The mixed-use development known as Firehouse Square is one step away from being approved in Belmont, but one councilmember wants to see project plans altered such that the proposed retail space is replaced with additional homes.
The proposal at 1300 El Camino Real includes 66 affordable units, 15 market-rate townhomes and 3,700 square feet of ground-level retail at the corner of O’Neill Avenue and El Camino Real. The proposal includes 47 parking spots, but no dedicated retail parking. At a meeting Tuesday, Councilman Doug Kim argued that retail will struggle there in part because of the absence of dedicated parking.
“It’s only 3,700 square feet and you don’t have the ability to work with different kinds of uses like you do with larger spaces,” Kim said. “It’s going to be expensive to lease out, the capital improvements will be on the dime of the tenants and I think it’s going to be even harder to lease out because it’s coming with no parking and that I think strikes a big blow to any kind of restaurant if you’re able to get that and any other type of retail uses.”
Kim went on to make the case for instead putting an additional five apartments where the ground-floor retail is currently proposed, adding that affordable housing is “the number one priority for all of us.”
“If I told you you could take that project, which we’re heavily subsidizing with the city, and you could build five more affordable units in there under a 70-year ground lease for no additional cost to the city and if I told you that that conversion would reduce the parking burden for the project, it would produce 20% of the traffic of the commercial retail and would add 9% more housing to a project that we all believe is our showcase project, our opportunity to put our own property under a 70-year ground lease and provide housing to five families for 10 to 15 people, two generations over 70 years I think it’s something we ought to seriously make happen,” he said.
It is unknown how long the project may be delayed if the retail is converted to housing. It is also unknown if that conversion will come at an additional cost to the city. Nonprofit developer MidPen Housing, which is responsible for the affordable housing part of the project, did not respond to Kim’s proposal during the meeting.
The project site has been vacant for nearly 20 years and longtime Councilman Warren Lieberman said there have been three to four failed initiatives on the property during that time. Developer Sares Regis signed an exclusive negotiating agreement with the city in 2013 that was delayed multiple times before MidPen was brought on as a partner.
Kim acknowledged that many are frustrated with the slow-moving process, but felt an additional two months of waiting time would be well worth the additional housing.
His colleagues, on the other hand, seemed eager to approve the project as soon as possible.
“The journey to here took way too long, way too long and I don’t want it to take any extra time,” said Councilman Charles Stone. “When I was elected, I thought we’d have a shovel in the dirt in 2014. Silly me I hadn’t realized how daunting the project was. Then I thought we’d get there in 2015 and a couple of times along the way I voted no on extending the [exclusive negotiating agreement] because I had lost hope that we would get here.”
The MidPen portion of the development includes a mix of studios as well as one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom units reserved for those earning between 30% and 80% of area median income, or $30,800 to $82,200 a year. Residents will be chosen by a lottery system and preference will be given to those who live and work in Belmont.
Councilmembers celebrated the affordable housing and just about every aspect of the project except for one proposal to reconfigure the parking lot along Fifth Avenue so that cars will have to back into parking spaces, what’s called reversed-in angled parking. Such a configuration is meant to improve safety for cyclists because drivers would ostensibly be able to see better when exiting a parking space but it will also mean 16 existing parking spaces will be eliminated.
Councilwoman Julia Mates and Mayor Davina Hurt said they were leaning toward preserving the 16 parking spaces.
The council unanimously approved the environmental requirements for the project at the Tuesday meeting. Firehouse Square will be up for final approval at the council’s June 11 meeting and Kim said he will elaborate on his proposal to replace the retail space with homes at the meeting.
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