Habitats and History

For various reasons lately I haven’t attended as many City Council and Planning Commission meetings as I’d have liked, but I have been watching them online. Recently I also watched a pair of web-based Peninsula TV (or PenTV) interviews with various city staff members. One was a “San Mateo County Today” show that included an interview with Jessica Manzi, Redwood City’s Senior Transportation Coordinator (find that show here). Then, a bit more relevant for today’s topic, was a “Pen Voice” interview with Aaron Aknin, our Assistant City Manager/Community Development Director (find that show here). Especially if you are somewhat new to the process of getting buildings approved and built here in Redwood City, this eleven-minute video provides some high-level background on what is involved. In the video Aknin is interviewed by host Dani Gasparini, and together they briefly cover three main topics:

  • the process by which a project is proposed, approved, and built
  • affordable housing projects
  • preserving Redwood City’s downtown history

While they only cover these topics in a general way, the March 21 Planning Commission meeting provided a fascinating, specific example of a project that touches on all three. At that meeting the Commission discussed and ultimately approved the 612 Jefferson Avenue project: Habitat for Humanity’s next addition to Redwood City’s residential pool. The plan is to build twenty condominiums over a parking garage.

I’ve written a bit about this project before, but now seems a good time to dive in a bit deeper. First of all, today 612 Jefferson Avenue is that rarest of things in our downtown: a truly empty lot. At the moment it houses a temporary construction office and also serves as a small parking lot and a staging area for a nearby project. But before the weeds were cleared and the contractors took over, the lot, which has been vacant now for some thirty years, looked like this:

This lot is just 50 feet wide by 100 feet deep. If you are thinking “there’s no way they can get twenty condos in here,” you’re in good company: I’ve studied the preliminary plans and I still find it somewhat hard to believe. The architect had to make some interesting design choices to fit everything in, but believe it or not, they did.

Naturally, this will be a multi-story building. Although the Downtown Precise Plan (DTPP) allows for a twelve-story building on this lot, the proposal is for one only half that high: five stories of living space over a ground-floor parking garage and tiny lobby. The garage level will be on the tall side—just over 17 feet—while each of the residential floors will be just shy of 10 feet. From the sidewalk the building stretches just over 71 feet, with the top of the elevator shaft and rooftop access stairwell, which are only visible from certain angles, sticking up another six feet or so.

If you’ve seen earlier renditions of this project, be aware that the look of the building has changed. Here is the latest:

Ghosted out in the above rendering is a small historic house that is currently being used as a law office (on the left), a small three-story apartment building (to the project’s immediate right) and the ten-story Indigo apartment building across Bradford Street. The inset on the left side of the building allows for more windows in some of the units. The right side of the building (not shown in the above rendering) is largely a blank wall, with only a few narrow windows along the edges. The back looks a lot like the front.

Each residential level contains four condominiums: a 550-square-foot one-bedroom unit on the right front, a 1,000-square-foot three-bedroom unit on the left front, and a pair of two-bedroom units facing the rear (one roughly 720 square feet, and one about 825 square feet). To maximize space, the building extends right to the property lines on all four sides. This means that there is no common yard of any kind. While three of the units on the second level each have a small deck, the remainder of the building’s condominiums have neither deck nor balcony. And as the roof will be almost entirely covered with electricity-generating PV panels, a rooftop deck is not an option.

Due to the small size of the property, ensuring adequate parking is a challenge. Normally the city would require 28 on-site parking spaces for a building this size. However, because the building lies within one-half mile of transit (Caltrain is less than five blocks away), state law says that the building need only have one parking space for every two bedrooms—lowering the number of required parking spaces to twenty. Then, for a myriad of reasons—because the project is 100% affordable; because it is close to transit, employment, and goods and services; because a Transit Demand Management plan is required; and because parking is “unbundled,” meaning that parking spaces are purchased separately from the condominiums—city staff allowed a further reduction of five spaces, bringing the total number of required parking spaces to fifteen. Fifteen spaces, while not a lot, is still more than can be accommodated on a single parking level of this size. Rather than planning for a second level, the building will employ parking stackers, which are a bit like the lifts some automobile repair facilities use to gain access to a car’s underside. I’m not aware of any car stackers in Redwood City that are easily visible from the street, so I zipped over to San Carlos where I knew of one I could photograph. Although the ones employed by the Habitat project may or may not look just like this, this should give you an idea of what will be going on in 612 Jefferson’s garage:

In the above photo you can see how a second car can be parked below the one on the lift, allowing two cars to occupy a single parking space. Of course, in order to gain access to the upper car, the lower one must not be present, so as you can imagine there will be a lot of jockeying for space going on. In fact, it appears that the situation at 612 Jefferson may be even more complex: the parking will also be in tandem, with one row of cars directly in front of another. I’ll be eager to see the final design and the actual stacker mechanism so that I can better understand just how the parking will work. On paper, though, it looks tricky…

So, the building is a bit of a squeeze, there is almost no outside space, and the parking is going to be a bit of a challenge. But this is a Habitat for Humanity project, one that brings twenty affordable for-sale units to the heart of our thriving downtown. Habitat for Humanity has built 52 homes in Redwood City over the years, and thus is well-positioned to build 612 Jefferson. And although the design is very different from the norm for Habitat, they have a general contractor who will oversee the job and handle the tricky parts. After all, “sweat equity” is all well and good, but some things really should be done by professionals.

