John Tze of Sand Hill Property Company, the developer behind the Palo Alto shopping center along Embarcadero Road, on Wednesday presented to the Historic Resources Board his plan for rebuilding the retail structure his contractors mistakenly demolished last September, in violation of an agreement with the city. After the board voiced its concern about the action and stressed the need for more construction oversight, members unanimously approved the new plan.
The Wednesday hearing was a victory for Sand Hill, which is now in the final stage of a tortuous, eight-year journey to renovate the dilapidated center at 2080 Channing Ave. Built in the late 1950s by Joseph Eichler, whose iconic homes emphasize natural light and post-and-beam architecture, the shopping center is the sole example of an Eichler commercial project. It includes a grocery store, which was recently renovated and is now occupied by The Fresh Market, and two smaller retail buildings, which Sand Hill was charged with rehabilitating.
As part of its "planned community" zoning, which granted Sand Hill the right also to construct 10 homes, the developer was charged with rehabilitating one of the two retail buildings. The other building was to be disassembled, relocated to another portion of the site, and rehabilitated. Instead, workers demolished the latter building last September, surprising neighbors and prompting a public mea culpa from Tze at a City Council meeting in May.
The demolition came after Sand Hill's consultant determined that the building was "not repairable, was not in good condition and would need to be replaced with new materials to match the material, configuration, character and finish of the original." Without getting a permit from the city, construction workers proceeded to knock the building down.
On Wednesday, Tze said the biggest mistake the company made with the project was not thoroughly exploring the condition of "Building 1" (the doomed structure) before proceeding with a required environmental study for Edgewood Plaza. He accepted responsibility for the mistake and noted that the reconstruction of both historic buildings will be overseen by the city's historic consultant, Carey and Company.
Though the board voted unanimously, members expressed a range of opinions. Beth Bunnenberg called the illegal demolition a "serious issue" and wondered what processes the city could institute to prevent similar mishaps in the future. David Bower, meanwhile, pointed to the fact that Building 1 was in very poor condition before the demolition. Tze noted that a large portion of the roof had rotted and that many beams were in need of replacement.
"We could've moved the whole building, theoretically, but we would've had to replace everything," Tze said.
Bower and others agreed that the important thing, from a historic-preservation perspective, is to maintain Edgewood Plaza's character as an Eichler shopping center. To achieve this end, Sand Hill will now recreate the original building, though the new Building 1 wouldn't be an exact replica because of changes in the building code over the past half century. For Bower, this wasn't a particularly troubling issue.
"In effect, we have not lost a lot of the building because there wasn't a lot of the building to lose initially," Bower said.
The change in plans will require the City Council to approve a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report for Edgewood Plaza, a document that would modify the original environmental analysis and that would in effect state that one "significant impact" — loss of a historic building — can no longer be prevented. In its two unanimous votes Wednesday, the historic board approved the new document and endorsed Tze's plan to reconstruct Building 1 out of new materials.
"I think as a board what we're doing here is we are acknowledging what I thought was inevitable when this project first came to us," Bower said. "We're trying to make the best of a situation that for a variety of reasons we didn't anticipate but that we now have to deal with."
Board members generally agreed that the new building should hew close to the original. The only divergent opinion came from the board's newest member, Margaret Wimmer, who suggested that while the rebuilt structure is a nod to Eichler, it may not be "the best building we can build at that spot."
"I'm not sure this is a prize-winning example of architecture that belongs in Palo Alto," Wimmer said.
Yet she ultimately joined her colleagues, who agreed that the building's original look and function should be respected. Board member Michael Makninen said that what the board is really interested in preserving is the "integrity of the shopping center." Chair Martin Bernstein called Sand Hill's revised proposal "the right direction to go." Bunnenberg agreed.
"It feels to me like the important thing would be to maintain the look of the shopping center and, if necessary, put a little plaque up to the effect that this is a reconstruction of what was there," Bunnenberg said. "but I would seriously worry about putting a modern, totally different building there."