Proposed Sherman Avenue development stirs anxieties in Palo Alto

Developer looks to build three-story building near California Avenue

A developer's plan to build a three-story building next to Sarah Wallis Park in the rapidly changing California Avenue Business District is meeting resistance from area residents, who are urging the city to halt the project.

The plan for 385 Sherman Ave. calls for the demolition of an existing one-story office building and the construction of a 55,566-square foot building with two levels of underground parking. The new three-story building would have four residential units in its southeastern corner and office space on all three floors. The city's Architectural Review Board is scheduled to consider the proposal on Thursday morning.

The building is in located in the "community commercial subdistrict" zone, which permits building density that is twice the square footage of the site area (what's known as 2:1 floor-area-ratio). In this case, the proposed development is exactly twice the square footage of the 27,783-square-foot site.

The city's planning staff is recommending that the board approve the project, which is not requesting a zone change and would not need to go through the Planning and Transportation Commission to get the final green light. Dwight Clark, who lives nearby at Birch Court, has criticized the development for being "too massive." In a letter to the city, Clark argued that the building's "overwhelming height" and "short setback" will result in a loss of sunlight for several buildings within Birch Court.

"In a block made up of a city park and residences, it overwhelms everything else and simply is out of proportion to the neighborhood," Clark wrote.

Ken Kiser, also a Birch Court resident, submitted to the city a lengthy letter that challenged the environmental analysis for the project and called the project "dangerous and not well thought out, trading speed for thoroughness." He argued that the project should require a full Environmental Impact Report rather than the briefer analysis known as a "negative declaration."

"The plans seem to try to maximize the size of everything with no regard for aesthetics or fitting in with the community, and often violate the 'spirit' of the laws that rules regarding trees, landscaping, toxins controls, etc.," Kiser wrote.

The new plans submitted by Daniel Minkoff are the latest of several proposals that city officials have considered for the Sherman Avenue site over the last five years. In 2009, the site's prior owner, MF Sherman, LLC, proposed a project with about 50,000 square feet of office space and two residential units. At the time, residents expressed concerns about the building's size as well as parking impacts and the property owner withdrew the application.

The main differences between that proposal and the new one is the relocation of the residential units to face Sarah Wallis Park and a new location for a garage ramp. The Architectural Review Board reviewed Minkoff's proposal in December and recommended a wider sidewalk and a reduction in height – suggestions that were included in the latest application (the building is now 4 feet and 7 inches shorter than it was under December's proposal). Under the latest design, the third floor will also be set back further to break up the building's massing.

Though the vast majority of residents' letters oppose the project, a few are urging approval. Barron Park resident Tom Johanix argued that the project will "bring new energy to the area and do so with architectural elements that will certainly add to the area." He also applauded the development for staying within the city's zoning rules.

"It's refreshing to see a proposed project that dos not appear to require any special considerations from a zoning standpoint," he wrote.

The proposal for 385 Sherman Ave. is the latest in a series of office-heavy, mixed-use developments that are now taking root at California Avenue. These include two large developments by Harold Hohbach, Park Plaza and Birch Plaza and the three-story building now being constructed at 260 California Ave. Other projects nearby include the College Terrace Centre on El Camino Real and College Avenue and the recently approved mixed-use building around Equinox Gym, at 3149 El Camino Real.


Posted by Richard, a resident of Mayfield
on Jul 15, 2014 at 10:50 am

I'm glad there at least isn't a request for a zone change this time around. But ... since the Planning and Transportation Commission isn't involved, is anybody actually thinking about what the traffic is likely to be around California Avenue in 3 years?

Posted by palo alto resident, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 15, 2014 at 10:57 am

If they aren't asking for a zoning change and they are providing lots of parking, what grounds does the City have for holding up the project? I don't think that "the neighbors are complaining" is a legal reason not to approve a project. I also can't see any reason replacing an existing building with a taller one would require an Environmental Impact Report or have a "substantial" impact on the environment (except for filling up our landfill).

Posted by jerry99, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 15, 2014 at 10:57 am

Of course they had to feature the one Barron Park resident that supports the idea, he probably supports the Buena Vista Trailer Park too.

