Board approves redeveloping University Ave. building

The Architectural Review Board got behind new, three-story building, including various Design Enhancement Exceptions

The Architectural Review Board on Thursday approved a plan to redevelop the 1950s style, one-story building at the corner of University Avenue and Cowper Street, replacing it with a three-story building that would exceed the city's height-limit requirements, despite calls from the public not to.

The proposed project, requested by Thoits Brothers Inc. and presented by Bob Giannini, principal of San Francisco-based Form 4 Architecture, would replace the existing 15,899 square foot building at 500 University Ave. with a three-story, 26,806 square foot office and retail space that includes various design elements that require zoning exceptions, primarily in its rooftop area.

The board unanimously approved the project but gave various recommendations for certain specific design elements to be reviewed in subcommittee, but overall applauded the applicant for reworking the project since preliminary review and developing a building that will reinvigorate a major downtown block.

"This project is an excellent example of downtown development," said Board member Clare Malone Prichard.

The board also supported, despite public comment against it at the Thursday meeting, the applicant's request to exceed the city's 50-foot height limit with a rooftop terrace, stone armature, elevator and two enclosed stairwells.

"The stair tower, the elevator overhead and this one element (the armature)Ö are really incidental and enhance the building and add greater utility to the building in a way that is very positive," said Chair Lee Lippert.

Palo Alto resident Jennifer Landesman, however, expressed an opposing view.

"I'm here to ask you to really think very deeply about the exceptions to the 50 foot height limit," she said to the board. "We need to think about what the scale is for Palo Alto."

The applicant did lower the heights for each floor from previous iterations, with the first floor (retail) now at 16 feet and the two above office floors at 14 feet.

"So the basic building is well below the height limit," Giannini said.

Giannini clarified that the overall height of the building that the public would see from the street is 44 feet, as the rooftop terrace -- which exceeds the height limit by 3 feet 6 inches -- is set back from the edge of the building.

"The apparent height of the building is 41 feet," he added, referring to a large horizontal sunshade that wraps around the third floor and is perhaps the most noticeable, highest element from the street below.

"I think it's a tremendous asset to this building and really helps establish this corner and this building," Lippert said of the height limit exception.

He compared the project to 200 Hamilton Ave., at the corner of Hamilton and Emerson Streets, where a three-story building also replaced a one-story in the early 2000s.

"It's a very similar type of building and it reinforces and anchors that corner and makes it a really important corner where previously there was only a one-story building."

Board member Alexander Lew added that 500 University Ave. is not like other University Avenue buildings for two reasons, both of which justify the design exceptions. One, the roof of 500 University Ave. can be seen from two neighboring buildings, particularly from The Hotel President across the street; and two, three sides of the building are accessible for pedestrians, rather than one or two.

The proposed building will also include expanded sidewalks, bike parking, a public landscaped plaza with chairs and tables across from California Pizza Kitchen on Cowper Street, a new pedestrian walkway and an underground parking garage.

The project currently provides 65 underground parking spaces, 42 more than the zoning requirement of 23. Vice chair Randy Popp clarified that this does not mean the building has been overparked, but rather the applicant took advantage of various exceptions to include additional parking.

The board requested that with a subcommittee, the applicant review and possibly rework lighting elements, a trash enclosure, brackets that support the third floor sunshades, the finish and treatment of the stone used on the building's exterior. The subcommittee review will be posted online and open to the public.

At Thursday morning's meeting, the board also conditionally approved a request by Kevin Strong for a new 3,204 square foot service building for McLaren/Volvo at 4190 El Camino Real. The board conducted a preliminary review of the possible redevelopment of the former Facebook headquarters at 1050 Page Mill Road as well as the construction of a new three-story mixed use building at 385 Sherman Ave.


Posted by KP, a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 6, 2013 at 10:50 am

Of course they approved it, despite what the community (the people of Palo Alto) want. They always do. Simply pathetic city council [portion removed.]

