City Council

Support LACI First Street Green Project

Here are reasons to support the concept of the LACI First Street Green and 3-story office building design...
Written by lalahpolitico

 

June 27, 2017. One way or another Los Altos Community Investments (LACI) is going to be building an expansive office building across its 8 parcels on the north end of First Street. The big question is whether the office project will include the LACI First Street Green add-on. You can’t stop the office project through rejection of the Green add-on. They are separable.

However, both 1) the office and 2) the Green are going together through the City planning process and the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) process as one package. [The developer refers to the single package under the name  LACI First Street Green.]

 


The small questions — office
building size, height, style, tenant relocation


In this LACI drawing, LACI makes the case for preferring their 3 story 41 to 45 foot design rather than a 2 story 30 foot design. LACI wants to make more than required setbacks on all sides, but especially along First Street. In addition to more generous setbacks, the 3-story design permits much more architectural “articulation.” Of course, The planning commission could find the 2-story simple doesn’t city architectural standards because of its limited setbacks…


A lot of onlookers — non-stakeholders — seem to be dwelling on what Lalahpolitico thinks of as the small issues. Will the final LACI office building design be as expansive as the 77,000 square feet that LACI is proposing at the beginning of this planning process?…Oh, maybe not. Will the building be in the modern style?…Oh, probably yes, but maybe not quite the “bauhaus” look LACI is proposing now at the beginning of this planning process. Will Bumble restaurant move into one of the many properties LACI owns along State Street?… Oh very likely yes, perhaps to the old Beausejour restaurant.

Table: 3-story Plan key metrics compared to Required/Allowed


Here is a table of the intial plan’s setbacks. First Street is 5 feet taller than Second Street. The lot is not level. The community benefit provided in consideration of the height…is the 40 extra public parking spaces. This is the Version A with the park.


Will this office building’s ultimate height adhere to the growth-suppressing 2016 zoning code for this area (30 feet height – 2 story) as passed by our current City Council?  Or will it adhere to the prior growth-encouraging 2012 – 2016 zoning code (45 feet – 3+ story) implemented by the Satterlee – Packard – Carpenter – Casas – Fishpaw council? We’ll see.

Some project critics want to stop the LACI First Street Green project just because LACI would move the Bumble restaurant from its humble cottage to another one of LACIs downtown properties. Let’s make it personal, eh? Hmmm. Beausejour is a vacancy?


No Stopping Some Version  of a LACI Building

Let’s remember that this City Council like all prior councils can grant a commercial project all manner of concessions – like height boosts – in exchange for community benefits and architectural merit. And it is City Council that can change ordinances…change the ” law.”  So it is quite possible that this council will allow the building to be 45+ feet in some places. [However it is not impossible that the City Council will say, “Come back with a 2-story plan…the City does not want the extra parking and the extra recreation facility. Thanks, but no thanks.”


Big Question – LACI First Street Green – Go or No Go


LACI First Street Green Benefits, with and without the park on plaza 7. It could be a fast-track to a City parking in lieu program (PILP).


The BIG question is will our City accept the separate but related proposal to build  –“gratis”–  a long-term “green” on the half of Parking Plaza 7 which adjoins LACI’s land? The rest of this post is about the 3-story building plan…which will be essentially the same plan above ground whether with / or without the park. The 3-story plan has a Version A — underground public-private parking and amenities — and a Version B  — virtually entirely private  underground parking with reduced amenities. We are examining community benefits of A vs. B. [Herein I am not examining the architecture of a theoretical 2-story plan with no park. The developer is not pursuing that at this time. [Lalahpolitico: And I hope they won’t have to. ]

To build the First Street Green, LACI will replace all the “lost” public parking stalls  in a joint use underground garage that would extend under the office building and also under the City plaza.  The LACI First Street Green project has the potential to add  almost 80 MORE public parking spaces to the City inventory. This inventory expansion would enable the City to set up a parking in lieu program (PILP) — something downtown property owners have been asking for, for a couple of decades.

