City Council

Downtown Visioning Alternatives — v. 1.0 what changed

3 stories on Main street might not be noticeable?...possible in a Visioning Scenario
Written by lalahpolitico

On Aug. 22 Los Altos City Council members asked for several changes to the 0.9 version Downtown Visioning Alternatives as presented that evening by our RNN consultants. These changes included lower building heights, omitting the LACI office project, adding affordable housing, and adding a Fourth Alternative that would be more radical.

Building Heights – a “low rise” version please

Alternative #1 – the scenario that is supposed to “pretty much keep things the same” will be changed to reflect actual, current downtown zoning heights. That’s a 30 foot max on Main and State, and 30 to 35 feet (residential) in all the other downtown triangle “neighborhoods.”  [Originally alternative 1 was allowing up to 45 feet in pretty much all “neighborhoods except for Main and State.]

Lalahpolitico: This change to Alternative One is sensible and makes the visioning process much more fair to the people who want to “keep things pretty much the same.”

LACI First Street Green

There is a post on our website with some CON arguments from Roberta Phillips who opposes the LACI First Street Green

The LACI Office/Parklette project – omit

The LACI project or allusions to the project will be omitted from all scenarios.

John Mordo said that the LACI project and parklette could be APPROVED under ANY of the scenarios — even Alternative One with zoning at 30 – 35 feet. “We grant them height exemptions in exchange for community benefits.” [Lalahpolitico: The key benefits being 4o or more additional parking stalls…all underground…and a parklette.]

Lalahpolitico: This is sensible and makes the visioning process much more fair to the people who want to “keep things pretty much the same” and/ or object to “use of city land for private benefit/purposes.”

Affordable Housing / Senior Housing – include

The concept of an 100% rental Affordable Housing project(s) — on Downtown Parking Plaza 7  (instead of the LACI parklette)  or/and on Downtown Parking Plaza 3 (instead of the “live theater”) will be added to one or more alternatives.

Affordable housing on Plaza 7 Downtown Los ALtos

This is plaza 7 across from Safeway. The housing project has 62 spaces “half underground” and 65 above ground. 57 units, 75% 1 bedroom, 25% studio.

Lalahpolitico:  These proposed affordable housing projects will probably generate a significant amount of opposition…. or rather a lack of eager support. A plaza 3 location puts the project in between a fancy hotel and trendy restaurant…services the residents and their circle of friends won’t be able to afford.  A plaza 7 location puts the project across from Safeway and next to the Edith residential neighborhood where 98% of residents are paying market rate for their 2 and 3 bedroom condos.  Tongues will wag, “There goes the neighborhood.”

And frankly — public transportation — allegedly needed by low income people — isn’t the greatest downtown. [Is the City going to subsidize a shuttle service?]  Furthermore is is hard to see how truly low-income and very low income  residents will contribute to the downtown “vibrancy” — city sales tax income — because they won’t be able to afford to do their shopping downtown. In case you haven’t noticed, more and more luxury goods shops are what is moving in.  [Yet, the “thrift” shops are still downtown too…but actual poor people go to the ones along ElCamino where the prices are half!]

Downtown Visioning Alternatives , Affordable Housing On Plaza 3 Downtown Los Altos

Here is an affordable housing project on Plaza 3 along San Antonio between the Enchante Hotel and the Los Altos Grill. 90 units, 20% studio, 80% 1-bedroom.

Of course, maybe all the new, affordable rental units will be reserved for very young LASD and MVLA teachers,  police, firemen, etc. As folks in these careers age, they will be better off buying a condo or home. And as their salary goes up, they won’t qualify as low-income anyway. On the other hand, maybe it is affordable housing for our local daycare workers, retail help and restaurant staff? They could conceivably rent for decades.

And subsidized rental to seniors has all the same drawbacks as above.  It just does not contribute much  to vibrancy in a luxury market. The online visioning survey found that the thing most people want to see downtown was more and more variety of restaurants. What kind of clientele is going to economically support a dozen new trendy restaurants that target millenials and affluent people following health fads?    Cash-strapped seniors are not going to go out and eat at these places.

A better location for a large 100% affordable housing project  is along ElCamino in the CT zone. However, the City does not own land there.  It is hard to get private land redeveloped for 100% Affordable Housing projects. But perhaps it is not impossible?