Posted by commonsense, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jul 15, 2014 at 11:05 am

Cheers to "Palo Alto Resident" - this guy is following the rules of the existing zoning. If individuals don't like the zoning in particular areas they should fight to have it changed, not be so reactionary on a case by case basis. Building looks nice too!

Posted by Consider the Big Picture, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 15, 2014 at 11:24 am

It is not about this ONE building - it is about all the project already approved - put it in that context and then decide - seems to me we should see what it looks like around CA Ave once everything in the pipeline is in - and there is a whole lot in the pipeline - each comes with traffic AND demands on city infrastructure and services.

Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 15, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Has the Planning Department ever reviewed a project they DID NOT approve?

Think of the big picture and it's increasingly dense and ugly.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 15, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Actually they just turned down a project last week.

Posted by Robert, a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2014 at 2:02 pm

This is why any objections to any project based on not conforming to existing zoning will continue to be ignored. The vast majority of neighbors care nothing about zoning law, they care about not letting anything be built.

Posted by Good for them, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 15, 2014 at 2:47 pm

Maybe the neighbors arent millionaire investors and want their neighborhood to remain human sized. Maybe they've seen what is happening all around. Good for them.
The Planning Department just issued yet another fancy (read, expensive) list of current developments in Palo Alto.
It's horrifying to anyone who isn't totally obsessed with making money.

Posted by Fingers Crossed, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2014 at 4:11 pm

From the account I read in the Daily Post, it sounds like this developer is willing to work with residents and even lower the original planned height of the building ( which does seem excessively high).

The problem is that one really tall building like this opens the door for many more, and then we would have problems with obstruction of sunlight, a closed-in canyon feeling, eyesores, insufficient parking, too much density, excess traffic, etc.

So, the question for me is, trim this proposed development way down and pass it, or prevent it altogether? Pass this one and forbid any others? Set strict limits? Or what?

Posted by PAmoderate, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 15, 2014 at 4:36 pm

PAmoderate is a registered user.

"Maybe the neighbors arent millionaire investors and want their neighborhood to remain human sized"

If that's what they wanted, then why move to an area that is zoned for taller buildings and commercial development? That's like moving near a night club and then complaining about the noise.

"which does seem excessively high"

Nope. The building design is within zoning restrictions, so by definition it isn't "excessively high"

Posted by Fingers Crossed, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Why have so many residential ( condo and apartment) developments been built in an area zoned for business development? Did. O one consider the conflict that the meeting of these two would eventually create??

Posted by citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Zoning codes are not just a list of restrictions, but typically also require consistently with comprehensive plan ideals. Just because the zoning code allows things within a range, doesn't mean the City has to always approve up to the max in the range (or why would a range even exist). Not sure there is any enforceability of that principle in Palo Alto, but there it is. The trouble for someone even wanting to build to the max under zoning today is that so many exceptions have been made, cumulative impacts are worse.

Posted by Palo Alto Native, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 15, 2014 at 6:29 pm

No way. We will shut this down. Very upset over three story building that replaced the Key Stone. Also making Cal ave with only 2 lines. The old council is trying to turn Cal Ave into a Univ Ave. No way. We like our scale of Mayfield and the Palo Alto of the 40s-and early 60s. Live able, not urban. This too shall not pass.

Posted by Stop it now!, a resident of University South
on Jul 15, 2014 at 8:03 pm

These massive, ugly developments that, one by one, add thousands of people and cars to our roads, degrade our living conditions, and add to the jobs-housing imbalance have to stop. They are driving massive population growth in the area that is not sustainable. It is time to stop. Let's hope that residents who want a good quality of life will fight each one - if they have to - all the was to referendums on the ballot if necessary. Residents of Palo Alto should be able to control how our city develops - not developers out to make millions at the expense of our quality of life and not city managers and planners trying to rack up points for future jobs.

Posted by no sky, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 15, 2014 at 8:58 pm

I live down the street from this and am not happy about the project. Pretty soon you're going to walk down the street in Palo Alto and not be able to see sky. Don't forget about the large building proposal on 2555 Park Blvd just down the street. It's going to get really tight and crowded around here.

