The three-story office building proposed for Park Boulevard in Palo Alto was, by all accounts, an exceptional project.
For opponents, that was precisely the problem.
Dozens of them flocked to the City Council meeting Monday to protest a request by Tarlton Properties to exceed the height limit for a proposed development at 2555 Park Blvd. Located in the California Avenue Business District, between Grant and Sherman avenues, the 24,466-square-foot project would replace an existing one-story building. While its commercial zoning allows for a height of 37 feet, the applicant proposed a roof terrace and two staircases that protrude over that limit, raising the building's height to 50 feet.
The council responded by denying this exception request, effectively killing the roof terrace idea. The council also voted 6-2, with Mayor Karen Holman and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid dissenting (and member Tom DuBois abstaining), to approve the project without the height-adding elements.
Despite the vote, the council's discussion further underscored the city's growing anxieties about commercial growth. Even though the project is zoned for office use, and next to the California Avenue Caltrain station, it encountered fierce resistance from the public, with many wearing red stickers shaped like a stop sign, labeled "Stop 2555 Park Boulevard." In public comments, many argued that the development would worsen traffic and parking in the California Avenue area. Others argued that the building's garage would lead to car queues that would interfere with the traffic. Many complained about height.
Jared Jacobs, who lives next door to the proposed development, argued that the new office building would cast a shadow over his home. Jared and his wife, Alice, each made a presentation to the council, urging it to deny the project. He also argued in a letter that if the project is built, "our entire rear boundary will face a very close 37-foot concrete wall with a small tree sandwiched in front instead of the immense sky, sunrises and diffuse natural light that we enjoy today."
Jacobs also argued that the so-called "design enhancement exception" (DEE) requested by Tarlton should be denied. Peter Brewer, who owns the office building at 2500 Park Blvd., made the same point and argued in a letter that the height exception should be denied because it is "antipathetic to the privacy of the surrounding residential neighborhood." Brewer called the proposed design "monolithic" and said the request for additional height is inappropriate.
"It creates a massive structure that's out of proportion to everything else in vicinity except the courthouse," Brewer said.
Both Jacobs and Brewer pointed at the city's zoning code, which requires that for such exceptions to be approved, there must be "exceptional or extraordinary circumstances or conditions" at the property that require a waiver of a design rule.
In practice, however, approvals of such exceptions have been routine. In some cases, they are requested for mechanical roof equipment that would push the height just beyond the limit or an increased setback that would result in wider sidewalks. Recent projects that have asked for and received DEEs include 3159 El Camino Real, a mixed-use development around Equinox Gym, and a three-story building at 500 University Ave. The development proposed for 441 Page Mill Road, which the council is set review later this month, is seeking two DEEs.
Thus it was a dramatic break from recent practice when the council decision early Tuesday morning followed the letter of the law and, based on that, deny Tarlton's request for the added height. Councilman Greg Scharff observed that the council appears to be shifting its stance toward exceptions.
"Now that we have basically decided that we're all fundamentalists and the code is our bible ... what I'm really interested in is letting the developer and the business community know what they can expect and to have some consistency," Scharff said. "Right now we're going through a transition in the way they're thinking about it."
Councilman Pat Burt disagreed that there has been a shift among the council members and noted that several members have long been troubled about how the exceptions are used. A number on the council, he said, "have been trying to convey to the Architectural Review Board concerns about how liberally they've been granting DEEs."
In this case, the Architectural Review Board (ARB) unanimously supported the exception, and the city's planning staff added its own endorsement to the board's decision. Several speakers who supported the project urged the council to follow suit. Kristen Hughes, one of the investors in Tarlton Properties, lauded the proposed roof and said the building would be benefit the city.
"I think the roof terrace is a real asset to the workers and to this building, and I hope you will follow the recommendation of the ARB and the planning commission and approve the project," Hughes.
The council saw things differently. Councilman Eric Filseth came out particularly strongly against the height exception. The community, he said, "wants us to be more fundamental in our interpretation of the code."
"I think where we've gone wrong is we've been too liberal in our interpretation of things in the last few years and it's sent a mixed message to the developer community that it's not clear what they're going to get," Filseth said. "If we can be clear and be more fundamentalist, I think everyone will benefit."
When it comes to the Park Boulevard project, Filseth said it would take a "contortionist argument" to make the case that the proposed design exception meets "the letter of the law, let alone the spirit."
"It almost seems like we're jumping through hoops to justify something that isn't consistent with what the code is, which is 37 feet," Filseth said.
The tendency of projects to build to the zoning limit and then ask for variances "feels like we're being gamed, almost," Filseth said.
After the council agreed to kill the exception, members voted to approve the project. Because the building currently on the site is eligible for designation as "historic" on the state's historic registry, the council had to adopt what's known as a "statement of overriding consideration" to enable its demolition. Scharff called the existing building "ugly" and said the new building would be "a lot better."
Councilman Marc Berman also supported the project, noting that its location near the Caltrain station makes it an appropriate site for more office space.
"This is where we want to have office space, if we're going to have office space in Palo Alto," Berman said.