It's still a long way from the finish line, but a proposal to build two Marriott hotels on the southern edge of Palo Alto got off to a promising start on Monday night when City Council members indicated that they like the idea at least in principle.
It's the details, however, that may delay and potentially doom the project.
In their first discussion of the hotels proposed for 744-48 San Antonio Road, council members generally agreed that the 2-acre site between Middlefield and Charleston roads could be a suitable location for a new hotel or two.
At the same time, council members emphasized that the developer would have to demonstrate that the 297-room complex would not worsen the traffic conditions on the already congested San Antonio Road. They also stressed that the new hotels AC Marriott and Courtyard by Marriott would have to be redesigned to be more compatible with the context of the surrounding neighborhood a tall order for two five-story buildings in an eclectic area marked by one- and two-story office buildings, residential complexes and light industrial uses.
In its "prescreening" discussion Monday, the council did not take any votes on the proposal by T2 Hospitality, which includes two hotels totaling 297 rooms between them one targeting the hip, cosmopolitan traveler and the other focusing on the business class. The project would also include 353 underground parking spaces and an internal courtyard separating the two buildings.
Mont Williamson, president and chief operating officer of T2 Hospitality, said the company chose this location for the new hotels because it wants to serve the employees in the commercial North Bayshore Road area in Mountain View. That, he said, is where the greatest demand exists for hotel guests.
"If you look at the supply of hotel units that are in Palo Alto, they are all along El Camino Real and north on 101," Williamson said. "There are no hotels within two miles of the North Bayshore area. Our thought is putting the hotel in this location is to provide hotels room close to where the demand was and prevent them from having to drive all the way through Palo Alto, where the current supply of hotels exists."
He noted that the hotel will meet all zoning rules and that the project is not requesting any variances or design exceptions. The project would pump about $3.5 million into the city coffers annually in hotel-tax revenues, he said. Williamson also argued that the traffic impacts would be minimal and that his company would be wiling to install signals that would actually improve the flow of traffic.
Neighbors, however, have yet to be convinced. Warren Storkman was one of several area residents to testify about the already frustrating traffic conditions. The two hotels would not help, he and others argued. The project is great, he said, for "some other place."
"The traffic at San Antonio, I don't care what time of day it is, it's bumper to bumper," Storkman said. "It's cars in mass array."
Joan Beit-Zuri also argued that two hotels are completely out of scale with the surrounding area. The two hotels, "with only a single access in the middle of an already congested San Antonio Road are simply not compatible with our neighborhood," Beit-Zuri said.
The city's Architectural Review Board reached a similar conclusion during its initial review of the project in June. Board members generally agreed that the proposed hotels are too massive for the area and encouraged the applicant to revise the design to create a better fit. Noting the scale of the proposed development, board Chair Robert Gooyer said it "will be a sore thumb to the people around it."
Getting the board to endorse the design will be one of T2's biggest challenges if it moves ahead with the proposal. Councilman Greg Scharff specified that he wants to see the board's endorsement before he supports it. But assuming T2 gets the board's blessing and the traffic analysis shows little to no traffic impacts, Scharff said he would support the new Marriot hotels.
"We, as a council, have repeated over and over again that you have to meet code," Scharff said. "This project fully and completely meets code. It would be a little disingenuous to tell people that if you completely comply with all our codes ... we still would not approve your project."
The council's slow-growth "residentialists," who typically take skeptical stances on new developments, took an open-minded view toward the Marriott hotels. Councilman Eric Filseth agreed with Scharff and said he found the applicant's explanation for why this location was chosen "compelling."
"I think this is a reasonable location for a hotel, given the area it's intended to serve," Filseth said. "My inclination is, if the project meets code and follows the zoning, we shouldn't stand in its way."
Mayor Karen Holman concurred, saying that a "hotel would be a good use of this site." Yet she also highlighted the many issues that are yet to be analyzed issues that will ultimately make or break the project.
These include traffic, impacts on historic structures and compatibility. A building in this location with four or five stories "straight up" does not respect the context whatsoever, Holman said. Rather, it creates "canyons and a wall of buildings," exactly the kind of situation the council is trying to avoid.
"It's not what we want to see here," Holman said. "It's not an attractive addition. The context and transition I think are really important at this site and all sites."
Vice Mayor Greg Schmid also urged the applicant to "break up the massing." Yet Schmid, who like Holman and Filseth typically favors slow-growth policies, also argued that the placement of the hotel near North Bayshore "is a positive element."
"That is going through quite a dynamic business development and this would provide lodging at a convenient and accessible place," Schmid said.
But Councilman Cory Wolbach was more skeptical about Williamson's argument about the dearth of hotels in the area. The only reason why the slide showed no hotels within two miles of site, Wolbach observed, is because the developer centered the two-mile zone at the intersection of Shoreline Boulevard and U.S. Highway 101. A different two-mile circle, centered around San Antonio and 101, would capture several Palo Alto hotels, said Wolbach. Furthermore, the developer did not factor Mountain View hotels in the area, Wolbach said.
The developer, he said, should change this slide to "increase the attentiveness of the council and the credibility of presentation."
Even with the council's tepid and conditional support, the project faces numerous uncertainties. The design issue remains a high hurdle, particularly after the City Council voted last month to demand revisions in a mixed-use development proposed for 429 University Ave. Though the building met all the city regulations regarding height, density and setbacks, council members said the project failed to meet the "subjective" code that pertains to compatibility and context.
Another challenge is keeping the Marriott brands. Williamson said that according to the existing agreement, "We have to have the project approved by the end of 2015 or we lose the brands." T2, he noted, is nowhere close to that. But with the council's positive feedback at hand, the company hopes to "renegotiate with brands and get additional time to get the project approved."
Councilman Marc Berman suggested that this additional time may prove to be extensive.
"This is Palo Alto and and things don't happen super fast here," he said. "I hope there is some patience on the applicant's part as well."