This public parking stalls inventory expansion would enable the City to set up a parking in lieu program (PILP) — something downtown property owners have been asking for…for a long, long time.


LACI Office Building proposal with a park

Version A – LACI Underground parking extends under the Green on Plaza 7. It could enable a City PILP.

“Your land is my land” – taking or just sharing?

Much has been made of the fact that the LACI First Street Green underground parking facility would be partly under the City-owned land…aka  under Plaza 7. Yes, public land would be used for private benefit.


Figure: Version A Parking Level Detail

Click pic for a larger version in a new window.


Well if you look at the design of Version A, all the CITY PUBLIC PARKING is on Level 1, therefore most of it is under the LACI-owned land. And it is on the best, the easiest to access level! LACI has office parking is on level 2 – most of this is under the LACI-owned land.  And LACI has office parking on level 3 – all of it is under the LACI-owned land. And if the City wants even more public parking there is an option to add 40 stalls on level 3 under the City-owned land. So yes,  LACI private land would be used for public benefit.  Lalahpolitico:  It sure sounds like an agreement to share. Like a shared driveway on a flag lot. This looks reciprocal to me. I let you park here, if you let me park there.


Figure: Version B of LACI First Street Green Project – City rejects Green

If the Green is not built, then the Office Building will put all its office parking underground. There are only 10 public spaces, rather than 40 or 79 a with Version A


A First 3P Contract for the City of Los Altos

Version A of this project with the Green would entail some complex contracts for sure. It would be a Public Private Partnership (3P), and would be the first one (?) for the City of Los Altos.  There are three main parties – LACI, an Anne Wojicki foundation, and the City.  There is no sale of land…only leases.  The main vehicle would be one or more  “lease-leaseback” arrangements.

Lease-leaseback is a common contract among California school districts for building a new school building–the district leases the land of the site to the developer who constructs the school building and then leases the improved site back to the district. A main advantage to the school is the easy financing of the construction costs. Critics say it skirts the lowest- bidder process.  In some cases, the District might not even have to ask the voters to pass a bond issue.” It’s just another lease payment…not a real capital expenditure.”  Municipalities and transportation agencies also use lease-leaseback and sale-leaseback contracts.


Extract from public LACI Documents

Even if Councilmember Jean Mordo can’t talk LACI into also fully donating these optional; 39 parking stalls in addition to the 40 free extra stalls, at least the public private partnership will get them built and provide convenient  financing for the improvements.


In our specific case of the City of Los Altos and the LACI First Street Green project agreement,  the City would NOT BE CHARGED for construction costs of the Green, nor for the 62 Plaza replacement stalls, nor for the 40 bonus public stalls on Parking Level 1. If the City wants the 39 “optional” stalls on level 3 to be costructed, LACI says it expects the City to pay.  Lalahpolitico:  Heh, heh, maybe Council member Jean Mordo can wheedle LACI into ponying up for the optional 39 as well. I understand the length of the 3P contracts could be 60 or 99 years (?)


The public parking spaces at Safeway downtown can be cancelled at any time by Safeway for any reason by paying $1M per the 30 year agreement made in 2012. (six months notice.) So maybe we do need more parking in this end of downtown because this Safeway  parking is not necessarily permanent.

Don’t need parking here…
129 Public Spaces Under Safeway?

Some critics don’t place value on the LACI/ Wojicki “gift” of public parking expansion, because they say it is in the wrong location. Safeway is just across the street from Safeway.  “It would be more useful to add parking over near San Antonio Road on Plaza 10 by Wells Fargo or on Plaza 1 by the Los Altos Grill.”

Actually 25 of the Safeway stalls are signed as for “Safeway customers only”.  And the time limit on the public parking is 90 minutes, shorter than the 2 hours on the Plazas. Yes, this was an awesome concession that former Councilmember Ron Packard extracted from Safeway when that project was being planned.  Yes, but the agreement (30 years,  but renewable) lets the public use of the stalls be cancelled by Safeway with six months notice without the need for a reason… for a mere $1,000,000.

