Modernist building faces citizen appeal | November 15, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 15, 2013

Modernist building faces citizen appeal

Downtown resident Douglas Smith takes on architect Ken Hayes in battle over styles

by Gennady Sheyner

Downtown resident Douglas Smith, a fan of Spanish-style arcades, ornate awnings and other traditional decorative flourishes, fired the latest salvo last week against architectural minimalism and modernity when he submitted an appeal of a freshly approved four-story development on 636 Waverley St.

The appeal, co-signed by Waverley Street residents Janice Berman and Doug Scafe, is the second Smith had filed in recent weeks. His appeal of 240 Hamilton Ave., another four-story proposal designed by prolific architect Ken Hayes, was scheduled to be heard by the City Council Nov. 12 but has been postponed upon staff request to a later date that has not yet been determined.

The issue is the same in both cases. Smith, an avowed traditionalist and an unabashed critic of the city's latest architecture trends, contends that the approved development is incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood, which enjoys a wealth of traditional, Birge Clark-designed buildings. By contrast, the Hayes buildings typically feature sleek glass facades, rectangular shapes and heights that often approach the city's 50-foot limit.

"The large areas of glass and bare concrete wall have nothing to do with any admirable building in the area," Smith said in a statement. "This isn't a high quality design. But our local code requires both quality and compatibility in order to maintain stylistic harmony in neighborhoods. "

His appeal letter for 636 Waverley St. argues that the boxy building violates the city's guidelines dealing with the "pedestrian orientation" of new developments.

"In the aesthetic sense, there should be something visual on the building exterior to interest the pedestrian both up close and afar, lest the building be judged ordinary or an eyesore. But there is no such interest in the Hayes design. On all levels, seen from a distance, the design composition is a jumbled mess of elements that fit together in a strictly utilitarian fashion, subject to no overall aesthetic pattern that would please a non-architect passerby."

Smith also cited a pending plan to build a building similar to 636 Waverley St., right next door at 640 Waverley (that proposal has yet to be reviewed by the city's architecture board). These two projects, in combination with another proposal for 628 Waverley (which Smith said is in "talking stages"), "will destroy any architectural harmony in the area, and the process creating the new block is an ominous portent for development all over the City."

Smith has plenty of allies in his battle against glass walls and minimalist facades. In recent months, the City Council has been besieged by complaints about the imposing architecture of new developments such as 801 Alma St. and Alma Village. His recent online survey, which attracted more than 900 responses, shows an overwhelming number of people favoring traditional styles over new ones. For instance, more than 70 percent preferred the quaint Spanish style of Stanford University's Wallenberg Hall to the glassy, modern David Packard Electrical Engineering building. The survey isn't scientific, but from Smith's perspective it's instructive.

Smith noted that in the survey, "85 percent of respondents judged the 636 Waverley design incompatible with neighboring buildings."

"Even two-thirds of the architects taking the survey made the same judgment," Smith said.

In response to the concerns about new buildings, the council has directed the city's architecture board to review its guidelines for new buildings. A recent colleagues memo by Mayor Greg Scharff and council members Karen Holman, Gail Price and Greg Schmid called for the city to address the problem of imposing facades by increasing the required distance new buildings must be set back from Alma Street and El Camino Real and to reconsider its design guidelines. At a meeting in April, Holman cited Goethe's description of architecture as "frozen music" and said the city has been "out of tune."

But even as the Smith appeals are waiting for their hearing, new Hayes proposals are making their way through the city's development pipeline, suggesting that Smith will have a busy few months. The four-story building proposed for 2755 El Camino Real, near El Camino's congested intersection with Page Mill Road, is also a Hayes project. It is now going through the city's "planned community" process, which gives developers zoning exemptions in exchange for public benefits. And just last Thursday, three days after Smith filed his appeal, Hayes introduced the Architectural Review Board to his newest proposal — another four-story building eyed for 429 University Ave., on the corner of Kipling St.

The board didn't vote on the proposal on Thursday, though members gave plenty of feedback, both good and bad. Some echoed Smith's concerns. A few criticized the building's mass and suggested that the fourth floor be set back further.

Board member Alex Lew said his first reaction was that the proposed development "is sort of out of character with Birge Clark-, Varsity Theater-type of buildings." He suggested that Hayes add more decorative details to the design.

"I know you're very modernist and minimalist," Lew told Hayes.

Chief Planning Official Amy French informed the board on Thursday about the new appeal of 636 Waverley.

"It's a trend — officially," French said.

"An epidemic," responded Vice Chair Lee Lippert.

Smith, for his part, thinks it's time to consider whether the board has outlived its usefulness. In an interview, he argued that the architects who make up the board have innate conflicts of interest because they may have done business with applicants or desire to collaborate with them in the future.

Furthermore, Smith argued, most architecture schools focus on modern styles.

He pointed to 801 Alma St., a project that has been widely derided by members of the community and the council alike for its massive, fortress-like facade. During the review process, he noted, staff and the architecture board have continuously praised the design.

Ken Alsman, a Professorville resident who has been a vehement opponent of new developments that don't provide sufficient parking, had spent a recent weekend reviewing all the documents in the approval process of 801 Alma and came up with statements from the architecture board describing this development as "great" and as one that "celebrates architecture."

The leading critics of the design, Alsman found, were the citizens who had worked on the "South of Forest Area" plan, a collaborative effort to form a vision for the downtown area.

"Given the concerns recently voiced about the Alma project, the glowing praise it received from staff and the ARB, maybe you should listen and pay close attention to the residents commenting on the design of 240 Hamilton and the relationship to our community and to its values, not to the Staff or ARB," Alsman wrote in a September letter to the City Council.

Smith said he plans to file more appeals challenging new developments. He also said he will work in the coming weeks and months with the group of residents who last week overturned in a referendum an approved housing complex on Maybell Avenue to come up with possible solutions.

"The developers have been lulled into complacency about the city enforcing the statutes," Smith said.

"The present way hasn't been working for a very long time," he added. "Both the Maybell project and ours are recognizing this. That's why a coordinated effort among citizens will have to come up with some solutions."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at