News

Modernist building on Waverley survives appeal

City Council rejects challenge from downtown residents

An eclectic block of Waverley Street is about to get an infusion of glass-and-concrete modernism, a development that has downtown's brick-and-stucco traditionalists fuming.

For the second week in a row, Palo Alto officials on Monday rejected an appeal by downtown residents of the latest glass-heavy development set to make its way downtown, a four-story building at 636 Waverley St., between Hamilton and Forest avenues. The building received the blessing of the city's Architectural Review Board in October after several months of design revisions. It will have office space on the bottom two floors and one three-bedroom apartment on each of the top two.

In giving the project the green light, the architecture board and city planners agreed that the Waverley Street block is architecturally varied, with no strong patterns. The new building, with its angular design and glazed facade, would bring a little more diversity into the mix.

It would also bring more height, mass and in-your-face geometry to a peripheral downtown block that consists largely of one- and two-story buildings, many of which are designed in the traditional Spanish Revival style associated with popular architects like Birge Clark. This design irked Douglas Smith, who joined several block residents on Monday in arguing that the new building is poorly designed and completely incompatible with the surrounding area.

For area residents like Smith, who lives on Forest and has decidedly traditionalist leanings when it comes to architecture, and Roger McCarthy, the architecture board's logic is laughable. They noted Monday that most buildings on the block are one or two stories in height, have ample setback from the sidewalk and are composed of wood, brick or stucco. The new building, as well as a companion building eyed for an adjacent parcel at 640 Waverley, would stick out like a sore thumb, they argued. Smith made a similar argument on Dec. 9, when he lobbied the council to reject a glassy, blocky building at 240 Hamilton Ave., which like the Waverley development was designed by Ken Hayes.

On Monday, Smith put up a rendering of the two proposed buildings next to the much smaller buildings that currently exist on the block and warned about the "glass canyon which will completely change the nature of Waverley Street."

"It's changing everything that people know about the block," Smith said.

His views were shared by numerous area residents, 11 of whom co-signed the appeal. McCarthy, who lives across the street from the proposed development, argued that the building, as well as its future companion, are nothing more than a developer's attempt to build to the maximum.

"They are meant to be maximum, and they're right in your face, right on the street," McCarthy said. "If there's no architectural review warranted in this case, let's do away with architectural review. What we have is volumetric review – if it fits within the volume, it's good to go."

In their appeal, the downtown residents argued that the proposed building is far too massive and aesthetically displeasing to anyone who is not an architect.

"On all levels, seen from a distance, the design composition is a jumbled mess of elements that fit together in a strictly utilitarian fashion, subject to no overall aesthetic pattern that would please a non-architect passerby," the appeal stated.

But much like his Dec. 9 challenge, Smith's latest appeal didn't get far. The council opted to keep the appeal on its "consent calendar," which includes a list of items that are approved with one vote, with no debate or discussion. Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilman Greg Schmid supported pulling the appeal off consent but they could not muster the third vote needed to do so. Both ultimately voted to uphold the appeal, though this proved moot with the other seven council members rejecting it.

David Kleiman, the developer behind 636 Waverley, defended his project against criticism and noted that his design team had responded to the architecture board's concerns and made revisions as recommended. This included increasing the setback on the fourth floor to break up the massing. Kleiman framed the debate as a clash of different tastes.

"The city doesn't mandate architectural styles," Kleiman said. "The appellant here really obviously prefers a style other than the one I prefer. This is my building, not his. I have a right to propose a modern building. I've done that and the ARB likes it."

After hearing from the neighbors, only Holman agreed that the building would not be compatible with the surrounding area. It has less to do with its style, she said, and more to do with its failure to have the kind of "finesse and fenestration" that other buildings on the block have.

Greg Schmid cited the comments of Alex Lew, the sole dissenter in the ARB's approval of the project. Lew criticized the building for being too massive and noted that it's located in a transitional zone between commercial and residential buildings. Schmid said discussing the appeal would allow the council to give feedback to the architecture board about how to proceed with projects in such transitional zones. He lamented the fact that his colleagues chose not to discuss the appeal.

"I'm sorry that we as a council are not using this opportunity," Schmid said.

The Smith appeal is one of two that the council rejected on Monday night. Members also considered an appeal from Midtown residents relating to a proposed sign at Alma Village for the new supermarket, Grocery Outlet. Residents Sheri Furman, Annette Glanckopf and Tom DuBois all argued that the proposed 91-square-foot sign would be excessive and unsightly. But after a long discussion, the council voted 6-3, with Holman, Schmid and Gail Price dissenting, to uphold the architecture board's approval of the sign.

Comments

Posted by I Choose Vision A, a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 17, 2013 at 8:49 am

Someone in the public made some really key comments about how an attic was called a "mezzanine" and counted toward square footage in the new building, when it wasn't in the past. This, IMHO is reason to overturn the Council decision. It's too big, and it doesn't provide adequate parking.

