Developer looks to demolish, replace six-story El Camino building | News | Palo Alto Online |


Developer looks to demolish, replace six-story El Camino building

Sand Hill Property Company wants to build four-story development next to Stanford University's new housing complex

It's one of the tallest buildings in Palo Alto, though few would say it's one of its most welcoming.

A giant concrete slab that stands just north of the city's most congested intersection, the Brutalist building at 2600 El Camino Real looks like nothing around it.

The structure hulks over the Palo Alto/Stanford Soccer Fields to its south and a construction site to its north, where Stanford University is building a new housing complex.

Despite its prominent location near El Camino and Page Mill Road, few would ever refer to it as a landmark, much less a "gateway."

In fact, it seems to mock just about every major design guideline that many in Palo Alto holds dear. At 75 feet tall, it towers over the city's 50-foot height limit, having been built years before this "sacred cow" restriction was established.

In a town that worships stucco walls and red-tile roofs, its exterior is unapologetically mid-century modern and the top four stories resemble a colossal brick with punched windows balancing on the bottom two stories. And while ground-floor retail is generally the rule for mixed-use developments around town, the building forces patrons of its retail tenant, Fambrini's Cafe, to march up the stairs to the second story.

Now, plans are afoot to tear down the building and to redevelop the site to something deemed more appropriate. Exactly what that something would look like remains to be determined, though on Sept. 18 the city's Architectural Review Board launched the conversation with a preliminary review of the project plans.

The concept currently on the table calls for a new four-story building that would have the same density as the existing structure but would be more compatible with its neighbors.

At more than 62,616 square feet, the building would remain one of the tallest and most dense in the immediate area. But the developer, Sand Hill Property Company, wrote in a letter to the city that the new building would reflect "the goals of human-scale design along the El Camino Real corridor, which we believe should cater to the pedestrian; progressive transportation strategies in support of future tenants' use of alternate modes of transportation; and modern, sustainable design features that have come to be expected in Stanford Research Park and Palo Alto."

Though both the existing building and the proposed development far exceed the density requirements of the underlying "service commercial" (CS) zoning designation, the developer will be allowed to keep density at existing levels because of a provision in city code.

Sheldon Singh, a consulting planner with the city, said the building was constructed in 1966, before the city's height and density restrictions were put in place. City code allows new buildings to have the same floor-area ratio (a measurement of density) as the non-compliant buildings they are replacing, though no additional square footage can be added, Singh said.

Under the proposal from Sand Hill Property Company, the new building would still have about 55,000 square feet of office space and would retain the underground garage currently at the site, though it would also add a parking deck to the rear, creating 31 additional parking spaces.

The Architectural Review Board did not take any votes on the project during its Sept. 18 hearing, but board members did express some concerns about the proposed size of the new building and the ways in which it would relate to the three-story residential buildings next door.

No one disputed architect Cliff Chang's assessment of the existing building, which he called "an incredibly antiquated building in almost every aspect" and a great example of what to do "if you want to make the least expensive building the fastest."

"This could be Houston," Chang said. "A tower with a big parking lot around it, versus a building that starts to actually define space."

Under the proposed plans, the new building would feature a main lobby entry from El Camino, as well as a patio facing the main street. There would be a gym and lockers at the ground floor and exterior decks on upper floors. The architectural style would remain modern, with metal panels and stone columns. There would also be an outdoor gathering place near the main entrance to the building, according to a staff report.

The board, however, wasn't entirely sold on the need to grant the applicant a "design enhancement exemption" that would allow the building to exceed the maximum height by 2 feet. Chang said the request was made out of a desire to add two feet to the ground floor, to better accommodate financial office and retail uses.

Board member Kyu Kim said it's "difficult to say that the exception can be granted" and advised the applicant to "avoid height exceptions altogether" and "stay within zoning regulations."

Chair Robert Gooyer and board member Alexander Lew both agreed. Going beyond the 50-foot height in the current political climate would likely trigger a citizens appeal and force the issue to go to the council, Lew said.

"The 50-foot ceiling thing has a strong following in Palo Alto," he said. "People don't want to chip away at it."