Lalah is skeptical, but if  our residents and stakeholders actually are ok with parking structures on Plazas in the Final downtown visioning alternatives …perhaps a small number of 100%rental, below-market-rate flats could be built on a couple of sides of the parking structure… so it doesn’t look like a parking structure. The RNN team suggested shielding the possible downtown parking structures from pedestrian view with ground level retail in “liner buildings”…but we can’t keep the retail space we have now rented out fulltime!? It seems to be surplus. So maybe a bit of low-income housing in those “liner buildings” instead? These could be for new, young ill-paid,  LASD teachers. etc. Those might be snapped up.

The good part of the feasible Plaza 3 and Plaza 7 Affordable projects:  100% rental, 100% small units (1 bedroom or studio), 100% for tenants with “low” incomes and  a large number of units — 57 or 90 units!  This is way more impactful for “low” income people than when a developer adds 3 to 6 two-bedroom units in a luxury condo building. Not many “low” income people can up with the $100K+ and up down payment to buy such an opulent condo.


Movie Theater  – omit from Downtown Visioning Alternatives

It was removed from all downtown visioning alternatives,.  All council members agreed that it was economically unviable, what with new movie theaters opening up down by the Milk Pail, just off of San Antonio Rd.   Furthermore, if a live theater is built downtown — presumably for Los Altos Stage Company as the contractor — it will show movies in an “olde tyme,”  low-tech manner from time to time. Mayor Mordo said maybe 30% of the time…in the winter months.  It would just be a simple– big, pull- down screen,  and not with a dolby sound system. And not costing $15 a seat either.

California Ave. in Palo Alto has had lane reduction from 4 to 2, and street parking stall reduction… to make it more walkable and to expand outdoor dining. Jan Pepper held it up as an example of more radical change to a retail district.

A Fourth Alternative to be added to
Downtown Visioning Alternatives

Something more radical than Alternative 3 will be added to the downtown visioning alternatives. It was not specified what,  but here follow some key comments made by council…

Council member Pepper reacted to the RNN idea of turning a couple of blocks on 2nd street and a couple of blocks on 3rd street into “shared streets” also called “woo-nerf” streets.  The idea is that the sidewalk is lowered to the level of the street. Cars go very, very slow thought such stretches.  If the sections gets blocked off for events, it creates a very wide, single-level pedestrian throughfare.  No falling off of curbs for pedestrians. Pepper suggested that maybe such  “shared street” sections should be on Main or State instead.  “That’s were the retail fronts are.”

Pepper talked approvingly of the recent changes to Palo Alto’s California Street – “the reduction from 4 to two lanes, selective reduction and elimination of street parking, the 12 foot wide smartly decorated sidewalks, the increase in outdoor dining…”

Vice-mayor Mordo reiterated Pepper’s idea of Main Street as a “fully pedestrian” street.

Parking Structure Still Possible

Parking Structure Still Possible

Downtown Visioning Alternatives

Council members seemed surprised that much of the RNN economist’s vibrancy analysis of the 3 now 4 downtown visioning alternatives / scenarios will be tied to parking stall supply/cost analysis.  Apparently RNN has been referring to Parking Committee Reports that were presented to the Planing And Transportation Commission a couple of years ago, but were never presented to Council.

Jan Pepper, ” We’ve never seen those Parking reports!” The reports were put on ice because a local group, FOLA, objected to violations of the Brown Act by the ad hoc Parking Committee.

…Council members agreed that the RNN economist can consider the use of mechanical lifts for downtown projects and downtown plazas when he estimates “vibrancy” ( as measured by retail sales) and infrastructure costs. Mechanical lifts lower the cost of parking stalls. [Mechanical lifts were first approved in the 4880 ElCamino condo project now being built]

Next Steps-
Downtown Visioning Alternatives

  1. The RNN consulting economist, Bill Lee, will do an economic analysis of the 3 – 4 downtown visioning alternatives/  scenarios.
  2. Then the RNN consultant Dave Javit will engage the public again. This may be limited to scheduled 2-hour workshops, but also some pop-up workshops at places where people are gathered, for example, kids soccer games.The workshop materials will include the  4 Alternatives maps, but also plenty of images of the items being discussed. It is not clear if there will be another online engagement.