I hope the neighbors will fight both of these. I suspect you will get lots of cross-town help. Whether you prevail or not, you will keep people energized through the next Council election.


Posted by Disgraceful, a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 17, 2013 at 8:59 am

""The city doesn't mandate architectural styles," Kleiman said. "The appellant here really obviously prefers a style other than the one I prefer. This is my building, not his. I have a right to propose a modern building. I've done that and the ARB likes it."

Kleiman hits the nail on the head. Smith has an agenda-- forcing his (bad) taste in architecture on the whole city. There should be some kind of minimal respect for,private property rights.
Also, in typical shoddy reporting, the writer says that numerous people (11) joined the appeal. It would have been nice to know how many people did not feel an appeal was necessary and/or thought the building was okay. And since when is 11 people considered numerous.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 17, 2013 at 9:23 am

"There should be some kind of minimal respect for,private property rights."

No shuck? Didn't you and your neighbors revolt when PAHC tried to exercise its property rights in your area?

What would you do if Kleiman bought that property and tried to replicate this building on it?


Posted by Disgraceful, a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 17, 2013 at 9:29 am

Curmudgeon--- don't suppose that everyone in the neighborhood opposed thenPAHC plan. If the land is zoned for that kind of building, then he can build it.


Posted by not bad, a resident of Professorville
on Dec 17, 2013 at 9:43 am

Sure, this is different, but I like it way better than the massive concrete walled buildings that have been going up around town lately (like the JCC and some of the Alma shopping center).


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 17, 2013 at 10:14 am

"Curmudgeon--- don't suppose that everyone in the neighborhood opposed thenPAHC plan."

True. There are always some who don't get the word. But the message was clear: property rights are not absolute.


Posted by Disgraceful, a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 17, 2013 at 10:27 am

Curmudgeon-- true. But n general as long as you follow the zoning, you are okay. The zoning was changed, so PAHC was in the clear to build. The public objected, had the vet and overturned the council. Democracy in action. I do not suggest that people can build whatever they want


Posted by Anciana, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 17, 2013 at 10:41 am

I don't think that building looks TOO bad, but it's definitely too close to the sidewalks,which is one of the really bad thing about all those walls on Alma Street. The setback should be wider!


Posted by commonsense, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 17, 2013 at 10:44 am

Beautiful building. I love it!


Posted by Moderation, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 17, 2013 at 10:46 am

This discussion is really about moderation, not (for all of us)aesthetics. Several speakers spoke forcefully about not allowing every project to build out to the absolute maximum volume area. This isn't a property right. When you buy the property you are agreeing to ALL of our zoning laws which include setbacks, compatibility, height limits, etc. Whether you like the building or not, it's clear that the CITY is extending into the NEIGHBORHOOD on this buffer street. Small homes are being replaced with 50 foot high cubes, built out to the curb and maximum density. Why can't we find a moderate path and create some true transitions between our downtown and the surrounding residents?


Posted by ARB equals oversized, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 17, 2013 at 12:07 pm

I think we have reached a point where the ARB's endorsement is a sure sign that it is an oversized, underparked, zone violating project.
The ARB has always approved some dreadful projects but lately they seem to really be off the rails.


Posted by I Choose Vision A, a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 17, 2013 at 12:40 pm

@curmudgeon,
Do not take the bait and let the trolls turn north against south. We need to focus on the real problem, a City Council that doesn't serve any of us. Disgraceful does not speak for me.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 17, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Spot on, Vision A! City Hall disservice is equal opportunity.

We pay them, but I don't think they're working for us.


Posted by jardins, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 17, 2013 at 7:28 pm

Please note that not all of the city council is in favor of the developments at either 646 Waverley or 240 Hamilton--Karen Holman and Greg Schmid have opposed both.

It's not only the style or the height that are objectionable in the buildings at issue--it's their scale. In other words, the height of the doors, the size of the windows, the overall volume of the building.

In my own view, it's time to dispense with the "compatibility" criterion as involving far too subjective reactions. Instead, let's focus on objective facts: the building's height, volume, size of elements (such as doors, windows, balconies), the effect of its use of massive horizontal areas of concrete, its looming over the sidewalk . . .


Posted by Fell out of the Ugly Tree, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 17, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Why does the city continue to use the Hayes Group for architects??? Ken Hayes has no eye for art, no taste, no common sense, and apparently, very poor judgment, especially on regards to what the public likes.

Ken Hayes has got to be the WORST architect EVER! His AIA membership and architectural degree should be revoked post-haste.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 18, 2013 at 9:40 am

You too can design a Hayes building and make lots of money. No particular design talent needed.

Here's the formula. Draw a straight horizontal line. That's the ground. Then draw a big box on it. That's the building. Draw some random boxes inside that box. Those are the windows. If the result has any aesthetic appeal, correct it by adding vertical scribbles (as at 501 Alma).

Voila!


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