High-Rise Surprise

In my last blog post I wrote “very soon — perhaps as early as this week — I expect to see cars starting to fill up the lot” at the new location for Redwood City Infiniti at the corner of El Camino Real and Whipple Avenue. That has come to pass: I walked by the dealership on Wednesday and indeed the lot is starting to fill with cars (so far, used cars):

Also in that post I noted that the Chick-fil-A on Whipple Avenue near Veterans Boulevard was likely to be open very, very soon. Right again! Their drive-thru is open (but dine-in service is temporarily closed).

Finally, in one last bit of follow-up to that same post, multiple people mentioned that the old Aaron Brother’s building, which I had noted was seemingly being refurbished for a new tenant, will be the new home of our own Chain Reaction Bicycles. I have yet to speak with the good folks over at Chain Reaction, but I presume that they’ll be moving from their current, nearby location to this new one, and not simply expanding. Either way, though, look for them in their new location soon.

Getting back to how I started this post, the reason I was walking in the vicinity of Redwood City Infiniti was not really because of that dealership, but because I wanted to take more photos of the property just behind the dealership, on Arguello Street:

I wrote about this site back in April of 2019, in my post (Between) Road and Track. Back then I wrote about the newly proposed 68-unit townhouse-style condominium project that was planned for a couple of parcels occupied primarily by A-1 Rental Center (who has moved to another location within Redwood City). As proposed the project seemed fairly attractive. But the developer seemingly never completed their application to the city, something that’s required in order for a project to go before the Planning Commission and/or the City Council.

With that project still in the “application incomplete” stage, just recently things took a surprising twist: the project proposal was replaced by an entirely different one, from a different developer, aimed at this same site.

This rendering, from one of the documents submitted as part of the project’s “pre-application,” is probably as good as any to give you an idea of this project’s makeup:

From left to right there are two four-story, 60-foot-high office buildings tied together by a full-height connector to facilitate the flow of people between the two buildings. In front of one office building (visible at the left edge of the rendering) is a one-story brick structure that contains the office’s “amenity space”; it appears that they want to try to preserve some of the old A-1 Rental Center building for this use.

Moving to the right there is a six-story residential building, also 60 feet tall. This building would actually face onto Whipple Avenue, and would sit right where the fence is in the following picture:

I took the above picture while standing on the sidewalk on Whipple Avenue, looking into the subject property from the side.

The residential building would contain 70 apartments or condos (which, is still to be determined), all of which would be affordable at as-yet unspecified levels. The housing units would range in size from studios to two-bedroom units, and would be located on floors two through six; parking for this building would be located on the ground floor, rather than below ground. Note that entrance to this parking garage would be from Arguello Street; although the building’s main lobby would face onto Whipple Avenue, cars would not be entering or exiting from that street.

In the original project the two historic houses located at the corner of Whipple Avenue and Arguello Street were not included; they were on parcels that were not controlled by the developer. They would be incorporated in this new proposal, however. If you look back at the rendering you can just make out these two houses peeking out from behind the large number of new street trees that would be planted as part of this project: the developer wants to preserve them mostly as-is, connecting the two with an enclosed hallway to create a single indoor space that can be used as an on-site childcare center that will accommodate 30 children.

Those are the basics: a pair of connected office buildings, an affordable residential building, and a childcare center, plus garage parking. As always, though, the devil is in the details.

First off, these office buildings are pretty large. Including the “amenity spaces” they would be just over 300,000 square feet in size. Although only four stories, they would be the same height — 60 feet — as the six-story residential building. This of course is quite a bit taller than anything else in the immediate area. Directly across Arguello Street, for instance, is a large part of the Centennial neighborhood’s residential area:

Arguello is a wide street, though, and everything on the project side of the street from Whipple Avenue to Brewster is developed with retail and light industrial buildings (even the two on-site historic houses are being used as commercial spaces). So in general there is nothing really wrong with having office buildings in this spot.

For such large buildings, they have a surprising secret: the developer hopes to build them using mass timber construction. Basically, that means that the buildings — in particular, their floors, walls, and structural members — would be made out of laminated wood, rather than steel and/or concrete. This type of construction was only approved for use in California about four years ago, but it is starting to take off elsewhere in the country. In particular, Portland, Oregon is starting to see buildings being constructed using this method.

