A proposal to demolish a two-story motel on El Camino Real and replace it with a 50-foot-tall hotel elicited early skepticism from Palo Alto officials Thursday, with several members of the city's Architectural Review Board urging the project architect to think smaller.
The proposal calls for replacing Hotel Parmani, on El Camino near Hansen Way, with a much larger building featuring 93 guestrooms. The existing 36-guestroom hotel was built in 1947 and is 16,943 square feet. Its replacement, proposed by the Prabhu Corp., would be 52,449 square feet.
Described as a "boutique hotel," the building would have two levels of underground parking with 88 spots as well as eight street-level spaces.
James Heilbronner, president of the firm Architectural Dimensions, wrote in a letter to the city that the new hotel would "invigorate" the property. He noted that the size of the lot, coupled with the city's height and density restrictions, requires them to build parking underground.
Furthermore, he called the additional rooms an economic necessity, given "today's costs of construction, regulatory requirements and associated fees to the 'break even' formula."
The board's Thursday discussion was a preliminary hearing, in which members offer feedback but don't make any decisions. Though the discussion covered a variety of aspects, from materials to open space, it had a common theme: How to make the building more compatible with the surrounding area, which includes smaller structures such as The Fish Market, McDonald's and Footlocker.
One idea that met a particularly rough reception was the developer's proposal to create some kind of a design element, such as a glass tower, that would exceed the city's 50-foot height limit by 15 feet. The board basically agreed that at a time when residents and council members are adamant about more stringent enforcement of zoning regulations, such an exception would be ill-advised.
Chair Robert Gooyer said there would be "no way I can go along with a 15-foot element there, basically for the sake of an element." Board member Wynne Furth made a similar point.
"I do think that a tower of this sort is not what's contemplated with the 50-foot height limit and that probably the creativity has to happen within that limit," Furth said.
Gooyer suggested that given the size of surrounding buildings, even a 50-foot height may be a little excessive.
"Even if you're allowed to go up 50 feet, I don't think this is a viable issue here, as the first one out of the chute," Gooyer said, referring to redevelopment along the block.
Another challenge for the project is a special 50-foot setback along Hansen Way, a regulation that the city put in place in 1959. The existing hotel was built before 1959 and thus grandfathered in. The new hotel would require a waiver of the requirement, given that the setback would take away about half of the property, which is about 100 feet wide.
The board made it clear Thursday that the requested variance needs much more consideration before it could be granted. Gooyer said it's important for the board to understand the reasons why the city instituted the special setback on this property before the waiver is considered.
The new proposal is just the latest in a recent surge of new hotels in Palo Alto over the last few years: The Epiphany on Hamilton Avenue, the Hilton Homewood Suites at the former site of Palo Alto Bowl and Hilton Garden Inn on the 4200 block of El Camino have all opened.
Other hotels are set to join them. On the southern edge of the city, Marriott has recently proposed building two hotels on the 700 block of San Antonio Road, a project that is currently going through the city's approval process. In the northern end, The Clement Hotel, a four-story luxury hotel with 23 rooms, is set to open later this year next to the existing Westin and Sheraton hotels.