Lalahpolitico:  Back in 2010 Council member Ron Packard took a lot of heat for participating in the sale of the City owned parcel at 400 Main – Thoits Law and Cetrella are now tenants. Downtown commercial property owners claim the parcel was sold to the City by a retiring downtown owner in the expectation the City would eventually build additional City parking there for Main, State and the whole triangle’s needs.  So Lalahpolito sees the 129 Safeway  spaces as Ron Packard’s “replacement” for that perceived loss of parking expansion opportunity.  But maybe we should not consider these Safeway spaces as “forever” spaces?  Seems imprudent.


Several years ago Anne Wojicki – whose Foundation would be funding the Green and the City underground parking – leased this Mountain View building for her company 23andMe. Some Los Altans say tech companies don’t fit in with the village character…they have too many employees packed in.

Modern Office Buildings Don’t Fit in the Village?

This CON argument is not really about how modern Class A office buildings look. Rather it is how the critics claim they will be used.  Los Altos office construction is zoned with the expectation of 333 square feet of floor space per employee/driver/car parker. The number is derived from our current office building parking requirements of 3 stalls/ per 1000 square feet of office building. Our esteemed ad hoc Parking Committee has recommended the office parking requirement be reduced to 2 stalls per 1000 square feet… this would be expecting 500 feet of floor area allocated per employee. Proponents of the LACI First Street Green say their target tenant is venture capitalists and other professionals who demand spacious, low density office space.

“There is nothing the City can do to prevent LACI from renting the office building to a tech company which might have twice as many employees as the required 248 private office spaces.”  — a critic of the project

The initial LACI office design — as seen from near the Shasta First intersection– is an expansive, modern 77,000 square feet. Is this too bauhaus looking for some people’s taste? Do some people worry it will get stuffed with more employees that there is on premises private parking for? 248 stall are not enough?

But critics of LACI First Street Green project point out that  at tech companies, programmers are packed in at 150 square feet per employee.  That is 6.6 employees per 1000 square feet of floor space.  Furthermore the City can’t codify the maximum office occupancy.  So it is not impossible that we could get  6.6 employees per 1000 square feet of floor space! [ There are at least two examples of tech companies being “bad neighbors.”] Critics also say, consider the impact of an tech office on parking, the extra trips, the congestion…


Traffic Woes on First Street – Dangerous Turning

Many residents at the new Tuscan condos at 1 First Street oppose the use of these 8 LACI parcels for office. They would prefer the building were a condo complex. They believe the office employees would be coming and going in greater numbers than condo residents would. Yes,  if LACI were a condo I guess there would be maybe 80 units and  up and  160 adult condo residents commuting from a LACI condo in the morning in evening..  But if LACI is an office, there would be possibly over 240 employees coming and going…more or less. [LACI says, they much expect less. ]

There are  known traffic safety issues on the north stretch of First Street. Because of the on street parking – parallel- the driveway out of the Tuscan condo has poor visibility to make either a right or left turn onto First Street.  They have asked for installation of a convex mirror on the opposite side of the street for a 180 degrees view.  The request has been denied by the City for now.

Exiting and turning onto First Street from the Safeway driveway or from the 1 First Street condos driveway is very treacherous. Removing parking or adding convex mirrors with 180 degree views could help.

Lalahpolitico:  I personally experience the same First Street turning problem when I exit the Safeway parking lot driving out through those lovely brick arches.  There is no visibility to the right or the left from the driveway because of the vehicles parallel parked on the street. A concvex mirror on the opposite of side street is needed  here as well.

And frankly, long-term, get rid of all the north First Street parallel parking. Period. Tell the visitors at existing low-rise offices along First Street to use Safeway public parking,  and in 2-3 years they can use the LACI underground garage.

