State did.  The City only gave waivers as required by State law.

UPDATE Sept. 25, 2016:  Lalahpolitico received some complaints about  my coverage of the Below Mark Rate programs in the City of Los Altos. I have made some changes and additions in the section below about BMR.  Also there are UPDATES about the developer of the 4846/4856 El Camino new 35 unit condo project (Mohr Clocks) asking for height waivers, and an Oct. 6 PTC meeting which will finally hear the final Building Committee Report and make recommendations to Council.

developer incentive - namely allowing 21 units on the parcel whereas only 17 are 4880 El Camino ... allowed by our local zoning

The State Law is the developer incentive – namely allowing 21 units on the parcel whereas only 17 are allowed by our local zoning. The other exceptions from zoning are called “waivers” not incentives.

Image: South First Street, Los Altos


Recently completed Lennar project condos in the distance. Much of First Street still has not been revitalized.

And Downtown Los Altos? Yup.

Well, yes a developer could come along next week and request/demand a higher density than allowed by our local code in the First Street zone.  And the City would wind up giving some waivers. Height? Setback? Likely.

UPDATE: Sept. 25, 2016.  The owner of Mohr Clocks on El Camino…

City Manager Chris Jordan…Residential Condominium Project at 4846/4856 El Camino Real, upcoming workshop
Staff has received a preliminary project review application for a residential condominium project at 4846/4856 El Camino Real, the current site of Mohr Clocks. This 35 unit project includes affordable housing units and seeks some exceptions to the site development standards, notably the height limit. This project will be scheduled for consideration by the Planning and Transportation Commission at a workshop in the near future so early feedback can be provided to the applicant/developer.

And the City Council has not been able to act on the recommendations of the Building Committee . The group recommended reducing height and increasing setbacks on the street. But it was instructed NOT to consider real estate economics and development economics in doing its research. Therefore, some people contend that no owners on First Street would ever redevelop their well-worn properties  if the ‘building envelope’ were to be trimmed as much as the Building Committee prefers.  So First Street might continue to look like it does in the above photo: not ‘revitalized’.

UPDATE: Sept. 25, 2016

City Manager Chris Jordan..Public Hearing on Downtown Buildings Committee Recommendations. Oct. 6
Following two discussions at the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC), the recommendations of the Downtown Buildings Committee (DBC) will be reviewed at a public hearing at the October 6, 2016 PTC meeting. DBC recommendations include a reduction in height limits for the CD and CD/R3 Zone Districts, modifications to roof structure classifications, height and coverage limits, amendment to the Design Review Findings, and addition of “penthouse” and “tower” definitions. A recommendation will then be developed and presented to the City Council at a future date


38 dwelling units per acre is the maximum housing density in Los Altos. It is allowed in a few of our zones of Los Altos.  These highest density zone locations are mainly along El Camino and downtown (along outer First Street, along the south side of West Edith and along the bit of Cuesta adjacent to downtown).

The area along El Camino appears to be one of those PDA’s, Priority Development Areas, championed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) in Oakland. MTC staff are basically our Bay Area, non-elected, regional planners. They are experts apparently trying to get jobs, housing and transportation in balance.  But let’s not ask difficult questions about balancing the other infrastructure: water supply, sewer, power, schools, etc.

On the map it looks like downtown Los Altos is also a PDA!– Lalahpolitico

Interactive Map

Map: MTC Priority Development Areas In Los Altos

4880 El Camino The Los Altos part of El Camino Real appears to either be a PDA . So is downtown Los Altos

The Los Altos part of El Camino Real appears to be a PDA. So is the circle denoting downtown Los Altos.


Who is MTC?  If you care about Growth…

Some Bay Area people approve of and trust MTC to do regional planning; others do not. Most people don’t know much of anything about MTC. Check out the MTC Plan Bay Area

In May 2016, MTC and ABAG released three alternative land use and transportation scenarios illustrating the effects that different housing, land use and transportation strategies would have on the regionally adopted performance targets. The three scenarios were featured in public open houses and online forums throughout May and June 2016.