Dear developers...stop boxing us in!

Posted by citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2014 at 9:05 pm

Did everyone see the new water restrictions from the state? We should demand a moratorium on development until the drought is over, and in the meantime, the City do an assessment of how recent and future developments will impact water usage and adjust future development rules accordingly.

Posted by citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2014 at 9:08 pm

Dear fellow citizens,

Don't just complain on this list. Democracy is not a spectator sport. Last year taught us that we can fight City Hall. Get in contact with those who have, come up with a plan, learn something about the rules, and do something.

Posted by noya, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Jul 15, 2014 at 9:34 pm

why all this box ugly buildings, why destroy sense of place and community with cold and hostile architecture?

Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2014 at 9:43 pm

The residents should get a court injunction against the City to stop approval of all massive office projects pending a land use study of
infrastructure capacity. Further, any project which includes a basement can involve dewatering of the site and loss of millions of gallons of water in an emergency drought situation. The City is causing irrevocable harm to
the residents, the character and quality of life, and environment and must be stopped through court action. What is happening in Palo Alto is
simply outrageous. This City is being absolutely destroyed.

Posted by Peter, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 16, 2014 at 9:34 am

People really think 3 stories is excessively high and will block out sunlight? Hilarious.

Posted by PAmoderate, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 16, 2014 at 10:07 am

PAmoderate is a registered user.

Hey citizen, if you really care about water restrictions, we need to pave over our parks - they're the biggest water hogs of them all.

If you want fewer office buildings, then maybe you should ask to repeal Prop 13, so you actually pay your fair share of property taxes that so "unfairly" burden newer arrivals. This way the City of Palo Alto can get the money it needs. Long-time residents are getting a free ride and now they complain about development.

Talk about unintended consequences for paying your tiny property tax bill.

Posted by builder, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 16, 2014 at 10:36 am

TOO MUCH!!! the city council members should all be fired immediately and get a new crew in that has a vision for Palo Alto. the present members have no clue and no vision. they all should be released from any further duties with Palo Alto. Enough is Enough. We are way beyond any common sense growth pattern for Palo Alto--- height, invasion of privacy, traffic--where is all the traffic supposed to go--this is already a gridlock. ever try to find decent parking in downtown Palo Alto? or now even California Avenue? ever try to go anywhere in the city-without it taking 30 minutes or more? AND water-- more building, more people, more bathrooms, more kitchens--where does Palo Alto think it is going to get all this extra water?? ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Stop the incessant and rampant out of control building and building projects. most of them aren't even friendly projects-just massive huge buildings. the present members could care less about the outcome--all they want is their raise. they all think they know more than the average Palo Alto citizen, and they all think they are high and mighty. STOP IT ALREADY.. OREGON FREEWAY another fine mess. Public Library--another fine mess. how many millions and millions are these two projects costing?? and, no one will take responsibility for either.

Posted by palo alto resident, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 16, 2014 at 11:02 am

To everyone who says "just stop the development" I don't believe you can legally stop someone from building on their own property as long as it fits within zoning. Using this building as an example, it fits into zoning, it complies with height restrictions, it provides onsite parking and its even relatively attractive. You can complain all you want, but if it is legal, it is legal.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 16, 2014 at 11:39 am

Measure D successfully demonstrated that PA citizens want developers to work within existing zoning restrictions. Now there are some people who are upset because a developer is doing just that. You can't have it both ways folks.

If you don't like the current zoning declarations then you have to work with city government to change or update them. In the meantime, you shouldn't penalize a homeowner or property owner for following the rules.

The rant on Prop 13 is priceless. As if when older residents didn't have to go through the exact same paradigm when they bought their homes 10 or 20 years ago. You are barking up the wrong tree. If you want to reform Prop 13, try looking at the commercial real estate loophole and fix that.

The rant on "Oregon Freeway"...I assume Oregon Expressway? Do some research...who is responsible for the road? Give up? The county, not PA.

Posted by chris, a resident of University South
on Jul 16, 2014 at 2:51 pm

Palo Alto Native,

I don't think you have a leg to stand on in court.

Lawyer up and see how you fare.

