Los Altos Planning Commission revisits First St. project, grants recommendation

444-450 First Street” width=
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Dutchints Development’s plan to overhaul 444-450 First St., above, took a step forward after the Los Altos Planning Commission reviewed and approved design updates last week.

Representatives from Dutchints Development LLC will take another swing at developing in Los Altos after striking out with the city council last month and hearing suggestions from the Planning Commission Thursday night.

The developers of the 5150 El Camino Real project promised the commission upon its unanimous recommendation that prior to bringing their plans for 444-450 First St. to the council, they would implement all suggestions commissioners mentioned – including those voiced by commissioners with the council’s recent commentary and voting trends in mind.

Developer takes commission’s advice

Returning to the commission after its first attempt nearly 10 months prior, Dutchints Development’s current plans for a four-story building on First Street with 26 condominiums (including four affordable units) were praised by commissioners for the improvements that came largely from implementing their initial suggestions.

Because of their concerns, Dutchints Development refined the entryway and landscaping in the front, removed glass railings on the balconies along Foothill Expressway and created a plan for when adjacent properties on the north and south sides likely develop in the future.

Four commissioners at the initial Jan. 17 meeting – Phoebe Bressack, Sally Meadows, Ronit Bodner and Mehruss Ahi – revisited the plan Nov. 7, and they again showed general support for the project, with a couple of modifications.

The foursome stood united against stucco – or at least as much stucco as was currently depicted.

Architect Chris Hall said the fourth-floor plan had not been developed because the firm wanted the option of customizing the units. That probably wouldn’t win approval from the council, a few of the commissioners warned, and they strongly urged Hall to finalize the unit designs with various options to customize. Buyers often focus on the countertops and cabinets anyhow, Bressack pointed out.

Fifteen neighbors who live across Foothill Expressway signed a complaint about the project inhibiting their privacy. All of the commissioners felt that a denser, vertical design could be used for the railings and that the windows, designed to be transparent and floor to ceiling, be made opaque. Ahi suggested the alternative of dropping the windows. Either way, it would be a compromise that would satisfy neighbors and leaders “without making or breaking the design,” he said.

Because of a sewer main under the public right-of-way at 444-450 First St., trees can no longer be placed in the frontage, said Jon Biggs, community development director. The commission asked the Dutchints Development team to explore noninvasive species that could be planted in the front so that there was still greenery. A similar problem emerged on one side of the building; the fire department needs that property clear due to an access easement alongside the proposed complex. While the team cannot landscape the way they had hoped there either, they plan to find a vine plant to cascade over the building to enhance the aesthetic.

The commission praised Dutchints for its creativity in incorporating a rooftop deck that has living units on the same floor, instead of creating an entirely new level of the building for open space. Bodner requested that seating near the edge be moved far inside for security. Her colleagues agreed.

The project is set to include 51 parking spaces on two levels and two spots on the street created by curb cuts. The developers said they were open to adding spots by creating stalls that are 8.5 feet wide instead of 9 feet wide. The commission favored that option and asked the architects to redraw the design to calculate how many more spots could be provided. Ahi also asked the developers to consider making more of the stalls electric-vehicle compatible; plans only allowed for five EV connections.

First look at other developments

The commission reviewed two projects for the first time Nov. 7: mixed-use renovation proposals for Main Street and El Camino Real.

Regarding the plans for the former Los Altos Lighting building at 343 Main St., commissioners expressed mixed feelings about whether an apartment on top of commercial space was in line with the Downtown Vision plan and its objectives. While all of the commissioners said that residential use is appropriate, they didn’t agree that a single luxury unit on the second floor was the optimal option. Meadows, who said she believed the unit should be affordable to fit with the vision, noted that developer Ivan Margaretic faced an additional challenge as one of the earliest to propose residential development in that area of the downtown triangle.

The commission was receptive to Los Altos Hills resident John Vidovich’s plan for 4896 El Camino Real, current site of a Jack in the Box drive-thru, which would include three stories of commercial space with four luxury units on the top floor and parking in excess of city requirements. However, one element generated debate: Vidovich’s affordable housing requirement being filled by an off-site fifth unit, the only one set as affordable at the low-income level.

The architectural firm involved in the project, the Hayes Group, purchased 818 Jordan Ave., a 1,200-square-foot home inside the Las Casitas II community. Vidovich said he envisioned the space being occupied by a city employee who couldn’t otherwise afford a home for sale in Los Altos. Commissioners agreed that if they were to approve the fifth off-site unit, some sort of metric would need to be established to ensure that the city and the future homeowner were getting a fair deal.

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