Council set to rule on divisive downtown development | News | Palo Alto Online |


Council set to rule on divisive downtown development

Following citizen appeal and design revisions, Palo Alto officials prepare to take another look at 429 University Ave.

To Elizabeth Wong, the building she's proposed for the prominent corner of University Avenue and Kipling Street is exactly what the city needs and precisely what Palo Alto's design guidelines seek to encourage: a modern and welcoming mixed-use development in the heart of downtown.

It follows all the zoning rules and respects the eclectic and diverse character of University Avenue, a collage of historical and modern buildings.

But several neighbors, the bare majority of the City Council and members of the city's Historical Resources Board don't quite see it that way. Earlier this year, the initial design for 429 University Ave. faced a citizen appeal from Michael Harbour, who argued that the building is too massive for the area and that it doesn't respect the largely Victorian and small-scale character of Kipling Street, where Harbour's office is located.

In May, the council voted 5-4 to approve the appeal and directed Wong to redesign the project to make it more compatible with the surrounding area.

On Nov. 30, the council will review the updated design for a project that has come to symbolize for many the broader political clash over downtown development, one pitting proponents of traditional architecture and slow-growth policies against those who prefer more urbanism and modernism in new buildings.

The glassy, 31,407-square-foot structure would replace two one-story buildings, including the shop that until recently housed Shady Lane, a popular purveyor of jewelry and figurines.

In addition to being one of the most prominent projects proposed for downtown, 429 University Ave. has also been one of the most divisive. On the council, the five members most closely associated with the slow-growth "residentialist" philosophy (Pat Burt, Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid) voted in May to send the project back for revisions, while those amenable to growth (Marc Berman, Liz Kniss, Greg Scharff and Cory Wolbach) favored approving the application as submitted.

The city's advisory bodies likewise reached different conclusions about the project, with the Architectural Review Board generally approving the proposed design and the Historic Resources Board raising alarms about the new building's impact on downtown's historic character and urging more analysis.

Since the council hearing in May, the Wongs have revised the design in hopes of minimizing the visual impact of the four-story building. Gone are the stone walls that in the initial design supported the terrace; and the overhang that framed the third floor revisions made to de-emphasize mass, verticality and height of the building.

The stone facade once envisioned for the third floor was moved to the second floor on both the University and Kipling sides, also to reduce the appearance of massing.

The new design also includes a new relationship with the street. In an attempt to make the four-story building look like a two-story building from street level, the third and fourth floors have been moved further back from the property line. Before, the two upper stories featured a modulated setback that ranged from 4 1/2 feet to 18 feet on the third floor and from 28 to 41 1/2 feet on the fourth floor. Now, the setback on the third floor is more uniform: a consistent 9 feet from University Avenue. The fourth-floor setback in the new design would range from 30.17 to 39.58 feet.

Not everyone, however, is excited about the change. The Architectural Review Board (ARB), which approved the initial design, was less enthusiastic about the new one. Though most board members generally agreed that the project continues to comply with downtown's design guidelines, some members said the changes have made the building "a lot blander than it was originally," in the words of board Chair Robert Gooyer. The revised design, he said, meets the setback requirements "almost to a fault."

"I think it works with the character of the buildings around it," Gooyer said during the ARB's review. "I mean, the reality of it is University Avenue is changing. Let's face it. A lot of the one- and two-story buildings that are there now are not going to be there."

Vice Chair Alexander Lew made the same point and lamented the removal of the stone elements from the building's facade. Something has been lost with the revised design, Lew said.

"The existing buildings, I mean most of them have railings, crenellations," Lew said. "They have more depth to their facades than this proposed project."

The Historical Resources Board, which focused on the building's compatibility with downtown's historical structures, took an even more critical stance. While the city's consultants and planning staff concurred that the proposed development would have no historical impact, under state law, the board argued that the analysis conducted to date was too limited.

Board member Beth Bunnenberg suggested expanding the study to consider a broader area and argued that the existing process "is not considering all of the cumulative impacts of this kind of building, this massing." The building in its present form, she said, is "very large."

"As we allow buildings to exceed the 50-foot height limit and they become extremely massive, we are setting the pattern and the cumulative effects will be felt all down the street that it's OK, you can take out these buildings and build something that is massive, that exceeds the height limit and it'll go through alright," she said.

Board member David Bower said the study area should be broadened at least to Cowper Street on the east and to Lytton Avenue to the north. Board Vice Chair Michael Makinen concurred and called the historical analysis "unduly limited."

"I would say that any historic buildings within eye sight of this should be included in the area of potential effect or the study area," Makinen said.

But after three years of work and countless studies and revisions, Elizabeth and Jamie Wong hope the Monday review will finally get them to the finish line.

In an interview with the Weekly, Elizabeth Wong emphasized that the project followed all the rules and that it seeks no exceptions. Beyond the normal requirements, there were also what she called "extraordinary analyses," including the historical-context study and the shadow analysis, all of which had been completed.

"From following the prescribed rules for use of Transferable Development Rights and the limitations on the floor-area ratio, to fully complying with the requirements for parking spaces, the Downtown Urban Design, and all other applicable laws, this project fully and completely fits with everything that the city requires and that the council has additional asked for," Elizabeth Wong said. "The City cannot fault us for delivering a project that meets all requirements, meets the scrutiny of professional consultants, the recommendations of the Architectural Review Board and the reviews of the planning and development staff."

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25 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 25, 2015 at 8:22 am

the shadow analysis Ms. Wong referred to was done by the Replacement architect she hired to replace Hayes Group.
Shouldn't staff have hired an impartial individual to conduct such an analysis?
It seems flawed to find that trees, that are shorter than the building and certainly not as solid as a building ( are they deciduous trees? ) would cast the same shadow as the building itself.