You do understand the current zoning, don't you?

Posted by palo alto resident, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 16, 2014 at 5:02 pm

I find it a bit amusing that the residents of Birch Court - a three story building adjacent to the proposed construction - are complaining about the "overwhelming height" of another three story building.

Posted by Robert, a resident of another community
on Jul 16, 2014 at 5:19 pm

@palo alto resident

Yeah, but they were there first, isn't that whats basically at heart of any of these objections?

Posted by citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 16, 2014 at 7:12 pm

"You do understand the current zoning, don't you?"

Trouble is, usually City Council doesn't. Often there's a range under current zoning, and they always allow the max even if not appropriate under the rules.

It's time developers realized maintaining a sane pace of development is in their interest, too, because the overdevelopment makes the public more likely to push back against projects that otherwise might not have faced any.

@PA Moderate,
It depends on which park you mean. If Council had decided to keep the Maybell orchard for not much more than the cost of putting in new drapes and gizmos at City Hall, then we'd have had a community orchard with established trees that didn't need watering.

Posted by PAmoderate, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 16, 2014 at 7:53 pm

PAmoderate is a registered user.


All parks that have any grass on them. They aren't native and they require watering. As for this beautiful comment:

"Often there's a range under current zoning, and they always allow the max even if not appropriate under the rules. "

If it's allowed, it's appropriate. Give me a break.

Posted by Palo Alto Writer, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 17, 2014 at 1:02 am

As a long-time resident of Palo Alto, I have read the comments here with great interest. It seems that the Birch Court residents and other neighbors are doing what any of us would do in similar circumstances — standing up for their right to continue living their lives at the standard of safety and comfort they have created for themselves and their families.

@ palo alto resident

First of all, as the owner of Keeble and Shuchat has pointed out, they are not providing "lots of parking", in fact they are providing only the minimum amount of parking required for the difference in square footage from the current building to the new building. And since the current building does not have any of its own parking, they are providing a lot less parking than they should for a building of this size. Many people who will work at the new building will have to park on the streets or in the already overcrowded California Avenue lots along Sherman.
And as for the need for an EIR, it is not about the height of the building, it is actually about the existence of one of Palo Alto's infamous toxic plumes right under this building site. Past soil samples have shown levels of the very hazardous chemical TCE (from the HP and Varian superfund sites) that are 72% above the maximum allowed by law. In addition, the existing building, which would be demolished, was built pre-1978, and contains highly toxic components, such as asbestos, lead-based paints, and mercury switches. So yes, they will also be filling up our landfills with contaminated soil and old, toxic building materials.

@ Peter

If you remember your high-school trigonometry, you will realize that the ability of a 3-story building to block out sunlight is dependent on the distance to the site being blocked. I have looked at the layout at Birch Court and 385 Sherman, and the intention is to build very close to the property line and therefore very close to the neighbors. I have made a few back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that for a resident on the ground floor of the two-story building looking out their back door at the current building at 385 Sherman, their eye-line to the roof-line would be about 25 degrees. For the proposed building, that eye-line raises to about 60 degrees. This equates to perhaps 4 or 5 more hours of afternoon sun being blocked from the current situation. That seems to me to be both excessive and not hilarious at all.

Posted by citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 17, 2014 at 8:36 am

"Often there's a range under current zoning, and they always allow the max even if not appropriate under the rules. "
"If it's allowed, it's appropriate. Give me a break."

No, it's not. This is what's wrong with our Council. Safety, City policies, and the Comprehensive Plan all guide where on a range is appropriate. For example, in an RM-15 zone, the density is 8-15 units per acre, and the Comp Plan says it's supposed to be on the lower end of the range next to R-1 residential. City Council always chooses the max as permissible regardless of the Comprehensive Plan, which is why everyone should be concerned about the current revision. In a subdivision situation, the Subdivision Map Act requires consistency with the Comprehensive Plan, so if someone was trying to put in 15 units per acre plus bonus density in RM-15 adjacent to R-1, residents could go to court and get that rejected, although they shouldn't have to always do that, Council shouldn't be treating development like getting away with whatever they can.

