Mighty Morphin Power Project

Project designs change for a lot of reasons, but most often the changes are relatively small. Adding or subtracting a story or two to a tall building, for instance, or changing the mix of units in a residential project to create additional “family friendly” units with additional bedrooms. Every once in a while, though, a project design is essentially thrown out and completely rethought. That is the case with the 901 El Camino Real (“AutoZone”) project, which, due to some potential changes to its surroundings, has been completely redesigned to accommodate those (not yet approved) changes.

I wrote in some detail about the original design of the 901 El Camino Real project back in April, in my post Zoning Out. That design was dictated in large part by the somewhat odd shape of the parcel upon which it would sit, which I think of as looking something like a pork chop. The site today is home to the AutoZone auto parts store, the long-empty Yumi Yogurt building, and the Carnitas El Rincon taqueria, at the corner of El Camino Real and James Avenue. The shape of the parcel is dictated by the streets surrounding it; in addition to El Camino Real and James Avenue, along the other two sides of the parcel run Winklebleck Street and California Street. Here is an overhead rendering, showing the old proposal as it would have sat on that site:

The mostly triangular-shaped building that is highlighted in the above would have been the project’s main feature, a 7-story, 154,000-square-foot office building. To the right of it, where the taqueria is today, would have been a stand-alone, 4,500-square-foot building that would have served as a teen center. Finally, kitty-corner from the office building — follow the upper tip of the triangle straight up to that parcel disappearing off the top of the rendering — is where a 60-unit affordable housing building would have been built.

That affordable housing building would have been located where A-1 Party Rentals building stands today. However, that parcel in particular has garnered interest from a number of parties. In particular, the project to relocate our Caltrain Station (one block north, just across Broadway) and widen our right-of-way to accommodate four tracks instead of today’s two, would eat into that particular parcel. Thus, it is not an ideal place to be planning a new development, and indeed the plan is to swap that parcel — which is currently owned by the developer of the 901 El Camino Real project — with a piece of the existing Transit Center parking lot, and turning ownership of the A-1 Party Rentals parcel over to the Joint Powers Board (JPB), who run Caltrain.

Swapping these two parcels isn’t the only thing going on in service to the Transit Center redo. In combination with the project to completely redesign Sequoia Station (see my post One of these Days… for more on that), various bits of land would be shuffled around and streets would be realigned. In particular, that maddening intersection of California Avenue and James Avenue — behind the taqueria — would be eliminated. Instead, Winklebleck Street would continue to angle up from El Camino Real as it does today, but would then curve gracefully to the right, ultimately intersecting with James Avenue right about where the entrance to Sequoia Station from James Avenue is today. The developer of the Sequoia Station project then intends to continue that street, there called Franklin Street, straight through the new development and out to where today’s Franklin Street meets Jefferson Avenue. As for California Avenue, it would terminate where it intersects with Winklebleck Street, leaving it only one block long (from Broadway and Winklebleck Street). All of that would result in a more neatly shaped parcel that could accommodate a very different building, as shown here:

In the above, El Camino Real runs across the bottom of the image, while James Avenue and Sequoia Station are shown on the right.

In the previous design of 901 El Camino Real, the office building and teen center were separate structures, separated by an open public plaza that would be dubbed (and appropriately decorated) “Chrysanthemum Plaza” to celebrate the time, around 1926, when Redwood City was known as the Chrysanthemum Capital of the World. In the new design, the teen center has been mostly absorbed into the main building, and a significantly larger (15,000 square feet, vs. the prior 4,500 square feet) plaza is now located on the back side of the building, where Winklebleck Street curves.

Here is what that plaza (and the teen center, which is where those wide steps and the two-story portion of the building sticks out) might look like, based on a rendering supplied by the developer:

Just as the plaza is bigger in the proposed new design, so, too, are all of the other elements. The office component of the project, for instance, would grow from 154,000 square feet to 259,000 square feet, a 68% increase. However, because there is so much more room for the building to occupy on this new parcel, it would actually lose one story, dropping from seven stories to six [update 9/15/21: although the number of stories has been reduced, the building’s height may not have changed; from the City Council review on 9/13/21 it appears that the building height will remain near the DTPP maximum for this area, which is 92 feet]. Oh, and the building, which before was entirely office space, would gain a small amount of retail space as well: some 3,000 square feet.

The teen center would grow even more, from 4,500 square feet to 8,000 square feet, a 76% increase. As for the affordable housing building, it would grow commensurate with the office building. In the old design, it was planned to have 60 apartments. The new design (in a new location) would contain 100 affordable apartments.

