Los Altos Planning Commission recommends First Street development, code revision to council

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
A proposal to replace the building at 425 First St. in Los Altos, above, with a three-story, multifamily housing project is set to appear in front of the city council after the Planning Commission voted unanimously June 6 to endorse an alternate rendering designed by SDG Architects’ Jeff Potts.

The Los Altos Planning Commission June 6 approved sending two projects on to the city council with its recommendation for approval: a multifamily housing project on First Street and an amendment to a city zoning district.

In many ways, both items signify the embrace of what is to come in the wake of the Bay Area housing crisis – namely, a new approach to creating housing that enhances what Los Altos has to offer while attempting to preserve its rural feel.

A ‘modern’ feel

Developer Jeff Warmoth’s project at 425 First St. includes affordable units, as have the majority of the multifamily housing projects that have come before the council in recent years. However, 425 First stands as an outlier: Warmoth is offering two moderate-income units and one low-income unit – in a totally conforming building. He asked for no incentives or waivers.

That was a conscious decision, Warmoth told the commission at the project’s most recent review. It’s much more profitable to build a taller building with smaller setbacks that waivers would allow, but he chose to stray from what he described as the “smarter fiscal” decision.

“I wanted to be sensitive to the neighborhood,” he said.

Warmoth proposed two plans to the commission: his original, Mediterranean-esque design and a contemporary design by SDG Architects’ Jeff Potts. Warmoth called on Potts for help after a previous visit to the commission May 16 left him with feedback that city officials felt “no discernible architectural design concept.”

All present commissioners agreed that Potts’ design was a better fit for the direction they think downtown is headed and thanked him for “burning the midnight oil” to get the design together, as Warmoth had described the forcibly rushed process. Smaller details, such as “cheap-looking” grates above the garage, were elements commissioners directed the developer to work out with staff if the council votes to accept their recommendation.

Resident Jon Baer, former member of the Planning Commission, compared Potts’ design to a “Hampton Travelodge” and urged the commission to reject a project he claimed would “unlikely even be built.” He concluded his remarks by comparing Warmoth’s proposed development to 396 First St., a contrast Councilwoman Jan Pepper previously referenced when the council denied a story-pole exemption in January.

“I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with Mr. Baer,” Warmoth bit back. “Not while he was on the Planning Commission, or when I was.”

After giving notes on the pros and cons of the sketches, the commission voted unanimously to endorse the contemporary design.

‘A chunk of change’

In an unusual chain of events, a Los Altos couple spent 18 months and approximately $20,000 trying to get their zoning code amended to allow the first true renovation of a home in their Marshall Meadows neighborhood since its establishment in 1961.

Homeowner Paul Lovoi detailed the breakdown of the “chunk of change” he and his wife, Lenore, expended just to get the proposal before the commission: approximately $5,300 in application fees, $4,000 in notification postcard mailing fees, $3,000 in payments to his lawyer and $10,300 in architecture fees to provide maps to the city with relevant properties and their setbacks.

Lovoi showed up at the city’s Planning Department counter two years ago to talk with planning services manager Zach Dahl about remodeling his home into a duplex. Dahl made “a face,” Lovoi said, and handed him a sheet that basically said the Marshall Meadows neighborhood was established without specific site zoning standards.

“They forgot a couple of things,” Lovoi joked during his presentation, cuing quiet laughter from Dahl.

The narrative was beyond comprehension for many, including Commissioner Doo Ho Lee. In his comments on the Lovois’ proposal to revise the R3-4.5 Multiple-Family District to adopt site development standards for the district where “none currently exist,” according to city staff, Lee was nearly speech- less.

“I’m baffled (at how) a resident is raising the issue after so many years,” he said. “There needs to be zoning.”

Neighbors informed Lovoi that there have been dozens of inquiries over the years, but no one persisted in pursuing zoning changes for the betterment of the area beyond their personal and immediate needs.

Beyond understanding lies the question of the city’s responsibility to the Lovois and their neighbors, a point expanded on by Commissioner Ronit Bodner.

“It feels like we’ve made the applicant work too hard and have taken too long,” Bodner admitted. “It’s the city that should be taking initiative.”

Indeed, it should be, Lovoi agreed. He later discovered that the city’s charter prohibits any party beside the council and the Planning Commission from requesting zoning ordinance amendments. However, if he had followed the rules, it wouldn’t have gotten done, he added.

The commission voted 4-1 to recommend the amendment to the council; Commissioner Sally Meadows dissented due to a gut feeling that the amendment left too many questions unanswered.

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