As a heavily debated housing development made its final step through the Los Altos City Council, a broader discussion ensued on how to evaluate upcoming residential projects while maintaining the city’s character amid a wave of state affordable housing requirements.
Altos One developer Mircea Voskerician described the council’s 3-2 vote Nov. 27 to approve his proposal for a 52-unit condominium complex at 4846/4856 El Camino Real as “the best day in three years.”
But the next time he returns with a proposal to develop, Voskerician said he won’t be asking for an above-standard 35 percent density bonus or any off-menu options that require greater scrutiny. The developers requested the density bonus to increase the maximum allowable development on their property in exchange for offering additional below-market-rate units (BMRs).
Voskerician and his Knowhere Holdings LLC partner Bryan Robertson struggled to get the council and the Planning Commission on board with their project largely because of their request for an 82.5 percent density bonus in exchange for offering 10 affordable housing units. At a study session Jan. 16, the developers offered two plans to the council: a 38-unit complex with five BMRs or a 50-unit complex with eight BMRs. The council preferred the 50-unit option.
Councilwomen Mary Prochnow and Jeannie Bruins reminded fellow council members Nov. 21 that they had previously stated their desire for greater density. When Voskerician and Robertson returned Nov. 13 with a proposal they thought the council wanted, they were told their density bonus request was too high.
The developers compromised with city staff, revising their eight BMRs that were all listed for sale to 10 BMRs with four very-low-income units available to rent. The revision meant splitting two of the units and increasing the total number to 52 units, explained architect Jeff Potts.
Councilwomen Jan Pepper and Lynette Lee Eng cast the dissenting votes, expressing their lingering concern with the density bonus, with Pepper noting that no other city has granted such a high bonus, including Mountain View, the neighbor developing on the other side of El Camino Real. Planning Services Manager Zach Dahl clarified that Mountain View has double the base density level at a range of 60 units to 106 units per acre, compared with Los Altos’ 38 units per acre.
Pepper said she was uncomfortable with how much money the developers stand to make on the project. At the Nov. 13 council meeting, she noted that Voskerician could “retire and settle in Bali” with the profits from selling his development. At the Nov. 27 meeting, she shared estimates of how much money Voskerician and Robertson would make for both of the concepts proposed in January. The 38-unit proposal would provide a 92 percent profit, Pepper calculated, while a 52-unit project would generate a 115 percent profit.
The financial estimates were not relevant to the council discussion, Mayor Jean Mordo argued. After the meeting, Voskerician concurred.
“Projects should be only approved on merits and city codes, and not personal opinion,” Voskerician said. “There were several incidents over the last year that city attorney (Chris Diaz) warned (Pepper about making) any comments related to my project on other contexts.”
Lee Eng contended that approving Altos One was selling out local residents because the bonus to the developers was too large.
That comment went a little further than was warranted, countered Bruins. Despite residents’ or council members’ opinions on housing and where it should be placed, decisions are continuing to come down from the state level that force the council’s hand, said Bruins, who has gained insight from serving on the Metropolitan Transportation Committee.
“Our state legislators are back in session to figure out how to bring in more housing,” Bruins said. “They’re doing it through legislation we get handed down. It’s a sad reality, but it is the reality in terms of state law … and it’s going to get worse.”
The 10 BMRs “will make a significant dent” and set an unprecedented example, Bruins said. As noted in the staff report for the agenda item, “(Altos One) would provide the highest percentage of affordable units and best mix of units in terms of size of any multiple-family project that the city has approved in the last 10 years.”
Los Altos has a state-mandated Regional Housing Need Allocation requirement to offer 477 new affordable housing units by 2023. The council has discussed easing that total by revising accessory dwelling unit and structure ordinances and participating in the next RHNA subregion cycle, which would allow it to place the required units in other cities in exchange for incentives like funding for transportation.
However, the option of transferring BMRs doesn’t mean that cities escape their responsibility to provide housing to low-income residents and the “missing middle,” or those who make just over the level to be considered low income but who cannot afford Silicon Valley’s high housing prices.
Voskerician said the next time he returns to the council with a project, he will face an anti-development council with the addition of the newly elected Anita Enander and incumbents Lee Eng and Pepper.
“I think they are going to do whatever they can to clamp down on what they want. They talked (about) reducing heights on the buildings on the El Camino (corridor). Who knows?” Voskerician said. “(They’ll) try to go back to the status quo, which is keeping Los Altos the way it is and forgetting about what the state wants. … You’re going to have 3-2 voting on anything.”
Voskerician said the city will lose in the end if density is not increased and fewer BMRs are available to city workers and teachers.
When considering Altos One, Bruins implored her colleagues to approve the project to stop state legislators from imposing even harsher requirements.
“Let’s show that it is possible to work with a developer to get this type of project so that maybe we can dissuade state legislators from using the club on all of us,” she said.