Guest Opinion: CON: In today's market, 62 feet is needed downtown | November 16, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 16, 2012

Guest Opinion: CON: In today's market, 62 feet is needed downtown

by Chop Keenan

The community is abuzz about the inviolate 50-foot height limit being breached in the AOL (Park Boulevard) and MacArthur Park (27 University Ave.) proposals. These two plans are unique situations and are entirely distinct from the downtown 50-foot height limit.

Let's start with the downtown 50-foot height limit that was established in the 1970s in reaction to a "super block" 15-story building proposed where the Stanford Theater sits.

In today's work environment of LEED light and energy optimization and architectural excellence, a structural-steel building with 12-15-foot ground-floor retail ceilings (think the new Apple store) and 10-foot office ceilings requires 60-62 feet of height. It's still a four-story building, but designed for a healthy light-filled environment.

Interior environment healthiness has appropriately become paramount and natural light has proven to make a significant difference to employee morale, well-being and productivity. To transport sunlight into the workspace, taller windows and higher ceilings are critical. The best designs embrace this goal and some even incorporate floor-to-ceiling glass with reflectors to enhance the sunlight's penetration to the interior spaces. The secret sauce of the Valley has been our unique ability to innovate and create. Our entrepreneurial spirit thrives when people have serendipitous encounters and buildings play an important role. Offering people a healthier and more productive work environment is best and is one great way downtown Palo Alto can continue to lead. All of this means offices ideally have ceilings that are at least 10 feet tall.

Building codes have changed the construction of buildings. To incorporate greater seismic and safety prevention improvements along with the many great LEED best practices the interstitial spaces between ceilings and floors have increased. While there are many factors to consider it is commonly held that the appropriate space needed for a building's HVAC, electrical, plumbing, fire sprinklers, data cabling, and so on is at least foour feet.

Palo Alto should adopt a new height standard of 62 feet in the downtown area. This would permit each building to have a traditional structure with interior spaces that are modern, high-quality, flexible and cost effective. It eliminates the conflict of form at the expense of function. And finally, it translates a Class A desire into a Class A experience for residents, visitors and employees. Four-story buildings are architectural exclamation points, particularly on corner locations.

The AOL and MacArthur Park proposals are unique in their proximity to Caltrain, remote due to lack of immediate surrounding residential neighborhoods, properly parked, and most importantly they offer extraordinary public benefits. Each attribute needs to stand on its own, with the public benefits being the game changer. A new police building and the TheatreWorks Performing Art Center are unattainable without a public/private partnership. Also, both proposals will add to the long term retail vitality of California Avenue and downtown Palo Alto respectively.

People may get worried about height but this is misguided, as it is only a portion of a successful building equation. We should enable our community to grow and evolve with the industry's best practices. Our downtown will be a better place with first-class buildings that can be taller than three stories. The AOL and MacArthur Park projects are well thought-out tradeoffs for important public benefits in an era of ever-dwindling public capital. These projects are truly responsive to the Planned Community District mandate for public benefits.

With great design the issue will not be the height, but rather a proposed buildings context and influence on the neighborhood and community.

Editor's Note: On Dec. 3 the City Council is scheduled to discuss the huge project proposed by John Arrillaga at 27 University Ave. Among other things, the developer is asking the council to relax the city's 50-foot height limit on downtown buildings to make way for the project. Here are two guest opinions on the limit, from developer Chop Keenan and environmentalist Doug Moran.

Chop Keenan has been an active developer in the Bay Area and other parts of the state since 1968. His current Palo Alto project is a four-story, 26,000-square-foot office project at 135 Hamilton Ave. downtown.


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Posted by George
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 16, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Let's get some facts straight. First, the 50 foot height limit isn't just a "downtown 50-foot height limit" as stated by Chop Keenan. It applies to the entire City of Palo Alto. Misstatements of fact have no place in a civil public dialog.

