Guest Opinion: City should flex height limit for creative development | March 10, 2017 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 10, 2017

Guest Opinion: City should flex height limit for creative development

by David L. Hirsch

The 50-foot building-height limit championed by some Palo Alto City Council members is a desirable objective but ought not to be an unalterable regulation.

"Height" is a matter of perspective and perception. By perspective I mean visual not "point of view." By perception I mean actual, physical "observation" not "concept."

If one looks at a building with elements that are 60 feet tall on a large site and one is a considerable distance away, or if these elements are related to others in a proportional relationship, they may look quite appropriate. If these structures are on a narrow street with 30- to 40-foot-tall buildings as their immediate surroundings, they are likely to seem quite massive and the street will seem to be constricted.

Palo Alto's prime example is the iconic Ramona Street, with its incredible variety of scale and detail. The most recent modern building complements the historic Pedro de Lemos lower-scaled elements on the block. The early 20th century Birge Clark building at Hamilton Avenue and the corner tower element at University Avenue act as bookends, defining these two prominent corners. Both of these structures exceed the 50-foot height limit, a controversial issue that the council recent decided to codify in the city's zoning ordinance rather than include in the city's broader Comprehensive Plan.

The size and proportion of an element of a building or buildings that is higher or lower, is forward at the street edge or set back from it are important urban design considerations. Such variations allow for an opportunity to respond to different objectives: to reinforce a major street corner, to permit a juxtaposition of shapes and proportions, to provide useful exterior deck spaces, to allow sunlight to penetrate an inner courtyard. Together they allow for the possibility that a new and creative idea might enhance an otherwise ordinary design.

These design elements, along with the city's affordable housing and commercial initiatives, must be negotiated with the developer and will impact decisions regarding height and bulk. The city wants projects that include a significant proportion of affordable housing mixed with office or retail commercial uses. Perhaps such a project, strategically located, could include public amenity spaces. And to achieve all of these objectives the project developer would require an increase in the area of market-rate housing and commercial space, which could be achieved only if a portion or portions of the development exceeded the 50-foot height limitation.

The fears are obvious: Palo Alto is a low-scaled, pedestrian-oriented, mostly residential community. It is obvious that most residents do not want it to grow into a major urban environment, impersonal and congested. There is a balance right now with the quiet neighborhoods and an active downtown. The mistakes of the past, with high-rise commercial and seniors' buildings, have been curtailed. Vigilance is necessary lest these errors in judgment return. But such concerns should not overly restrict creative development.

The content of developers' presentations must demonstrate and emphasize sun angle studies, massing considerations, perspective street views, neighborhood context modeling and pedestrian impact well before facade designs, unit plans and construction materials are presented. This feasibility study is when the 50-foot height limitation is either justifiable or not. To exclude discussion of the aesthetic issues for a later date simplifies the analysis and eliminates the issue of taste, which is always subjective and time-consuming.

And although this discussion is about the physical nature of development, the city must also be careful to critically analyze the developer's pro forma. It is a "quid pro quo" issue. The developer expects to realize a significant profit as a reward for the risk taken, and the city is willing to provide a bonus by relaxing the zoning restrictions, including appropriate height exceptions. The developer in return commits to the important benefits for the community.

So while the 50-foot height is a desirable limit, exceptions should be allowed.

David Hirsch is an architect who spent most of his career in New York City but has moved to Crescent Park in Palo Alto.


Posted by Mary, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 10, 2017 at 10:43 am

""Height" is a matter of perspective and perception."

Actually, height is a measure of distance, and in Palo Alto, the height limit is a matter of feet and inches - not some subjective estimation of "perspective and perception."

Mr. Hirsch's gobbledygook attempt to justify exceptions to the height limit is an invitation to the further Manhattanization of our city - something many, if not most Palo Altans would like to prevent.

Apparently, Mr Hirsch's "perspective and perception" have been warped by the years he spent in the actual Manhattan. While I'm all in favor of a diversity viewpoints, I'm not in favor of a negotiation on the 50' height limit which was a reaction to the last time people with Mr. Hirsch's perspective held sway at City Hall.

Maybe if he needs a fix of taller buildings, Mr. Hirsch could return to Manhattan a couple of times a year to get it out of his system. But I don't think we want that here.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2017 at 11:11 am

Good heavens, an urban architect who wants taller buildings?

The problem here isn’t the architecture, it’s the generic planning assumptions: we need projects with office space (every city always wants more economic development). We want more public amenity space in large buildings (every city always wants this, especially ones who have already paved over all their other kinds). We want more affordable housing (that’s true, but any amount at any cost?).