Safety is another thing for which Council has broad discretion to reject development under zoning. There are a whole host of requirements in the Comp Plan, like traffic circulation and noise. Just because a plan is under zoning does not mean you have a right to build whatever you want no matter the impacts to safety, traffic circulation, noise, natural environment, etc.

Posted by Citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 17, 2014 at 8:42 am

Moral of the story : if you are adversely impacted by a planned development under zoning or not, it may be worthwhile to consult a good land use attorney, especially in this town. (Having done so, was worth every penny...and it was lots of pennies.)

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 17, 2014 at 11:22 am

If a development meets all zoning requirements and does not require any waivers, it does not go to the CC for approval. ARB is the place where that happens.

Posted by MIdtown Resident, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 17, 2014 at 4:05 pm

I think the biggest issue is a lack of trust in the City Council and the planning/building department. All for a good reason. Developers have gotten away with murder in the past. Just look at Alma Plaza - a high-density housing development with inadequate parking. The neighbors in the area have no street parking left since the street now has cars end-to-end.

The developer promised a "park" and a "community center" in return for being allowed to build high-density housing. The park is a patch of green the size of some carpets and the community center is a room on top of the grocery store that I believe is still not open.

Given this, I will not believe anything the city or the developer says and will insist everything be specified in great detail, on a contract and verified on the plans and the final product, failing which the developer will simply have to fix it, whatever the cost.

Also, traffic has become nightmarish at peak time, and water is in short supply and our streets are slowly starting to look like tunnels with less and less light with tall buildings on either side (OK so far it is mostly El Camino) but let the developers and the city loose and they will turn Palo Alto into Manhattan or L.A. Thanks but no thanks..Build if you will but make sure the existing infrastructure supports it.

Posted by Citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 17, 2014 at 4:39 pm

"OK so far it is mostly El Camino"

Why is that okay? That's where many of us spend a lot of our time, more now, and less pleasantly, because of the gridlock and zoning violations left and right.

Posted by SteveU, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 17, 2014 at 5:07 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

'Ugly box buildings'?
Have you looked at what was built in the 50's and 60's. Square boxes, even slabs and lots of sameness.

I will agree, I don't always care for the style, but there is no law that says 'My tastes only' so I just blink and get on with it.

IMHO code minimums should get as much attention as pushing code maximums.
Under parked in reality (but not below the code) should raise a flag

Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 17, 2014 at 10:32 pm

There is an absolute and strong bias in favor of development/developers which operates throughout the entire process in subtle and not so subtle
ways, in interpretation, in enforcement, in terms of FAR's, setback requirements, lax parking requirements,in design control,dewatering, protection of trees, etc resulting in the continued degradation of the urban landscape, livability, aesthetics, environment. The intent is to
build out the site to the maximum extent possible project by project, site
by site, with the least interference and control and get away with it.
We need to completely reverse the dynamics and instill a new value system
in City Hall.

Posted by midtown resident, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 17, 2014 at 11:02 pm

"OK so far it is mostly El Camino"

"Why is that okay? That's where many of us spend a lot of our time, more now, and less pleasantly, because of the gridlock and zoning violations left and right."

@Citizen - No, I'm not saying its OK. Far from it. I hate what the builders are doing to Palo Alto and I believe City Hall is in league with them and not looking out for the citizens.

However in this particular case, I find it hard to be too critical since the builder is not asking for a zoning exception. Still I tend to be distrustful of the city and the builders based on past experience. We should check what is promised and what is actually built, like hawks.

As for sunlight, I wonder what the zoning says for El Camino. What is the limit? Anyone know?

I know for certain that Palo Alto land values being what they are, greedy and conscienceless developers will do their best to stick as dense housing as they can and use the money to buy a nice single-story home in atherton on an acre of land. We need to stay vigilant but I'm pessimistic given the dumb political system here. I always find it funny when people mention corruption in other countries - Well the US is extremely corrupt too. Corruption just happens to be legal here.

Posted by citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 18, 2014 at 1:04 am

Does anyone know the exact zoning designation and link to the City code on that? Always good to check. Also to check the comp plan... Never believe this Council when they tell you something is under existing zoning.

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