Mon09012014

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The downtown lowdown: Loosened rezoning points to ambitious goals

Photo Courtesy Of Greentown Los Altos

With rezoning, streetscape projects and development plans in the mix, downtown Los Altos could look different in coming years, as illustrated in GreenTown Los Altos’ schematic, above.

The business center of Los Altos poses a challenge in the years ahead: create a bustling downtown that’s successful enough to attract more retailers, shoppers and businesses but remain quaint enough to retain its small-town character and charm. Many interested parties have pondered whether this is doable, and what it would take to pull downtown Los Altos out of a decade-long slump and make it vibrant and successful again.

If the buzz in recent weeks is any indicator of things to come, the downtown district could see some major redevelopment over the next few years, with construction and enhancements undertaken in phases.

“Cumulatively, there are many high-end projects going forward in the downtown area,” said James Walgren, assistant city manager.

Despite strong opposition from some community groups and residents, rezoning could be the solution the city has sought for several years that would revitalize and strengthen downtown Los Altos.

“We have a dynamic and evolving downtown,” said City Manager Doug Schmitz. “We can always go back and rezone areas if we want to.”

Several irons are in line to stoke the redevelopment fire, each one an important part of the overall downtown revitalization plan.

The Los Altos City Council Feb. 9 approved the zoning changes, which will have First Street, between Safeway and Draeger’s Market, along with the retail core of Main and State streets, retaining a Commercial Retail Sales zoning permitting two-story, 30-foot maximum height buildings. The rest of First Street has been zoned to permit office and residential uses.

First Street

Rezoning – specifically on First Street – is one part of the plan to lure developers to downtown Los Altos, resulting in a win-win situation all around.

“I believe the First Street rezoning makes options available for development,” said Mayor David Casas.

Not as restrictive as before, most of First Street has been rezoned to permit office and residential uses, except for the area between the Safeway and Draeger’s Market properties, which retains zoning that restricts buildings to two stories with a 30-foot maximum height limit.

The limit for the rest of First Street has been raised to 45 feet, pleasing at least one developer.

Randy Lamb, who owns the property at 100 First St., which housed the post office until last month, is in the process of revising his drawings for redeveloping that property in light of the latest building code revision.

“With the increase in height limit to 45 feet, we will submit a revised plan to the city within the next two to three months,” Lamb said. “We’re optimistic about the design for that property.”

What was originally a two-story plan will probably become a three-story building, with a large portion in residential units and underground parking, Lamb said. After the necessary approval by the city, project construction, lasting 16-18 months, could begin next fall, he said.

The vacant city-owned property at the intersection of First and Main streets is a vital piece of the downtown puzzle. Purchased in the 1990s to create more parking, the gateway location demands an attractive building housing a special business, city leaders have said over the years. Two different developers pursued placement of a hotel at the location but withdrew for various reasons.

“We are currently talking with a party that has an interest (in purchasing the site),” Schmitz said.

Schmitz would not reveal more details except to say negotiations and discussions of such sensitive issues need to be behind closed doors until an agreement has been reached.

The long-discussed expansion and renovation of the Safeway on First Street have not materialized. Calls to the corporate office by the Town Crier have not been returned.

An approximately $4 million streetscape will provide much-needed street, sidewalk and landscaping improvements along the length of First Street. The city and PG&E will coordinate the conversion of the aerial utility lines to below-ground level, scheduled to begin this summer, according to Dave Brees, special projects manager.

PG&E, California Water Service Company and the city must relocate some of their underground utility, water and sewer lines, respectively, before the streetscape work can begin next year, he said.

Other proposed improvements on First Street include wider sidewalks, a landscape median and the addition of benches and sharrows (shared-lane markings) for the safety of bicyclists.

Downtown rezoning

Not everyone agrees with the downtown rezoning decisions.

