Los Altos: Five-story downtown development officially moves forward after year-long legal battle

LOS ALTOS — A five-story downtown housing project that has
been stuck in a legal battle with the city for over a year can move
forward after the council on Thursday unanimously voted to rescind
its denial of the project and pay nearly half a million dollars in
legal fees.

The go-ahead from the city council comes after a year-long
struggle stemming from a lawsuit filed by the YIMBY-backed
California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund. The group,
otherwise known as CaRLA, sued the city of Los Altos in July 2019
after officials rejected the developer’s bid to expedite a
project of 15 apartments — including two low-income units — and
ground-floor office space at 40 Main Street.

The Sorensen brothers, long-time residents of Los Altos,
proposed the project under Senate Bill 35, which went into effect
in 2018 and forces cities to approve certain residential and
mixed-use projects quickly.

After a Santa Clara County Superior Court made a groundbreaking
ruling in April that the city had no grounds to reject the
application, city council members on Thursday followed court orders
and approved the project. Had it continued the legal battle, the
city would have had to post a $7 million “appeal bond” — a
provision under SB 35 — by Sept. 17, a figure that would have
nearly emptied the city’s emergency reserves.

“I think it’s disappointing,” Mayor Jan Pepper said in an
interview Thursday evening. “We would have been required to post
a bond and if we’d lost the appeal we’d be required to pay the
full amount of the bond to the developer plus attorneys fees.
That’s over $10 million. This is too high of a financial risk to
the city.”

Of course, city officials are allowed to deny projects. But
under SB 35, cities must provide clear, written reasons for denying
a development. The letter Los Altos send to the developer back in
early April was not sufficient, Superior Court Judge Helen Williams
said.

Despite the court ruling, Pepper still believes the project is a
bad idea for Los Altos, a city dominated by McMansions and affluent
homes surrounding a low-rise downtown of mom-and-pop boutiques and
shops. Pepper said the city has approved projects in the past
downtown and on El Camino Real “that are appropriate.” But a
five-story building next to Los Altos’ downtown will be a sore
sight for many.

“The project that has been proposed is not one that we believe
is a good fit for the site and it doesn’t comply with our city
zoning or safety requirements,” Pepper said of the original
reasons for denial, which included not enough parking or affordable
housing, a claim judge Williams found to be completely untrue.

“If you’ve been to our downtown you know it just doesn’t
fit there,” Pepper added. “It’s unfortunate that SB 35
doesn’t allow cities to do the review of a project like this to
make sure they conform with our requirements.”

Pepper said she is hopeful the city can find common ground with
the developers.

“We hope the developer will be willing to work with us to come
up with a project that is more fitting of the community,” Pepper
said.

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Los Altos: Five-story downtown development officially moves
forward after year-long legal battle