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2013 at 10:58 am

In this case I would say the board made the right decision...the developer is providing 40 more parking places than required. Allowing a roof top arch to intrude by 3.5 feet is hardly a significant allowance, let alone any impact upon the streetscape. The overall height of the "mass" is 41 feet, 9 feet below maximum.

Look at the illustration...hardly a deal breaker IMHO.

Posted by Elizabeth, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 6, 2013 at 11:00 am

I'm with you, KP. They are destroying the character of our wonderful Palo Alto.

Posted by David Pepperdine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2013 at 11:15 am

Seems like a reasonable compromise. Other cities would kill for a building like this. But we always have naysayers in Palo Alto.

Posted by ARB Snow job, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 6, 2013 at 11:20 am

Chair Lee Lippert never met a local developer he didn't praise. And the bigger the job, the greater the praise.
Emphasizing the good points and glossing over the law breaking, and the exceptions, you're on the job ARB!

Posted by ARN Snow job, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 6, 2013 at 11:23 am

>Seems like a reasonable compromise.
Why do we have to compromise with law breakers?

Posted by Jennifer Landesmann, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2013 at 1:12 pm

David Pepperdine,

"Seems like a reasonable compromise. Other cities would kill for a building like this. But we always have naysayers in Palo Alto."

I was quoted in this article expressing my view, opposing the exceptions to height limits.

I did not address the ARB in the spirit of a naysayer. I acknowledged their work on the many meticulous details of a development proposal, and I understand there are compromises to be made. As a 14 year resident of Palo Alto, mainly Crescent Park (though we've also lived in Old Palo Alto and near downtown on Ramona), I know the area well, and while this may be a nice or good building, my appeal to the ARB was to consider what is Palo Alto scale.

This is the city where one of the most famous buildings is a garage on Addison Ave. The ceiling height in that garage, must not be higher than the 8 foot ceiling that I have, or that many of us have in our houses. I asked the ARB to consider that creativity or innovation do not require particular ceiling heights, especially in Palo Alto. Perhaps we are adopting office building scales that are more fit for other cities.

Does office space downtown need 14 foot ceilings? This is the reason why the height exception is being made.

There are very few streets which make up downtown, it may be the scarcest resource, so these exceptions will add up, and I think we should be thinking more about how everything will look if everyone builds to what is allowed.

Council member Pat Burt mentioned at the Monday Council meeting that design seems to be coming up as an issue for the community.

Design implies expression, and I think as residents I hope we can have a say, without being considered naysayers.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2013 at 1:50 pm

@ Jennifer:

The ceiling height is the actual distance between the "hard" floor and the "hard" ceiling. Hanging from the hard ceiling, a typical commercial building will have a "drop down" ceiling - space in between the actual ceiling and the ceiling tiles is an area called the Plenum Space.

In the plenum space there are the usual infrastructure installations: electrical conduits, HVAC ducts, recessed lighting units, water pipes, communications wiring, fire protection infrastructure, sound insulation, etc.

The net ceiling height typically plays out to 8-10 feet after a drop ceiling is installed.

Does that help to re-calibrate your POV on floor height?

Posted by Jennifer Landesmann, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Crescent Park Dad, and neighbor

"The net ceiling height typically plays out to 8-10 feet after a drop ceiling is installed."

I believe the net ceiling height for this building is net 16 feet for ground floor retail, and net 14 feet for the other floors. The exception in height is to allow for the enjoyment of these ceiling heights, not for housing exceptional infrastructure.

You bring up a typical "commercial" building. I can see how the ground floor retail may require commercial infrastructure, but if I had to make a choice between denying an exception, or asking for more reduction in ceiling heights I would choose denying the exception. The success of the building would not be impacted nor the success of the business carried on inside.

A comment was made that because of the tall building across the street, this is a place to make an exception. I actually also thought that when I first heard of the exceeding height. I now disagree with this logic because applying it, as it was done in this case, will be an excuse for scaling up all the surrounding buildings, and then you get in to issues of permanently altering the character of the street, and city.

Posted by Jennifer Landesmann, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2013 at 3:32 pm


"if I had to make a choice between denying an exception, and asking for more reduction in office ceiling heights, or not I would choose denying the exception." The success of the building would not be impacted nor the success of the business carried on inside.

