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Los Altos Planning Commission OKs vet clinic move, recommends immersion school use permit

The Los Altos Planning Commission made some residents happy and others frustrated last week when it unanimously approved the Los Altos Veterinary Clinic’s move to Riverside Drive and recommended approval of a conditional use permit for Los Altos Chinese School to operate from a church on Orange Avenue.

The commission followed a collective belief that all space should be maximized in a city “where there is little to no affordable space for institutions that serve a public need,” said Commissioner Ronit Bodner. Both the vet clinic and the Chinese immersion and after-school program fall into the category of “community assets,” commissioners agreed at their Nov. 21 meeting.

Vetting the vets

Dr. Glynn Echerd, a veterinarian and owner of the long-standing Los Altos Veterinary Clinic on First Street in Los Altos, sought to double his space by relocating his practice to Rancho Shopping Center at 1150 Riverside Drive.

Abby Ahrens, a real estate agent who helped Echerd search for a new location after the First Street building housing his practice was sold to make way for a residential complex last year, outlined their struggles in finding a new home. After crossing several other options off their list, they returned to their first choice – the Riverside Drive space next to the former site of LoveBugs, the lice-removal business that shuttered last summer.

In an effort to garner support from area residents, Los Altos Veterinary Clinic staff held an open house in the potential new office and invited more than 120 neighbors.

The outreach paid off, said Dr. Melissa Bryant-Neal, a veterinarian with the practice, as all three homeowners bordering the property ultimately supported the move. A Nextdoor post calling on Los Altos Veterinary Clinic clients to help Echerd and his staff find a new location yielded more than 50 letters of support to the commission.

“This building has been empty for 12 years,” said Commissioner Phoebe Bressack of the Riverside Drive space.

Bressack, the self-described “historic memory” of the commission and among its longest-serving members, added that “it would be really nice to enliven that part of Rancho so that people who bring their dogs can then walk and get a cup of coffee. … They can support our other merchants.”

After the unanimous motion to approve the permits, Echerd thanked his supporters as cheers broke out in the audience.

No praise for ‘Waze’

John Miller, facilities liaison for Foothills Congregational Church, said his church was following its mission to serve the community by inviting Los Altos Chinese School to conduct its programs on parish property.

Los Altos Chinese School, former occupant of Hillview Community Center, razed last month, relocated to the church in April for roughly two months, at which time city planners were reviewing an application for the school to operate there permanently.

City staff wanted the program to continue to function, but they gave no warning that the temporary activity was illegal, Miller said. In June, when the city notified the church that it was violating city policy, Miller began searching for a new space for the school, and Principal Jane Bai and her staff have since been teaching out of a temporary facility at Grant Park.

Foothills Congregational Church is located at 461 Orange Ave., in a residential neighborhood. On top of traffic concerns, the fact that Los Altos Chinese School had acted improperly by violating city policy, knowingly or not, added to opposition to a permanent move by an already dissatisfied group of neighbors.

Several residents complained during public comment of the “Waze-ation” of small streets in Old Los Altos, which has turned them into cut-through routes for “nonresidents” heading toward Interstate 280 and Foothill Expressway. Those protesting the school’s move to the church feared the extra trips generated by student pick-ups and drop-offs would increase the gridlock.

“In every instance that these requests have come to us … concern (from) neighbors tends to be very alarmist and almost always is unsubstantiated,” Bodner said. “It’s not that they aren’t going to be affected – they will. But that’s not the same as being detrimentally impacted.”

The commission voted to recommend the move, with conditions to mitigate neighbors’ concerns, such as an annual compliance check to ensure appropriate use of the permit and sending the application to the Complete Streets Commission for review before it advances to the city council for final approval.

Church and school leaders were set to host a neighborhood meeting Tuesday, after the Town Crier’s press deadline.

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