Second, by referring to two of the biggest development projects in Palo Alto (smaller only than Stanford Hospital expansion)as "unique situations and are entirely distinct from the downtown 50-foot height limit" he's conditioning the public to the idea that zoning code is somehow optional and should not apply when applicants don't want to comply. Furthermore, his description of two HUGE projects as "The AOL and MacArthur Park proposals" is trivializing the massive increases in height and density that are being requested for two large tracts.

The 50 foot height limit may need consideration, but it should occur as a matter of long-term planning and poly making, NOT in conjunction with a project review.

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Posted by George
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 16, 2012 at 9:07 pm

That would be "policy making" in the last sentence.

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Posted by KB
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 16, 2012 at 9:35 pm

News flash for Chop Keenan: it's a 50 foot height limit, not a four story limit. Can't fit a modern four story building into fifty feet? Well, I guess you'll just have to settle for three stories then. I'm not sure why the fact that a developer can't build a modern four story building in under fifty feet is our problem. Guess you'll just have to live with three stories and a smaller profit, dude! Sorry about that.

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Posted by Mike Alexander
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 16, 2012 at 9:54 pm

The author suggests that the areas where his clients want to exceed the existing height limit will be better places with "buildings that can be taller than three stories," but fails to say plainly why this is so. To understand, look at the world through his eyes. What he sees are dollar signs. Four floors hold one-third more dollar signs than three floors do, and, to Mr. Keenan, that looks nice.

This puff piece, with its shamanistic references to Class A LEED secret sauce nurturing sunshine-y serendipitous entrepreneurial spirit, makes no compelling argument that raising the 50-foot limit is in the public interest.

I say, make these guys PROVE that taller is better for Palo Alto. Challenge them to PROVE that more offices in these places will improve the environment, reduce crime, reduce class size in the schools, improve performance of the city budget, decrease traffic congestion, make the city more bikeable, or walkable, or affordable, or peaceful. If they can prove it, well then maybe. But they can't.

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Posted by Agree
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 16, 2012 at 10:56 pm

I have to agree with the above. I'm generally not knee-jerk anti-development. But it is hard to figure how taller buildings are somehow better for our town's well-being, while they obviously make more money for the developer. I agree with Mr. Keenan's points about higher ceilings, etc. - and the points work just as well for 3 story buildings.

If the developers cry "we can't make money" with smaller buildings - well, then it seems likely that the value of the land will drop until someone can make a fair profit.

There may be arguments for bigger buildings, but this wasn't it.

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Posted by Horselady
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 17, 2012 at 8:53 am

Of all people, I would think Chop Keenen could give a better argument for tall buildings. One of the reasons he can't is that his arguments are bogus.

Palo Alto is a residential city, not a big-business mecca, nor was it ever intended to be one. So stop trying to make it one. People like Chop Keenan, John Mcnellis, and John Arrillaga are ruining Palo Alto for its residents, the people for whom it was intended.

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Posted by No chop for me
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 17, 2012 at 9:40 am

Does Chop Keenan actually live here? If he does, how could he want to do something like that to the city he lives in? Arrillaga and Mc Nellis do not have to live in what they wreak, but there is a saying about not p------ in your own pond.

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Posted by No thanks
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 20, 2012 at 2:54 pm

My ears perk up when I see a misrepresentation that favors the speaker. Calling the 27 University Arrillaga mega project the MacArthur Park, when that handsome historic building is intended to be REMOVED, is really something.
I recall one of the developers saying the 4-building office complex was really one building, because it had connections (bridges?) between them.

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Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 23, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Mr. Keenan, you base your proposal for an increase in maximum building height to 62 feet in "downtown" on the benefits of higher ceilings for ground-floor retail and upstairs offices, and related benefits of more modern design.

Assuming you are referring specifically to the Downtown Commercial District, would all of the other current development standards (e.g., maximum floor area ratios, setbacks, daylight) for this district specified the municipal code remain in place?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.