The scenarios represent a progression of plausible regional futures, from more intense housing and employment growth in the urban core (“Big Cities Scenario”); to more evenly apportioned development among priority development areas (PDAs) in medium-sized cities with access to rail services (“Connected Neighborhoods Scenario”); to a more dispersed development pattern, with relatively more growth occurring outside of PDAs (“Main Streets Scenario”).

4 Minute Video of Plan Bay Area Scenarios


The public has one more year to give input to MTC about all this. In reviewing Plan Bay Area materials, I noticed that growth restriction was not even an option; the only option was how to distribute the growth.

The City of Los Altos plan for housing unit growth to 2024 was shaped by the requests/demands(?0 of these Bay Area regional planners. [See the Housing Element document .pdf large file, part of the City General Plan]. The 4880 El Camino project with its 3 BMRs helps the City meet its goal for affordable housing — even it it’s just a little bit of help.


Who is Anti – MTC?

Oh, here is one example…extracted by Lalahpolitico from Berkeley based

“ element in the “Proposed Stakeholder Engagement Plan”—the so-called “Regional Stakeholders” that have been singled out for individual meetings with the [MTC] consultants: The Bay Area Council, the Building Industry Association (BIA) Bay Area, Greenbelt Alliance, and SPUR.

Every one of these organizations is hostile to democratic planning and decision-making. Every one, including Greenbelt Alliance, supports the continuing evisceration of the state’s premier environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act. [Lalahpolitico: the ” traffic congestion impacts” part of CEQA  are likely to be removed by bills in the State Assembly.] BAC, SPUR and the Greenbelt Alliance are deeply allied with the real estate industry; BIA, is the chief local lobbyist for that industry. It follows that all four seek supply-side solutions to the Bay Area’s affordable housing crisis. Except for BIA, they all tout social equity but have at times opposed measures that would substantially spread the wealth and expand opportunity. BIA doesn’t even bother with lip service (it’s now hoping to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate San Jose’s inclusionary housing ordinance).” —  from

Lalahpolitico: Ouch. There is a lot of passion here. That doesn’t mean MTC opponents are wrong. But which way is the wind blowing? Bend like a reed?

Affordable Housing – Pepper Pushes for BMR Perpetuity at 4880 El Camino

Jan Pepper Los Altos City Council , BMR, Affordable Housing

Councilperson Jan Pepper asking at the Sept. 13, 2016 meeting  if it would be possible to change the 4880 El Camino 30-year BMR units to permanent BMRs…

The 3 BMR’s at the 21 unit 4880 El Camino condo project will remain below-market- rate units for 30 years. If a BMR owner moves, the 30 years resets to 0 for the new BMR owner. However, if an owner lives in the BMR unit for OVER 30 years, that owner can sell at market-rate.

At the Sept. 13 City Council meeting, Pepper asked the City Attorney if there was a way to change those rules for the 4880 project. For example, when the City revises its BMR ordinance and rewrites it to require perpetuity of affordability, could that change be applied to 4880 retroactively? Los Altos City attorney Jolie Houston said, “No. Project permit conditions can’t be changed after a project is approved.”

However, Houston confirmed that review of our local BMR ordinance would occur in the new year 2017. Besides changing the BMR term from 30 years to perpetuity, the City may be looking for a new BMR administration (enforcement) operator, and changing buyer/lessee qualification rules. [Right now city employees or staff seem to be first in line before teachers? Lalahpolitico: I hear some people say there is cronyism going on during the selection of BMR residents.]  The City Attorney reminded us that the State Assembly may consider AB 2501 soon. If it passes, that will impact the City’s Affordable Housing ordinances.

UPDATE: Sept. 25, 2016. Re: the City’s BMR program, whatever may have gone before, RIGHT NOW, things are operating above board per  this…  [I was pointed to this story from the new City Manager’s newsletter.]

“School Teachers Moving to Downtown
The City’s ongoing efforts to provide affordable housing have made it possible for two local school teachers to become homeowners in downtown Los Altos. The sale of two affordable housing units included in the 86 Third Street project have been completed under Palo Alto Housing’s administration, the City’s housing partner in this effort. As some familiar with project might recall, the project at 86 Third Street is a mixed use project with 20 housing units, two of which are affordable housing units (a 3-bedroom – Moderate, and a 2-bedroom – Low).

