A Happy Medium

In Redwood City, a lot of the talk around housing is either about low-density housing (single family homes) or high-density housing (multi-unit condominium or apartment buildings). We usually hear very little about the third option, medium-density housing. Medium-density housing includes duplexes and triplexes (and fourplexes, I guess), plus the subject of this week’s post: townhouses. Walking around Redwood City (and San Carlos and North Fair Oaks and Menlo Park, for that matter) I see some, but not a lot of townhouses. There are a few, with perhaps the largest set being the One Marina Homes community on the east side of Highway 101: that complex consists of 250 or so condominiums, all of which are, I believe, townhouses.

Just so we’re clear, I’m defining a townhouse as a multi-story attached dwelling with a small footprint and an entry door that opens to the outside. The term townhouse refers to an architectural style, so you could have a townhouse-style for-rent apartment. However, here in the United States townhouses are typically for-sale condominiums in which you own your unit but pay dues to an association to support the maintenance of the complex’s common areas (and, often, your building’s exterior). Because townhouses have a small footprint (that is, an individual unit actually takes up very little land), they make more sense than single-family homes from a cost standpoint in areas like ours where land is very expensive. But of course being part of a condominium or apartment complex, townhouses typically don’t have much, if any, dedicated yard space.

If you are OK with stairs — townhouses typically don’t have elevators, and because by definition they consist of multiple levels, they have at least one set of stairs — they can be really nice places to live. My wife and I, in fact, bought a townhouse in Fremont as our “starter home”; after many months of fruitlessly looking for a single family home that we could afford, we discovered that we could buy a brand-new townhouse for less than any of the single-family homes at which we had been looking. And what we got was terrific: an 1,800-square-foot, three bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom unit over a huge garage that had plenty of room for two cars, a workshop, and lots of storage. At the time we were relatively young and didn’t have kids (our first was born while we were living there), so the stairs weren’t an issue. Our unit had the garage on the bottom; the living room, dining room, kitchen, and half bath on the next floor; and three bedrooms and two full bathrooms on the top floor. We spent a number of happy years in that place. Once our first child was born, though, it was back to looking for single-family homes, since we wanted to raise our family in a house with a private yard. Indeed, that is what brought us to Redwood City.

Until recently most of the residential development in Redwood City came either in the form of single-family homes, or as monolithic apartment buildings. In June 2015 the Planning Commission approved “The Towns @ Avondale,” a 12-unit townhouse development at 150 El Camino Real (near the city’s northern border, and across Avondale Avenue from KFC). Next, Redwood City saw the development of “Classics at Centennial Place,” an 18-unit townhouse complex near the corner of Brewster Avenue and Warren Street. Since then, the following townhouse projects have been approved or proposed:

  • Link 33, the 33-unit townhouse complex to replace our Honda dealership at 601 El Camino Real, was approved in October of 2017.
  • California Communities – Harrison Avenue, a 17-unit townhouse complex at the corner of Harrison Avenue and Cleveland Street, was approved in June of 2018
  • Vera Avenue Townhomes, a 10-unit townhouse complex at 211 Vera Ave., was approved in December of 2018
  • 120 El Camino Real, a 12-unit townhouse complex right next door to The Towns @ Avondale (and replacing our dilapidated and long-empty Mountain Mike’s pizza restaurant), was approved in April of 2019
  • 31 Center St, a seven-unit townhouse complex, was approved in September of 2019
  • 505 E. Bayshore, a 60-unit townhouse complex on the east side of Highway 101, was proposed (but has not yet been approved) back in June of 2019
  • 847 Woodside Road, a 44-unit condo complex consisting of a mix of single-story condominiums and townhomes, was just this week proposed for the site where, until the beginning of this year, the Redwood Chapel funeral home once operated

I’ve toured both The Towns @ Avondale and Classics at Centennial Place, and both are high-end developments, with quality construction and high-end fixtures and appliances. I felt very comfortable with the units at The Towns @ Avondale, and except for the fact that I can see a future where I won’t want to have to negotiate stairs, I could very much picture my wife and I living there. As for Classics at Centennial Place, those units pushed the formula a bit too much for my liking: they had three floors of living space above an underground garage, meaning that depending upon which level your bedroom is located, you could be going up and down a lot of stairs every day. On the plus side, though, they seemed nicely built, and are within a very easy walk of downtown Redwood City.

As for Link 33, that development is coming along slowly. The two largest of the complex’s five buildings having been completed, framing is underway on two more, and the fifth building just had its foundation poured. Here is a picture I took early this week, showing the two completed buildings partly surrounding the ones underway:

The units in the two completed buildings are for sale while construction continues, but I have yet to see any signs that any of those units have been sold. The floor plans of these units, incidentally, are a bit unusual; I wrote a bit about them back in May, in my post Mayday!.

As opposed to the Link 33 development, which has been plodding along, once the crews over on Harrison Avenue got started, they’ve been zipping right along, even working as much as they legally could during the various COVID-related shutdowns. This project was approved some eight months after Link 33 was, but from what I can tell it will be done well before Link 33:

In a way, this project is benefiting from COVID-19: it is located right across the street from two of Redwood City’s middle schools (North Star Academy and McKinley Institute of Technology) and is one block from Sequoia High School. If our community’s kids were back on campus as they normally would be this time of year, the resulting traffic would certainly have impacted this development — and the construction noise from the development would likely have impacted the schools. As it turns out, though, construction continues full steam ahead.

