News

Atherton council members divided on where to build multifamily housing in town

Council must approve a draft housing element to send to the state

Stickers are used to indicate how Atherton residents think the town should meet its state housing requirement at a community meeting in Jennings Pavilion at Holbrook-Palmer Park in Atherton on April 26, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Although Atherton City Council members acknowledge they won't meet their state-mandated housing goals with just accessory dwelling units, deciding where to put higher density units is still a point of contention.

During a special meeting last week, the council approved creating zoning overlays that would allow for more than just single-family housing on nine properties in town. All but one were passed with divided 3-2 votes, with some council members concerned that they haven't heard enough feedback from neighboring residents on the changes.

"Atherton residents need to have a voice if we're making a major change," said Mayor Rick DeGolia. In particular, he wanted to speak with neighbors of 97 Santiago Ave., an empty 1.43 acre field off Valparaiso Avenue that sold last month for $9.3 million located near Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton, according to Redfin.

"We have to go very slowly. ... The silver lining of trying this overlay of townhomes is I heard from many residents that they're interested in townhomes because they'd like to downsize," he said. "But I've heard from very few people that they want to see that in places other than the periphery of town."

The town is preparing its housing element for the 2023-31 Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) cycle. The town must plan for the development of 348 new housing units, a large jump from its designation of 93 units during the 2014-22 cycle.

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A May 23 town staff report notes that the State Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) has not approved housing elements that do not include some provision for multifamily housing.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis said she doesn't want Atherton, which has a population of about 7,000, to turn into a "larger high density city" like nearby Menlo Park and Redwood City.

Overlay locations and town council votes

Below are the four locations where zoning overlays were considered and approved by a majority of the Town Council.

• The property at 23 Oakwood Blvd., approximately 1.52 acres which borders Redwood City, was set at 16 units per acre. It passed 3-1-1, with DeGolia voting no and Vice Mayor Bill Widmer abstaining.

• The property at 97 Santiago Ave., approximately 1.42 acres, was set at 6 units per acre. 3-2, with Lewis and DeGolia opposed.

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• The property at 170 Atherton Ave. in West Atherton, which is about 4 acres, was set at eight units per acre. Three council members voted yes, while DeGolia and Councilwoman Diana Hawkins-Manuelian abstained from voting.

• 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.

Sites the council gave approval to change to multifamily zoning overlays.

The council had already directed staff to include five properties that front along Bay Road as part of the overlay zoning. The density for these properties, just under an acre each, was set at six units per acre.

The town is aware of property owners at 170 Atherton Ave. and 23 Oakwood Blvd. are interested in proposing higher density development, according to a May 26 town newsletter. The remaining property owners have not expressed interest in creating higher density development; but, the overlay provides the opportunity for it in the future, the newsletter.

Town Planner Lisa Costa Sanders noted that the town can take public comment on a draft housing element, then adjust where it plans for townhouses based on that.

Additional housing strategies

Atherton town staff and council members also discussed other ways to build more housing beyond just townhouses.

Residents have started taking out applications to split their lots and build duplexes in town, made possible by Senate Bill 9, which took effect this year. This will help the town reach its housing goals, but not be enough to meet housing mandates without planning for higher density.

Costa Sanders told the council that if the Menlo Park Fire Protection District decides to build dorms for its firefighters at Station 3, 32 Almendral Ave. in Atherton, it will not count toward the housing stock.

Hawkins-Manuelian said it would be wise to change town rules so residents can build ADUs above their garages. And at some point the town might have to account for ADUs being rented out, she said, in order for them to actually count towards housing stock.

Menlo College is looking to add faculty housing at the corner of Alejandra Avenue and El Camino Real, along with some housing potentially in a building that needs to be replaced at the center of campus, Costa Sanders said. The town expects about 34 units of housing to be added on school campuses this housing cycle, she noted.

Widmer said families moving into new developments in Menlo Park (a project at the former home of SRI International and the Greenheart complex in downtown) will increase enrollment in the Menlo Park City School District. He wondered if there could be a need for the district to include apartments on the top floor of any new buildings it constructs for a growing population. Lewis said that while it is a good idea, Encinal School is already landlocked and probably couldn't grow.

The council will vote on the draft housing element during a special meeting in July. The final housing element must be completed by January 2023.

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Angela Swartz joined The Almanac in 2018 and covers education and small towns. She has a background covering education, city politics and business. Read more >>

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Atherton council members divided on where to build multifamily housing in town

Council must approve a draft housing element to send to the state

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Thu, Jun 2, 2022, 11:14 am

Although Atherton City Council members acknowledge they won't meet their state-mandated housing goals with just accessory dwelling units, deciding where to put higher density units is still a point of contention.

During a special meeting last week, the council approved creating zoning overlays that would allow for more than just single-family housing on nine properties in town. All but one were passed with divided 3-2 votes, with some council members concerned that they haven't heard enough feedback from neighboring residents on the changes.

"Atherton residents need to have a voice if we're making a major change," said Mayor Rick DeGolia. In particular, he wanted to speak with neighbors of 97 Santiago Ave., an empty 1.43 acre field off Valparaiso Avenue that sold last month for $9.3 million located near Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton, according to Redfin.

"We have to go very slowly. ... The silver lining of trying this overlay of townhomes is I heard from many residents that they're interested in townhomes because they'd like to downsize," he said. "But I've heard from very few people that they want to see that in places other than the periphery of town."

The town is preparing its housing element for the 2023-31 Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) cycle. The town must plan for the development of 348 new housing units, a large jump from its designation of 93 units during the 2014-22 cycle.

A May 23 town staff report notes that the State Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) has not approved housing elements that do not include some provision for multifamily housing.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis said she doesn't want Atherton, which has a population of about 7,000, to turn into a "larger high density city" like nearby Menlo Park and Redwood City.

