By ALDO TOLEDO | | Bay Area News Group

PUBLISHED: February 8, 2021 at 7:49 p.m. | UPDATED: February 9, 2021 at 12:46 p.m.

PALO ALTO — A teacher housing project in the heart of the city’s Mayfield district appears closer to becoming reality after council members gave it an initial thumbs up during a public hearing Monday.

Palo Alto council members discussed plans for a teacher housing project at 231 Grant Avenue that would bring 110 apartments for teachers and staff who work at Santa Clara and San Mateo County schools to a site blocks away from the California Avenue commercial strip and Caltrain station currently housing a 6,000 square-foot office building.

If built, the project would address the growing housing woes of the “missing middle” — those who make too much to qualify for public benefits but too little to afford market-rate rent — including teachers and school district staff who have seen rents skyrocket forcing them to make long commutes to work.

A survey done by the county found 72% of the 1,300 teachers and school staff who responded said they’d live in teacher housing.

Santa Clara County supervisor Joe Simitian, whose district office is directly next to the proposed development site and who has been an advocate for the project, said 231 Grant Avenue “will tackle the problem of housing straight on” and will become a tool “in attracting first-rate people for our students.”

The proposed project site sits on Santa Clara County land and will not be subject to the “Palo Alto Process” or city rules. Monday’s hearing provided Palo Alto residents the first opportunity to publicly comment on the project, and the Board of Supervisors ultimately will decide whether to approve it.

“As the need to hire new teachers bumps into the extraordinary affordability problems of our area, how can we continue to retain the best possible staff in our schools?” Simitian said, noting that teacher housing is one way.

The proposed teacher housing development is two years in the making so far, with the Board of Supervisors agreeing to use the site for teacher housing in January 2018, and will be built by affordable housing developers Mercy Housing California and Adobe Communities

Since first proposed, several large donors have stepped up to help the project: Palo Alto has pledged $3 million to the project, the county is donating the land and $6 million, and Facebook announced a commitment of $25 million.

For councilman Eric Filseth, the project is “right in the sweet spot” of the kind of housing Palo Alto needs to build, and councilwoman Alison Cormack praised using public land for housing as “logical and appropriate.”

Planning Director Johnathan Lait said the project is exempt from the city’s zoning standards and added there’s a “notable increase in height” that would normally not conform with city rules. The project was listed as 55 feet tall on staff documents — over the 50-foot city limit — but without the parapet it is 50 feet tall.While most city council members seemed supportive of the project, others voiced specific concerns such as a lack of sufficient parking, its high density and height.

Rebecca Sanders, who co-chairs Palo Alto Neighborhoods, said she was in favor of the project but was concerned about its size and scale.

She reminded the county that the project “isn’t being done in a vacuum” and lamented that it is close to 60 feet tall and “double the density of anything the city has,” though she cited no evidence to support her claim. She asked if the county could “split the difference” with the city and build a smaller project.

“Please stop relaxing our standards in such a gross way,” Sanders said to the county. “We hope we can work on compromise so everyone gets a little bit of what they want.”

Still, members of the public who spoke in support of the project didn’t mince words in saying how crucial the project is for teachers. On his call into the public hearing, Rohin Ghosh, a Palo Alto High School student, said he’s seen how long commutes from places like Gilroy have affected his teachers.

A teacher at Gunn High School until last year, councilman Greer Stone said the project is “desperately needed” and added that it is compatible with the area provided a traffic study is done. He said he’s seen fellow teachers leave for places like Colorado due to high housing costs in the area.Raven Malone, who ran for city council in 2020, said the county should consider lowering the amount of parking in the project and urged them not to reduce density. She praised the project for dealing with the affordability crisis among educators.

“This is the bare minimum that we can do for some of our essential workers,” she said. “We can’t keep great teachers if we’re not making it easier for them to have access to their jobs.”