Los Altos entrepreneurs take business elsewhere as mandated housing takes center stage

4856 El Camino Real” width=
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
The former commercial building at 4856 El Camino Real sits empty. It will be demolished, alongside the smaller structure at 4846 El Camino Real, to make way for the Altos I apartment complex. Of the new building’s 52 condos, 10 will be below-market rate.

This is the first in a three-part series focusing on Los Altos business owners who have been – or may soon be – displaced by construction of state-mandated affordable housing units zoned for the commercial areas they once operated from.

The clock is ticking for the city of Los Altos: It has just three more years to meet its state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation number and provide 477 new affordable units.

In an effort to mitigate the housing crisis, the California Department of Housing and Community Development sets the RHNA goal for each city and monitors construction to ensure the affordable housing is in fact built.

Los Altos has fallen behind, however, approving just 2% of the required very-low-income and moderate-income units, while green-lighting construction of 440% of above-moderate-income units in the same time frame.

Given the disparity, the Los Altos City Council and city staff have recently turned their efforts to housing – and that could prove bad for business. The renewed focus on housing means just six of the 17 redevelopment projects in the pipeline also include commercial space. If the council ultimately approves all 17 projects, more than 30 businesses would be looking for new homes, according to a city staff development report released in September.

The majority of the sites proposed for redevelopment are located on either El Camino Real or First Street. In the city’s 2015-2023 Housing Element document, authors and contributors encouraged “a variety of residential housing opportunities by allowing residential uses with adequate parking in appropriate commercial areas, including sections of the downtown area, Foothill Plaza and along El Camino Real.”

Some Los Altos retail tenants – like Fit Theory owner Candy Smolik, who recently moved her studio from El Camino Real in Los Altos to Mountain View – were warned change was coming when they signed their leases. Others, like musician Josh Friedman, who taught guitar from office space on El Camino Real, figured it out themselves when more and more notices of potential redevelopment were posted outside their businesses.

Professional organizer and Town Crier columnist Amanda Kuzak learned of the impending construction projects when engineers showed up at her First Street Kuzak’s Closet office to test soil – a mandated step for proposed developments in Los Altos.

No matter how they feel about housing encroaching on their commercial space, or whether a middle ground between commercial and housing can be established in Los Altos, all three business owners have moved out of or plan to move their businesses out of the city. They recently told the Town Crier about their experiences, such as struggling to find affordable space when they moved in and how they’re now facing that same situation as they move out. Friedman and Kuzak’s interviews will be published in upcoming issues.

4856 El Camino Real

Smolik opened Fit Theory in March 2017 at 4856 El Camino Real in Los Altos. That’s where Mircea Voskerician and Bryan Robertson’s Altos I project will soon be constructed, providing 52 housing units, 10 of which will be below market rate.

When her small business was in its nascent stage, she searched for space that was financially feasible with a short lease to test the waters as a personal trainer. Voskerician was “very accommodating,” Smolik said, taking every measure to ensure a good fit.

Before paperwork was finalized, Voskerician was upfront: He was looking to turn his commercial building into a housing complex.

“I had always known,” Smolik said from her new location, where she moved in June – just across the street at 2482 W. El Camino Real in Mountain View. “(Voskerician) was clear from the beginning; it was never a secret.”

Fit Theory’s clients were unaffected because of the proximity of the old and new spaces, Smolik said.

Smolik believes her former landlord’s decision is a great one, because “we have a (housing) shortage anyway.” She thinks a balance between commercial and residential space is possible, but it’s not something that pertains to developers. Instead, “it’s the city that puts their hands all in that.” Smolik referred to the broken windows theory, which according to the San Francisco-based nonprofit and nonpartisan Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, means that more “serious crime can come from minor infractions.”

“(Redevelopment) is something that we need to do,” Smolik said. “It’s a necessity to freshen up the landscape. Without it, there’s old graffiti and open areas where crime can happen. And there’s a lot of housing that’s needed.”

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