In reality, most of this stuff is developer-speak rationalization. If you buy the premises, then the dialogue makes sense. If not, then it’s just a chant. All the same arguments apply at 70 feet, 80 feet, or 120 feet, and also in Redwood City, San Francisco or New York.

Is our goal really to be the same as those places, another boilerplate of “smart” urbanism? The author says, of course not. Yet we get there one project at a time. Which link is stronger: to generic planning convention, or to our own unique community?

Finally, all this reflects the biggest circular assumption of all: to get a good project, you have to give a developer financial concessions. But why? Because the economics don’t justify it otherwise. Why not? Because the land is so expensive. Why is the land so expensive? Because it’s been bid up to an equilibrium based on the size of building you can put on it. That’s now 50 feet. But the cycle is the same at 70, 80, or 120 feet.

Running the hamster wheel from 50 feet to 70, 80, or 120 feet will generate some short term land profits, and some work for the building industry, but the end point is the same - just with taller buildings and more expensive real estate. Density doesn’t make housing more affordable; Greenwich Village is more expensive than Palo Alto, not less. Density just makes things denser.

Posted by Dan, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2017 at 12:28 pm

... An architect by trade in favor of taller buildings? No surprise here. The sad thing is that we could potentially have some flexibility but based upon common sense and past experience, give them an inch and they will take a mile. So, no to relaxing the height limit.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2017 at 3:05 pm

Why would someone who spent most (if not all) of his life in New York City as an "urban architect" choose to move to a residential suburban town?

Hopefully, it is not to use his talents to convert our charming little town to the concrete jungle that he helped to craft on the East Coast.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 10, 2017 at 5:25 pm

"Why would someone who spent most (if not all) of his life in New York City as an "urban architect" choose to move to a residential suburban town?"

Professional competition.

Height limits are speed limits: everybody regards them as the minimum. "Creative development" is just another dogwhistle for "build baby build."

Taller buildings hold more people, who bring in more cars, which would paralyze the city even more completely. Unlike Manhattan, which developed its commercial and transit infrastructure as it grew organically into a city over centuries, Palo Alto is a suburban town with negligible local transit and spread-out retail centers. You gotta drive. Mixing our suburban driving necessities with urban population densities is a sure prescription for urban disaster. If you want a Manhattan here, you need to first clearcut Palo Alto and Mountain View. Start saving your pennies for the buyout.

I would suggest Mr. Hirsch give it another try in Manhattan, or settle for Queens or Chicago or Houston or Minneapolis or Kansas City.

Posted by Gale Johnson, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 10, 2017 at 6:18 pm

Please don't throw rotten eggs or tomatoes! I, too, have favored increasing height limits...but in specific areas where higher density housing would make sense. Those available spaces in downtown areas that wouldn't affect sight lines of residents of R-1 zones. They would be near offices where many of our tech employees work. CC seems to be meek or unable to get up enough nerve to do it, and they don't seem to be able to get their developer friends to build them anyway. It's easier to push for ADU's in neighborhoods as a way of providing much needed housing. That is not a solution, just dabbling with it and not facing the real likely impacts of it. And it ain't worth spit as far as a way of solving the proclaimed housing crisis. Oh whoopee, maybe they can brag about the number of ADU's doubling with the new relaxations, from 4 a year to 8 a year. Not very impressive when they say we need thousands of new housing units. Craziness in my town that was sane for so many years.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 10, 2017 at 6:49 pm

"Please don't throw rotten eggs or tomatoes! I, too, have favored increasing height limits...but in specific areas where higher density housing would make sense"

Gale, please don't be naive. Once you increase heights limits in one area, there will not be any height limits for other areas. It would be exactly like the boy who had his finger on the hole in the dyke. Once the finger is removed, there is no way to put it back and stop the flood. The only thing that stops, for now, the manhattanization of Palo Alto, is height limits. The same thing holds for high density. Once you densify one area, it would be a matter of time before all other neighborhoods are densified. If you give up an inch, you give up your entire territory. PAF and their allies aim for a radical urbanization of Palo Alto. If you fall for the height limit ruse in "specific area", you are enabling them to achieve their goal-the Manhattanization of Palo Alto.

Posted by Scare tactics, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 10, 2017 at 8:45 pm

When grocery outlet wanted a neon sign, Tom dubois claimed that there would then be demand for neon signs everywhere. That has not come to pass and neither will maurucios claim about height limits. Also claiming that palo alto is being manhattanized is another score tactic. However I believe that building owners that do not live in palo alto should have as much say as residents. That would be fair, right maurucio?