The building is certainly not compatible with the "conforming " buildings in the area. The larger buildings nearby are Non-conforming; meaning they were built before the present code standards, but remain until rebuilt and brought into conformance.

"Gooyer said during the ARB's review. "I mean, the reality of it is University Avenue is changing. Let's face it. A lot of the one- and two-story buildings that are there now are not going to be there."
Commissioner Gooyer not only seems to have crystal ball, but seems to be arguing for a hodgepodge development on University ave that both disrespects the downtown design guidelines and would even FURTHER contribute to the parking disaster in the downtown north and south neighborhoods that is rapidly creeping into crescent park and beyond.

It is concerning that the ARB had so little faith in the changes made by the new architect; in fact they said they could not recommend approval of the current version of the building, implying the integrity of Hayes Group design had been compromised.
In fact the massing and scale have not been reduced. the building is not one single foot smaller and the "massing has been shifted towards the Alley and Kipling street where it is most unwanted.

It is a shame that the applicant did not present a new version that responded to the city council direction!

3 people like this
Posted by Commonsense
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 25, 2015 at 1:09 pm

She's following ALL of the design and parking requirements. A 50' tall building, which is allowed, will cast a shadow. Surprised? If the rules need to be changed, there is a process by which to do this. In the meantime applicants and the city council need to respect the existing rules. Grow a spine, council, and approve something that is what the zoning calls for, even if you personally don't like it.

26 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 25, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Whenever I drive by the new building at Alma and Lytton I look in to see if there is anyone in there. It looks like the place is empty. It is an unappealing building. So it looks like there are opinions in abundance as to what the downtown is suppose to look like.

All glass buildings have limited appeal for a business. It looks like you could blow the place down. There needs to be substance to the building - it is suppose to last about twenty years - give or take.

I think the plans for the Menlo City upgrades are really good buildings with a lot of character and substance. I have given up on the PA city design review board - they keep imposing their strange design opinions on everything.

23 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 25, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Chip is a registered user.

@ resident 1

I don't think a 20 year life span for a building constitutes "substance." Does that mean you advocate cheap, disposable construction materials? Are you a contractor or supplier of building materials?

9 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 25, 2015 at 3:18 pm

If High Speed Rail is implemented on the Caltrain tracks then the buildings in proximity of the train station -which the one above is - will probably be replaced due to widening of the road in that section. They will want to go to a 4 track system vs two track. Alma is a very narrow road in that section. Outside requirements will change the footprint of the downtown area.

39 people like this
Posted by Sheeeesh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 25, 2015 at 5:25 pm

If this development is so ugly and so divisive, then don't build it, plain and simple. It will benefit no one but Ms Wong, the architect, and the contractor. That is NOT enough in its favor.

6 people like this
Posted by L. O. Laud
a resident of University South
on Nov 25, 2015 at 5:48 pm

University Ave isn't the Champs Elysees. Eichlers aren't Notre Dame. Why are people here so hellbent on saving "artifacts" barely older than their grandparents?
If politicians and bureaucrats really want to preserve their precious slice of suburbia, they should start by de-incentivizing businesses. You can't have it both ways.

20 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 25, 2015 at 6:04 pm

Crescent Park Mom is a registered user.

University is eventually going to feel like a big tunnel with no roof....

18 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 25, 2015 at 7:25 pm

1. Buildings are not allowed to be 50 feet tall. They have to meet zoning. 50 feet is the upper limit but not all buildings are legally allowed to be this tall despite what past city councils have done.
2. Past growth-promoting city councils have changed the zoning to allow larger buildings, this council is trying to restore the zoning that our city used to have before the pro-growth era.
3. Make this building 2 stories and it will be fine.
4. Claiming that all of University will one day be an office canyon as justification for allowing this building is what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. How about this building needs to stay at 1-2 stories so we don't destroy the downtown. This works for people who what to have a reasonable quality of life.
5. Let the sunlight shine and the trees grow in the downtown. No more zoning exemptions. Return to the original zoning for downtown.

11 people like this
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Nov 25, 2015 at 8:40 pm

Boring and uninspiring? - Yes
1980's throwback design? - Yes
Manhattanization of Palo Alto? - You got to be kidding!!!

14 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 25, 2015 at 9:10 pm

Well southbayresident - that we can agree on. It looks like they went to the cheapest building materials and cheap design. All of the newer building are going down the wrong road.
So Apple made a building that is glass and now everyone wants to create something that is along those lines. But Apple can move out of the building anytime they want - the purpose of their building is solely to sell their products. That is it.
Who or what is going to lease space in the building? A lot of businesses do not want to function in a fish bowl with a bunch of people walking by looking in.

13 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 25, 2015 at 10:23 pm

"4. Claiming that all of University will one day be an office canyon as justification for allowing this building is what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy."

The Palo Alto overdevelopment process operates by using existing abominations to justify the next atrocity. A somnambulant city council dutifully complies, and that's how we got the mess we have.

Let's hope our new council breaks with its predecessors, acts intelligently, and cuts this unsightly pile of urban blight down to size. Else, like a zombie, this project will become yet another existing abomination to be cited in justification of the next atrocity.

16 people like this
Posted by Dennis Briskin
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 25, 2015 at 10:33 pm

That corner is no place for such a massive structure.

Posted by Apple builing
a resident of Downtown North

on Nov 26, 2015 at 10:01 am

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13 people like this
Posted by downzoning
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 26, 2015 at 1:22 pm

This building is a debacle on that corner by every measure - design,scale,
compatibility, access on Kipling. The first step in creating some semblance
of responsible government control over development at this point in PA is a down-zoning in the commercial areas. Likewise in the residential areas
FAR's need to be reduced and setbacks increased.

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