It took years of neighborhood meetings, litigation, zoning hearings and squabbles over the meaning of "historical" before the developer Sand Hill Property Company finally received a green light to redevelop the dilapidated Edgewood Plaza in Palo Alto's Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood.
It took far less time for Sand Hill to demolish, without the city's permission, a building deemed to be historical and fling the long-awaited project back into planning purgatory.
On Monday, the City Council will discuss for the first time Sand Hill's surprising decision to demolish a retail structure at Edgewood Plaza and consider the next steps Sand Hill should take before it can proceed with the project.
Built in the late 1950s, the plaza is a rare example of a commercial center constructed by the famed developer Joseph Eichler, whose signature style featured floor-to-ceiling windows, sliding doors and post-and-beam construction. Over the years, however, the plaza has gradually deteriorated. The building that once housed Lucky's Supermarket (later Albertsons) has been vacant for the last six years, and plans to build more than 20 houses on the site have been frozen because of community opposition.
The project finally made a breakthrough last year, when the city approved a compromise plan that would allow Sand Hill to build 10 homes, rehabilitate an existing building and repair the grocery store, which is now slated to be occupied by Fresh Market. Another building that was deemed historical because of the Eichler connection was supposed to be disassembled, relocated and rehabilitated. Instead, Sand Hill demolished it, claiming its condition was beyond repair.
The company's historic consultant, Page & Turnbull, explained the decision to demolish the building in a Feb. 4 memo: Much of the building was "not repairable, was not in good condition and would need to be replaced with new materials to match the material, configuration, character and finish of the original." J. Gordon Turnbull, a principal at the company, noted in the memo that the beams in the building were "splitting and delaminating" and that the redwood siding was "splintering." Furthermore, the consultant learned that some of the existing wood siding was "replacement siding" and that in some places original siding had been replaced with strips of painted plywood.
"While we believe that exploratory demolition and testing on the historic buildings should have been completed prior to the development of construction drawings, that likely would not have changed our determination," Turnbull wrote.
Even so, city planners are not pleased with Sand Hill's decision not to seek a permit for the demolition. A report from the planning department notes that "the applicant failed to follow the approval review process and disposed of the building material without notifying the city or obtaining city approval."
The council will consider this explanation on Monday, along with staff's recommendation for next steps. City planners recommend requiring Sand Hill to perform a supplemental environmental-impact report that would reflect the new scope of the redevelopment project. Staff also wants to prohibit the company from building any of the proposed homes until the new report is completed and the council approves an amendment to the zoning application for Edgewood Plaza. If the council were to agree with this recommendation, work on the site would be restricted to rehabilitating the other historical building and renovating the grocery store.
The council approved Edgewood Plaza last fall as a "planned community" project, a designation that allows a developer to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for giving "public benefits." While the new grocery store is viewed as the main public benefit, the restoration of historical buildings was also considered a benefit. Because of the unauthorized demolition, the council can now choose to require Sand Hill to offer new amenities. The process is expected to take about six months, according to the staff report.
"The main thing is to find some way to substitute for the historical benefit that the building would have provided," Planning Director Curtis Williams told the Weekly. "It may not mean anything other than rebuilding Building No. 1 as something that even more closely replicates the building that was originally there."
While neighborhood residents have long fought for preservation of historical structures and against an influx of new homes, not everyone is anxious to resume the land-use battle. Kenneth Tucker, who lives close to the plaza and who has followed the developments for more than a decade, wrote a letter to the council asking members not to overreact to the demolition. The plaza's historic character, Tucker wrote, "lies in the architecture and the representation of mid-twentieth-century planning, not in the materials used to build it."
"For the past eight months we have uncomplainingly dealt with the almost daily chaos along Channing and Saint Francis due to the renovation of Edgewood Plaza," Tucker wrote. "We do not want the project construction to be extended for an additional year or more because of what seems to be a largely bureaucratic delay.