Buildings whose primary components are made from wood are, counterintuitively, pretty fire-resistant. So, with fire pretty much off the table, what does mass timber construction get you? Well, for one thing, it can be a lot quicker to build a building using this technique. Prefab panels are built off-site, allowing the building to be assembled quickly. And wood has a high strength-to-weight ratio, meaning that the building can be significantly lighter (reducing the size of the foundation, among other things) while still remaining strong; mass timber buildings fare well during earthquakes. Then, of course, there is the aesthetic aspect: wood is a beautiful material, and can greatly enhance the building’s appearance, both inside and out, when left exposed. It is too early to know just what the wood portions of these buildings would actually look like, but their interiors could look something like the following, which the developer helpfully included in one of the project documents as a way to spark the imagination:

From the outside, from the outside, a mass timber building might look something like this other picture from that same document (that also doesn’t purport to show the actual project; these are just to illustrate the results of this building technique):

As the developer notes, their project would be “the first project in Redwood City to seek approval of an eco-friendly mass timber building, which will be a sustainable alternative to typical steel and concrete construction.” Whatever the final project looks like, count me in for mass timber buildings…

Like many projects, things get interesting when you do a little digging — literally. I mentioned that the office buildings sit above a two-level underground garage (which you access via a driveway off Arguello Street near the southern end of the property). In Redwood City, an ordinary 300,000 square foot office building would be required to have just over 1,000 parking spaces. This garage, on the other hand, only has about 600. Why the discrepancy? Well, it turns out that if a project includes “community benefits,” it is allowed to take certain liberties. A reduction in the amount of parking is one such liberty, as is an increase in the building’s height (normally, a building on this site would be restricted to 40 feet). The residential building similarly benefits. For these 70 housing units the building is normally required to provide 133 parking spaces. This building? It has only 37 — and mechanical stackers are needed even for those.

So just what are those benefits that this project would provide to the community? As in, what do we citizens get out of it? Well, the residential building itself is one: affordable housing is a very welcome community benefit. Another is the childcare center. Presumably it will be open to all, so it wouldn’t just be a benefit for those living or working in this new development.

Perhaps on a somewhat smaller scale, but nevertheless important, is the fact that the developer is proposing that they plant street trees. A lot of street trees. They intend to plant trees every 25 feet (excepting where there are driveways or streets) on the project side of Arguello Street from Whipple Avenue all the way to Brewster Avenue, and, it appears, along Whipple Avenue from Arguello Street to the Caltrain tracks.

The developer is also planning to install some “traffic calming measures,” although what those are and where they would be located has yet to be specified. Presumably they would be determined once the necessary traffic studies for the project have been done.

One final community benefit deserves special mention. I’m sure many of you have noted the dirt lot at the corner of Arguello Street and Brewster Avenue, next to the small market/liquor store:

Although this lot is not part of the project site, and is in fact about a block or so from it, the developer proposes to redevelop this lot as a small community “parklet.” Here is a plan of what that park could look like:

That large round thing in the middle is a mound that kids can climb on. To the left are some swings, and along the back, just in front of the trees, are a number of benches. Of course, this is a very preliminary plan; if the project is approved and if the park is part of that project, the real plan, and thus the real park, may look nothing like the above. But it gives you some idea of what the developer is thinking: a small, safely fenced kid’s play park that the whole community can use.

Clearly, there are aspects of this project to like, or even to love. The parking has me somewhat hesitant, but given how little of the parking in some of our downtown buildings seems to be utilized, I could be convinced (although COVID-19 is throwing Caltrain for a loop; if people don’t eventually go back to riding the train [assuming we still have one] once the virus is no longer such a concern, all bets are off). Although this project is mixed-use, with both office and housing, the two are by no means balanced: 300,000 square feet of office space equates very roughly to 1,500 employees, which is far, far more than could be housed in the residential building. So this project in itself won’t help, but will in fact worsen, our jobs/housing imbalance.

To their credit, the developer has put up this proposal as a “pre-application”; it may well be far from the final project that will go before the appropriate city agencies. Think of it as something of a straw man that is being used to start the conversation around just what should go on this site. Those of us with opinions should keep our eyes open for opportunities to supply feedback (if I hear of any such opportunities, I’ll let you know) and respond accordingly. This just might turn out to be the type of community-driven process that brings us to projects that we residents can be as proud of as the developers are themselves. Wouldn’t that be a nice change?