With its glassy walls, boxy shape, 50-foot height and preponderance of office space, a four-story building proposed for 240 Hamilton Ave. is perfectly emblematic of downtown Palo Alto's latest development trends.
For downtown resident Douglas Smith, that's exactly the problem.
On Monday, the City Council will consider Smith's appeal of the project, a 15,000-square-foot building designed by architect Ken Hayes and developed by Sal Giovanotto, which would stand across the street from City Hall, next to Reposado Restaurant. The new development would replace an existing two-story corner building, best known for having once housed Radio Shack.
It would include 9,190 square feet of office space, mostly on the second and third floors, 2,337 square feet of retail on the ground floor and two residential units on the fourth floor.
The city's Architectural Review Board approved the project last month, with board member Lee Lippert calling it a "handsome building" and Alex Lew praising it for being mixed-use.
Smith isn't so adoring. In his appeal, which is co-signed by 23 other residents, Smith argues that in approving the modernist design, city staff and the architecture board ignored its incompatibility with the dozens of nearby heritage buildings, many of which bear the classical decorative Spanish features popularized by Palo Alto architect Birge Clark: stucco walls, arched doorways and decorative pilasters.
"The proposed design is neither high quality nor considerate of its surroundings," the appeal states. "It is a modernist glass box which would be entirely out of place at Ramona and Hamilton, surrounded on three sides by heritage structures."
The immediate area around 240 Hamilton, Smith wrote, "is saturated with more than a dozen historic structures that exemplify harmonious style and are officially recognized as deserving preservation and compatibility."
"At the ratio of 13 (historic) to 7 (newer) buildings in a one-block radius along Ramona and Hamilton, this is the most densely historic spot in any commercial area in Palo Alto," wrote Smith, a music historian with an interest in art and architecture.
City planners, in their analysis, had found the project both compatible with the downtown area and consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, the city's guiding document for land-use decisions. City Planner Jason Nortz wrote in the findings that the project "incorporates quality design that recognizes the regional and historical importance of the area" and "reinforces its pedestrian character."
Specifically, Nortz wrote, the project "creates enhanced vehicular and pedestrian entries," "provides varied building mass and height," and "maintains Hamilton Avenue as a pleasing, tree-lined pedestrian environment with complementary outdoor amenities."
But Smith is going further than just appealing the specific project. In challenging the approval of 240 Hamilton Ave., he said he also hopes to stoke a community discussion about aesthetics and architecture. To that end, he put together an extensive survey asking residents to weigh in on the enduring architectural debate -- traditionalism versus modernism. In the survey, he pits traditional structures like the downtown post office, the College Terrace Library and Stanford's Cantor Center for Visual Arts against glassy modern ones like the Apple Store on University Avenue, the soon-to-be-completed Mitchell Park Library and San Francisco's de Young Museum.
The survey, which can be accessed at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/paloaltoarchitecture, gives participants a chance to select their preference for traditional or modern buildings, both in Palo Alto and elsewhere in the world. It also lists a series of buildings, including the new housing development at 801 Alma St. and the commercial building at 525 University Ave., and asks visitors to rate each on a scale of 1 to 10 according to its "aesthetic quality."
As someone who favors traditional architecture ("not a fan of glass walls"), Smith told the Weekly he wants to know if he is an outlier or a representative of the majority local view. If most respondents state a preference for tradition over modernity, he reasons, their feedback can send a powerful message to the City Council -- a message that could influence future developments such as the office complex proposed by developer John Arrillaga for 27 University Ave.
Smith is hardly alone in his discontent. In recent months, residents have lashed out against new developments like Alma Village, Arbor Real (at Charleston Road and El Camino Real) and 801 Alma, prompting the council to take a fresh look at design guidelines for new buildings on El Camino Real and Alma Street. During an Aug. 22 discussion between the council and the architecture board, Councilwoman Karen Holman noted that the city has "a public that's not happy" about new developments.
One of Smith's goals is to figure out what segment of the public fits this mold. But beyond that, he said he also hopes to call attention to what he labels a broken development-review process.
"The review process is not working," Smith told the Weekly. "You have too many buildings like, for example, 801 Alma St., that the public only finds out about when they're finished. Then there are shrieks of horror when people see what happened and people asking, 'How did that get approved?'"
As far as 240 Hamilton Ave. goes, the modern design is just one of Smith's concerns. Parking is another issue. Like many other nearby developments, including Charles "Chop" Keenan's planned mix-use building at 135 Hamilton Ave, this project would not provide enough parking to accommodate its occupants. Local law allows this through the use of "transfer development rights" (TDR), a mechanism under which developers are given parking exemptions in exchange for seismic and historic retrofits elsewhere in the city. The Hamilton project would provide four spaces for the residential units, though in doing so it would take away two existing spots. It would not provide on-site parking for its office workers, much to the chagrin of downtown residents who have long clamored about downtown's steep parking deficit.
Smith, whose Forest Avenue home is a block from City Hall, is joined in his appeal by other downtown critics of the city's parking policies, including Professorville's Ken Alsman and Downtown North's Neilson Buchanan. The appeal argues that the development application for 240 Hamilton Ave. skirts the parking issue in relying on the exemption.
"The time is overdue to abolish or restructure TDRs because they are being used time and again by developers to save money at the expense of residential neighborhoods by providing grossly insufficient parking -- or none at all -- for the large office spaces they are building," the appeal states. "Here again the planning department is asleep at the wheel for allowing this development and many others to proceed despite new on-site parking that will accommodate only a fraction of the worker cars that the buildings will attract."