Lew observed that the new building, while shorter than the existing one, will "stand out." He urged the applicant to pay more attention to making the development more compatible with neighboring properties.

"My issue is that somehow it needs to blend in with the lower buildings," Lew said. "If some of it pops up above, that's fine, but I don't want it to overwhelm all the rest of the smaller buildings around it."

Board member Wynne Furth was more skeptical and said she was disappointed with the lack of a planning process or any real collaboration between the city and Stanford for this central site. She suggested that the building include more retail space on the ground floor and a more "effective, attractive, useable open space." The proposed retail space, she said, "is too small to be effective."

Board members didn't express any sadness in seeing the existing building go, though Furth praised one of its features: a second-floor terrace that is currently being used by Fambrini's. Even so, Furth acknowledged that she wasn't even aware that the cafe existed before the new project surfaced.

"I've lived here for 17 years and I never knew it was there until I did a site visit," Furth said. "So clearly it doesn't engage the street and the public in the way it might."

Lew also said he was pleased to see the new plans emerge for the prominent site.

"This building is so big and non-conforming that I thought we'd be stuck with it forever," Lew said. "I'm actually happy to see this project."

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26 people like this
Posted by With Friends
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2015 at 6:02 pm

I applaud the efforts, but why do people keep talking about pedestrians on EC while making everything so unpleasant for them? Walking mostly single file and dodging obstructions while yelling over the drone of traffic is not conducive to walking.

17 people like this
Posted by Ditto
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2015 at 6:05 pm

I agree with everything above, but want to add the choking fumes of cars and buses to the list of what makes walking the narrow sidewalks of ECR miserable.

6 people like this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 23, 2015 at 9:13 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

I like this brutalist building - so ugly it is kind of cool. But if they are going to lower the height, and add parking, go for it.

I'll miss Fambrini’s though - beautiful view from the patio! Check it out before it is gone.

11 people like this
Posted by Eye of the Beholder
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2015 at 12:36 am

@Slow Down:

You put into words what I could not. This building has been part of Palo Alto almost as long as I have, and while it stands out, it also feels like home. I know this building is not attractive, but it somehow just feels right because it is so familiar.

I understand why they want to replace it, but I will miss it.

7 people like this
Posted by JHacc
a resident of another community
on Sep 24, 2015 at 8:57 am

We had a few events there. Beautiful views from the terrace!
I do recall an elevator that we used - not sure if that is accessible to restaurant patrons.

It would be a shame to tear it down. Lots of wonderful memories there!

7 people like this
Posted by rhody
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 24, 2015 at 10:20 am

Why isn't there a picture of this existing building. So much criticism but we can't see for ourselves.

1 person likes this
Posted by Fran
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 24, 2015 at 10:22 am

Click on the address link in the article. It'll bring you to Google Maps. There should be a street view picture of the building. Here's the link below.

Web Link

16 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 24, 2015 at 10:26 am

Old story. Tear down an example of significant architecture and replace it with a generic desultory pile which is a direct derivative of the Cookie Cutter Office Box school.

Easy ARB approval here.

2 people like this
Posted by Edgewood Plaza developer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 24, 2015 at 11:31 am

Isn't this the Edgewood Plaza developer?

25 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2015 at 11:53 am

Is it another Ken Hayes designed monstrosity? In 20 years all the Hayes buildings will be out of favor and PA will be a hideous town. In fact, PA is being destroyed as we speak.

11 people like this
Posted by Uglification of PA
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2015 at 11:59 am

[Post removed.]

30 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 24, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Every time you tear down a building and replace it with another it is bad for the environment. There was an environmental cost (energy, natural resources, pollution) to make the cement, metal components for reinforcement and all of the other building materials in the original building. Destroying the building wastes these resources, disposing of all the old waste hurts the environment and then you use more energy and resources to build the new building. Further this new building is of the "cram in as much building into all of the available space as possible" mode. The old building may be tall but it has open space around it and a open air parking area. You don't feel trapped by it. The new building is a giant slab of "in your face ugly" covering the entire lot without any openness or sense of space. Hint to architects - lots of glass doesn't equal open and airy, just bird unfriendly and shinny. And not everyone is enamored of large obnoxious shinny glass buildings.

