The bitter tug-of-war between a developer looking to construct a four-story building on University Avenue and neighbors who say the proposal is too massive for the area will extend deep into next year after the City Council demanded on Monday a fresh round of public hearings on the controversial project.
After hearing from both sides of the protracted debate, the council voted unanimously to send the proposal for 429 University Ave. to the Architectural Review Board (ARB) for further refinements.
The council specifically directed the board to focus on portions of the zoning code that relate to context compatibility. This means a fresh look at the building's mass, scale and "design linkages" to other buildings in the area, including the Victorian homes that populate Kipling Street.
Proposed by Elizabeth and Jaime Wong in 2013, the discussion of 429 University Ave. has gradually morphed into a proxy battle in a broader debate over downtown development. The proposed four-story building would replace a pair of one-story buildings, including the one that until recently housed the boutique shop Shady Lane.
After securing the approval of city staff earlier this year, the project faced a citizen appeal and ended up in front of the City Council. In May, the council voted 5-4 to request fresh reviews in front of the city's Historic Resources and Architectural Review boards.
Six months later, the feedback was generally the same. The council agreed that the changes, while somewhat responsive to the council's direction, don't go nearly far enough in addressing some of its main concerns about the proposed building's mass, scale and compatibility. It didn't help that the Historic Resources Board generally agreed that the project didn't consider a broad enough area in determining the impact of the new building on historical structures in the downtown area. Nor that the Architectural Review Board generally concluded that the revised design, while less bold than its predecessor, is also more bland.
Then there was the continued opposition from neighbors, including shop keepers on Kipling who argued that the 31,000-square-foot building would overshadow their businesses and damage the character of their block.
Michael Harbour, a doctor whose office is on Kipling, once again led the charge. Harbour, whose appeal triggered the council's review of the project in May, argued Monday that the revised design amounts to "the same colossal building and footprint on the narrowest street in downtown Palo Alto."
"The new building is not compatible," he said. "The only thing that was done here was the third and fourth floors were moved to the rear of the building and shifted all the massing there. It is the same footprint. It is the same exact square footage."
The project has, however, changed in several ways from the version the council saw in May. The bold, dark masonry frame that once enveloped the building's bottom three stories has been lowered to the second story to de-emphasize height. The third floor, which in the prior iteration modulated between 4 1/2 and 18 feet from the street, will now be a uniform 9 feet from University Avenue. The fourth floor will be set back even further: between 30.17 and 39.59 feet from the street.
Supporters of the project, including the project's new architect Jim Trotter, argued that with these generous setbacks, the four-story building will effectively look like a two-story building.
"Pedestrians and local shoppers will continue to have a similar or better level of retail options with a more contemporary design," Trotter said.
Kent Mitchell, an attorney representing the Wong family, stressed that the building meets all of the city's laws, as well as its goal of encouraging more mixed-use developments in the transit-rich downtown area. The applicant has followed the rules and the council needs to do the same by approving the project, he said.
"The applicant has worked diligently to present a code-compliant project and staff has confirmed that this is a code compliant project. ... It may be that there is a political discussion to be had about the appropriate nature of development in the downtown area but that's a discussion that has not yet been had and the ordinance in place should still be in full effect," Mitchell said.
Others didn't see it that way. Critics of the project argued that the new building remains too tall and too dense; that it would literally overshadow surrounding properties; and that it would affect traffic and parking in the area in negative ways.
Michaela Dieffenbach, owner of Michaela's Flower Shop (formerly Stapleton), said her business relies on an existing alleyway that is used by delivery trucks. If the new building infringes on the alleyway, it would threaten her business, she said.
JC Andrade, whose restaurant Vino Locale occupies one of Kipling's single-story Victorians, voiced concerns about the new building's effect on both parking and aesthetics.
"It's such a massive building that it will absolutely hide us away," Andrade said. "And there will be no more of this hidden gem ... this beautiful Kipling Street."
While the applicant and project supports cited the recent revisions, critics focused on what hasn't changed: namely, height and density. Though no one disputed that the Wongs met the requirements when it comes to height and density (provided one factors in the density bonuses the developer expects to receive through a "transfer of development rights"), several council members argued that the picture is far less clear when it comes to the more subjective criteria of neighborhood compatibility, context and "design linkages" to neighboring properties.
Councilman Pat Burt remained as skeptical as he was in May about the project's ability to meet compatibility findings. The project, he argued, meets only a "fraction of the code" -- the sections that specify height limit, density and other easily measurable attributes. It doesn't do as well with the "more subjective" requirements of the code -- namely, the the ones that concern themselves with compatibility and that are subject to the Architectural Review Board's approval.
"That's the discussion that we're essentially having," Burt said. "I still have considerable concerns over meeting a number of findings."
Mayor Karen Holman concurred argued that code compliance means more than just meeting the basic numerical requirements about things like density and setbacks. If these were the only factors, she said, the city wouldn't need an architectural board.
"That's why we have context-based design criteria and ARB findings," Holman said. "To say it's code compliant because it satisfies the basic numerical aspects of code is not a complete look at the code."
Councilman Tom DuBois concurred and maintained that the building remains simply too big. The revised building, he said, still falls short on mass, scale and quality of the building.
"The scale just seems really out of place," he said. "While some small revisions were made, I don't think it addresses the fundamental issues that were brought up the last time we looked at this."
Other council members shared DuBois' concerns and made the case that the project still isn't compatible with the neighborhood, even while acknowledging that the criteria is fairly subjective.
"We are between a rock and a hard place on compatibility," Councilwoman Liz Kniss said. "And compatibility is very difficult to define."
Councilman Eric Filseth agreed but concluded that while compatibility is a subjective criterion, the proposal for 429 University Ave. doesn't seem to meet it.
"I hate subjective codes but subjective codes are still codes," Filseth said. "And to my view, this doesn't meet code."
The council's decision shifts the onus back to the ARB for determining whether the proposed building meets some of the squishier, more subjective, criteria around compatibility. And unlike in its review earlier this year, the board was directed Monday to delve deeper into the design and take a formal vote to recommend either approving or denying the project.
Councilman Greg Scharff, who recommended sending the project back to the ARB, stressed that he is "not doing this to delay the project." The board's prior comments on the project, Scharff said, constitute the most "tepid endorsement" he's ever seen from the board.
Councilman Marc Berman agreed that the project would benefit from another review by the board.
"I think a couple of rounds at ARB will hopefully lead to a project we can all support," Berman said.
After the meeting, Jaime Wong said his family will consider the council's direction and whether or not to continue the project that has been two years in the making and that remains many miles away from the finish line.
"We're talking about something that we've been working on since 2013," Wong said.
Harbour, for his part, told the Weekly he was glad that the council recognized the project's incompatibility with the city's code. The applicant, he said, "is very lucky that it wasn't outright denied."
"I think it needs to be significantly scaled back," Harbour told the Weekly. "This building will be see from as far away as Lytton."