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 10, 2017 at 9:30 pm

At some point you guys are going to be in the minority camp against Manhattanizing the Bay Area, and then it's going to happen in force without these kinds of compromises. I wish you guys would just accept that the housing shortage exists and work with compromises towards building higher density, like this proposal, rather than being against all tall buildings with no room for compromise and push the region further towards the breaking point on housing costs.

Posted by Open, a resident of Southgate
on Mar 10, 2017 at 9:38 pm

I completely agree with Mr. Hirsch. The city planners need to have flexibility. We need more designers and less "nay-sayers", i.e. we need people who can look at meet the demand for more space and housing and build at different heights as long as the buildings are good to look at. Having ugly boxes that are under a certain height is not helpful Compromise and forward thinking people can help us build this city (it is no longer an urban town, sorry....) in ways that are creative. My understanding is that in certain situations having a taller building helps with the overall design of a space, be it a neighborhood or a residential house. Thank heavens we have council members and people with expertise like David Hirsch who are willing to think creatively and not simply react to change negatively as the so called "residentialists" do. We need some tall housing, near transit areas for example, and some small housing, for elderly people or young people and more "middle housing" everywhere. Let's not stay stuck in the overly privileged 1950's concept of what our communities should look like but joint the innovators who try to create for the future. Thank you Mr. Hirsch for your ideas and courage!

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2017 at 10:18 pm

My problem with height is twofold.

Light and shade, a tall building causes big shadows on its surrounds. With a tall building there will be some spots that will always be in shade. Shade and shadows can be a problem.

Tall buildings on both sides of narrow streets which are right up beside the sidewalk cause tunnel like claustrophobic feelings to many people.

We need to be able to see the sky and see the hills. We need to be able to feel safe and feel as if we have some space, rather than enclosed in a concrete box.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 10, 2017 at 10:20 pm

"I wish you guys would just accept that the housing shortage exists and work with compromises towards building higher density, like this proposal, rather than being against all tall buildings with no room for compromise and push the region further towards the breaking point on housing costs."

Too late. The real estate rental and sales markets are already softening as the latest tech boom fades. Besides, what is needed is submarket housing for service workers, which almost nobody is willing to build in any significant quantity in this universe of nonalternative facts.

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 10, 2017 at 10:31 pm

Softening? You can tell me it's softening when one bedroom apartments dip under $2000.

Posted by Sanctimonious City, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2017 at 11:07 pm

I don't know if it was intentional or a Freudian slip but @YIMBY spoke the key word, "Force"

The global elites, the liberal progressives and their backroom conspirators the developers have only one thing in mind. They want to take what the current residents have and give it to themselves without paying for it.

For the global elites it is just their typical racket they do everywhere around the world to exploit the masses, insure mobility without borders and keep themselves in power over their inferiors.

For the progressives, their game is redistribution from the haves to the should-haves. Of course, they get to decide who is deserving and it always includes themselves.

Then, we have the developers. The only thing they truly are building is bigger bank accounts. They are like amateur magicians doing parlor tricks. Everybody knows the coin really did not come out of the volunteer's ear but the audience plays along.

Similarly, the politicians all know the promises in exchange for the zoning variances including taller buildings, smaller setbacks, less parking spaces or for a few more BMR units never deliver community benefits.

The one thing all of these groups have in common is they want to extract value out of the residents without paying the true costs. Make no mistake. It may not be as obvious but they do it by force.

It will already take over $1B in infrastructure investments to support the current build out. Unless those true costs are paid first it is just armed robbery of our quality of life.

The street mugger's tools are black market weapons. The coalition of the confiscators use creative development, eminent domain and the city council.

Posted by Share the Wealth, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2017 at 12:09 am

Instead of relentlessly building upwards in downtown Palo Alto, we should be encouraging our larger companies to graduate out to neighboring cities along Caltrain that are already zoned to handle growth and associated higher density housing for their employees.

We need to share the abundance of jobs and associated tax base with neighboring downtowns such as Redwood City, San Mateo to the north and Sunnyvale and San Jose to the south. We have been taking all the jobs and leaving them with the supporting residential role for far too long. We need to give them a chance to shine.

Just like how Facebook graduated to Menlo Park and has brought new life and taxes for much needed services to the neighboring Menlo Park and East Palo Alto area and Box has rejuvenated Downtown RWC, we need to actively encourage Palantir to graduate out of Palo Alto so Downtown Palo Alto can enable the next dozen startups coming out of Stanford to form.

