Palo Alto council splits over roof decks | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto council splits over roof decks

For some members, decks are a sign of vitality; for others, a waste of staff time

To Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff, a proposal to a build a roof deck on a prominent downtown building sounds like a "no-brainer."

The addition would create a useful amenity for employees at 285 Hamilton Ave., expand the city's stock of recreation space and turn bland, empty roofs into vibrant gathering spaces, he said Monday night.

"The touchstone should be, 'What makes things better in Palo Alto for residents first and then for employees?'" Scharff said. "I think the roof decks make it much better for everyone."

For Councilwoman Karen Holman, the decision was also easy. At 82 feet in height, the Hamilton Avenue building across the street from City Hall already exceeds the city's height limit by more than 30 feet and is about four times as dense as today's zoning code would allow (this is because it was built before these codes were adopted and is thus considered "nonconforming"). Allowing a 2,500-square-foot gathering area on the roof, from her perspective, would effectively make a project already too big for the area even bigger.

"If something already exceeds what our code says, it's a good policy that we do not increase the nonconformance," Holman said.

Thus, the request for a roof deck by Houzz -- the home-design company that is the main tenant at 285 Hamilton -- became the latest issue to split the council into familiar factions, which those more comfortable with development happily supporting it and those most anxious about growth opposing it.

The council didn't take any votes on the proposal, which is still in a conceptual phase and which has not yet been the subject of a formal application. The pre-screening session was a chance for the council to either nip the project in the bud and avoid unnecessary expenditures or signal its support and suggest ways to improve the project.

The council did both of these things and, in doing so, sent a mixed message to the prospective applicant, building owner Thoits Brothers Inc. But given that the more pro-growth faction enjoys a narrow council majority, the Monday discussion means the application is likely to move ahead.

Scharff, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Adrian Fine were particularly enthusiastic about letting Thoits Brothers and other building owners build roof decks. Fine suggested that these additions will enliven Palo Alto buildings and bring the city's "mojo" back. They will also create more pleasant work spaces and attract better companies, he said.

And when it comes to aesthetics and land use, the choice is between having a roof with air-conditioning and machine units on it or having one with people, Fine said.

"I think a roof with people on it is better, whether it's conforming or not," Fine said.

Not everyone agreed. Several council members raised concerns about possible noise and visual impacts from roof decks near residential areas. Councilman Eric Filseth and Councilwoman Lydia Kou both laughed off Scharff's assertion that a vote against roof decks is effectively a vote against having more park space.

"I don't think this is what most Palo Altans think about when they talk about parks and open space," Filseth said, noting that the city's new parks master plan makes no mention of rooftop spaces. "Given that the building is already 80 feet tall, it's hard to see the argument for expanding it further," he said.

Councilman Cory Wolbach didn't take a firm stance on the Houzz proposal but suggested that the council consider a broader framework for roof deck designs and regulations -- one that considers their potential impacts and mitigates them.

"If we do decide to go down this road, ... we should craft that ordinance to require design and regulations to address noise, privacy, safety and traffic and parking impacts," Wolbach said.

Based on the Monday discussion, such a framework is unlikely to be crafted any time soon. Councilman Tom DuBois specifically asking planning staff not to spend time on this issue, and Filseth said he was surprised that the proposal has already gotten as far as it did. And as city planners move ahead with a long work plan that includes (among many other things) a zoning-code update, a revamp of downtown's parking system, and a new concept area plan for north Ventura, a roof-deck ordinance is unlikely be a department priority any time soon.

Even so, planning staff recommended that if the council supported the roof deck for 285 Hamilton, it should also consider them for other zone-nonconforming buildings. They also acknowledged that different areas may require different regulations.

"Commercial corridors such as El Camino Real, which has stretches of commercial zoning abutting residential districts, may be more problematic than in Downtown or the Research Park," a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment states. "Roof decks on nonconforming buildings near residential land uses, especially single-family zoned properties, are inappropriate."

Some neighborhood leaders argue that this position doesn't go far enough in protecting residents. Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), an umbrella group with members from different parts of the city, submitted a letter contending that the same logic should apply to commercial areas -- particularly ones where the council is planning to add housing.

If planning staff agrees that roof decks don't belong near single-family neighborhoods, the group asked in the letter, why doesn't the same consideration hold for commercial areas like downtown, which also include residential uses like apartment buildings and condominiums?

The assertion, the letter states, implies "that single family residences are more deserving of protection than multi-family ones."