Other Highlights-
Downtown Visioning Alternatives

Downtown Visioning Alternatives , RNN consultants at Los Altos City Council

The RNN architect offended some by referring to his presentation as “Mom Graphics.” He did one of those 3d flyover of white cubes which did not impress. The pedestrian view, street level renderings were well-received.

Foot in Mouth Award

The RNN architect made the mistake of referring to his 3-d fly through presentation as “Mom Graphics”, aka graphics to explain concepts so that even his mom could understand.  Several public speakers and a council member took offense.

The flythrough was the usual white cubes representing buildings downtown..from the vantage point of the Foothill and Main intersection. With each scenario he showed  2 story  (light purple) and 3 story (dark purple) buildings being added, increasing vibrancy, but “not really changing look and feel much.”

Downtown new buildings in light and dark purple under scenario one beta v. 0.9  — which specified up to 45 feet outside of Main and State . { height now lowered in version 1.0 of the scenarios.  We should expect fewer purple new building when this is revised to v 1.0.}


Flyover of Alternative 2. Somewhat more new buildings because of the increased number of parking stalls…mostly through underground parking

Downtown Visioning Alternatives Los Altos

Even more renewed buildings under scenario 3 with even more parking expansion due mainly to 2 parking structures

The Pedestrian View-
Downtown Visioning Alternatives

Then the architect showed one pedestrian level view of a still image rendering from the vantage point of a camera standing in front of Le Boulanger and pointed across  the block with Starbucks on the corner the way it looks now …a string of one story buildings.  He flipped to image 2 which added a realistic pretend 2 story next to Starbucks. He flipped to image 3 which also included a pretend  3-story beyond the 2- story. He  claimed this demonstrated that a 2 story and and 3 story could be built there, and “you’d hardly notice.”

Lalahpolitico:  I want to see the image where the 3 story building replaces the Starbucks on the corner! [ I wonder if he was using a wide-angle lens for this little exercise.]  In any case, I agree with PTC member Anita Enander, we want to see ONLY pedestrian level view images being shown at the upcoming workshops.  [The drone-view is usually just misleading, distracting, or confusing.]

RNN architect rendering of the corner of Main and Second as seen from the front of Le Boulanger today – existing conditions.


Now the architect slides in a two-story  building next to Starbucks  in an Old Style. Not jarring I guess.

And now the architect slides in a 3-story beyond the pretend 2 story…also in an Old Style. Lalahpolitico: Maybe if these things are done in Old Style, no one will notice the height? Could be….Or is the 3 story kind of too out in the distance….for us to judge?

Best Statement of the Political Problem

Council member Jean Mordo said that, per the recent online visioning survey about Downtown Visioning Alternatives,  54% of the people want to keep maximum “heights about the same” downtown [30 to 35 feet].  But over 75% say downtown is “quiet” or “too quiet”…implying they want it to be more lively.

%54 want no change in building height zoning law

Mordo says its the SAME PEOPLE.

He says they don’t understand there is a tradeoff between heights vs. liveliness.  You can’t keep the heights where they are and achieve more vibrancy…even with a bit more parking.

Over 75% want downtown to be more lively than it is now. Lalahpolitico: I question whether some of these towns mentioned as reference points are all that lively. Carmel? on a week day?

” People want to keep the look and feel like a village, but yet they want more activity. People don’t understand the tradeoff. [RNN, please] be real clear about the trade-off in the upcoming public engagement. If you people want the same look and feel, then here is your low vibrancy.  And as the property owner who spoke tonight said, even if we “fix” the parking,  old one story buildings are not going to be replaced with new 2 story buildings. It does not pencil out.  They just will not be replaced period. ” — Jean Mordo, City Council

Mordo is hoping that the RNN consultants engagement process will convince more people that this tradeoff is real.

Lalahpolitico: So are these the “vibrancy tradeoff deniers?” I have heard folks who don’t agree the trade-off is real,  recommend policies like fining property owners for a vacancy exceeding 6 months. The idea is the owner should keep lowering the asking rent until it get filled. I trained as an economist so this policy seems in the same class as rent control.




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.