Palo Alto to set higher standards for new buildings | August 23, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 23, 2013

Palo Alto to set higher standards for new buildings

City Council agrees with citizens' criticism about massive buildings, narrow sidewalks

by Gennady Sheyner

The criticism began about five years ago, shortly after a 181-townhouse development called Arbor Real made its debut on El Camino Real in south Palo Alto.

Replacing the low-slung, ranch-style Hyatt Rickey's hotel, the looming row of narrow, two-story homes instantly became the poster child among land-use critics for everything that's wrong with development in Palo Alto today — suffocating density, narrow sidewalks and facades that are almost in your face.

Since then, other new projects have, one-by-one, challenged Arbor Real for the title of "most criticized development."

There's the new Alma Village, which greets drivers along Alma Street with the boxy rear end of a recently vacated grocery store; the four-story Lytton Gateway building downtown, whose corner tower will exceed the city's height limit by more than 20 feet; and 801 Alma St., an affordable-housing complex that a planning commissioner recently compared to a fortress.

Two of the government bodies that most frequently are on the receiving end of the public's blame — the City Council and the Architectural Review Board — this week agreed with critics.

Members of the two boards acknowledged in a joint session that the city can do much better when it comes to new buildings, particularly along El Camino Real.

"We have a public that's not happy," said Councilwoman Karen Holman, one of four council members who co-wrote a colleagues memo in April calling for reforms of the city's rules for sidewalk widths and building facades. "Even something (that) can be a good design, if it doesn't fit in this community, I think there needs to be a sensibility and a sensitivity to that."

It's not as though a vision for how El Camino Real should look doesn't exist. The El Camino Real Design Guidelines and the Grand Boulevard Plan, approved in 2002 by a coalition of cities from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, aim at promoting a more vibrant El Camino. In the plan, El Camino is studded with lively, pedestrian-friendly "nodes" connected by traffic-friendly corridors.

In the southern half of the city, the nodes would be around California Avenue, Barron Park and the commercial area near El Camino Way. Wider sidewalks, outdoor seating and other pedestrian amenities should be "encouraged where appropriate."

Buildings on El Camino should be brought up to the sidewalk, stand at least 25 feet high and have entries facing El Camino, the guidelines state.

But the guidelines have limitations. They are recommended — not codified in local law — so developers aren't required to meet all the rules contained within. Furthermore, some of their policies, including the directive to build up to the sidewalk, are contributing to the "fortress" trend that is sparking public outcry.

On Monday, Aug. 19, the council followed up on the April colleagues memo from Holman, Mayor Greg Scharff and councilmembers Gail Price and Greg Schmid. The memo directed the architecture board and the Planning and Transportation Commission to recommend zoning changes and revisions to the south El Camino guidelines. These changes, the memo states, should "implement the vision expressed in the Grand Boulevard Plan."

Members of both the council and architectural board agreed that Palo Alto can and should do better when it comes to architecture. Board member Alex Lew pointed to Berkeley's Shattuck Avenue, which is similar to El Camino Real in size but which features mixed-use buildings that are both traditional and beautiful, Lew said.

"I don't see any reason why we can't have that level of design here," Lew said. "I don't think there's an excuse."

The board has taken hits from the community in recent years, with some blaming it for approving substandard designs. But as Lew and the council noted Monday, the board's relatively narrow role at times has prevented it from recommending substantive changes to the projects it reviews. Lew gave as an example the new Hilton Hotel that is being built on the former Palo Alto Bowl site on El Camino Real. The design, he said, could have been enhanced if the project featured a restaurant on the street level, rather than hotel rooms. But such a change was not in the board's purview to make.

It may be now. The new council direction empowers the board to revise the El Camino design guidelines by making specific recommendations on zone changes.

Scharff said he wants to "know that we're not just talking" about raising the standards for building designs.

Some board members, including Lee Lippert and Randy Popp, urged the city to come up with a clear vision of what it wants El Camino to look like before making any major changes. Lippert said one possible move would be to come up with a "concept" document for El Camino, a process that would involve all the different stakeholders — businesses, property owners and residents in neighborhoods adjacent to El Camino, who would bear the brunt of new parking and traffic problems.

"Until you can begin to get these people together and talking about what El Camino Real can become, I think you can get a pushback from any one of those groups," Lippert said.

Popp recommended as the first step a creation of a "very specific vision" for El Camino Real within Palo Alto city limits.

"As a city we really want to develop our own sense of what we want the different zones of El Camino Real to be, what we want it to become," Popp said.

But Scharff and Holman stressed the need to do something immediately, rather than launching another long planning process. The city has already conducted major studies of El Camino, Holman said, including the one that led to the establishment of the south El Camino guidelines in 2002. Holman recommended codifying these guidelines, which would effectively give them teeth. While she agreed that parking, traffic and other concerns are legitimate, she argued against waiting to solve these complex issues before tackling the problem of massive buildings and narrow sidewalks.

"To do nothing now until we do a larger study is a real concern to me," Holman said.

"We don't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good," Scharff said. "We don't want it to be a years-long process."

Already, council members and board members pointed out that transforming El Camino will be neither quick nor easy. For one, it's a state street with a water line underneath it, which significantly limits the city's power over the street. Also, as Lippert pointed out, any effort by the city would have to reconcile the often conflicting interests of the many stakeholders along El Camino.

One challenge, as Councilwoman Gail Price pointed out, is the large number of small, shallow parcels on El Camino, which makes it difficult to make broad changes. Right now, Price said, the lack of "assembly concepts" and a lack of holistic vision contributes to the challenge.

Yet, as board members noted, there are some hopeful signs on that front. Lew pointed to the planned College Terrace Centre development on El Camino, which includes offices and the JJ&F market.

Then there's the new building proposed for 3159 El Camino, just south of the California Avenue Business District. The development includes consolidation of small sites around Equinox Fitness to create a mixed-use project with apartments, office space and a restaurant on the ground floor. The project has already won the endorsement of the planning commission and is set to undergo a review in front of the architectural board this Thursday.

"They're starting to happen," Lew said, referring to El Camino projects that create larger developments by consolidating small lots. "They're not easy, but they can happen. I don't think there's anything in the Palo Alto process that's impeding that."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


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