I have a confession to make. Those really hot days we had a week or so ago? The ash raining from the sky, and the really smoky days? Yeah, I missed most of that. I’m back now, but entirely by coincidence my wife and I took a trip up to the Pacific Northwest just after the really hot weather set in, and just before the fires started. So although we kept a close eye on everything going on here in Redwood City while we were away, we didn’t have to personally experience most of it. In particular, I didn’t have to take my weekly walks in it, about which I’m glad: I’m not great in the heat, and that smoke would of course do bad things to my lungs. But I acknowledge how lucky I am: the poor folks who have lost (or are losing) their homes to these terrible wildfires truly deserve our sympathy and whatever help we can give them. And look for me to be out there on foot again next week.
You probably don’t need me to recommend taking a vacation, but in these challenging times I know how difficult travel can be. In our case, we were heading to Portland, which is only about a ten-hour drive from Redwood City (with no traffic). By driving, we of course were able to skip all of the hassle and worries that comes from other forms of travel, such as flying. And because the distance wasn’t so great, we were able to do the drive in one shot, without having to stop and spend the night along the way. We left around 7 a.m., having had breakfast before we set out. We had packed a lunch, which we ate along the way — eliminating yet another reason to have to stop and interact with anyone.
We did have to stop for gas, of course. My car has good range — it can manage close to 600 miles of easy freeway driving — but door-to-door our trip was 660 miles. Although we were basically on the interstate the whole time, there are a number of mountains to surmount along the way, and those cut into my mileage. I had made sure to top the car off the day before we left, so we only had to stop once for gas. If I’d really given it some thought I would have filled up in Yreka, just before crossing into Oregon, since Oregon does not do self-service. (If you didn’t know this, it’s a wonder to behold — they pump your gas for you up there!) Normally that’d be fine, but I would have been happy not to have to interact with the station attendant, who, as it turns out, was not wearing a mask.
Other than stops to change drivers, or simply to stretch our legs, there of course was only one other reason for us to stop: to use the bathroom. Normally my wife and I are OK with using rest stop toilets, or even toilets in gas stations or fast-food restaurants. But we aren’t living in normal times. Fortunately, some time ago we came up with a cheap and simple solution: bring a toilet with us! I did some research into camping toilets, and almost pulled the trigger on a flushable unit designed for small RVs and tent camping. But everyone and his brother apparently had the same idea, since they were backordered wherever I looked. It then occurred to me to drop by Redwood Trading Post, who had what turned out to be the perfect solution. Simple, cheap, and remarkably functional:
If you are thinking that that looks like a 5-gallon bucket with a toilet seat attached to it, well, you’re right! The basic unit runs about $25, but you can save even more if you provide your own bucket. The seat and lid (which snaps closed to help block odors) can be purchased separately, but as you can see I bought the set. I also bought some of their specially designed liner bags, although you really don’t need those; almost any plastic bags will do. The salesman made what turned out to be a terrific suggestion: pour some kitty litter into the bucket. It absorbs the liquids and takes care of the odor (no surprise, given that that is what it is designed to do). Oh, and, note that this thing is an ideal addition to your disaster kit (which, prompted by the fires, you should be thinking about if you haven’t already).
My car has four doors, and I found that by opening both doors on one side and placing the bucket on the ground between them, my car acts like a 3-sided stall. A blanket spanned the open side and also helped blocked the door windows, preventing any chance of being seen. Although that chance was pretty minimal, given that whenever we needed to use our “luggable loo” we exited the freeway and found a quiet farm road where we wouldn’t disturb anyone (and where we wouldn’t be disturbed). Armed with a roll of toilet paper, wipes, and sanitizing liquid, I can personally attest to its efficacy. Indeed, it worked so well that I don’t think we’ll be taking any future driving trips without it, Coronavirus or no.
In a future blog post I’ll write more about Portland itself; Redwood City could learn a lot, good and bad, from Portland. For those who are wondering, we saw no evidence at all of the protests: they certainly are happening, but in a very limited part of the city, and only at night. We did see some rather amazing homeless encampments, though. Affordable housing is a big issue in Portland, more so than in many west coast cities. Portland is experimenting with some innovative solutions, perhaps none more radical than their latest: they have essentially eliminated single-family zoning throughout the city. This means that almost any residential lot is now allowed to have up to four homes on it. They’ve also removed all parking mandates for most residential properties, essentially making driveways optional.
Of course, just because the law was passed doesn’t mean that change will happen overnight. But cities like Redwood City that are struggling to provide enough housing that the average person can actually afford will undoubtedly be watching Portland closely, to see how this radical experiment in urban planning works out.