Just how does Habitat for Humanity make this project affordable? Qualifying families must have an annual gross income that does not exceed 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) which, for a family of four in San Mateo County, was $98,500 in 2016. Once approved, the homeowner qualifies for a monthly housing payment—mortgage, property tax, insurance, and Homeowner’s Association (HOA) fee—that is 30% of their monthly income. And because Habitat acts as the lender, they can offer generous terms: homeowners pay no money down and are charged zero percent interest.

So here we have a project that has gone through some contortions to fit into the available space, has gone before the city’s Architectural Advisory Committee (twice), the Historic Resources Advisory Committee, and the Planning Commission, the last of which gave the project a unanimous thumbs-up after a lengthy discussion and multiple attempts to alleviate some of the project’s apparent shortcomings. But early on in this post I mentioned that this project touched on the preservation of Redwood City’s downtown history, and in describing the rendering I noted that there is a small historic building to one side of the project site—a building that once served as employee housing for the Hanson Lumber Company.

In fact, this project is in close proximity to three historic resources. First is the previously mentioned building next door at 620 Jefferson, which is currently being used as a law office. Then, there is another historic house (also being used as a law office) directly behind the property, at 611 Middlefield Road. Finally, right next door to 611 Middlefield, on a property that shares one corner with the Habitat project’s site, there is yet another historic home that is listed in the DTPP. Here is a map of the block, with the three historic resources shown in magenta and the Habitat project shown in green.

Of all of the public comment on the project at the Planning Commission meeting, the only real objections were raised from the owners of these historic properties. This is somewhat understandable, given that 611 Middlefield and 620 Jefferson also sit in close proximity to the eight-story 601 Marshall project (the large L-shaped building in the above map). Both would face an eight story building on one side and a six-story building on another. The city’s Architectural Historian ruled in favor of the Habitat project, concluding that “there would not be any adverse effects on the resources since the project does not physically touch or alter the historic resources, and because the historical feeling and setting of the downtown area has changed greatly since the construction of the three historic resources.” But those historic resources are owned by lawyers, and they aren’t happy that they are starting to be boxed in. Based on the public comments they made to the Planning Commission, this project, although approved, appears headed for a lawsuit. So don’t expect 612 Jefferson to break ground any time soon.

It never ceases to amaze me what I can learn just by walking around and by surfing the web. Do it enough, and even without a degree in Urban Planning the process starts to make sense. Well, as much sense as a political process can. And the process can be very entertaining: City Council and Planning Commission meetings are the ultimate reality TV! If you’ve never watched one, consider doing so. These days, especially, we need to be an informed citizenry, and the city’s online recordings of live meetings are a great way to stay informed.

6 thoughts on “Habitats and History

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  4. Greg: i have heard, in more than one place, that 40% of millennial plan to leave the Bay Area do to our incredible housing costs. What will happen to those stack and pack apt buildings then? I’m not sure city council got it right – the millennial I’ve talked to don’t want anything to do with urban one-bedrooms with views of other stack and packs – what will happen if this scenario plays out?

    • Very good question. I’ll be interested to see how many of those 40% actually do leave. And given the high demand for housing we are experiencing, I’m curious to know how many others will simply rush in to fill any vacancies. What this will probably do is cause rents to drop (as I’ve read they are already doing in some areas such as SF). And lower rents will reduce dissatisfaction and bring in people who can’t afford today’s high rents but can afford the lower rates that result. As long as the apartments are willing to lower their rents, they’ll stay occupied. Right now, though, the occupancy rates are extremely high, so it remains to be seen if or when rents will need to be adjusted.
      As for the view, well, indeed there are many people who don’t want to live in a dense urban environment such as downtown Redwood City is becoming. But there are plenty who don’t want to maintain a yard and who don’t spend a lot of time at home; they *like* living downtown where there are people and restaurants within a short walk. Just look at San Francisco, New York, and other high-density urban centers: there are lots of people who love living in that type of environment. As long as we provide both single family homes and multi-family apartments and condos, people can choose whichever suits them best.

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