Council Approves Major Plan for El Camino Real

By Daniel DeBolt

After several years of discussion, the City Council finally approved a plan for the El Camino Real of the future on Monday night — one that was called a good compromise by various community members.

Council members voted 4-1, with member John Inks opposed, to approve the plan. Members Chris Clark and John McAlister recused themselves because they own property near El Camino Real.

The complex plan sets out development requirements and guidelines for the corridor, such as building setbacks with residential neighbors and community benefits developers must pay. Development is concentrated on key intersections where “village centers” could see heights of up to six stories if developers provide significant public benefits, which would equal about 1 percent of the cost of development, for such things as crosswalks, open space and bike infrastructure.

“I think it’s a great plan; I’m really happy with it,” said council member Ronit Bryant, an opinion shared by much of the council.

“I think everyone in this room can point to something in this document and say, ‘Oh, I would change that,'” said Bill Cranston of the Monta Loma Neighborhood Association. “Let’s adopt this and move on.”

Council members opted to require more community benefits by requiring benefits worth $20 per square foot of development instead of $15. The council also exempted ground-floor commercial from those calculations when moving from $15 to $20, but planners said the results would still mean more community benefits from most projects, including the large Greystar project proposed for the corner of El Camino Real and Castro Street where apartments would be built over retail space.

Four new crosswalks are included at the intersections with following streets: Boranda, Bonita, Mariposa or Pettis, and Crestview, city staff said.

The plan includes bike lanes on portions of El Camino Real where there is no alternative side-street route, including a stretch from Sylvan to Calderon avenues. A bike boulevard along Church and Latham streets — where cut-through vehicle traffic would be discouraged with physical barriers — is included as an alternative to bike lanes on the rest of El Camino Real.

The new El Camino Real bike lanes would replace street parking, and may include just a painted buffer against car traffic. Bicyclists would still have to go around stopped public buses, city staff said. Bike advocate Cherie Wolkoviak and others called for physical barriers to protect bikes from traffic that goes as fast as 40 to 50 mph. City planner Eric Andersen explained that “there are too many curb cuts (driveways) on El Camino Real in many places to have barriers. There may be some places where you could have barriers where there are long distances between curb cuts.”

“This plan has come a long way — I’m really pleased,” said Wolkoviak. She added that bike lanes shown in the plan for a stretch of El Camino Real between Escuela Avenue and El Monte Road “will be a great connection.”

If significant public benefits are negotiated, a “village center floating district” zoning is triggered in the plan, which allows a developer to go to six stories and a 2.2 floor-area ratio at major intersections — a density not shown on the new zoning map.

The plan includes two other basic tiers of development heights and densities. The lowest is meant for the shallow lots on the street that have been a problem for the city in attracting redevelopment. Height limits for those lots are three stories, but with a 45-foot height limit to encourage ground-floor commercial space under two stories of residential. No public benefits are required, and allowed floor-area ratio would be 1.35, which would mean a 58,000-square-foot building allowed on a lot with 1 acre of buildable area. A second tier is meant for much of the street and allows up to four stories and a maximum 1.85 floor-area ratio, and would require the standard public benefit cost of $20 per square foot (with ground-floor commercial space exempted from the calculation).

Council members declined to raise affordable housing requirements in the plan from 10 percent to 25 percent, as advocated by the Greenbelt Alliance and Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.

Concern was expressed that the plan lacked integration with a bus rapid transit system, despite VTA’s continuing study of dedicated bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes on El Camino Real as a sort of alternative to light rail down the middle of the street.

“This BRT thing seems to be happening; we should have some thoughts on how it’s going to be integrated into this plan,” said council member-elect Lenny Siegel. He suggested park-and-ride garages be integrated into development on the street to encourage use of the new bus infrastructure.

Council member Jac Siegel continued to object to bike lanes on the street without barriers and allowing buildings as high as six stories. Member John Inks expressed his disapproval in vague terms, saying, “I predict problems.” He had previously said the plan restricted development too much to prevent development impacts elsewhere in the city.

This article originally appeared in the November 20, 2014 edition of the Mountain View Voice.

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