A total of 24 qualified applications were received for these units and the applicant categories were:

9 First Priority Applicants (6 school teachers and 3 City employees);
13 Second Priority Applicants (live and/or work in the City for at least 2 years); and
2 Fourth Priority Applicants (Santa Clara County residents)
Since there were more qualified applicants than units, a lottery was held for the First Priority applicants. Both affordable housing units went to school teachers: one from Santa Rita Elementary and one from Los Altos High School. The 3-bedroom unit owners are a four-person household.”

Lalahpolitico: Since first publishing this post, I also learned from a League of Women Voters member that in California, a buyer of a BMR condo has to qualify only at the time of purchase.  [Only BMR renters have to qualify every year.] In other words, BMR condo buyers in Los Altos literally ARE winning the lottery.  The buying household can change employers, careers and INCOMES. If they stay put 30 years in the condo, they can then sell at market rate and get a very large windfall gain. The unit become a market-rate unit.  This windfall gain is what Councilperson Jan Pepper wants to end by revising our BMR ordinance in the next year. With revision, we could keep the condo in the inventory of BMR units.

Lalahpolitico:Since first publishing this post, I also learned something startling about building new granny units in Los Altos since 1995. If you add a granny unit to your over 13,000 square foot single family home parcel, the building permit requires a deed restriction(?) mandating the unit is rented as BMR when not occupied by immediate family. It seems the rules are not being enforced for the 40 or so granny units built since 1995. [That is  so very few units!] But this could change in 2017 when the whole BMR ordinance will be revised.

Lalahpolitico just wondering: I don’t know for sure, but could that mean the single family home owner should/would have to go though Palo Alto Housing’s administration to rent it? In other words pretty much rent it only to teachers or city employees? [Can those teachers be private school teachers like at Pinewood? Or can you find your own tenant?  Perhaps you can make  your low-paid, live-in nanny or personal cook your granny unit tenant? And Palo Alto Housing verifies the income status of your nanny?  Are there income tax implications for you and your nanny? All 12 cities I happened to look at don’t require that granny units added to single family homes have to be BMRs. Is Los Altos an outlier in this regard?  Does a BMR mandate discourage the construction of granny units in Los Altos? Just wondering. Or Does the BMR status let the home owner get a better mortgage?  Or a worse mortgage?   How do lenders and appraisers value a Los Altos home with a BMR granny unit? Is the lottery prioritization we have now really maximizing social justice? I know, I know, I have a lot of questions.  When the BMR ordinance comes before council next year, Lalahpolitico hopes to have it all sorted out.


About AB 2501 – no more local zoning control

Paraphrasing Nato Green of the SF Examiner

Because Governor Brown terminated all State  “redevelopment fund (RDA)” programs a few years ago – RDA was a source of many 100% affordable housing projects statewide  —  and perhaps as penance for this sin, the Governor is now “teaming up” with commercial developers to create 20% BMR unit projects in the  Priority Development Areas of the MTC.  Under AB2501, the commercial developers would be excused from most local zoning review processes and any CEQA Environmental Impact Review. The development process would hence be very expedited. The idea is to do an end run around local NIMBYs who always show up at local councils to slow and even derail development and growth.

Nato Green implies in his article that many State Assembly liberals would like RDA programs to return. They don’t like providing affordable housing through the AB 2501 partially market-driven process.  At the very least, the liberal advocates of state-funded affordable housing projects in the Assembly,  hope to include language into AB 2501 that excludes the tearing down of rent-controlled housing to make way for one of these new 20% BMR projects.

Lalahpolitico: Next door to Los Altos are a lot of Mountain View apartments which were built before 1995. Because of an old 1995 MV law, these rentals will be subject to any rent controls that MV voters might impose during this November 2016 election. [Per the MV Voice 60% of MV residents rent].  All these rent controlled MV parcels will not be able to use Assembly Bill 2501 to redevelop if the “exclusion” language is included in the bill. I worry that all these regulations will just make the shortage of housing here even worse.

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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