After hearing feedback from town consultants, local housing advocates, some residents and even a former council member, the Atherton City Council opted to add multifamily housing back into its state-mandated housing element plan, but some sites were left on the cutting room floor.
The council opted to include a swath of lots along El Camino Real and an empty lot on Oakwood Boulevard, which the owner plans to develop, during a Wednesday, Jan. 11, meeting. The revised plan is due to the state Housing and Community Development Department (HCD) on Jan. 31.
Bob Polito, who finished his council term last month, attended the meeting via Zoom to urge the City Council to ditch its mostly accessory dwelling unit (ADU) strategy to meet the state's requirements to plan for 348 new units, across various income levels, in town over the next eight years. The state rejected this initial plan in a 16-page letter in October. He said he "begrudgingly" went along with the draft as a starting point for a housing plan when he was on the council.
He suggested lots along the El Camino Real corridor would be best for development. He said the current plan at best would get a "D" grade from HCD.
"A handful of well-planned, well-located and carefully controlled projects with multifamily will be much more impactful and will lead to an approved housing element from HCD," he said. "Time is of the essence. ... We need to be ready with a well-vetted plan before our housing element is denied and before litigation and a builder's remedy have a chance to blossom."
During the meeting, town consultants said the plan that was submitted to HCD over the summer will not get approved without adding multifamily housing.
"(Meeting) lower income housing (goals) with ADUs is not going to fly with the state," said town consultant Diana Elrod.
Council member Rick DeGolia was more hesitant to add multifamily housing to the plan, as he's previously said that because of the land value in Atherton (about $8 million per acre) there's no way to build new affordable housing through townhouses. He has supported the ADU strategy.
"I personally don't think HCD is going to approve anything that we submit," he said.
Residents and council members described the planning process as a bit of a "whack-a-mole" as once a housing site is proposed in town whoever lives around that area objects to development there.
Others are concerned about the so-called builder's remedy, which allows for residential projects to move forward even if they do not comply with local development standards, taking effect come Feb. 1. With the builder's remedy, cities and towns could be required to approve any project that has 20% of its units designated for affordable or low-income households, or 100% moderate income households, even if the project exceeds the zoning and general plan density requirements.
Several residents wrote a Jan. 11 letter telling the town it can be part of the regional housing solution while maintaining its character as a family-oriented, residential community. They said they support strategies including reducing minimum lot sizes and dimensions, adding multifamily overlay zones, and allowing higher density at sites on Oakwood and Atherton Avenue, especially where owners are interested in developing denser or multifamily housing.
"We also support the idea of exploring multifamily housing on town property including a portion of Holbrook-Palmer Park," wrote Ellen Jamason, Giacomo Marini and Serena Marini. "We believe that even if the state accepts our housing element in January without these features, it is likely that the town will need to identify additional housing units before the end of this 8-year cycle, and that the town should start preparing for that situation now. More importantly, we believe that we all benefit by welcoming neighbors of diverse income and cultural backgrounds, and that there is room for more here in Atherton."
Not everyone was thrilled about the prospects of upzoning Atherton.
Toward the end of the meeting, one resident had an angry outburst against multifamily housing in town, and Mayor Bill Widmer urged the resident to settle down.
"There are five people up here who have to make this decision," he told the resident. "Everybody has said 'yeah I support it (multifamily), but anywhere but here.' We're not going to have any more public comment please."
23 Oakwood Blvd.
The council's biggest fear going into the meeting was the builder's remedy applying to 23 Oakwood Blvd., a 1.52-acre property where the owner has expressed interest in building townhouses. There's currently a 3-bedroom, 2-bath, 2,370-square-foot home on the property, according to Zillow.
The owner, David Arata, wants to upzone his land and is interested in moving the project forward. Although he doesn't want to pursue a builder's remedy, he's well aware of state requirements of the town if the remedy is enacted, town staff said.
Arata, who inherited the land from his mother who died two and a half years ago, originally brought his plan to develop the site for townhouses, which he plans to sell, to the Planning Commission about two years ago. He said he knew that townhouses wouldn't fly in Atherton, but plans also froze as the town begin figuring out how it would meet it state-mandated housing goals. He had planned on building the housing for teachers, but quickly realized that with land values in Atherton, it would be difficult to offer them at affordable rates. Now, he's hoping to offer more housing options in town.
"It would be more a little village than a big apartment building," he said. "'Housing element' when you mention that people snap; they think it's going to be low income and it's going to massive buildings stuck together."
Initially the council voted 4-1 to rezone 23 Oakwood Blvd., which the council had designed for 16 units per acre in a previous draft of the element, to 20 units per acre (the number of units per acre that HCD deems necessary for affordable housing). With 20 units per acre, Arata could have built up to 30 units.
With DeGolia dissenting in the initial vote, the council voted again, 5-0, to zone it 10 units per acre instead. The town would require 20% of the units to be affordable. This means Arata could build up to 15 units.
"We would probably make it up by just making bigger units, which is OK," Arata told The Almanac on Monday, Jan. 16. He said he understand the council is under a lot of pressure from residents not to allow multifamily housing in town.
