Los Altos council discusses business, commercial zoning changes

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
The types of businesses permitted to operate in downtown Los Altos will expand after the city council last week amended the Commercial Retail Sales zoning district, the area encompassing Main, above, State and First streets. Established in 2000, the zoning code now includes changes suggested by the downtown business community.

The Los Altos City Council last week reviewed amendments to the city’s residential and commercial district zoning ordinances, Municipal Code regulations that have remained unchanged for nearly 60 years and 20 years, respectively.

The council continued discussion of the proposed R3-4.5 Multiple-Family residential district changes to its next meeting after failing to reach a consenus on elements such as single-story overlays and floor-area ratio percentages.

In a unanimous vote, council members passed modified language addressing zoning in the Commercial Retail Sales (CRS) district, an effort to “provide greater flexibility for the use of building spaces,” according to a city staff report, with a minor change to permit veterinary offices on the ground floor in spaces not fronting Main or State streets.

The ordinance proposed to amend the residential code for the only neighborhood with the R3-4.5 district distinction, known as Marshall Meadows, was designed to adopt site development standards that were never established to begin with – meaning no one had seriously pursued reconstructing or adding to a home in the neighborhood, located on the north side of Homestead Road at the intersection of Fallen Leaf Lane, since the residential district’s inception in 1961.

While the current zoning code includes certain conditions to guide development in Marshall Meadows, such as permitted uses and maximum density requirements, there are many standards missing – for example, those that would control decision-making on the distance between structures and yard areas.

The attempt to bridge the gap in development regulations prompted two study sessions and a public hearing with the Los Altos Planning Commission. After the commission provided direction to city staff that would “allow property owners to make reasonable improvements and additions to their properties while maintaining the character of the district as a duplex-style neighborhood,” the staff report stated, the commission ultimately voted June 6 to recommend that the amended ordinance advance to the council for approval.

It’s likely such a lapse in policy originated in the wave of expansion Santa Clara County underwent in the early 1960s, argued Marshall Meadows homeowner Paul Lovoi, who championed changes to the district’s code after unsuccessful attempts to renovate his home. New subdivision tracts, Lovoi learned through research on the period, were being approved “every working day.”

Lovoi described his application process as an “odyssey”; he has spent more than two years of his time and a heap of money on architectural renderings and application, attorney and permit fees in an effort to establish standards that would enable him to finally add to his home and make it large enough so that he and his wife, Lenore, can age in place.

“I do not want this to be passed in memoriam of me,” Lovoi said.

Several council members suggested the project return to the Design Review Commission for feedback. Sending the application back, planning services manager Steve Golden and community development director Jon Biggs pointed out, would take more time and training for DRC members, who do not have as much experience with site development standards as Planning Commission members.

The council will resume the discussion at its next regular meeting, scheduled to take place Sept. 10.

The age of Amazon

According to the Los Altos General Plan, the Commercial Retail Sales Ordinance, which addresses zoning in the core of the downtown area, was developed by a council-appointed committee after several study sessions in 2000.

That was five years after Jeff Bezos officially pulled his business, Amazon, out of his garage and into the public eye.

The nature of retail sales began to change; large and small companies alike took their sales online. Even in downtown Los Altos, chains like Pendleton offer shipping to a home or business or free delivery to a local store. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately eight in 10 consumers identified as online shoppers by 2016.

The shifting trend has created a “challenging retail market” resulting in increased vacancies in “surrounding communities,” city staff said in their report. Retail space vacancy exists in Los Altos, too, as documents available to the public prove: Estimates from commercial property company CoStar Group listed on the city’s Economic Development webpage show a 1.8% (21,715 square feet) vacancy rate citywide that is anticipated to grow to 2.6% (30,014 square feet) over the next five years. In the downtown triangle specifically, a 3.1% (19,715 square feet) vacancy rate exists and will increase to 3.5% (20,665 square feet) over the next five years.

This means vacant retail space downtown currently makes up approximately 91% of the city’s total vacant retail space, a number projected to drop to 69% with revisions to the commercial district’s zoning code.

Six speakers at the Aug. 28 council meeting urged an update to CRS district zoning, specifically modifying the types of businesses eligible to secure regular and conditional-use permits to operate in downtown Los Altos.

The council approved the changes, expanding the definition of “personal services” to embrace industries such as health and fitness – with a 7,000-square-foot cap on the space allowed for such businesses.

“The uses you’re approving are what a realtor I recently spoke to called ‘Amazon-proof,’” said Los Altos Property Owners Downtown board chairman Kim Cranston. “We have a number of vacancies downtown now and we’ll have more if this ordinance doesn’t pass.”

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