PTC denies 400 Main office request

A vacant ground-floor space at 400 Main St. in downtown Los Altos will remain empty, as it has since its construction in 2014.

At last week’s Planning and Transportation Commission meeting, a technical denial prevented a potential tenant from moving in and using the space as an office.

400 Main lies within the commercial retail sales zone district, and the city’s zoning code states that office space is not permitted on the ground floor. However, the commission decided in August that because the space has never been leased out, any new tenant would not be displacing retail. Commissioners approved a conditional-use permit for the space to be used as a barbershop/hair salon, a cocktail lounge/wine bar or a fitness studio. If a possible tenant did not fit those uses, the owner could submit a use permit for commission approval.

At the Oct. 19 meeting, that’s exactly what 400 Main owner Jeff Morris did.

“When I first got the approval for the project (at 400 Main), I thought the retail would be the first to lease right next to the brand-new Safeway,” Morris said. “The retail market has changed. It’s just not there.”

Morris’ use permit was for the Heising-Simons Foundation, which already operates out of an upstairs space at 400 Main. He said the foundation wanted to expand and use the vacant ground-floor space to do so.

However, the commission wrestled with making exceptions to the zoning code versus filling the space. With only six of the seven commissioners present, three motions resulted in a 3-3 deadlock and ended with a technical denial of Morris’ use permit. Community Development Director Jon Biggs said Morris would have 15 days to appeal his application to the Los Altos City Council.

Some of the commissioners were in favor of the council dealing with the issue – citing problems with a weak retail market up against a problematic zoning code.

“I think this matter should rise to the level of city council,” Commissioner Ronit Bodner said. “If we make this decision for them, then they’re off the hook in changing the CRS zone on this strip for even longer.”

Commissioner Phoebe Bressack disagreed with Bodner, saying that the commission shouldn’t use Morris as a scapegoat to prove the matter’s urgency. She argued that having an office in the space would still put people downtown and would be better than empty restaurant tables during the daytime.

Bodner also raised the issue of placing signage on the 400 Main building to indicate entry into Los Altos. But Morris said the city waived the right to do that.

Planning Services Manager David Kornfield said he believed the city deferred the signage previously but would review the issue.

As of Friday, Kornfield said the city had not received an appeal from Morris but he was expecting one. Morris failed to return multiple calls for comment from the Town Crier.

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