"The intrusive noise, light and loss of privacy from roof decks near multi-family residences will presumably harm even more people than those near single-family properties," wrote PAN Co-Chairs Sheri Furman and Becky Sanders, Zoning Committee Chair Jeff Levinsky and Zoning Committee member Neilson Buchanan.

But officials from Thoits Brothers and Houzz maintained that the addition will be respectful toward the neighborhood. The roof deck would not be a venue for parties or large meetings but rather a space for an employee to retreat and get a few minutes of fresh air, said Barbara Simmonds, who manages office operations at Houzz.

"I'm looking forward to watching the sun go down over the hills -- and that's it," Simmonds said.

John Shenk, representing Thoits Brothers, said the roof decks are particularly desirable given the city's limited park space.

"Allowing ugly and useless commercial roofs to be converted to attractive and productive things is something that we as a community and you as a council should support -- even encourage," Shenk said.


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62 people like this
Posted by Zoning for Sale
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 28, 2017 at 2:20 am

Get this: council members who last night avidly supported the Thoits proposal to enlarge their already massively oversized building have received campaign money from the Thoits. For example, Web Link points out that:

“Thoits Brothers, a development firm, contributed $1,875 to the Kniss campaign, and Hatco Associates LLC -- an entity affiliated with Thoits -- gave another $1,250 (both were reported as received on Nov. 20).”

These were among the donations that mysteriously arrived after the election so that voters wouldn't realize how extensively developers had underwritten certain candidates. Councilmember Kniss is in fact being investigated by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for violating election law over these donations.

Councilmember Tanaka also received Thoits money long after the election was over. He was fined by the state for various illegalities in his election reporting.

Both enthusiastically backed the Thoits last night.

In any other city, this would be labeled shameless corruption. In Palo Alto, it has become business as usual.

We voters need to put an end to this!

19 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 28, 2017 at 9:01 am

Actually, it's business as usual in a lot of places.

I think council members should disclose, as part of the public discussion, that they have accepted money from an applicant they are considering a proposal from.

I also don't have any objection to building a roof deck at 285 Hamilton. Seems to me like a reasonable use of the space.

30 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 28, 2017 at 9:30 am

Roof decks are already allowed in Palo Alto. This is about developers and their allies ongoing efforts to weaken city height codes.

44 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 28, 2017 at 10:37 am

For god's sake - is there anything you people don't oppose. What could possibly be the problem you have with someone upgrading their roof so people can hang out there? That the owners of the building might make more money? What is wrong with that? What is wrong with you?

31 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 28, 2017 at 11:13 am

What am I missing? If, as Ms. Simmonds says, the deck would just be a place for employees to hang out,get some fresh air, and take in the sunset - and specifically NOT a meeting or party venue - why can't they do that now? Is there some prohibition against grabbing a chair and sitting on the roof?

Maybe there's more to the proposal than is reported here. Regardless, it is silly to suggest that this "would expand the city's stock of recreation space" unless the public would have equal access to the rooftop deck. Silly. And insulting.

31 people like this
Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 28, 2017 at 11:23 am

eileen is a registered user.

I love the idea of open garden spaces on rooftops! Yes, let's have more. Perhaps a cafe or bar downtown somewhere?
Having a drink and watching the sunset sounds lovely!

28 people like this
Posted by Bob Dylan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 28, 2017 at 11:52 am

Bob Dylan is a registered user.

I agree with you. We have beautiful weather and beautiful views. I am pro roof decks. Houzz should be allowed to add one to their building; I wish there were more downtown.

23 people like this
Posted by Ben Lerner
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 28, 2017 at 11:57 am

Ben Lerner is a registered user.

If they approve this, they should count the square footage against the office growth cap.

14 people like this
Posted by green gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 28, 2017 at 12:06 pm

You like roof decks, bars, etc, then go live in San Francisco, San Jose, New York City, or some other city. STOP trying to make Palo Alto a CITY.

4 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 28, 2017 at 12:34 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

How about the fact that the upperclass can more easily look down on the lower class peons as they work? That is a no-brainer, too.

What is needed would be a complete sharing of ALL open space to ALL employees who have to live outside the Palo Alto city limits because of the high cost of living in Palo Alto.

9 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 28, 2017 at 2:18 pm

38 year resident is a registered user.

@ thing is certain. City Council has no common sense.

15 people like this
Posted by Duveneck
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 28, 2017 at 2:39 pm

SF downtown high rises are mandated to have an openspace or garden that is ACCESSABLE TO EVERYONE. You needn’t work in a specific building in offer to enjoy its plaza/garden. These are on roof tops and terraces that are attached to floors of the building and must have public access. Would those PA companies desiring rooftop terraces support such a mandate?

12 people like this
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2017 at 4:02 pm

Gethin is a registered user.

I think roof gardens as a concept is an excellent idea. I am sure there will need to be some controls such as noise but we should start with "yes" on this and not a typical Palo Alto "no".

14 people like this
Posted by Pro Rooftop Decks
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 28, 2017 at 4:41 pm

I love the idea of more roof decks. This one sounds great for the mental health of the employees in these offices. I also agree with Eileen. I'd also be very excited for things like rooftop gardens, cafes, bars etc. Keeping a hopping downtown is vital to the health of our city and the foot traffic needed for our small businesses to survive in a declining retail environment. I hope we continue Palo Alto's tradition of having a lively downtown. I'm sorry I wasn't here to experience the concerts at the New Varsity, back in the day! I just really don't see why some posters feel that spaces for fun and community interaction like cafes and bars should be limited to large cities.

24 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 28, 2017 at 5:01 pm

This is just another example of the "Gang of Five" council majority favoring businesses over residents.

My understanding is that these roof decks will not be open to the public and will be accessible only by the people who work in the building. Even if there were regulations to restrict noise, etc., we know that Palo Alto will not enforce them.

It is laughable that Mr. Fine thinks that these roof decks will bring the downtown's "mojo" back and attract better companies. Sure, downtown is great if you want to eat overpriced food and drink overpriced coffee, or maybe buy an overpriced mattress, but the paucity of retail, entertainment, etc. will not be resolved by the addition of roof decks. Besides, Palantir will continue to snap up any available office space, regardless of whether or not the building has a roof deck.

Once upon a time, I lived on the top floor of an apartment building. Our building was one floor taller than the building next door, which opened a roof deck. My home life became miserable. The noise was constant, starting early in the morning and continuing until the wee hours. I lost privacy as anyone on the deck could see into my home. I lost daylight because I had to keep the windows covered at all times. I lost fresh air as I had to keep the windows shut to reduce cigarette smoke.

When I chose to purchase a home downtown, I thought I understood the trade-offs. But now, I am sick and tired of city leaders protecting the sacred R-1 neighborhoods while dumping all the problems downtown. Every year, there are less and less positives and more and more negatives to living downtown.

Besides, city leaders and staff should be spending their time dealing with serious problems such as the railroad grade crossings, pension shortfalls, etc., not finding new ways to help developers and office building owners increase their profits.

12 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 28, 2017 at 5:08 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Thank you Annette,

Way too much time spent on it at last night's CC meeting, and especially from our mayor, going on and on about it's value as a benefit, and holding it up as a great open space and park enhancement feature, not mentioning that it is just a couple or three thousand square feet of space on a rooftop and a benefit for one company's employees only, and not for any of our own PA residents/citizens. That was kinda weird. And of course Adrian's famous words should be noted as well. Back to those late night meetings when they have some really important issues to talk about. Bring those back along with their campaign promises. How about the recent news about our impending deficit/debt and budget problems. Oh, and also affordable housing, infrastructure, transit/transportation, parking, railroad crossings, et al. Those are the hard issues we should all hold them accountable for, not the softball lob pitches they love to throw at us and spend so much time debating.

But, my good friend, Cory, got it right. If we want to make a blanket statement and an overall policy change, and an ordinance dealing with rooftops, let's include all the factors that could affect all of us, including those enjoying the rooftops...noise, privacy, safety, security, et al.

And the beat goes on!

5 people like this
Posted by Lazlo
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 28, 2017 at 5:28 pm

Never mind the city rents out office space in this building at a very pricey monthly amount.....
Guess that's how it works for those council members supporting this project. I am sure the city manager had staff quickly approve and forward this to city council. What a pity!

2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 28, 2017 at 5:42 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.


Sorry, I posted before I read yours. I second your motion,! Well, at least all the things you said, even if it wasn't in the form of a formal motion. Didn't we elect these CC members to solve the hard problems? I'm hard pressed to think of any of them that have been fulfilled. Can you? Lots of talk and some eloquent speakers during campaign season...then..."POW". The air went out of their sails/balloons and we are just left drifting along, seemingly rudderless! What will their campaign ads have to say in elections coming up? Oh, some of them are still eloquent speech makers, but that facade can be washed away easily if they can't prove that they've had any influential benefit on CC.

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 28, 2017 at 5:47 pm

While in a major city recently I was fortunate to have the opportunity to experience a rooftop cafe for morning coffee. It was a truly delightful experience and highly very different from having coffee outside at street level. The view of the busy street below, being able to see architecture normally way above eye level, and the privacy that being out of the way of passers by (and homeless) but still outside made it a novel experience.

As long as these outside decks are available to the general public through restaurants or other public amenities, I am in favor of them. I am not so pleased if they become an "employee or residents" only facility which the hoi polloi will never have the opportunity to experience.

7 people like this
Posted by Roofs are for solar panels
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 28, 2017 at 7:06 pm

I thought that we were a small city striving to be energy independent. Why, at this point, is there not a city wide ordinance that every roof top be covered with solar panels to try to less our environmental footprint. All we do is build (which spills tons of CO2 into the environment via cement production, wood, iron, etc production) and destroy the quality of life. Certainly there are no trees 8 stories high so it should be required that this building be covered with solar panels or that the building owner be fined.

Further going forward, all buildings in Palo Alto should be zero net energy -meaning that they produce enough energy on site to negate any energy that they pull from the grid. We should not add one more square foot of building that furthers the destruction of the environment. We are responsible for so much now with our consumptive lifestyle.

If the building inhabitants want to sit or hang out under the solar panels - I say let them do it as long as they go in at night and are quiet.

8 people like this
Posted by Sheri Furman
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2017 at 7:21 pm

Sheri Furman is a registered user.

You said "As long as these outside decks are available to the general public through restaurants or other public amenities, I am in favor of them. I am not so pleased if they become an "employee or residents" only facility which the hoi polloi will never have the opportunity to experience.'

That's the crux. What's proposed is for tenants only. No office in PA is going to let the public in for security reasons. And what's proposed can in no way be construed as additional "open space."

Besides, crafting a new ordinance based on one applicant's desire is not a good way to conduct urban planning.

4 people like this
Posted by urban
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 29, 2017 at 7:12 am

I have news for some Palo Altans. Palo Alto is a city! Palo Alto is changing! All cities change with the time, all of them. Who do you think you are to claim absolute immobility with the times? Some snowflake?

Roof decks are allowed even in historic areas (think colonial historic, not mid-century) in single housing* in the middle of cities that have village like areas-DC, Philadelphia, Boston, Savanah, etc. It's a great way to decrease the eco heating/cooling spaces and of adding greenery in the city. If you don't like it, don't live nearby.

*houses are terraced or as townhouses, but not common interest developments....

Ps. Disclosure-I'm a client of Thoits

4 people like this
Posted by Ike
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 29, 2017 at 9:04 am

We should make better use of our rooftops! It’s being dine elsewhere with less sunshine, it can be dine here. The most sensible approach would be, like one commentator wrote, to make solar panels on every public and office building mandatory to offset energy use.
Rooftop gardens are an excellent way to add greenery (improving air quality) and community space, as long as they are accessible to all.
And yes, we are a city! The whole area around the Bay is one giant city! Each single square foot is valuable, in many regards, and should be multi-use wherever possible, especially when it helps to mitigate our growing environmental problems. If we have to deal with horrible infrastucture and terrible public transportation, we can at least start to improve the situation in our rooftop “back yards”.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2017 at 9:36 am

@Sheri Furman

I take your point about security, but security in this country is a joke. It is nothing about an office allowing the public to enter.

Security in this country is a joke. On my most recent trip to Europe I noticed that security in general is way above what we have here. Airports, train stations, shopping malls, downtown areas, are all putting in measures to deny access to private vehicles. Concrete bollards in front of airports with passenger drop off areas 100 yards away from the terminal (with golf cart type shuttles for those with mobility issues) are happening everywhere. The same at train stations, tourist spots and shopping areas. We can't even imagine denying access to downtown Palo Alto and any vehicle can drive right into hotels, The Apple Store, and Stanford shopping mall. This country can't even prevent someone from getting hold of a pile of guns and getting into a church!

2 people like this
Posted by Lazlo
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2017 at 10:21 am

Should be great for city employees working in two floors of this building and their friends working across the street!
Plans and permits will surly be expedited.

2 people like this
Posted by drone_launcher
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 29, 2017 at 12:29 pm

Ooh, closer to all the intolerable airplane noise. No problem there.

6 people like this
Posted by Evan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 29, 2017 at 1:14 pm

This is insane. I spent years working in that building. What could the problem possibly be with making the roof space (which we could sneak up to, but for little reason) actually usable? Is there anything that Palo Altans don't oppose? As for height limits, it's mind-boggling that a FIVE story building 4 blocks from a Caltrain station couldn't be built today. But regardless, who cares if it's in violation of current building code? A roof deck deck doesn't change that.

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