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How El Camino Real developers fight to please old and new Los Altos

Altos One
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Christian Lopez, left, an employee of Traffic Management Inc. of San Jose, reviews renderings for the proposed Altos One development along El Camino Real during a break last week.

A Los Altos resident recently shared on Nextdoor her fear of high-rise developments making their way to her city’s side of El Camino Real, sparking the realization among others who weighed in that another multistory condominium complex is already under construction right next to the planned Altos One complex.

The Aug. 26 Nextdoor thread generated nearly 100 comments. The original post, by resident Elizabeth Dunson, concluded with a slippery-slope argument: “Note that once a five-story building is allowed, everyone wants to build five stories.” Norma Shroder of the Eastenders neighborhood replied with a picture of the wood beginnings of the 58-foot-tall, 21-unit building at 4880 El Camino Real, a project the council approved in August 2016.

The “slippery slope” may not be such a bad thing, according to Assemblyman Marc Berman, who visited Los Altos and Mountain View for community coffees last week. When an attendee at the Los Altos event asked Berman where to put affordable housing, he mentioned El Camino Real but deferred further discussion to the city council. 

Berman and the Los Altos Planning Commission are on the same wavelength: The commission approved the subdivision applications, use permit and design review documents for the proposed Altos One project at 4846 and 4856 El Camino Real with one dissenting vote at its Sept. 20 meeting.

Commissioners Ronit Bodner, who cast the dissenting vote, and Anita Enander expressed shock that no members of the public, specifically nearby neighbors, attended the meeting to voice their opposition to the project.

Bodner and Enander questioned the efforts of developers in reaching out to local residents, at which point Planning Services Manager Zach Dahl verified that mailers had been sent to homeowners within 500 feet of the new development, and developer Mircea Voskerician had conducted his own outreach. The outreach led to written endorsements of the project from residents like Gail Ewing, owner of the nearby Whole Foods Market, and business coalitions, like Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

“Our companies are struggling to attract and keep employees at all levels because of the cost of housing,” said Carl Guardino, president of Silicon Valley Leadership Group, in a statement. “We are excited for this high-density project that should be developed in partnership with the community in hopes that this is not the last high-density development along El Camino Real.”

Building incentives

Bryan Robertson, Altos One developer and founder of Knowhere Holdings LLC, said they requested three incentives for the project, with the optimal goals of density and unit count. The variances included a council-approved rear-yard setback decrease on the upper floors by 20 percent – which the developers asked for twice, for a total 40 percent setback – and a height increase of 13 feet (11 feet is the maximum). The Planning Commission discussed the incentives in April, Voskerician said, but when the topic arose again at last week’s meeting, several commissioners were not convinced a developer could ask for the same incentive twice.

The developers expected some pushback from their requested incentives, but in exchange for the concessions they are offering two parking spots per unit, bike lockers and a rooftop deck. The project, they said, aims to appeal both to those who want to preserve the luxurious feel of Los Altos through fifth-floor penthouses and those working-class residents who need affordable one-bedroom units.

No matter the preference, change is coming, Robertson alluded.

“There are two camps in Los Altos, and one of them are the people who don’t want to build anything at all,” Robertson said prior to the meeting. “They’re going to lose that fight. They’ve been losing for 50 years.”

Altos One, proposed by Robertson and Luxone LLC’s Voskerician, was originally designed to house 35 units – some for rent, some for sale – with five affordable housing units for sale. The complex primarily comprises two- and three-bedroom units to accommodate the current population of Los Altos.

“Let’s face it, people are buying in for the schools,” Robertson said. “Los Altos is mostly families, and the people who buy here, stay here. … Not to single out the singles, but it’s just what made sense at the time.”

Altos One’s lack of studios or one-bedroom units drew criticism from the commission, and rightly so, said Robertson, noting that Los Altos must close the gap on its state-required housing element. The revised plans include 50 units, with eight affordable units (two moderate and six very-low-income) and nine one-bedrooms. The very-low-income units are rentals.

Planning Commissioners weren’t totally satisfied with the below-market-rate revisions, some stating they wished at least one or two more of the units were two- or three-bedrooms and that more one-bedroom below-market-rate units were offered.

“Overall, they liked our design, and they recognized that it has been a long time coming,” Voskerician said after the meeting. “Our entire team put in a tremendous effort, which was recognized by the staff. It’s a great day.”

Slow progress

El Camino Real is the only place left to build, Robertson said. Although the council had approved Lola LLC’s 4880 El Camino Real development in August 2016, former Councilwoman Megan Satterlee called for a 45-day moratorium on new development on the El Camino Real corridor following her review of the preliminary plans for 4846 and 4856 El Camino.

Satterlee’s reasoning was rooted on orderly development and “clear rules,” she stated at the time. Councilwomen Jan Pepper and Jeannie Bruins echoed Satterlee’s response, but Mary Prochnow stated at the Oct. 4, 2016, council meeting that the city of Los Altos should be focused on playing a game of catch-up with California’s new state laws, not spending money on lawsuits.

The council extended the moratorium twice, through Nov. 14, 2017. Altos One began to prepare its project proposal days after the moratorium expired.

After the delay, Voskerician said they are ready for the project to move on to the council. There is still a long road ahead before final approval, he said.The Planning Commission meeting was delayed two weeks, and after a 30-day appeal period, it will likely take the developers six months to secure a building permit.

Voskerician and Robertson are aiming to break ground next May, just when Lola LLC expects 4880 El Camino Real to be at full capacity, they said.

There is no date set yet for when the Altos One project will appear before the city council.

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