Los Altos council OKs Loyola Corners purchase, amends zoning code and planning process

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
The city of Los Altos will soon officially own 999 Fremont Ave., the current home of Coffee Drive Up. Future plans for the site have not been made public by city officials.

The Los Altos City Council last week made a few decisions that will impact the development process in 2020, but the motion that garnered the most reaction was authorizing the purchase of what’s been described as the “postage stamp” lot at 999 Fremont Ave. in Loyola Corners.

The council Jan. 14 unanimously directed City Manager Chris Jordan to buy the property at the corner of Fremont Avenue and A Street, the current home of Coffee Drive Up.

Gregg Bunker, who has owned the property for approximately 40 years, attempted several times to develop a mixed-use building on the site. The council has rebuffed his proposals, leading him to file suit against the city more than four years ago.

The purchase of the parcel, which is predicted to take a month or so, will cost the city $2.85 million plus closing costs, Jordan said in a brief report.

Loyola Corners neighbors applauded the council for making the transaction and putting a plan in motion to reinvent the space – a feat only one other Los Altos City Council has attempted. Just before he was elected to the council in 1976, Art Carmichael said a man who managed the gas station that once sat at 999 Fremont Ave. told him the business was failing.

“He asked (if) I thought the city would want to buy it,” Carmichael said.

So Carmichael reached out to the city manager and other city leaders, who he said were excited about the idea of purchasing it and discussed placing a roundabout at the site where several streets meet.

The city appraised the property and made an offer, but Carmichael said the owner of a photo business in town offered nearly double the price and scooped it up. That business, Photo Drive-Up, was a chain Bunker owned at the time.

This time around, there’s no competitor to make the city “throw in the towel,” Carmichael said. But the work isn’t finished; residents including Tom Ferry and 2018 city council candidate Teresa Morris asked the council to consider the priorities outlined in the Loyola Corners Specific Plan – a document written in 1990 and refined in 2017 – when deciding what to do with the city’s new land.

“This parcel is not really well suited for development but instead could be converted to a plaza, which would be a nice welcoming gate for Loyola Corners,” Ferry said, noting that potential benefits of a plaza include safety for all travelers. “This purchase would mean myself and many other residents can get back to our real lives and not spend so many hours on this development.”

Morris praised the council for its action.

“I’m so impressed and proud of you as councilwomen for taking this step and having the tenacity and the bravery to be able to do what no other council has been able to do or has chosen to do in the last 30 years,” she said, thanking staff, attorneys and even Bunker for “always remaining civil” during a “bumpy ride.”

Other action

The council unanimously approved:

• R3-4.5 zoning code amendments, giving a neighborhood with no site development standards the necessary direction to develop and remodel homes.

• Funding for the North County Gun Buyback Program, at the recommendation of the Los Altos Police Department.

• Miscellaneous zoning code and planning process amendments, which introduce public notification for development project review at Complete Streets Commission meetings.

• Continuation of considering a proposed four-story housing project at 444-450 First St. due to the council’s concerns over how the design would fit into the area.

The council considered rejecting the plans for the project outright, but interim city attorney Jolie Houston – who this month replaced Chris Diaz in the position – warned council members about what would and would not qualify as proper findings for denial. For example, the concept not reflecting the “downtown village feel” would not comply with the objective standards in place in the planning process, Houston said.

In its closed session prior to the regular meeting, the council addressed seven cases of ongoing litigation. At least four of the lawsuits filed against Los Altos are rooted in the city’s denial of one or more housing units proposed by the plaintiff.

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