Redwood City hasn’t gone nearly as far as Portland, of course — no one else has, yet — but one step it took some time ago was to erase or ease many of the restrictions that previously stood in the way of Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs. Currently the city is actively encouraging homeowners to add either attached or detached ADUs to their properties as a way to generate high-quality, but inexpensive, housing for seniors, for extended family, or for renters who cannot afford the cost of our area’s rental homes and apartments. Five years ago I wrote about a newcomer to Redwood City: a showroom for Blu Homes, who constructs high-end prefab homes. Although Blu Homes seemed mainly focused on full-sized homes, they did have one small unit that seemed perfect for a freestanding backyard ADU. My wife and I briefly considered having one put into our backyard, but the particulars of Blu Homes’ unit, along with some of the logistical details, caused us to nix the idea.
Blu Homes’s small unit may not have worked for us, but we’ve continued to consider the idea; our backyard should be able to accommodate an ADU, and we like the idea of being able to provide an affordable place for someone to live. And now, it seems, Redwood City has a new contender: Abodu.
Abodu has moved into the old Airport Appliance building at 2424 El Camino Real, between Woodside Road and Center Street (across from the Target shopping center). This building:
Although I have yet to actually go inside and speak with any company representatives, I can tell you that this is their showroom — and that the above building contains not one but two complete Abodu homes. Explore their website and you’ll find that you can do a virtual walk-through of some of their units. When you do, you can clearly tell that they’ve got an “Abodu Studio” (335 square feet) and an “Abodu One” (one bedroom, 500 square feet) inside this showroom. (They also make a two-bedroom home; it is simply an Abodu One with a second bedroom, identical to the first, tacked on.)
From the virtual walk-through and from the description of the units on their website, these appear to be neat little living spaces. Abodu seems to be using high-end appliances in the kitchens and quality materials throughout. My wife and I are considering the Abodu Studio; at 12 feet wide and 28 feet long, I can picture it in our backyard — but we’ll measure it this weekend to be sure. At $189,000 (to start), although not cheap, it’ll likely improve the value of our property by at least that, so all we would lose is some backyard space. Finally, we’d rent it out, providing us with a small source of additional income.
While there’s no guarantee that we’ll actually go through with putting one of these in our backyard, I plan to talk to the folks at Abodu and will give their offering some serious consideration. If you are a homeowner who is even idly thinking about putting an ADU in your backyard, I recommend that you at least spend a little time on their website. Theirs could truly turn out to be a hassle-free solution to any number of housing issues.
Speaking of different forms of living, our trip to Portland meant that I hadn’t been down to Menlo Park in a while (my wife and I go there each Friday morning to drive a regular Meals on Wheels route). Thus, it’s been a while since I had gone by the site of the new Sunrise Senior Living Center, on El Camino Real in North Fair Oaks (technically their address is 1 E. Selby Ln., but a large part of this project sits along El Camino Real). Driving by this morning, I was impressed by how much progress they’ve made over the last handful of weeks:
This building sits upon a large multi-level underground parking garage. A huge amount of work had to go into excavating the space for that garage and then building the garage itself before what you see above could be built. That meant that there was lots of onsite activity, but little visible progress, for quite some time. Once the garage had been completed, though, they had a nice level concrete platform upon which to build the 90-unit senior apartment complex. Since then, the building has gone up quickly.
The El Camino Real side of the building (El Camino Real is along the left edge of the picture) will be three stories tall. As you can see, the building has already topped out. Further along E. Selby Lane (the street extending towards the right edge of the picture) the building will only be two stories tall — again, a height that the building has already achieved. I wandered around to the back of the property, along Markham Avenue, and took a picture of that side of the building:
It’s a little hard to see the building through the trees, but then again, kudos to the developer for preserving so many trees.
At the pace the developer is going, windows will be going in soon, followed by exterior finishes. This building still has many months of construction ahead of it — it will take a fair amount of work to outfit 90 apartments, not to mention the common areas, the commercial kitchen, and any other specialized spaces needed by an assisted living facility — but its exciting to see a project like this move along so smoothly and well. Facilities of this type are badly needed in our area, so in my book they cannot finish too soon.
I really enjoyed this one! It’s nice to see that there’s beginning to be a market for higher-end prefab. Increasing density means we can have closer amenities and fewer car trips! I’m interested in the idea of Accessory Commercial Units as well: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2020/8/15/accessory-commercial-units
Looking forward to your thoughts on Portland and more on zoning!
Thanks for the compliment, and thanks very much for the link – that’s an interesting idea that I had not seen before. ACU’s are something I need to give some thought to.
You’ve really outdone yourself. From travel tips to personal hygiene to ADUs to housing for seniors, it’s nice to have you back in town, safe and sound. Thanks Greg.