Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am


Downsizing and redefining : Ordinances could restrict downtown building heights & zoning

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Developers in Los Altos will likely face more restrictive zoning exceptions and be limited to two-story projects in downtown’s core.

The Los Altos City Council directed city staff and City Attorney Jolie Houston to prepare ordinance changes aimed at redefining exceptions for developers in most of the city’s zones. In addition, ordinance changes will be drafted to limit future projects in downtown’s Commercial Retail Sales zone to two stories.

None of the aforementioned changes would apply to the city’s Commercial Retail Sales/Office and Administrative Downtown zone, which encompasses a small portion of Main Street (to the State Street split) near San Antonio Road.

No current or future developments in the city’s approval pipeline before the ordinance changes are adopted would be affected, according to a city staff report. The amendments must first be reviewed by the Planning Commission.

Councilman Ron Packard said current language in the city’s zoning ordinances allows broad interpretation when weighing a project’s public benefit versus zoning exceptions for developers. He added that he’s not interested in seeing future three-story structures in the downtown area, either.

“I am absolutely opposed to three-story buildings in the core of our downtown,” Packard said. “I was heavily involved in opening Pandora’s box for the outside areas (of downtown). But when it comes to the core, I am absolutely opposed to three-story buildings and I want no question about that.”

The city’s current form-based zoning code restricts building heights to 30 feet, including a 12-foot first floor, within downtown’s core.

Packard noted his concern that developers would push for variances in exchange for “marginal” project aspects deemed by them as public benefits. Better-defined zoning exceptions allow developers to have clearer expectations, he added.

“The financial advantage of having three stories is so great that I think we’re facing potential false expectations, frustrations and accusations that the (city) staff or Planning Commission and the city council can engage in favoritism,” Packard said. “We want to avoid that.”

Mayor Val Carpenter added that she worried efforts by developers to exceed height restrictions would lead to “height creep” in the future.

“I am concerned that with some of the (building) applications and some of the examples we’ve seen or will see, we’re going to get increasing pressure to work around the 30-foot height limit,” she said.

Not everyone shared those views, however. Brooke Ray Smith, Passerelle Investment Co.’s urban planner, told the council its actions will lead not only to restricting developers, but the city as well.

“We do not believe either of the two proposed changes should be approved, because both measures would restrict the city’s flexibility to extract from developers the most public benefit or to negotiate the best overall deal for the city and its constituents,” she said.

Smith added that the zoning changes could lead to uninspired buildings and a lack of desire by developers to build in downtown’s core altogether.

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