2 people like this
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 24, 2015 at 12:26 pm

Hulkamania is a registered user.

2600 ECR is where the FBI had their local office until an early morning dog walker found a bomb laying against one of the ground floor posts. The FBI moved out a week later.

36 people like this
Posted by Lydia Kou
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 24, 2015 at 1:48 pm

We are Palo Alto... the Birge Clarks, the Julia Morgans, the Eichlers, the ranches, the Victorians, the bungalows and a city of trees and green open spaces.

NOT, Houston, Denmark, Manhattan, Portland, New York, San Francisco. So stop trying to be what this town is not! Where are the parks and open space in those cities? In carved out plots and the rest of the city is devoid of trees and greenery.

38 people like this
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 24, 2015 at 1:53 pm

ChrisC is a registered user.

I've been in Palo Alto 33 years and never once said, "oh my, that building doesn't fit in with the neighbors." What neighbors? There used to be a gas station next door. What about Palo Alto Square? What does it match? Is it next? There is an elevator to the top floor of the building for Fambrini's. Does anybody remember the delicious food the Larabee auxiliary of the Peninsula Childre's Center used to serve in that space? so this is the Palo Alto story now: developer sees $$$ in a property, convinces town there is an aesthetics problem that nobody cared about, razes a perfectly good building, rebuilds clogging busy area with noise, dust, inconvenience. Voila, the PA business model.

16 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 24, 2015 at 1:59 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

I remember delivering there.
Small Elevators. Small Halls
BUT a Patio Cafe and a BofA

So why make all the rubble? Is the 3000 (cluster) ECR next?

It ain't really broke.

A parking garage behind might help the area (I believe there is some parking below)

There are uglier (and more run down) eyesores along ECR

Fix those

21 people like this
Posted by Mary
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Is this an opinion piece or an article? How about giving an unbiased view of the building? Starting the article with "few would ever refer to it as a landmark" sets up a false consensus. This has a provincial tone and is not journalistic. I am interested in the building, the problem, and the city's solution. I am also opposed to tearing down old buildings if they are functional. Brutalist architecture may not be in favor right now, but is it our job to clear the city of any shred of the past? Or do developers have most of the power here?

15 people like this
Posted by Sad But True
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 24, 2015 at 4:42 pm

"Or do developers have most of the power here?"

They have had it for decades, ceded by generations of star-struck small-townish councilmembers. We are their Bonanza Republic.

Like this comment
Posted by Building
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2015 at 8:35 pm

@rhody: For a picture, click on the link in the second paragraph, get the map and then click on "street view." Viola, a picture of the building.

9 people like this
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 24, 2015 at 8:58 pm

Not sure why the author mentions mid-century modern, as this is brutalism through and through. I actually like the building; it's so ridiculously ugly that it's kind of lovable, and it's certainly memorable than most buildings on ECR.

Like this comment
Posted by ellamaynard
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 25, 2015 at 2:05 am

ellamaynard is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

14 people like this
Posted by Modernist 1
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 25, 2015 at 12:06 pm

I love this building! I don't agree that brutalist and modernist buildings are out of fashion, I believe the contrary is true. Unfortunately the majority often doesn't understand these buildings and too often they are torn down and replaced by some vanilla stuff we surely have enough in Palo Alto already. The rebirth of Casa Olga as the Epiphany Hotel is just one example on how you can breath another life into a building and keep a landmark in place. This variety keeps this City interesting. I remember the Eichlers being out of favor not too long ago - look at them now!

6 people like this
Posted by Realist
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Sep 25, 2015 at 1:26 pm

The developer's objective is not to enhance or disgrace the architecture, but to maximize the revenue from the site.

5 people like this
Posted by Good Riddance!
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 26, 2015 at 8:44 am

This would be one of the few building developments that would improve Palo Alto. The existing building is a hideous example of Brutalism, once a trendy left-wing architectural trend. Anything would be an improvement

11 people like this
Posted by Always liked this building
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 26, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Everything about this building is good. We went to offices on the upper floor, often having lunch at the volunteer run Children's Health Council cafeteria, that had GREAT food. When they closed, we'd go to Fabrini's Deli Café, that also has wonderful food even now, last I checked.

