A proposal to relocate the historic Julia Morgan-designed building at 27 University Ave. to make way for four office towers and a theater drew a harsh reception at the Wednesday morning, Dec. 5, meeting of the Historic Resources Board, where members expressed grave concerns about uprooting what they called a significant part of the city's history.
The proposal, pitched by billionaire developer John Arrillaga, calls for moving the Hostess House -- which currently houses the MacArthur Park Restaurant -- to a location of the city's choosing. The latest design plans recommend a site in the nearby El Camino Park for the building, which under the concept would revert to its original role as a community center. The City Council had initially considered asking voters to approve in June a ballot measure that would enable the massive development. The council voted to scrap that plan early Tuesday morning, Dec. 4, after a community outcry about the lack of transparency in the process and the size and density of the proposed office towers, which would be more than 100 feet high.
But while much of the concern Monday night and Tuesday morning centered on the city's process and the project's size and density, the Historic Resources Board expressed major reservations about its impact on local history -- namely, the Hostess House building. The building, which is listed on local, state and national historic registries, was used as a meeting place for World War I veterans. Built at Camp Fremont in Menlo Park in 1918, the building was moved across San Francisquito Creek to its current location a year later.
Ward Winslow's "Palo Alto: Centennial History" recalls Palo Alto's dedication of the Julia Morgan building on Nov. 11, 1919, as a "gala occasion" with a procession of about 3,000 people marching to the site, led by the Stanford Band, the Base Hospital Band, the Stanford ROTC, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Native Sons of the Golden West and the High School Cadets.
The building's historic significance extends beyond Palo Alto. Once purchased by Palo Alto, it became the first municipally operated community center in the nation, frequently hosting dances, classes, plays and other events. In the following decades, the Community Center housed night classes, an employment bureau and a health center. When the city's Playgrounds and Community Department was founded in 1929, it set up its offices in the center. According to Winslow's book, the "crowded and varied program activities soon outgrew the locale" and in 1933 the city gladly accepted the larger Palo Alto Community Theatre, a gift from Lucie Stern.
But even though the building at 27 University Ave. no longer serves as the center of Palo Alto's civic life, members of the Historic Resources Board emphasized its critical role in the city's history. Board member Beth Bunnenberg pointed to the building's listing on the National Historic Register and argued that the building's location is an important part of its significance. She noted that Julia Morgan herself attended the City Council meeting on the relocation of Hostess House and approved the city's proposition for the new site.
"Palo Alto was thinking outside the box and saying a community center is a good idea," Bunnenberg said. "They held plays, they held dances, they held meetings. It was a true community center."
While the Arrillaga plan has undergone a number of revisions since its design was first unveiled in September, including reductions in building stories and in total square footage of office development, the location of the proposed office towers has remained constant -- the site of Hostess House. On Wednesday, board members said they were astonished and disappointed by the fact that the developer and the city hadn't considered any alternatives that would keep the historic building at its present location. Board Member David Bower said he doesn't understand how the project has gotten this far without the questions of historic compatibility being considered.
"There's not much in Palo Alto that gets more significant that having these older buildings in their original place," Bower said.
Board member Michael Makinen worried that moving the building would compromise its status as a nationally recognized historic structure. He said that the criteria for "historic integrity" on the National Register includes seven aspects: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association. The Arrillaga proposal would compromise at least two of these aspects -- location and setting -- and possibly feeling and association as well.
"There's a great risk with this proposal that the building can be delisted as a historic property due to loss of integrity," Makinen said.
He also voiced broader reservations about the Arrillaga proposal. He said the main question is: Does this project improve the quality of life in Palo Alto or does it degrade it?
"In my opinion, it degrades it," Makinen said. "I think we lost a lot of critical things here and we gain nothing that improves the quality of our community."
Bower and board member Scott Smithwick both pointed to one significant benefit of the proposal -- a redesign of the bustling, labyrinthine transit hub on University Avenue. The current plan would significantly increase the area's bus capacity and add various pedestrian- and bike-friendly amenities, including a new tunnel at Lytton Avenue. But both said they were disappointed by the city's failure to consider any options not involving the relocation of Hostess House.
"This is so out of scale I cannot see this board would ever approve this project," Bower said.
Smithwick noted that the city would have to consider the proposal's impact on historical structures anyway as part of the state-mandated environmental-review process. He said he was "disappointed" by the fact that the city hasn't been considering plans that would leave Hostess House at its current location. He noted that the house was only in Menlo Park for one year and said that in his view, the building's current location is "essentially its original location."
"As a general rule in historic preservation, relocating the building -- and I have relocated five historic buildings in my career -- is a last resort in historic preservation," Smithwick said. "If it is essentially a choice between it being torn down and losing it and relocated -- okay, fine, relocate it. But it's not preferable."
The board didn't take any votes Wednesday morning, but members added their voices to what is now a swelling chorus of criticism of the Arrillaga development. Last week, members of the Parks and Recreation Commission voiced their own concerns about moving the building to El Camino Park, as is currently proposed.
Pat Markevitch, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, told the council Monday evening that her commission was primarily concerned about a loss of trees, loss of field space and "park integration and connectivity."
"We feel this project is moving very quickly and more thought and planning needs to happen to minimize the negative impacts to the park," Markevitch said.
The council directed staff and consultants early Tuesday morning to consider two other design alternatives for 27 University Ave., in addition to the Arrillaga proposal. Bunnenberg said she hopes at least one of these alternatives would consider keeping Hostess House at its current site. Her colleague, Roger Kohler, agreed.
"There should be an attempt to see if we can leave it where it is," Kohler said. "It could really be a nice component of the whole project, rather than picking it up and putting it out -- in this case -- in center field."