Councilman Ron Packard said he is not happy about rezoning the area around Second and Third streets, where Walgreens and the Los Altos Grill are located, from Commercial Retail Sales to Commercial Downtown zoning. The change permits office and residential use, which could lead to restaurants and retail being squeezed out over the years, he said.

“A major error on the city’s part,” Packard said. “Because once we lose retail to office, we’ll never get retail back.”

However, Councilwoman Val Carpenter said she supported the change because it’s more consistent with the surrounding area.

San Antonio Road

Scheduled in two phases, the approximately $1 million streetscape project along San Antonio Road includes accommodations to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and crosswalks.

Phase 1 construction, scheduled to begin this year and estimated to take three to six months to complete, will include decorative crosswalks at Hillview and Hawthorne avenues, Pepper and Cuesta drives and Lyell Street. Other

elements include landscaping along Plaza 3’s green wall with stormwater runoffs, an expanded tree canopy, traffic-calming measures such as raised crosswalks and beautification at intersections along the road.

The design will coordinate materials and design with the First Street streetscape to maintain a consistent theme throughout the area, Walgren said.

Packard Foundation plans

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation has proposed plans to create a new 45,553-square-foot, two-story, net-zero energy campus at 343 Second St. to centralize its operations, according to Anastasia Ordonez, senior communications manager.

“This new building will give us an opportunity to work close together in order to more effectively meet our operational and sustainability goals,” Ordonez said.

Construction is scheduled to begin in the fall.

The Packard Foundation’s new campus will be the first building project to adhere to the recently approved building design guidelines, according to David Cornfield, planning services manager.

Sometime this spring, the Los Altos Planning Commission will review the foundation’s plans, which the Los Altos Architecture and Site Review Committee recently endorsed, Kornfield said.

Downtown opportunity study

Insufficient parking in the downtown area prompted the Downtown Development Committee – comprising city officials, councilmembers, planning commissioners, business owners and residents – to study the parking problem last year, which evolved into an opportunity to evaluate how best to develop the city-owned parking plazas in the downtown area to include office, retail and residential uses and create 200 new public parking spaces to bring more people to the area.

Approved in concept by the city council, an Environmental Impact Report will evaluate the impact the potential zoning changes will have on the downtown area, according to Anne Stedler, economic development coordinator.

The visioning process

The city has hired Anderson Brulé Architects at a cost of approximately $70,000 to implement a visioning process to solicit input and comments from residents on what they want in their downtown. The process, tentatively set to begin in March, includes workshops for residents to contribute their ideas and priorities.

“The goal is to determine the values of the people with regard to downtown,” Schmitz said.

According to Stedler, the purpose of the workshops is to “reach the residential community as deeply as possible” so every segment of the Los Altos population will have an opportunity to comment on the experience they want in a downtown. Two sessions for public comments and two workshops during a two-month period with residents and community groups will allow representatives to gather input and feedback for the city to evaluate, she said.

The process should be all-inclusive, according to Robin Abrams, chairwoman of the Los Altos 2025 Committee, a newly formed grassroots group founded to anticipate the impact of changes 15 years into the future.

“People should not feel disenfranchised,” Abrams said.

Abrams, also chairwoman of the 12-member financial advisory group to the Los Altos School District, is reviewing long-term economic and financial perspectives and will share its findings with city officials. Abrams stressed that the impacts on the city and local schools are interconnected, because local revenues in addition to property taxes feed into schools.

Kim Cranston, a 2025 committee member and downtown property owner, agreed with Abrams.

“More and more people need to show up and get involved to engage and create a downtown that people want,” Cranston said. “Things are moving well, in the right direction.”

Chicken-and-egg situation

Some wonder whether it is more prudent to bring in residential units to increase foot traffic in the downtown area first or to build on the retail base to attract more people.

Businesses are already attracted to downtown Los Altos, and allowing residential units should create more foot traffic, which could in turn attract more retail chain stores, according to Nancy Dunaway, executive director of the Los Altos Village Associ

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