The office managers held an Oktoberfest for building tenants and clients. It was held on the terrace. Great fun, an annual traditional event.

The hallways are not at all small, unless what is being delivered is a piano. Even then, I'm sure it would fit in the elevators (that stop at all floors) and in the hallways too.

The underground parking and the two parking lots that surround the building are functional, and useful. No small spaces that encourage car body damage.

Views from almost all over the building, especially the second floor, and on up, are excellent. That building is well designed. It would be a tragedy, to demolish it.

Will there be another building that goes right to the sidewalk, like the Berlin Wall? This building is pedestrian friendly. It is in good overall shape. It ought to be left alone and remodeled.

Why the need to destroy everything that is "Palo Alto"? Where is the Historical Society and why is no one speaking up?

Posted by Edgewood Plaza Developer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis

on Sep 26, 2015 at 3:49 pm

Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.

6 people like this
Posted by Tim
a resident of another community
on Sep 26, 2015 at 9:41 pm

That building is perfectly good and Famnbrini's is one of the best lunch places in town. Leave well enough alone!

3 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 26, 2015 at 9:58 pm

Everyone needs to go up to Redwood City and see all of the new buildings - both commercial and residential that are at least 6 stories or more. They are great looking buildings. The new Kaiser hospital is higher that 4 stories.

Why is PA stuck on some limitation on height?

It is possible that this rule was made up at a time when the construction methods in an earthquake environment were not advanced - but now we have very good methods for construction in an earthquake zone. This whole concept needs to be addressed because we have good methods for construction now and should not be limited to four stories.

As to the building in question I have never found it to be unappealing - it is just there - it does not stand out as some unappealing building. I think that is a ploy used by the developer and supporters who want to build something.

If you want to look at very unappealing building then go south of El Camino from Oregon Expressway and you are looking at a lot of very old, one and two story ugly stuff. I suspect that those very old buildings have a very low tax assessed value and are owned by someone influential in the city - are they untouchable?

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 26, 2015 at 10:04 pm

folks - re-read the lead in to this article. It is a set-up trying to manipulate public opinion and is a bunch of nonsense. A bunch of people think they are formulating opinion regarding a perfectly fine building. Sorry - do not understand why this article was written the way it was - it is not journalism at its finest.

2 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 28, 2015 at 8:06 am

This article sounds like a bunch of people commenting on the dresses worn on the red carpet. It is also putting words in the public's mouth as to what they want. The 50' height limit is restrictive as to what we can do here - why is that still in effect?

This article is short on actual facts:
- Who owns the building now?
- Is this on city or Stanford property?
- Is the occupancy rate 100% or for some reason lacking on paid tenants?
- What else has the Sand Hill Properties done that reflects their expertise in development?
- Why has this building been focused on - the real reason - not the artistic evaluations which are absurd.

Other recent buildings in the city - now completed - like the one across from the train station - do not appear to be fully occupied or even attractive. Why put a glass building across from a train station which has continual impacts from train passage? Especially if you think HSR will be coming.

Is any one looking at the one story buildings on ECR south of Oregon? Those are very old, ugly buildings. Why isn't anyone doing anything about that?

8 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 28, 2015 at 8:26 am

The next question is what is the plan for the removal of dirt and building materials - concrete? Also metal for heating and plumbing?

At this time we have continual trucks moving earth in the baylands, as well as on San Antonio for the giant hole for a new building. There is also much earth movement up on Foothill for the Apple building. So where is it all going? Right now the baylands is taking a hit and the people on Zanker dump are getting restive since that area is now going to be developed.

Any assumptions concerning local dumps are probably a wish list since that is where the next wave of building will occur.

2 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 28, 2015 at 12:49 pm

"Everyone needs to go up to Redwood City and see all of the new buildings - both commercial and residential that are at least 6 stories or more."

OMG!!! Redwood City is getting ahead of us!! Build baby build fast!!!!