Both Safeway and the 1 First Street condos need traffic mirrors installed across from their driveways. Turning left or right into the flow of First Street traffic is unsafe. Removing street parking would help the most. www.trafficmirror.co

 

And I understand some residents in the Tuscan condo have only one assigned parking space in the building’s garage.  I assume those folks are the subsidized Below Market Rate (BMR) owners.  If the LACI underground garage is built, the perhaps the City or a non-profit can figure out how to lease some reserved stalls to the BMR residents who desire a second parking spot. [Lalahpolitico: When I lived in the Netherlands in an old Roman town for a year, I leased a parking spot about a block away from dwelling.  ]


 Let’s Look the Gift Horse in the Mouth

Figure: LACI depiction of Project Community Benefits

A screen shot of the LACI FIRST STREET GREEN web page. Lalahpolitico agrees the Version A Building set backs are pretty generous. And along the alley the condo neighbors setbacks seem less generous.


Here is what’s scrawled on the back of my envelope…”What is the value to the City of the various community benefits?”

$10,000,000 LACI estimate for Green construction costs

zero for moving 62 City-owned public stalls to level 1

$2,000,000 for 40 more public stalls on level 1 (50K each)

[optionally $2,400,000 for 39 more on level 3 (60K each)]

Ongoing programming of Green ($40K a year, part-time coordinator)

Day and evening use of a 1500-1700 public meeting room ($36,500 a year)

I’m not going to put an annual “lease” value on the public restrooms Why? Because other commercial organizations downtown provide similar amenities gratis too.  Main Street Cafe has / had public restrooms.

Republic Bank shares its board room with local NPs to hold their board meetings for free, but only in the evenings. The City charges around $100 to use a room…at least that’s the rate for the Neutra House.(?)   So 365 days a year makes the Laci public meeting room worth $36,500, very conservatively. Maybe the new City Community Center Building can make space for the daycare group — Children’s Corner — if Hillview Community Center has to provide one less adult meeting room, thanks to the LACI building providing a meeting room?

How should Lalahpolitico put a value on LACI’s sharing of  7,500 sq. feet private landscaped land adjacent to the Green? Consider the fact that our architectural gem — the new, woodsy Packard Foundation Building — does not share any of its green space with the public. The rear garden — it appears to be about 7,500 square feet(?) — is gated and locked.  Until recently even the approach to the Packard Foundation Building’s entrance on Whitney had a private property/no loitering sign.

And how to value LACI or the Foundation recreation programming?  Maybe one less part-timer in the City Recreation Department? $40K part-timer with benefits?

Here is how the intitial LACI office design looks from Shasta Street. One of the parking ramps can be seen on the left.

SWAG Grand Total Valuation – $12M to $16M
of Community Benefits

How to think about it?  Well this is about half of what the City is planning to spend {$25M} on the new Community Center Building.  So that $12M feels like a lot of value. Some residents have asked LACI if the equivalent monetary donation could be made for improvements located at the City Civic Center instead of on Plaza 7.  The answer is NO.  So Yes, LACI does see the existence of the LACI First Street Green in that exact location as a benefit to them – a foot traffic driver – to their real estate interests on First Street AND on State Street.

The value to the City and residents of the LACI offer benefits sure seems to outweigh what LACI is getting. And how is what LACI is “getting” harming the majority of us? LACI has already made mitigations but maybe they can make a few more for the few who perceive some personal harm? — Lalahpolitico

If the Green is not approved, LACI is planning to put all its required office parking underground 3 levels — It all fits under the building.  They do not need to lease Plaza 7 to build their building.  Sure, it would make rents a bit higher in the LACI office building if it were next to a pleasant green rather than a pleasant parking lot.


CAVEATS – the alley condo neighbors


The Version A  LACI building will have tall thin trees screening the office window which overlook the condo alley. Plaza 7 will still have a one way alley behind the State Street commercial buildings. Click pic for larger image in a new window

 


Version B of the Office Building without the green. Plaza 7 intact. The alley neighbors will still get all the improvements of version A — utilities under grounding, resurfacing, re landscaping


This is just the beginning of the planning process. The developer has probably anticipated that the Planning Commission and the City Council will be asking for changes. So here we go with that…

It is true that this initial design backs up only 8 to 15 feet from the rear alley which is between the proposed building and the condo neighbors. The neighbors have enjoyed a 30 to 60 feet defacto rear setback for these many decades, although the legal requirement is only 2 feet. However, the condo owners bought their places realizing they abutted a commercial zone, a zone which over time could have different, more intense zoning.

