Los Altos City Council green-lights El Camino Real development – with a number of conditions

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
After an eight-month approval process and installation of story poles to mark the footprint of the proposed Altos Two complex on El Camino Real, the project is ready to proceed – with a few conditions set by the Los Altos City Council.

The Los Altos City Council unanimously approved the Altos Two housing development at 4898 El Camino Real after four hours of discussion at an Oct. 1 meeting dedicated to reviewing the project.

However, several conditions must be met before the city grants the building permits.

A subcommittee comprising project architect Jeff Potts of SDG Architects and councilwomen Anita Enander and Jan Pepper will work on modifying the final design of the project’s front stair tower, adjusting the number and size of the building’s below-market-rate housing units to meet the council’s preferences and granting a waiver to shrink the parking stalls to 8.5 feet wide (providing more spots to potential tenants) and an incentive to allow the height of the elevator tower. Conditions of approval now also include the installation of solar panels and electric-car chargers, adjustments to curb parking and lot conformance, a parapet variation and a plan to protect neighbors’ parking access during construction.

The council allowed Altos Two developer Mircea Voskerician to remove the project’s story poles – required by city policy – immediately, largely due to Potts’ description of an incident involving a downed pole the weekend before. This is not Voskerician’s first experience with faulty poles; while his Altos One project at 4846/4856 El Camino Real was in its planning stages, a story pole fell through the roof of a neighboring business and landed in an unoccupied office.

The nitty-gritty

The Altos Two project survived a workshop and two Planning Commission hearings before advancing to the council. After the council approved it, Voskerician emailed a statement to the Town Crier the following day expressing his gratitude. Altos One took three years to secure approval; Altos Two was just an eight-month process.

The council agreed that Altos Two evolved quickly after Voskerician incorporated feedback offered at the workshop and hearings. The Planning Commission recommended the project for approval in August and sent Commissioner Mehruss Ahi to explain the reasoning to the council. City associate planner Sean Gallegos presented a 14-page staff report that provided a look at the options Voskerician and Potts were proposing. They submitted plans for both a 21-unit building and a 28-unit building and invited the council to take its pick, with the Planning Commission suggesting 28 units was the way to go.

The council took issue with both plans. Mayor Lynette Lee Eng asked if the council could deny the developer’s plan for a rooftop deck and require commercial space on the first floor. Council members suggested a different mix of below-market-rate units, but they had differing opinions on what the mix should be.

Ultimately, the council settled on two very-low-income units (both one-bedrooms), two low-income units (one two-bedroom and one three-bedroom) and two moderate-income units (one two-bedroom and one three-bedroom).

The public perception of Potts’ final design was mixed. League of Women Voters representative Sue Russell said she supported the project and wanted one of the low-income units to be a three-bedroom. Resident Eric Steinle requested seven more below-market-rate units to make up for his count of “bodies per acre,” and resident Pierre Bedard voiced his concern about parking overflowing into nearby residential neighborhoods.

Until City Manager Chris Jordan fired off a series of items that would soon be coming to the council for consideration, a council majority was set on continuing the Altos Two review. Delaying a decision, Jordan implied through his tentative calendar read, would push the project out at least another two months.

The suggestion to form a subcommittee was a bargaining chip from Potts. Work with his team, he said, or the council’s growing list of recommendations for the project would force Voskerician to rescind his offer of the 28-unit building. Lee Eng’s request to remove the rooftop deck, a feature already approved on Altos One and other El Camino Real developments, would eliminate a large portion of the project’s open space, thus making the building ineligible for its approved density bonus, a tool that allows developers to secure building variances in exchange for providing affordable housing units or public space in their projects. The 28-unit option would no longer make “mathematical sense,” Potts said.

Lack of cohesion

Although the Los Altos City Council ultimately followed the Planning Commission’s recommendation to approve the Altos Two project, two councilwomen drew attention to the decision-making bodies’ different approaches to housing proposals.
Pepper pointed out a council concern the commission did not raise: a six-floor look created by the stair tower proposed at the entryway of the building. When Enander backed Pepper up, Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins questioned Enander’s intent.

“As the liaison of the Planning Commission, are you implying in all of this that you don’t believe the (commission) beat this to death?” Bruins asked. “I’m sorry, but we have architects on that (commission). ... There was a lot of discussion.”

Enander’s response: “We also had a number of people gone for all of the meetings … a number of architects. I’m not saying that they didn’t do their job or they didn’t do as good a job as they could have, but I also do not necessarily think that the Planning Commission – this is not a knock, but a difference – that it necessarily as a group has the same sensitivity with respect to the height issue as the elected officials sitting on this dais.”

Planning Commissioner Mehruss Ahi, an architect, told the council prior to Enander’s comment that he attended all meetings related to Altos Two.

“It is important that we look at projects equitably while being respectful to our community and mindful of the current challenges we have (like) the housing crisis,” Ahi said after the meeting. “It is difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate certain subjective feedback that might be given by the council, but my hope is that the Planning Commission and the council can collaboratively engage in a dialogue and for our commission’s recommendations to be valued more.”

The lapse in uniformity between the council and the commission has been addressed before. At the Planning Commission’s Sept. 5 meeting, Commissioner Ronit Bodner pondered with her colleagues why, if the commission had made a recommendation about a project, council members could not reach out and ask commissioners questions. 

Community Development Director Jon Biggs suggested discussing ways to improve communication at a joint meeting between the bodies scheduled Nov. 5.

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