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 11, 2017 at 1:03 am

Wow, and to think all this time I thought that the people living in grannie extensions, spare bedrooms, or paying an arm and a leg for an apartment were the exploited masses. When really it's the homeowners who are being exploited, what with their high home values and.....yeah! It all makes sense now!

Yeah, no. Forced is the word, because this housing crisis is ridiculous and we shouldn't have to suffer it just because you don't want a tall building blocking your view and casting shadows.

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 11, 2017 at 1:06 am

And speaking of extracting value without paying the true cost, do you know what that reminds me of? Prop 13.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 11, 2017 at 10:01 am

After some thought, I'll have to agree with the author's points about height and perspective. Consider the towers of Palo Alto Square, 120 feet tall, 450 feet from El Camino, or the old Cabana (now Crowne Plaza), 100 feet tall, 380 feet from the street. Neither looks particularly out of scale. Both roof-lines are about 15 degrees upwards, blotting out very little of the open sky. So it follows indisputably that a 50-foot building should have a 190-foot set-back for the same perspective.

Now imagine Palo Alto Square as tall as the World Trade Center. That's the same angle we presently get with a 50-foot building and our standard 12-foot set-back, a neck-craning 76 degrees up. We may as well be in Manhattan.

Posted by Money, money, money, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 11, 2017 at 3:56 pm

It's about money. If you buy property with a height limit of 50' and get it upzoned that increases its value by millions of dollars. Some people would say or do just about anything to realize this million dollars of free money. They also claim its to help lower housing but when it comes to increasing the percentage of subsidized housing for those taller buildings there is sudden resistance because it cuts into their profit margins.

Manhattan has subways and is orders of magnitude bigger than Palo Alto. While Palo Alto and its workforce is not laid out to support the public transporation to achieve the efficiencies of Mahattanization, San Jose is and would like and could use the additional jobs. From a regional perspective, especially when considering transportation, San Jose is the right place for this growth. Except, that's irrelevant if you're Palo Alto commercial property owner or work for them such as an architect or real-estate lawyer. It's about money.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 11, 2017 at 4:16 pm

I am still mystified by those who want to eliminate or bend the 50ft height limit in a city that hasn't come near building out it's current capacity within current zoning rules. There are so many sites that can host a 50' high building - yet these people want to exceed limit for their *special* projects.

It's all about the money folks.

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 11, 2017 at 4:59 pm

Because every attempt to build anything on any inch of land anywhere in the bay area is met with protests due to it changing the character of the neighborhood, whether it's an empty field, an abandoned building, or an old parking lot. Making these projects spread out just multiplies the difficulties with that when it could just be put in one spot.

[Portion removed.]

Posted by Steven, a resident of another community
on Mar 12, 2017 at 10:32 am

I finally heard one sane person at a recent ABAG meeting, a transportation planner from Contra Costa County, who tried to explain that addressing the housing issue requires addressing the demand side as well as the supply side. I don't think that I've ever heard a public official actually admit this until now.

There is no reason that all new commercial development has to happen on the San Francisco Peninsula. It can happen in Sonoma County, Solano County, Monterey County, and San Joaquin county, or outside the Bay Area, or in Appalachia.

It's almost heresy to say that maybe it'd be a good idea to put new commercial development, and jobs, in areas with plenty of room for new parks, new schools, and new homes, and whose roads aren't gridlocked. The attitude of some developers, and apparently some architects, is "how many people can we cram in to a small space until we wreck it?" HP used to do this (Santa Rosa). Intel used to do this (Folsom, Hillsboro OR).

Building more $4000/month apartments, or $2 million condos, isn't going to fix the affordability crisis.

Another person at this ABAG meeting was stressing that all new transportation projects should be targeted at low-income areas. I responded that this was ridiculous and that if we want to address traffic congestion we need to find ways to get the middle class to take public transit. And I went to the meeting on a packed Caltrain train, with a Brompton, since getting a bicycle space on Caltrain is so hit or miss--you can get the middle class out of their cars, but you can't do it the way VTA is trying to do it. "“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation.” Gustavo Petro."

I met with my congressman, Ro Khanna, yesterday, and one of his pushes is to find a way to get jobs to those areas of the country losing legacy jobs in coal, steel, etc., because even though he represents Silicon Valley he realizes the impossibility of the current hobs/housing/traffic/schools imbalance. In fact he's going to Appalachia next week.