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 30, 2015 at 8:35 pm

This building would be perfect for the police department. You could also put some administrative staff for the fire department. It is a perfect fir.

2 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 10, 2015 at 8:47 am

I am not familiar with Sand Hill Properties but reading the SJM there is a lot of letters to the editor concerning Sand Hill's Involvement with the Vallco Shopping Center redevelopment in Cupertino. There is note of law suits, bankruptcies, accidental removal of a historic building in Palo Alto, lack of adherence to contractual relationships, lack of attention to resident's concerns.

So why is the city entertaining a relationship with them concerning a perfectly fine building? There is nothing wrong with the building. Other than media smacking it down.

Palo Alto does not need to buy itself into another construction debacle at this time. We just went through that - we don't need to keep going down the rabbit hole every time a developer pops up with a desire to tear things apart.

2 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 13, 2015 at 12:01 pm

We have another thread on East Palo Alto in the system. We are all congratulating them on the great strides they are making.

Note that the beautiful and formable office/hotel complex on the University and 101 interchange, formerly Whiskey Gulch, is in East Palo Alto. Those buildings are in excess of four stores.

That is what people first see when they come off the freeway into the city. It is an impressive set of buildings. The architecture is beautiful considering the law firms that are located there. If what people first see is over four stories then why is PA stuck on a limitation that serves no purpose.

And why is a building in excess of four stories a reason to tear it down.
In the case of the building on El Camino Sand Hill Properties wants to leverage that building with the upgrade of the Vallco Center in Cupertino.

That is going down the rabbit hole - we have been there before.

1 person likes this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 13, 2015 at 1:10 pm

There's a big difference in siting tall buildings in an area that has no other buildings or residences in its collective set of shadows. Another example would be the Oracle complex out in the extremes of Redwood Shores. The development has plenty of land on all sides of the buildings and does not impose its bulk upon its immediate neighbors.

Allowing such building in downtown PA would create an unrecoverable and claustrophobic canyon that would impose its presence on so many people in the surrounding blocks of DTPA.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 13, 2015 at 1:26 pm

I don't get your point as being relevant to this situation. The buildings on University / 101 are directly across the street from the beginning of the University large homes.

The building on El Camino is next to a soccer field and across the street - Oregon from even taller buildings. It is a business district.
It has no relevance to the buildings on Oracle that are in a large business park.

4 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 13, 2015 at 2:15 pm

Sorry for that. I agree that my comments are a distant tangent to the ECR building. Let me try to tie some of the loose ends.

I think that any change in height limits is a very slippery slope. There is a push for ECR (in PA) to change - but there is no doubt that then the push comes to Cal Ave and DTPA. That's why I'm very resistant to any changes to height limits in PA.

The EPA complex is not in PA and the Crescent Park homes across the creek are definitely not in the shadows of that complex. Plus PA has no control on EPA height limits. I compared the EPA complex to the Oracle complex in terms of not being in the center of town.

Sorry for the confusion.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 13, 2015 at 3:41 pm

I am focused on ECR because there is a bus lane that will be forced down our throats whether we like it or not. If that be the case than the shabby buildings that are currently in the "ancient, falling apart zone" will make this whole event a useless exercise. We are not short on useless exercises.

If there is a bus lane then we should use that as the impetus to redevelop
the street. Part of ECR does have very attractive new apartments / hotels so why not the whole street. We can make one building for young, single people and another for seniors. Throw in a low income building.
The city can accomplish all of their goals in one location and the end result would be new, attractive buildings that everyone can be proud of.

Like this comment
Posted by Harry Devlin
a resident of another community
on May 4, 2016 at 7:09 pm

Harry Devlin is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 4, 2016 at 9:49 pm

This is an older story - not sure what the current situation is. Sand Hill is involved in the Vallco Shopping center rebuild. Why they would take this on at this time is questionable. Unless they are trying to merge the financials for the Vallco project with this one. What ever the outcome the two are intertwined as to limited resources and financing.

The write-up on the building is unfortunate and one sided. It is a fine building. And if you look down the street there is a lot of new building going on in that direct section of ECR. When those new buildings are done the whole street will be looking very good and the building in question will not be sticking out by itself.

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