El Camino Real neighbors turn study session into dialogue on mixed-use aspect of corridor

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
A city notice posted at 4898 El Camino Real – current home of seven businesses, including The Futon Shop – notifies residents that multifamily housing may occupy the lot in the future. A preliminary application filed by developer Mircea Voskerician outlines plans for a five-story, 23-unit building.

Looking to avoid a replay of last year’s drawn-out planning process for the mixed-use Altos One project along the El Camino Real corridor, developer Mircea Voskerician offered assurances to nearby residents who aired concerns about another proposed complex at the Los Altos Planning Commission meeting Feb. 21.

Voskerician’s new Altos Two project – the only item on the commission’s agenda – drew complaints from neighbors, who contended that residential buildings along El Camino are decreasing the commercial aspect of the area’s thoroughfare zoning.

Voskerician, whose 4846/4856 El Camino Real Altos One development recently secured approval from the Los Altos City Council, is now seeking clearance to build his second project, a five-story, multifamily residential building comprising 23 condominiums, with four sold at below-market rates, at 4898 El Camino Real. Voskerician and his architects are requesting a 35 percent density bonus and other city-offered incentives, with the intent to comply fully with city mandates after his previous time-consuming experience moving Altos One through the planning process.

Forcing out longtime businesses, eliminating street parking and negating the “walkability” of the corridor were the three main worries of the handful of residents, primarily from Casita Way, who addressed the commission before Altos Two’s consideration.

“This is the fourth (application) submitted for a residential project,” said resident Phan Truong, who asked commissioners to consider residents who want to walk around and shop. “I just want to know what happened to El Camino Real. It looks like a residential (only) area. … There are no vibrant businesses like (there) are supposed to be.”

Proposed housing complexes like 5150 El Camino Real, which are required only to meet the ratio of 1.4 parking spaces per unit, are why residents who live on nearby arteries such as Casita are wary of the potential negative effects of new housing developments, resident Pierre Bedard said.

“El Camino is going to be developed, no doubt,” Bedard said. “I just want to make sure we are not doing it in a piece-part way. … I must commend the developers of (the proposed) 4898 for nailing the parking. But 5150 is desultory.”

Los Altos Square resident Fred Haubensak, co-founder of Preserve Los Altos Now, said the eviction of seven local businesses and a lower “walkability” rating on real estate websites will bring his property value down. According to Google listings, The Futon Shop, Presto Vocational Institute, Mind of Beauty Day Spa, Home Kwest Realty, Hammer Auto Brokers, Fit to Market and an Allstate Insurance office all sit on the proposed Altos Two lot.

Commission feedback

With Alexander Samek and Doo Ho Lee absent, the remaining four commissioners reached a consensus that the overall height and mass of the Altos Two project were acceptable as presented. An easement owned by property owners to the rear and landscaping would help to screen neighbors from the intersection of El Camino Real and Jordan Avenue and provide further privacy, they said. The commissioners lamented the lack of natural materials proposed for the building’s exterior, such as wood or stone, which would make it appear more residential and less like an office.

The commissioners said they appreciated that the below-market-rate units were spread out, and that not all of them were the smallest square-footage units – complaints that arose during the early-stage presentations of Altos One. However, as Commissioner Mehruss Ahi noted, Altos Two is being marketed as affordable for a mix of buyers, when that is not the case.

“All the units are three bedrooms or four bedrooms,” Ahi said. “If you’re going to make a statement like that (about affordability), I think you should include one bedrooms or two bedrooms.”

Reached on Friday, Voskerician said he understood the commission’s affordability concern.

“I see their point. … Three-bedroom (units) are not for everybody,” the developer said. “We will be updating the project description.”

Overall, Voskerician said his team believed the meeting was a positive experience for a preliminary application.

“The most important part for us that we got was that the commissioners agreed the building is broken down and articulated properly,” Voskerician said of the Feb. 21 meeting. “That’s a big deal.”

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