Rodericks noted that 10 units per acre does show that the town is building multifamily housing and lets the town have more control of the space.
Neighbor Scott Wylie urged the council to not let the owner change the residential nature of the neighborhood. He also worries about the traffic impact on the neighborhood, which he described as "countrylike."
El Camino Real corridor from Stockbridge Avenue to Cebalo Lane
The council voted 4-1, with DeGolia voting against, to rezone 17 lots along the western border of El Camino Real from Stockbridge Avenue to Cebalo Lane to allow up to 20 units per acre, and to start a program to encourage the consolidation of parcels.
The total acreage is roughly 6.7 acres, said Town Manager George Rodericks in an email. Development and aggregation would be up to the property owners.
One hiccup in the plan is that the lot sizes along El Camino Real are fairly small compared to others in town.
"Any site less than half an acre can not be included in affordable housing," said town consultant Diana Elrod. The town would have to aggregate the sites in some way, they said. Most of the sites are under 1 acre, with several being about 0.3 acres.
"The town would encourage lot aggregation through policy programs such as waiver of fees, ministerial processing, etc.," he said. "But development would be property owner dependent. A develop(er) could, of course, purchase property from willing sellers and move things forward that way; but absent that — it is up to the underlying owners."
Polito said the town could buy property for an affordable debt level. It could be no more than an $8 million investment and an affordable housing group could lease the space, he said. If the town just purchased two parcels and helped develop housing, it could lead to "significant number" of affordable housing units, he said.
"This is all part of the vetting that needs to be done," he said.
DeGolia doesn't think the town has the funds to build property on the corridor. Widmer also had some hesitancy.
"How much liability are we taking on?" he said, noting that the town still has to pay off the costs of the Town Center and Atherton Channel.
The town sent a letter to residents on Jan. 12 explaining that upzoning, under consideration in multiple locations, does not "discontinue" current uses of a property, but opens the door for redevelopment under revised zoning requirements.
"Properties highlighted on the attached map are being considered by the City Council for inclusion in the housing element as properties that could be upzoned to allow for the development of multifamily affordable units," the letter states. "As part of the process, the town would develop specific development standards for those properties to ensure harmony in surrounding land uses and protect the interests of adjacent properties."
Housing at Menlo College
Both council members and housing advocates voiced concerns during the meeting that a good portion of the housing plan banks on 40 moderate- to low-income homes being built at Menlo College along El Camino Real, which hasn't yet committed to building the units.
The four-year, private college's president, Steve Weiner, expressed strong interest in building more housing on campus, but he has previously said that building the homes is dependent on if the school can land financing, an estimated $20 million.
DeGolia previously said that a letter from the college with an update on its commitment to housing could be expected this month, but no such letter has yet surfaced. DeGolia said the latest he's heard is that the college has been offered funds for a schematic plan of new housing.
Elrod said that there could be a potential issue with fair housing if only people affiliated with the school could live in the units.
Housing advocates said HCD might have doubts the development will come to fruition since a similar housing project at the college was included in past housing element cycles and was not built.
Sites off the table:
Hawkins-Manuelian again brought up building on the nearly 1 acre property where the Gilmore House currently stands near the exit of Holbrook-Palmer Park, which is town property. DeGolia warned that building housing in the park could put the town's ownership of the park in jeopardy.
Again, the majority of council members pushed back against the idea and ultimately it was taken off the table.
Widmer said he'd be open to the idea if the housing were restricted to workforce housing.
Olive Holbrook Palmer deeded her family's 22-acre Elmwood Estate to the town of Atherton after her death in 1959 on the condition that the town use it only for recreational purposes. If Atherton did not want the property, or if it ceased being used as a park, it would go to Stanford University, according to the deed. The deed specifies that the park should not be used for "commercial or housing" purposes.
"It hasn't happened with the one house (Gilmore house)," he said "I don't think our residents want to risk losing the park."
Zoning overlays ditched
The town approved four sites for upzoning, with split votes, including the 23 Oakwood Blvd. site back in May, but these were ultimately scrapped from the plan.
The council previously designated an approximately 1.42-acre empty field at 97 Santiago Ave. for 6 units per acre. The site is located off Valparaiso Avenue and sold last month for $9.3 million, according to Redfin.
The property at 170 Atherton Ave., which was formerly part of the Gap founders' Doris and Don Fisher's estate in West Atherton, which is about 4 acres, was set at eight units per acre. The lot was listed for sale along with the 2-acre 154 Atherton Ave. and 2-acre 178 Atherton Ave. for $100 million in 2021, according to Trulia. The current property owner at this site expressed interest in developing high density housing, according to the town.
The property at 290 Polhemus Ave. near Alameda de Las Pulgas and Stockbridge Avenue, is approximately 5 acres, was set at eight units per acre. The overlay was approved unanimously. This site was removed because the owner isn't interested in developing it.
The City Council will discuss revisions of the housing element during Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 6 p.m. The meeting takes place on Zoom and in Council Chambers, 80 Fair Oaks Lane.
Watch a video of the meeting here: