How many years should a developer be allowed to wear down city staff and residents in order to push through bad construction plans?
The City Council will hold a crucial meeting on Dec. 17 to evaluate the future of 429 University Ave., at Kipling Street, in downtown Palo Alto after facing years of pressure from the property owner to accept her development plans or face litigation. Now is the time that the Council should follow the respective recommendations of the Palo Alto Planning Department, Architectural Review Board, Historical Review Board and many neighbors and permanently deny the developer's poorly designed plan.
This proposed building is a massive four-story, cold cement block patterned after the city garage and office complex at 102 University Ave. The proposed design is not pedestrian friendly, which should be a priority since it is prominently located in a public shopping area. It removes the existing pattern of shelter, awnings and alcoves, which are comforting in rainy weather and replaces them with an immense flat wall. The proposed building does not enhance the surrounding historical neighborhood. The largest proportion of the building is dedicated to office space, which will most likely subject the rest of us to the associated traffic congestion created by new daily roundtrip commuters using the space.
The proposal also includes demolishing four Birge Clark buildings on the site, including those once occupied by the Shady Lane gift store and Design Within Reach showroom. Municipal Code specifies that a proposed new building must be appropriate in size, scale, mass and transition to its neighbors. The Council passed a motion stating that the developer must consider all sides of the building in its design, including Kipling Street and the alleyway behind the building. The Downtown Development Guidelines also encourage the responsible development of new businesses that open onto alleyways. This proposal inhibits that goal.
Kipling Street is a quaint street lined by historic one- and two-story Victorian homes and beautiful gardens. Kipling Street also is the narrowest street in downtown Palo Alto — nearly half the width of Bryant or Waverley streets. Yet, the developer is trying to build a multi-use project that would overwhelm the existing Victorians with the same tall and massive buildings permitted on El Camino Real. The alley adjoining Kipling Street serves as an entrance for several businesses. This proposed building would swallow up its neighbors and convert the alley into a busy garage ramp.
The developer has tried to publicly spin this megacomplex as a step toward creating needed housing in Palo Alto. In her appeal letter to the City Council, the developer states that the denial of her project is a violation of the California Housing and Accountability Act (CHAA). She has tried to intimidate the City with the threat of an expensive lawsuit for denying her the right to build three luxury apartments. However, the CHAA only applies to "very low-, low- and moderate-income households," which this project is not. The CHAA only pertains to developments where "at least two-thirds" is designated as housing.
Finally, this proposal also violates the City Council motion of Feb. 6, 2017, which specified that the final approved plan must "match" that which was originally submitted and approved by the Council. The developer has not met those conditions because she changed her plans.
The developer has enlarged the size of the offices on the fourth floor by an additional 16 percent from the original plans. The ground-floor retail space also has been reduced. The height and massing created by the existence of a fourth floor is one of the most contentious and opposed aspects of this entire project because it will tower over its one-story neighbors.
The Planning Director cites in his denial letter the developer's "refusal" to comply with details to assure approval. In thumbing her nose at the city official who is entrusted with enforcing Palo Alto's municipal building code, the developer has demonstrated a contempt for rules. She also has attempted to whittle down the Architectural Review Board so that she can control the outcome. She accused one ARB member, Wynne Furth, of bias, which ultimately led Furth to recuse herself to avoid any conflict. (Prior to joining the board, Furth had written a letter as a private citizen supporting a project appeal.) She then hired and quickly terminated Peter Baltay, an architect on the ARB, thereby requiring him to also recuse himself. Of the three remaining members on the ARB, she has now accused Robert Gooyer of bias because he voted against the plan and Osma Thompson of being too new to be able to adequately participate. The only person whom she hasn't publicly challenged is the sole ARB member who voted in favor of her project.
During this process, we also have seen the developer's family make a $5,000 political contribution to one specific council member, Greg Tanaka. When confronted, he returned the donation just before voting in favor of the developer's project. Tanaka was ultimately fined by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for violations of the state's Political Reform Act because he failed to properly disclose contributions from some of Palo Alto's other top developers. This activity has shaken the trust we have in city government. Enough is enough. The citizens of Palo Alto deserve better. The proposal should be turned down without any additional extension.
Palo Alto resident Michael Harbour is a specialist in HIV/AIDS Medicine and Public Health who practices at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. He can be emailed at email@example.com.