In the foreground… and towards the left, Area 51 parking lot with Bumble Restaurant behind the fence . The new Office Building set backs will become similar to those of the condos across the alley. Aka, much smaller.  Condos are on the right. Apparently at least one or two third floor condos have a a layout and a balcony that exploits a view … which might become blocked. It’s hard to say, because LACI it putting a small Cafe and 7500 sq. feet of openspace in this section.


It is true that First Street is 5 feet higher than Second Street where the condos are situated. It is true that for decades First Street was limited to 30 feet high buildings. And the old commercial buildings certainly are ugly, old boxes from the rear alley view. [One exception: the newish “Vault.”] Perhaps a few of the third floor condos have some glimpse of a partial pretty view to Los Altos Hills. Most of the residents are not looking at the alley at all. Who would want to?

It is true that even if the design of the  LACI office building changes as it moves through the planning process, it will aways have windows looking out to the alley.  Virtually all the existing  commercial buildings which are being demolished have blank back walls, so no one is looking at the alley comings and goings.  Whether the LACI building were to be an office or a condo…there would be still windows looking onto the alley.

When the condo owners on Second Street bought their places fronting on the alley, they should have realized they abutted a commercial zone, a zone which over time could have a different, more intense zoning. They could have anticipated change.   And in 2012 when the Satterlee – Packard – Carpenter council changed the First Street zoning to permit 45 feet height….for condos, office, or mixed use…they change was plain to see. They could have moved.


Privacy Mitigations for the Alley Neighbors

The LACI plan already calls for a dense row of tall thin trees along its side of the alley designed to “privacy” screen the office windows, but still allow light in. The office dwellers don’t want the condo residents to “voyeur” them either. Perhaps LACI can offer to plant a similar row of tall thin trees along the other side of the alley too?  Or perhaps give condo neighbors who have privacy concerns a gift certificate for new window coverings? 

Window Coverings

LACI could provide condo neighbors with a gift certificate for new window coverings to recover any privacy they feel they may lose.

Any this kind of cozy relationship between office/commercial and condos across an alley has precedent in Los Altos.  For example, go visit the alley behind the Heritage Bank, off of Lyell Street.  You’ll see office windows looking out at backs of 2 story townhomes and condos.

Will a LACI First Street Green project hurt or help property values of residential owners along the alley?  Just as likely to help as to hurt. — Lalahpolitico

LACI will be paying for fancy resurfacing of this alley and undergrounding the ugly utilities. This may INCREASE the sales appeal of these residential properties.

Lalahpolitico has walked the First Street alley. Most of the Second Street condos have only utility type entrances and uses along the alley. Some residents that are “fronted” to the alley have already grown walls of landscaping to create privacy.  I’m guessing there are 5 or 10 residents who have any kind of nice view window and will miss it.

I sigh for these neighbors, but I would ask the Planning Commission and the City Council to not hold the LACI project hostage to those neighbors. — Lalahpolitico

CONCLUSION:

Lalahpolitico: The City should continue with the ENA (Exclusive Negotiating Agreement)  and continue to explore in good faith the 3 story 77,000 Office building LACI is proposing as well as the Green and parking benefits the Foundation is proposing.  Consider whether the 79 additional parking spaces could be used for a downtown City PILP. Continue to engage with stakeholders, neighbors, downtown merchants and the general public.

I really like that this does not involve spending tax payer money.  However, I understand the new building will create outdoor spaces where our Public Arts Commission will be able to install tax-payer funded art.  Also the City will want to hire its own expensive specialist lawyers to create the 3P contracts.  I understand that LACI is covering 75K of staff costs so far. So except for those items, the proposal does not involve increased spending of taxes.

 

About the author

lalahpolitico

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 only became fascinated with business of local politics only in the past couple of years.

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