Work on the Vera Avenue Townhomes project is going in fits and starts. Demolition happened fairly early on, and then the lot sat empty for a year or so. Next, crews leveled out the soil, put in some utility piping, and piled up a whole lot of dirt on the site. For the last month or so, though, I haven’t really seen much activity. Go by right now and the site looks something like this:

Over at 120 El Camino Real, although the project was approved back in April 2019, there has been no on-site activity at all. The moldering Mountain Mike’s building just sits there, seemingly untouched by human hands. Fortunately, it appears that the developer has simply been getting their ducks in a row. As of August 12 they seem to have obtained the needed building permits, so I expect that we might see some movement on this project soon. Then we’ll be able to say “goodbye” to what has become a real eyesore:

(The above picture is from about 18 months ago; the building doesn’t look nearly this nice now…)

As for the project at 31 Center St., it received city approval almost exactly one year ago, but I don’t see any building permits as having been applied for, much less approved. That explains why the single-family home that is currently on the lot remains untouched:

I’ve written about the 505 E. Bayshore project before (see Along East Bayshore), but in sum this is a proposal for 60 townhomes (9 of which would be affordable at the Moderate income level) on the 2.5-acre industrial site where Alan Steel operates today (think Whipple Avenue, but just over the freeway). Unlike the other projects I’m discussing here, the nature of this project’s site would require an amendment to the city’s General Plan before this project could be approved. Thus, it is counted among the city’s so-called “Gatekeeper Process” projects that are guiding the city’s study of possible changes to the General Plan.

Last, but not least, we come to 847 Woodside Road. This is a brand-new project proposal, and if history is any guide it’ll be many months before this project is approved, if it ever is. The proposal is for 44 condominiums, a number of which, as I noted, could probably be considered townhomes.

To start, here is what the site looks like today:

For a long time this was a funeral home, but it closed around the end of last year. Not long after it closed, a temporary sign was erected that, if you look closely, announces that this is the “future home of Kairos Church.” This week when I went by work was clearly underway to spruce up the place and perhaps change the building’s image just a bit. Although I couldn’t tell what, if anything, was going on inside the building, the exterior was definitely getting painted.

Presumably the church doesn’t have a long-term lease on the place, given that a developer is proposing to tear down the building and erect their proposed 44-unit condo complex on the site. That complex, if built as proposed, would give the site a very different look:

In the lower right corner you can see the entrance to the building’s parking garage, which would take up the lion’s share of the ground floor. Not all of it, though; if you look closely along the ground level towards the left side of the picture (click the image for a version you can zoom in on), you just might be able to make out the entrances to the building’s 2,500 square feet of commercial space. Presumably that commercial space could be leased to a single tenant, or split into multiple (two?) spaces for retail stores or possibly for a restaurant.

Above the ground floor are the living spaces. They look townhouse-like from the street, but there’s a twist: the building’s second floor (just above the garage) consists entirely of single-story condos. Above them, then, are the two-story “townhouses.” While these townhouses don’t have a visible entry on the front, and thus may not quite fit my definition, they do have entry doors that open to the outside — to an exterior hallway that runs along the back side of the third floor of the buildings you can see here.

The complex’s 17 single-story condos are all two-bedroom two-bathroom units with either patios or balconies, and range in size from 1,150-1,280 square feet. Three of these units would be affordable at the Moderate income level. As for the townhouse-style units, the complex has 27 of those. Seven are two-bedroom, two-bathroom units, while the remaining twenty are three-bedroom, three-bathroom townhouse-style condos. These townhouses range from 1,300 square feet to 1,650 square feet in size. Four of the townhouses — all three-bedroom units, incidentally — would be made affordable at the Moderate income level.

There is a lot to recommend this development, although one aspect in particular would turn me off: the parking garage. The building’s ground-level garage has been designed with 100 parking spaces, 10 of which would be reserved for the commercial spaces. One other space — just one — is for guest parking (for the whole building!). And one is designated as a common EV space, which implies that none of the other spaces are going to be EV ready. Then, the remaining 88 parking spaces — all of which are for the building’s residents — are unassigned, meaning that buying one of the residential units doesn’t guarantee you a particular (or, possibly, any at all) parking space. Considering that of those 88 parking spaces 23 of them are in tandem (meaning that cars are parked nose-to-tail, with one of the cars being blocked by another), I’m predicting parking chaos in this building. Parking is always tricky, and squeezing in enough parking in buildings like this can be a challenge, but it has to be practical, too. Eighty-eight residential parking spaces less the 23 tandem spaces leaves 65 spaces that are always accessible; I would think that at a minimum each unit should get one of those. And residents should be able to have a reserved spot, so that they know that when they come home from work they’ll always have a space in which to park. As for the tandem spaces, those, too, should be assigned in conjunction with the parking spaces that block them in — but of course should only be assigned (or, more likely sold) to residents who will actually use them.

I’m looking forward to this project going before the Planning Commission and/or the City Council; the discussion around the project’s parking, in particular, should be fascinating. Although truthfully I wonder if it’ll get that far, since the city may well nudge the developer towards changing that particular aspect of the project prior to any public hearings. But I do like the idea of adding 44 new units to the city’s stock of ownership housing, and I really like that seven of the units will be affordable, albeit only at the Moderate level.

Redwood City has a couple of other (non-townhouse-style) condominium projects in the works, including a ten-unit condominium building now under construction at 910 Woodside Road (where Thaibodia Bistro formerly stood). But as you can see, just a couple of short years ago someone opened the floodgates and has unleashed upon Redwood City veritable cataclysm of townhouse-style condominium projects. And unlike most floods, this one is not a bad thing! These projects are filling a very visible (to my eye, at least) hole in Redwood City’s housing stock: its dearth of medium-density ownership housing.

2 thoughts on “A Happy Medium

  1. Great write up, I didn’t know about that proposal on Woodside Rd. The house at 31 Center St is currently/was recently on the market. They are basically selling it as a fully entitled project.

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