Below are the four locations where zoning overlays were considered and approved by a majority of the Town Council.

• The property at 23 Oakwood Blvd., approximately 1.52 acres which borders Redwood City, was set at 16 units per acre. It passed 3-1-1, with DeGolia voting no and Vice Mayor Bill Widmer abstaining.

• The property at 97 Santiago Ave., approximately 1.42 acres, was set at 6 units per acre. 3-2, with Lewis and DeGolia opposed.

• The property at 170 Atherton Ave. in West Atherton, which is about 4 acres, was set at eight units per acre. Three council members voted yes, while DeGolia and Councilwoman Diana Hawkins-Manuelian abstained from voting.

• 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.

The council had already directed staff to include five properties that front along Bay Road as part of the overlay zoning. The density for these properties, just under an acre each, was set at six units per acre.

The town is aware of property owners at 170 Atherton Ave. and 23 Oakwood Blvd. are interested in proposing higher density development, according to a May 26 town newsletter. The remaining property owners have not expressed interest in creating higher density development; but, the overlay provides the opportunity for it in the future, the newsletter.

Town Planner Lisa Costa Sanders noted that the town can take public comment on a draft housing element, then adjust where it plans for townhouses based on that.

Atherton town staff and council members also discussed other ways to build more housing beyond just townhouses.

Residents have started taking out applications to split their lots and build duplexes in town, made possible by Senate Bill 9, which took effect this year. This will help the town reach its housing goals, but not be enough to meet housing mandates without planning for higher density.

Costa Sanders told the council that if the Menlo Park Fire Protection District decides to build dorms for its firefighters at Station 3, 32 Almendral Ave. in Atherton, it will not count toward the housing stock.

Hawkins-Manuelian said it would be wise to change town rules so residents can build ADUs above their garages. And at some point the town might have to account for ADUs being rented out, she said, in order for them to actually count towards housing stock.

Menlo College is looking to add faculty housing at the corner of Alejandra Avenue and El Camino Real, along with some housing potentially in a building that needs to be replaced at the center of campus, Costa Sanders said. The town expects about 34 units of housing to be added on school campuses this housing cycle, she noted.

Widmer said families moving into new developments in Menlo Park (a project at the former home of SRI International and the Greenheart complex in downtown) will increase enrollment in the Menlo Park City School District. He wondered if there could be a need for the district to include apartments on the top floor of any new buildings it constructs for a growing population. Lewis said that while it is a good idea, Encinal School is already landlocked and probably couldn't grow.

The council will vote on the draft housing element during a special meeting in July. The final housing element must be completed by January 2023.

Comments

Robert Cronin
Registered user
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 2, 2022 at 1:50 pm
Robert Cronin, Menlo Park: The Willows
Registered user
on Jun 2, 2022 at 1:50 pm

It is a pity that Atherton has no business district or town center that would be an obvious candidate for higher density housing. One can imagine a neighborhood of elegant town houses near shopping and public transportation that could go a long away to dispel the image of Atherton as a walled-off town inhabited by people who think they're special.


PH
Registered user
Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jun 3, 2022 at 6:11 pm
PH, Woodside: Emerald Hills
Registered user
on Jun 3, 2022 at 6:11 pm

Two suggestions:

First, Atherton does have a train station. Think about it.

Second, the earliest zoning codes in America in Minneapolis and later, Berkeley, were "districting" systems in which blocks of property owners could petition their cities for zoning. Consider the possibility that some blocks and areas of underutilized 1-acre zoned parcels of Atherton might be willing to upzone themselves voluntarily, (beyond SB9) to allow for multi-family housing and allow them to so petition.

Put in place a block zoning system in which groups of neighbors can petition to be upzoned.

Yeah, other nearby neighbors might be horrified, but you might find clumps of volunteers, where it makes sense.


PH
Registered user
Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jun 3, 2022 at 6:18 pm
PH, Woodside: Emerald Hills
Registered user
on Jun 3, 2022 at 6:18 pm

In line with my earlier suggestions of petition-based block zoning, consider this project proposed for the merged parcels of two single-family zoned parcels in Palo Alto: Web Link

"Request for a Council prescreening to consider a conceptual plan to allow the rezoning of 2239 and 2241 Wellesley St from R-1 to a Planned Housing Zone (Planned Community) to accommodate a 24-unit apartment building. The project would provide 20% of the housing units as affordable units."

Give Cato development a call and see what they can do for Atherton!


Not-Jeff
Registered user
Hillview Middle School
on Jun 4, 2022 at 4:02 pm
Not-Jeff, Hillview Middle School
Registered user
on Jun 4, 2022 at 4:02 pm

"Atherton does have a train station."

No, Atherton does NOT have a train station. Caltrain closed it (and advocated for it, I should add). Hopefully Caltrain follows through and works with the town to expand the quiet zone through the Watkins crossing...but don't hold your collective breaths.

Without going into the details and debating the merits of SB9 (I'm broadly in favor of adding housing, though I think SB9 is overreach), I do think there's some merit to some of the approaches to adding housing in Atherton, including easier subdividing, easier permitting of ADUs, and allowing for structures like duplexes to increase density.

I think the issues are:

1: Supporting infrastructure. From the state perspective, it is clear this state is short on both drinking-water infrastructure and power generation, not to mention other basics like transportation infrastructure, sewers, etc. It is a classic priority-inversion to build housing while the infrastructure around that housing doesn't support the increase in population that would result in the creation of said housing.

2: Ensuring new structures integrate with their surrounding community. I've seen plenty of 2-to-4 unit housing to know its possible to build multi-unit housing without it looking like multi-unit housing. The town government just needs to set some reasonable limitations and transparency on size and character to achieve this.


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