Here is a rendering showing the old project design as viewed from across the intersection of El Camino Real and James Avenue:

And here is a rendering of the new design, also from that same vantage point:

In both renderings, Sequoia Station is just off the right edge of the image, and Sequoia High School is just off the left edge. Note how in the new design the main building (now the only building on the site) extends all the way to James Avenue. The teen center is located in the portion of the building colored red and yellow, and would, as before, have two floors [9/15/21 update: it isn’t clear if it is two stories or just one: the renderings, upon which I based the original post, seem to show two stories, but in reality it may only be just one]. As for the retail space, it would not actually be located on either of these two faces of the building, but instead would be in the back, at the intersection of California Street and Winklebleck Street. It would open onto Chrysanthemum Plaza, making it ideal for an eatery of some sort. [9/15/21 update: there may be two retail spaces, one at the corner, and one midway between Winklebleck Street and James Avenue; together they would total 3,000 square feet.]

Finally, the affordable housing building would no longer, as I said, be located near the office building/teen center. Instead, it would be constructed on a parcel that the developer has acquired at the corner of Shasta and Buckeye streets, at 920 Shasta St. Today it is the site of a mini-storage facility. Across Shasta Street are a couple of low light-industrial buildings, whereas across Buckeye Street are a number of single-family homes. The Caltrain tracks form one other side of the parcel, whereas Woodside Road (elevated here to get over the tracks) forms the remaining side.

What the developer — actually, HIP Housing, using funds provided by the developer, I believe — plans to build and manage appears to be four stories of housing above a ground-level “podium” containing the building’s garage, lobby, and a community room. The building would be U-shaped, wrapping around a resident’s courtyard that would contain a children’s play area (that courtyard and play area would be built on top of the podium level). The apartments would range in size from one to four bedrooms, “to accommodate a wide range of Redwood City Families.”

Although the basic elements — office building, teen center, public plaza, and affordable housing building — remain, each individual element of this project has morphed rather substantially, all in response to a land swap that would enable not only a new, more functional Transit Center, but also a massively reworked Sequoia Station. While there will undoubtedly be some pushback on the increase in size of the office component of the project, I suspect that few will object to the larger public plaza, larger teen center, and larger affordable housing component. That last is especially important, given Redwood City’s desperate need for more affordable housing. And HIP Housing has proven itself to be a reliable provider of such housing, and a good partner with a number of Bay Area cities, so including them in this project is a good indicator that the affordable housing building will not be an afterthought.

On October 12, 2020, the Redwood City Council initiated a General Plan Amendment to accommodate the earlier version of this project. Given the rather drastic changes that have been made to the project since then, next Monday, September 13, the City Council will consider “re-initiating” the General Plan Amendment based upon the project’s new configuration. That meeting, which will begin at 6 pm., should be an interesting one; I certainly will be watching with interest not only to see if the re-initiation is approved, but how each of the councilmembers feel about the project’s new design.

6 thoughts on “Mighty Morphin Power Project

  1. Pingback: Affordable Living | Walking Redwood City

  2. Sorry I got to reading this too late for any comment to Council but it is offensive where the affordable housing component gets placed! Anyone you know wish to live there- ON the tracks, across from a continuous problematic homeless encampment and under the noise of Woodside Road overpass!!??
    I do like the new rendering of the Auto Zone property better- all of the components except the location of the affordable housing site!

    Thanks for keeping us informed 🙂

    • @Merrily: The nearest edge of the Shasta Street site is 230 feet from the tracks, and so the rest of it is even further to the west. Lots of very nice market rate housing has been and will be built much closer all along the soon to be fully green electricity-powered Caltrain line than this. And the great news is that the Shasta site plan includes 100 (40 additional!) subsidized (aka “affordable”) housing units (including some with 4 bedrooms for larger families).

      • YES! Adrian I love the generosity to add 40 more units!! The trains are not really the issue-have you ever been to this location- you wouldn’t live there or go out at night!!

      • @Merrily, yes I worked that area as US Census Bureau non-response followup (NRFU) enumerator. And as was discussed at the council meeting, that whole area will be quite different and much nicer with the multi-block South Main mixed use project also being built by the time these 100 (or possibly more if they reduce the 4BR units) replace the mini-storage facility (which really doesn’t belong in such a great and walkable central infill development area so convenient to so many amenities and transit).

  3. Good stuff, I hadn’t noticed they had updated this proposal. Quite the change. Like a lot of people I do wonder how WFH is going to affect these larger office proposals. Office vacancy isn’t looking so great at the moment. The longer WFH continues the more difficult it’s going to be to get workers back in the office.

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