Palo Alto directs new homes away from transit

City Council approves housing projects in underdeveloped area on San Antonio Road

From left: Palo Alto's Mayor Patrick Burt and Palo Alto's Councilman Eric Filseth
From left: Palo Alto's Mayor Patrick Burt and Palo Alto's Councilman Eric Filseth (City of Palo Alto, Getty)

While cities such as San Jose and Oakland plan new housing near transit hubs, Palo Alto wants to build them out in the suburbs, far from any public transportation, shops or restaurants.

Palo Alto leaders are encouraging new apartments along Highway 101 and San Antonio Road, among the least developed outskirts of the city, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

The City Council relaxed height limits and other rules this month to approve more than 1,400 new homes in southeast Palo Alto, stoking a construction boom that could help the city meet its state-mandated goal of building 6,000 new homes by 2031.

In approving two projects last month, council members made clear that the area around San Antonio Road and Transport Street and Bayshore Road is where future housing will be built, not the historic Palo Alto hubs at University and California Avenues.

In a 5-1 vote, they hiked allowable units per acre from 32 to 90 in an area zoned for manufacturing.

The policy has generated pushback from some residents wary of its undeveloped location – where retail is scarce, public transportation is non-existent and it’s a stretch to get to popular parts of town.

But it also comes as a response to years of NIMBY pressure from residents along the Caltrain corridor, forcing city leaders to search for suitable sites in outlier neighborhoods where land is cheaper.

Palo Alto Councilman Eric Filseth had urged the council to be aggressive with development along San Antonio Road and increase the allowable units per acre. Build them, and the rest will come, he said.

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“We’re going to have to go aggressive here on development standards,” Filseth said. “The worst case is that we put a little bit of housing here and it’s not enough to bring in all the other stuff we want to happen, like retail and transportation. We’ve got to have enough density here that it drives the rest.”

While council members rezoned the San Antonio Road area, they also killed a proposal to build 270 apartments next to the University Avenue Caltrain station, a transit hub surrounded by shops, restaurants and services.

Compared to other major Bay Area cities, Palo Alto’s housing strategy is unique, housing advocates say.

Berkeley, Oakland and other cities have pegged hundreds of new housing units near existing transit corridors like BART. San Jose is building the largest transit-oriented development in the region, turning parking lots into homes for thousands with a project in which Caltrain is a key partner.

Dana Bartholomew

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