Depending on which side of Palo Alto's growth debate you stand on, the development proposed for 429 University Ave. is either a long-awaited, thoroughly vetted and highly desirable improvement to one of downtown Palo Alto's most prominent corners or an out-of-scale, under-parked traffic hazard in the making.
On Monday night, the City Council is set to consider both points of view when it votes on resident Michael Harbour's appeal of the recently approved project. In some ways, the project perfectly epitomizes the ongoing community conversation about how much office growth downtown can accommodate. Randy Popp, chair of the Architectural Review Board, called the proposal "polarizing" during the board's Feb. 19 meeting on the project, which culminated in a 4-0 vote to support. Since then, dozens of residents have submitted letters expressing both sides of the argument.
For supporters, like Realtor Sam Arsan, the existing buildings are old, have failing mechanical systems and need to be replaced "to keep the city vibrant." Lisa Haley, owner of the nearby yoga studio, Be Yoga, said she had some concerns about the traffic flow on Kipling Street but noted in a letter last year that she is "thrilled at the idea of a new building" and "excited about this development."
For opponents like Harbour and residents with slow-growth leanings, the idea of a four-story building with a modernist, glassy design going up on a block filled with Victorian houses is the latest sign of the city's downtown growth policies gone astray. The attitude was perfectly encapsulated by Lytton Avenue resident Becky Baer, who bemoaned in a letter to the council the "alarming transformation of our beloved downtown area" and called the proposal "another nail in the coffin."
In the appeal, Harbour argues that the four-story building's size and scale will "overwhelm the adjacent and existing structures" and that its style is incompatible with the Victorian buildings on the Kipling Street block near the new development. The new building, he notes in his appeal, would bring 7,000 square feet of retail to the site while displacing two stores -- including longtime boutique Shady Lane -- that occuppied about 9,000 square feet between them. The parking requirements, he wrote, are insufficient, and the traffic conditions will be dangerous because of the narrow nature of Kipling.
Yet for Elizabeth Wong, the property owner, the project is a culmination of two years of work, four Architectural Review Board meetings and countless design revisions. Earlier this year, she agreed to relocate the building's stair and elevator shafts; set the balconies on the second and third floors further back; and relocate the public art from the building's lobby to an exterior wall facing Kipling. The project meets all zoning regulations.
City planners are recommending that the council on Monday uphold the project's approval by voting on it without debate or discussion.
Wong said many criticisms that have been levied by opponents of the project are off base. The loss of retail, for example, is a direct result of her including in the new building a garage with a ramp, an emergency exit and stairs, as per the city's requirement. Though the topic of offices displacing retail establishment has been a hot one during recent council discussions, in this case the retail space is not making way for offices as opponents imply but for required garage infrastructure.
"Those items -- the ramp exit, the emergency exit and the stairs -- reduced the size of the retail space, but none went to proper office use and none of it was at our election," Wong told the Weekly. "We were required by code to put all those things in."
She suggested an alternate way to bring retail to the downtown area: requiring Harbour's property at 421-23 Kipling St. to have retail on the ground floor.
Parking is another issue of dispute. Normally, a project of this sort would be required to provide 92 parking spaces. But because the two current University Avenue buildings paid parking assessment fees rather than provide the spaces, the requirement drops by 37 spaces, to 55. In addition, the development uses a mechanism called "transfer of development rights" to reduce the requirement by another 20 spaces, to 35. The mechanism relies on building rights (along with parking exemptions) granted to developers who rehabilitate and seismically retrofit historic buildings.
The issue of parking is always a sore subject in downtown's residential neighborhoods, which are still awaiting the launch of a planned residential parking program. Though the City Council has recently revised several parking regulations to beef up the requirements, residents in congested areas like Downtown North and Professorville are understandably frustrated when they see a development's parking requirement go from 92 spaces to 35.
The fact that the building's underground garage would provide 40 spaces did little to assuage the opponents concerns. In his appeal, Harbour argues that the garage will "create more problems than it solves." This is largely because it will force outbound cars to turn on Kipling, which is currently "so narrow that it is barely possible for two cars to travel past one another when cars are parked along both sides of the street," he wrote in the appeal.
But Wong rejects any notion that her project is skirting parking regulations. For her, the math is simple. She is required to provide 35 spaces. She is providing 40.
"We have five spaces more than is required," Wong said.
In approving the project, the architecture panel expressed some concerns about the area's traffic flow but ultimately concluded that the project followed all the rules and should be approved.
"Yeah, it's a narrow street. Yeah, it's got a different character. But the zoning contemplates all of this, and it's in place, and you've followed it," Popp said at the conclusion of the board meeting. "You've complied."
The appeal of 429 University Ave. is just the latest in a series of appeals filed by residents against nearby development proposals. In December 2013, the council considered and ultimately rejected appeals of two modernist, mixed-use, multi-story developments. Both 240 Hamilton Ave. and 636 Waverley St. were designed by Ken Hayes, the architect behind 429 University. More recently, the council considered several "individual review" appeals from residents who opposed the construction of new single-family dwellings in their neighborhood. On Feb. 25, the council rejected an appeal from residents of Corina Way who protested the construction of a two-story home. Two other appeals, for new homes at Metro Circle and Richardson Court, were settled by the applicant and the appellant before they got to a council hearing.