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 12, 2017 at 11:47 am

You'll have to make Appalachia an attractive place to draw talent before you'll get people wanting to live there for work.

Posted by resident, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 12, 2017 at 4:17 pm

[Post removed due to deletion of referenced comment.]

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2017 at 4:32 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by green gables, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 13, 2017 at 11:28 am

Palo Alto is not New York City. If you miss those tall buildings, then that is the place to live.

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 13, 2017 at 12:42 pm

Palo Alto is not a private unincorporated retirement enclave that lives in a bubble separate from the Bay Area with no responsibility to grow and help tackle the housing crunch with every other city in the region.

Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 13, 2017 at 1:12 pm

Annette is a registered user.

@YIMBY - if there's some group denying that there is a housing shortage, please identify that group. PAF and PASZ and residents not aligned with either acknowledge the shortage. I don't think Palo Altans are fundamentally opposed to housing. Rather, there's opposition to over-saturating an already saturated built environment. We cannot undo what has been done but we can and should avoid making existing problems worse.

Palo Alto needs more "Servant Leaders" and fewer "Ego Leaders". As long as we have ego leaders who are beholden to developers for the funds that will put them on Council and after that possibly elevate them to higher office we are going to get more of two things: commercial development and problems.

There's a way to get out of the vicious circle that we are in, but we are not headed in that direction. Indeed, if you have followed recent CC decisions you will see that our mayor is laying the foundation for more of the same.

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 13, 2017 at 2:07 pm

Any "over-saturation" due to "congestion" and lack of parking is entirely on Palo Alto for not investing in the things needed to grow. Stop voting down school expansions, stop voting down transit infrastructure improvements like separate rail grades, and invest in your bus system. You guys shot yourselves in the foot by not supporting those earlier.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2017 at 6:36 pm

"Stop voting down school expansions, stop voting down transit infrastructure improvements like separate rail grades, and invest in your bus system."

As Congress asked Trump re "wiretap," please provide actual evidence. Like, when was gradesep up for a vote in Palo Alto? I'm waiting...

And why not set the saintly example by donating your property for highrise housing development? Your neighbors will surely congratulate you for your selfless generosity and vision.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 13, 2017 at 7:14 pm

Palo Alto has no responsibility to grow. People sacrificed to live in Palo Alto in order to live far away from tall building, sardine can lifestyle, gridlock, noise and air pollutions.and all other urban blight. If they wanted all the that stuff they would have had a myriad of choices, in the Bay area and elsewhere. It is comical that others, mostly outsiders, try to tell Palo Altans that they must morph into an urban lifestyle so those who can't live without a Palo Alto zip code get satisfaction.

Yes, Palo Alto housing is extremely expensive, and It is the fault of developers, corporations and the politicians who serve them. Dense urbanization advocates want Palo Altans to solve the problems corporations created, problems that corporations expect the public to solve for them. You never hear the YIMBY demand from corporations who insist on moving to where there is little, and very expensive housing supply. They demand the public to solve this problem created by others. They believe they have a right to dictate to others their lifestyle and quality of life. I would love to be a fly on the wall when YIMBY goes to Woodside, Los Altos Hills, Atherton and Portola Valley and tells them they must urbanize and build dense and tall. I would pay to watch their reaction.

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 13, 2017 at 9:19 pm


You're fine taking all of the benefits of the housing crunch like having your home appreciate in value but want to have no part in solving it. This is exactly why Prop 13 needs to go. Cities that want to be special suburban enclaves should pay for it by giving up their Prop 13 benefits.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 13, 2017 at 9:44 pm

The comedic thing in all this developer bashing is that everyone just presumes that if a developer builds something, they automatically make money. If only development were that easy.

People in this city in particular do not seem to understand what the word risk means and how no development is a slam-dunk money making ATM machine. The even more comedic thing in all this is the same people who decry developers live in a house built by...developers....go to their grocery stores built by....developers...go eat out at places built by...developers.

These people need to get a grip on reality lumping all development as bad and all developers as money grubbing. You know what Palo Alto would be without the developers they so decry? A grazing land for cattle.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 13, 2017 at 9:47 pm

One other point to those people who think they moved to Palo Alto to avoid gridlock and tall buildings and to be able to skate through rush hour traffic to their neighborhood grocery store. Just stop with the nonsense.

You did not move to Palo Alto for any of these faux reasons. You likely moved to Palo Alto because of employment opportunity, good school district, or some other primary reason.

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