LA Planning Commission OKs more office space at 400 Main

Madison Ivy/Town Crier
One of the difficulties the Los Altos Planning Commission faced in approving a conditional-use permit for office space in 400 Main St., above, was that it falls in the commercial retail sales zone but fronts First Street – which has a completely different zoning code.

Additional office space is set to pop up on the ground floor of 400 Main St. in Los Altos.

At last week’s Los Altos Planning Commission meeting, commissioners unanimously approved a conditional-use permit that enables property owner Jeff Morris to lease the former Pharmaca space to Keller Williams Real Estate.

The approval – allowing ground-floor office space in a zoning district that would otherwise prohibit it – is the second for Morris, who received a similar use permit last year for a separate space at 400 Main.

But before commissioners gave the green light to Morris’ request at their Feb. 1 meeting, they deliberated over the true definition of “displacing retail.”

“We’re saying this doesn’t displace retail, but you can never have two tenants in the space,” Commissioner Alex Samek said. “You’re always going to have one tenant move out before the other moves in.”

The code allows for a conditional-use permit for ground-floor office space as long as it is not displacing a current retail tenant. Although the space was previously occupied by Pharmaca, a retail tenant, the space has been vacant since the natural health store’s closure last fall. City Attorney Chris Diaz said that because there is no definition for “displacing retail” in the code, it is up for interpretation.

The commission also discussed the implications of other property owners requesting permits for ground-floor office space. Commissioner Phoebe Bressack made it clear the conditional-use permits were a temporary fix until the Downtown Vision project is complete.

“We wanted applicants to have the same level of transparency and direction (as) anybody along that very limited stretch (of First Street),” Bressack said, noting that if a new tenant wanted to put in an office, they potentially could.

Accessory structures

Commissioners also voted to recommend to the Los Altos City Council approval of amendments to the city’s accessory structures code. The agenda item was continued from a November meeting during which the commission asked city staff for legal clarification from Diaz – in particular about accessory structure regulations in relation to guidelines for accessory dwelling units, also known as “granny units.”

Accessory structures are considered nonlivable structures such as pool houses, sheds and enclosed patios. Accessory dwelling units, on the other hand, include backyard apartments that someone physically inhabits.

“The goal of (the amendments) was to modify our accessory structure regulations in anticipation that in the future they could be converted into accessory dwelling units,” Planning Services Manager Zachary Dahl said.

Most commissioners seemed to be in favor of the amendments, which address yard setbacks and property lines, with the exception of Commissioner Anita Enander, who objected. Enander’s main complaint resulted from the possibility that accessory structures could easily be converted into accessory dwelling units.

“That, for me, is a game changer,” she said. “People are going to have the opportunity to essentially game the system. They might not be able to get an ADU approved coming forward in a plan, but they can put an accessory structure in and come back after.”

Enander was the sole dissenting vote in the commission’s decision to recommend approval to the council.

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