The limit, which the city instituted in the early 1970s, has long been considered a sacred cow by planning commissioners and residentialists intent on protecting neighborhoods from the long shadows and parking problems that towers could bring. While the City Council has occasionally allowed developers to transcend the 50-foot ceiling, exceptions have been rare and typically involved extensive negotiations with applicants, who promised significant public benefits in exchange for the excess.
Several buildings in Palo Alto already exceed 50 feet, including 11-story Channing House, the 15-story office building at 525 University Ave., and the eight-story Casa Olga on Hamilton Avenue.
The four-story Lytton Gateway development, which the council approved earlier this year, is 50 feet tall, but its design includes a corner tower that is 70 feet in height.
City officials are unlikely to remove the height limit entirely, but they are moving to chip away at the bedrock provision. Last month, during the council's long discussion of John Arrillaga's development proposal for 27 University Ave. — a proposal that includes a theater and four office towers with heights greater than 100 feet — council members directed staff to re-examine height limits in general.
The Planning and Transportation Commission considered this topic Wednesday night, Oct. 10, and while commissioners didn't take any votes, they were generally sympathetic to the idea of relaxing height restrictions in certain cases. Commissioner Alex Panelli argued that tall buildings don't have to be eyesores and stressed that they could, in some cases, create new opportunities at the street level.
"Is an eight-story building with a lot more open space better than a four-story building that's built sidewalk-to-sidewalk and road-to-road?" Panelli asked. "I don't know, but there are tradeoffs, and I think we need to talk about those tradeoffs."
Others shared his view that taller buildings should be considered, but only under certain conditions and in certain locations. The most likely sites would be near the city's major transit hubs — namely, University and California avenues. In 2010, the council directed staff to explore height exemptions for developments next to Caltrain stations.
The topic of height limits also loomed large at the Sept. 24 council discussion of 27 University — a project so ambitious that it will probably go to Palo Alto residents for a vote. Councilman Pat Burt was one of several council members who argued that the proposed office buildings are too tall (one would be 161 feet). Though he said he would be willing to exceed the 50-foot ceiling for this proposal because of its public benefits (the new theater with a public plaza and extensive improvements to the roads around the transit center), he also called on the city to reaffirm its general commitment to the height restriction.
Members of the planning commission likewise had mixed feelings about overturning the ban. Commissioner Samir Tuma said he would be open to allowing builders to go a few feet beyond 50 if doing so would result in a more attractive and interesting project. Easing the restriction, he said, would give developers more flexibility in their designs.
"What makes the environment interesting and enjoyable to us isn't just a matter of height and mass," Tuma said.
At the same time, Tuma argued that the city should have a broad discussion and consider a host of factors, including location and what the building would be used for. He also argued that this process should proceed independently of the recent proposal from Arrillaga.
"We want to come up with something that covers the whole city and not one project," Tuma said.
Chair Eduardo Martinez and Commissioner Michael Alcheck both said they were "protective" of the height restriction, citing its impact on the city's character and scale. Alcheck said it would be a mistake to ignore the lessons from the past 40 years about "smart growth" and transit-oriented developments. Even so, he stressed the need to proceed slowly and gather community input before making any decisions.
"I'd tread cautiously there because there is a success story in Palo Alto ... that has made the real estate values here so high," Alcheck said. "There's tremendous demand to be in this community because of its success story. The notion of changing certain development limitations is an important one."
Members of the city's Architectural Review Board voiced similar sentiments on Oct. 4, when they tackled the topic of height limits. Most said the city should ease restrictions but only in certain contexts. Board members generally supported allowing taller buildings near transit centers but stressed the need to consider the parking problems that could arise with new development.
Architectural Review Board Chair Clare Malone Prichard said she supported eliminating the height restriction and instead limiting the number of stories in new buildings. This would give developers more flexibility in designing the projects. She acknowledged, however, that an outright abolition of the 50-foot limit probably wouldn't go over well in Palo Alto because of the community's fear of tall developments.
TALK ABOUT IT
Under what circumstances, if any, would you favor allowing buildings in Palo Alto to be constructed that are taller than 50 feet? Voice your opinion on Town Square, the community discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.