Los Altos Planning Commission approves plans for 5150 El Camino Real, lauding developers

Megan V. Winslow/ Town Crier
A multistory office building currently sits on the 5150 El Camino Real site, which Duchints Development LLC plans to turn into a housing complex with two buildings of condos and two rows of townhomes, for a total of 196 living units. Story poles have been posted since Aug. 12.

The Los Altos Planning Commission last week praised Duchints Development LLC, owner of 5150 El Camino Real, for its application to develop the property.

Rather than doing the bare miminum in an area specifically zoned in the Los Altos Housing Element for high-density housing since 2013, Duchints Development opted not to build out to the minimum setback allowed or incorporate a roof deck to add open space, strategies several other developers along the El Camino corridor have pursued. The developer also listened to neighbors’ concerns and acted on them.

Every member of the commission at Thursday’s meeting commended Duchints Development for its plan and voted to recommend the project to the city council.

Commission chairman Alexander Samek directed Casita Way residents and neighbors from nearby streets to renderings in the agenda packet showing what plans could have entailed. For example, the three-story townhomes could have been four stories, and the 45-foot and 50-foot setbacks on the left and right elevations, respectively, could have been 7.5-foot setbacks. Frankly, Samek said, the design concept was “considerate.”

As Duchints Development development advisor Erik Hayden detailed during his presentation the various ways he and his team had reached out to nearby residents and incorporated their specific feedback in the 196-unit project – such as eliminating balconies on one side of the townhomes that would face into single-family home yards – attendees in the audience openly murmured, some forgoing etiquette to audibly groan.

Warring perspectives

While the commission applauded the developer’s attempts to act as “a good neighbor,” rows of residents begged to differ.

Hayden pledged Duchints would split fencing costs with the apartment complex next door at 5100 El Camino Real, repair fences backing the property on Casita Way and even plant trees in the surrounding neighbors’ yards for screening purposes. But a newly formed coalition of neighbors, known as the Casita Way Association, remained unimpressed.

The mass of the complex alone (two condo structures on El Camino Real, with a row of townhomes behind each of those structures) would “fundamentally change the character of the neighborhood,” argued multiple neighbors in letters submitted via email and in statements during the public comment section of the meeting.

Association chief Pierre Bedard spoke at the podium first, discussing the demands from what he called his “loosely named” neighborhood group for how the project should be modified. Bedard’s list included halting review of the project until city staff arrange an Environmental Impact Report and minimizing construction disruptions.

“I understand the sentiment, when you look at what you currently have versus anything, is perceived as a sort of a downgrade,” Commissioner Ronit Bodner responded to Bedard’s and his neighbors’ comments. “I see this sort of more as a glass half full than glass half empty. … This parcel was always going to be developed.”

Bodner emphasized that the 35% density bonus Duchints’ was requesting was mandated and reasonable compared with other El Camino Real projects the commission had recommended for approval recently, such as the 87% density bonus approved for developer Mircea Voskerician’s development Altos Two, located at 4898 El Camino Real. Density bonuses allow developers to secure building variances in exchange for providing affordable housing units or public space in their projects.

Planning ahead

The percentage worth noting, Bodner and Commissioner Sally Meadows pointed out, was the number of units being offered as affordable. With 28 below-market-rate (BMR) condos, 19% of the for-sale housing would be low cost – broken down into 12 moderate-income units and 16 very-low-income units.

The city’s current BMR count, especially at the very-low-income level, falls far short of the goal outlined in the 2015-2023 Regional Housing Needs Allocation requirements, Meadows said. Housing advocate Matt Regan, the Bay Area Council’s senior vice president, urged commissioners to consider the homes that will come from a project “as good as they get” as a positive step forward in hitting their state-mandated housing marks.

Leaving on a good note

Zach Dahl, Los Altos’ planning services manager, announced at the meeting that his last day is Thursday. He begins his new position as a planning director for the town of Los Altos Hills Monday.

“It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work in Los Altos and serve the community these last 12 years,” Dahl wrote in an email to the Town Crier. “I really cherish the relationships I have built with our residents, local business and property owners, and the great coworkers I have at City Hall, and hope I have left a positive impact.”

Dahl said he was proud of being part of the team that helped make the new Los Altos Community Center a reality.

“I can’t wait to see it take shape, and will definitely be at the ribbon cutting at the end of 2020,” he added.

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