Residents warn council multistory buildings will be the end of Los Altos as they know it

Rendering Courtesy of William Maston Architects & Associates
City staff in December denied Ted and Jerry Sorensen’s proposal for a five-story, multiuse complex, above, at their 40 Main St. property in downtown Los Altos. The brothers appealed the decision, which the Los Altos City Council upheld at last week’s meeting, due in part to potential traffic impacts.

A familiar tone ruled the Los Altos City Council’s April 9 meeting, as local residents maintained that they are not anti-development but rather pro-privacy and support preserving the city’s “village feel.”

Such sentiments were expressed during the appeal of Ted and Jerry Sorensen’s proposed five-story building at 40 Main St. through Senate Bill 35 – legislation signed into law in 2018 that aims to streamline the standards to approve affordable housing – and a study session on housing codes.

City Attorney Chris Diaz was tasked with trying to balance the demands of the community with the requirements of the California Department of Housing and Community Development. After Diaz warned the council it should review the Sorensens’ appeal of the application based on SB 35 mandates, not on its design merits, council members voted unanimously to back city staff’s decision to deny the project. They also reflected on the current state of housing in Los Altos, ultimately voting to agendize rewriting the city’s on-menu planning language so that developers cannot “double dip,” or ask for the same on-menu construction incentive twice.

Unappealing appeal

The Sorensens worked with the city for five years in their attempt to secure approval for a three-story office building downtown. According to their attorney Dan Golub, it’s reasonable that after finding no success, the brothers sought out another way to reconstruct their property. Last November, the Sorensens submitted new plans for a 66-foot-tall building that would comprise 15 units (two affordable), one level of office space and two levels of underground parking that rely on a lift system.

When Los Altos city planners deemed the latest proposal noncompliant with the objective standards laid out by the state and city through SB 35, the Sorensens appealed the decision and appeared before the council.

Even before the city posted notice of the Sorensens’ appeal, the online Nextdoor community’s mutters turned into a roar. Friends of Los Altos – a group that describes itself as “nonpartisan” and “volunteer run” – sent out a newsletter via email outlining the Sorensens’ project, titled “Are we ready for a 5-story building on Main Street?” Downtown property owner Ron Packard, who has feuded with the Sorensens for years over their proposed projects, sits on the FOLA Board of Directors, according to its website.

City staff had argued that the Sorensens’ project was incomplete and did not meet “objective” standards, such as the minimum state requirement of a 35 percent density bonus for including affordable units in the project (the Sorensens requested an 87.5 percent density bonus). They also cited a lack of consistency with Los Altos’ downtown design guidelines.

Golub alleged that the city failed to alert the Sorensens that their application was incomplete and did not specify the violations in its Dec. 7 letter within SB 35’s required 60-day window. He also contended that the city’s standards used to evaluate the project were not in fact “objective.”

Council members and Planning Commissioners at last week’s meeting sided with city staff’s decision to reject the project.

“A design application could have been approved if the project showed respect to the importance of the site to the heart of the downtown,” said Commissioner Phoebe Bressack. “I say, ‘Shame to you, Jerry and Ted. You are Los Altos residents.’ To quote Spike Lee, ‘Do the Right Thing’ for the town, not just yourselves.”

Residents from neighborhoods throughout the city concurred.

Retired Stanford University architect Bob Moffat called the appeal “just silly” and said projects like the Sorensens’ proposal had the potential to “wreck” downtown Los Altos.

“It seems like we are on the eve of destruction in Los Altos,” said Sunkist Lane resident Maria Bautista, who also referred to the proposed agreement between the Los Altos School District and Bullis Charter School. “We have to preserve and protect what we have here … a very human-scale downtown.”

Small steps forward

A review of the city’s Housing Accountability Act, density-bonus language and current commercial zoning prompted a key question: How can staff, with limited resources, take quick measures to ensure residents (especially those who live adjacent to El Camino Real) are protected?

Several residents who live near the Los Altos side of El Camino Real thanked staff for “finally” agendizing the study session, noting that they look forward to the city developing a plan of action that focuses on protecting their privacy and neighborhood character.

“We should be valued as all other residents are valued across Los Altos,” said neighbor Lili Najimi.

Any major changes to the zoning code would warrant rewriting the city’s General Plan, which includes the Housing Element, Diaz advised the council. A rewrite would require recertification of the Housing Element by the state’s Housing and Community Development department – a process that is feasible but may be lengthy.

“We can’t be scared by the state telling us what we can and cannot do. We should be doing what’s right for our community,” said Councilwoman Jan Pepper, who proposed eliminating the on-menu incentive program entirely. “Let’s stand up for ourselves.”

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