It's probably no one's idea of how to best craft new policies and expectations for commercial developers in Palo Alto, but the City Council is making clear it is serious about no longer being loose with discretionary approvals that allow buildings to exceed one or more zoning requirements.
With a new majority coming out of last November's election, the council is in the midst of a number of initiatives to respond to community concerns over development, traffic and parking, but most will take months if not years to implement. They include adoption of a new Comprehensive Plan, creating a cap on development, tightening zoning and building restrictions, and new transportation and parking programs.
In the meantime, individual projects approved by the city's Architectural Review Board (ARB) or Planning and Transportation Commission, and discretionary approvals by the planning staff of "design enhancement exceptions," are showing up on council agendas for debate and action due to once-rare appeals by residents.
And the council is taking full advantage.
One example of this opportunistic approach is Monday's review of the ARB's earlier unanimous approval of an exception to the 37-foot height limit for a proposed new three-story building at 2555 Park Blvd., a block off California Avenue between Sherman and Grant avenues.
The developer sought approval of a 50-foot height in order to include a roof-top terrace and two stairwells required for access. Under the current zoning and building code, only mechanical equipment such as air conditioning or elevator apparatus is allowed to protrude beyond the official height limit of a building, so special approval was needed.
Both the ARB and the planning staff supported the request, even though approval of a design-enhancement exception requires a finding that there are "exceptional or extraordinary circumstances or conditions" that require a waiver of the normal restrictions.
No one argued there were any such extraordinary circumstances in this case, only that it would be a nice amenity to make use of the roof of the building for a terrace that could be enjoyed by employees.
Opponents, who turned out in large numbers wearing "Stop 2555 Park Boulevard" stickers, argued this kind of exception is exactly what is infuriating many residents and, in part, led to the election of candidates who promised to stop such developer tactics.
There were lots of other concerns expressed by neighbors and others about the project, especially relating to parking, traffic and building mass, but the height exception was the council's only real way to impact the project. (The other would have been not to allow the demolition of the current building because of its eligibility for "historic" designation on the state's historic registry, but its unattractive design -- called ugly by Councilman Greg Scharff -- made that a nonstarter.)
One problem is that the design-enhancement exception has become so routinely utilized that developers, the ARB, planning commission and city staff all embrace it as a way to make minor zoning exceptions that don't hurt anyone yet add to the aesthetics or functionality of a building.
While there are some design exceptions for which this is true, the City Council voted unanimously to reject this one, an action that would not likely have happened two years ago.
The message a majority of council members is sending is that zoning limits are not the starting point for negotiations over how developments can exceed them, but are actual rules to be followed.
One might call this new mindset "development by the rules," instead of a more collaborative review process that resulted in developers and city staff working through design issues and agreeing on what exceptions would supposedly achieve a more attractive or better building without obvious harm to neighbors.
That process, however, has been taken too far and is under a cloud of public suspicion that serves neither developers nor the community. We're glad to see the council shift to more literal rules of development, especially while other development policies are being reviewed and likely strengthened. It's a painfully time-consuming process for the council to get into the details of individual projects, but until the ARB and staff decisions begin reflecting the council majority's views, there is no alternative but to take action through these individual reviews. Creative design can and should be achieved within our zoning laws, not in exchange for desired zoning exceptions.