Posted by MadamPresident, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2013 at 3:41 pm

my disgust is with the design wich is very generic (ugly)

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 6, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Of course they approved it. Farce of habit.

Posted by The Facts from the drawings, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2013 at 4:23 pm

@ Jennifer Landsman:
Your statement is inaccurate - "I believe the net ceiling height for this building is net 16 feet for ground floor retail, and net 14 feet for the other floors. The exception in height is to allow for the enjoyment of these ceiling heights, not for housing exceptional infrastructure."

From the drawings (Web Link) page 24 shows the 16' and 14' heights referred to as floor-to-floor distance. From there you need to subtract structure, mechanical venting, lighting and ceiling, fire sprinkler piping and other infrastructure elements. Board Member Malone-Prichard clarified this all as eventually reducing the ceiling height to 10'-12' which seems pretty reasonable. Your house or the Addison garage are nowhere as wide as these office spaces - getting light into the building probably needs that height to be successful.

The Facts - The enclosed building is only 44' high and it is only the rooftop elements which are taller. BTW - the mechanical area on the roof is the same height as any of the items in the exception and you never even mention that... They are allowed 15' for mechanical to 65' and are well below that. Looks like the armature approved is basically the same height as the mechanical - hardly an issue and great looking. Don't get so stuck on the 50' limit and try to see the building height for how well it was managed and crafted. It will be beautiful and I am looking forward to it in my City!

Posted by N ot Happy with this Board, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 6, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I have lived in P.A. for about 30 years. The Architectural Review Board does seem to approve most of the developers' applications- and they do not all work out. There was The Hamilton Project that was massive, and overwhelmed its neighboring buildings. And there it is permanently massive and though the developers said P.A. needed it for its seniors, many of the condos sat empty for several years. Then there was the Cowper -Webster parking lot that a private developer was allowed to build and use for 15 years and then was to turn it over to the city for general use. Never quite happened that way. Most of the floors are for paid permit use. And then there was the Victorian house on University that the ARB vigorously approved to have a very large restaurant with a basement for jazz, and no parking. Well - they were wrong again. It was never completed. Lots of problems. So now it is being built for offices. How many offices does P.A. need? I think that all one stories should not be rebuilt into 3 stories. Parking is a problem. And why are there no term limits on the Board that clearly is not serving the Palo Alto residents who it is supposed to represent.

Posted by Jennifer Landesmann, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2013 at 5:47 pm

The facts,

"Don't get so stuck on the 50' limit and try to see the building height for how well it was managed and crafted. "

I have to say I liked the person who presented it, they sounded genuinely interested in making this work for the street not just the building, and I agree they have done a good job of crafting the building. The ARB deserves credit also for working well with them, including that there was a height reduction from the original plan.

Thank you for letting me know that my understanding of the ceiling height was off, and I did not catch the clarification when Mrs. Pritchard made it though I know she reviewed the heights in her statement.

Just to be clear, the 14 feet and 16 feet ceiling heights that were mentioned, are actually off 10 and 14 feet.

My problem is with the persistent approval of exceptions to the 50' limit. Unfettered build outs to the maximum allowed, and we will end up with 50' boxes everywhere.

The plans are also different from reality. The light concern you bring up for the building can be just as much or more of an issue for the street. As you now that corner is already breezy, significant amount of light will be blocked from the street.

In other words, I would like this building even better if it was scaled to not require exceptions.

I also believe that going beyond the 50' exceptions should not be even possible unless the public has expressly agreed to it.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2013 at 7:19 pm

I guess another thing to consider is that the owner could have shoe-horned a 4-story building onto the lot --- increasing the density of the number of people working there. Height waiver for a roof top arch or not.

So instead you have a 3 story building, higher interior ceiling heights and density at 25% less than what it could have been. Which would you have? 4 floors of people or 3?

I'm OK with them going 3 floors, 40 extra parking spaces in exchange for a height incursion of 3.5 feet in an area that almost no one will see.

As for the negative comment on the exterior design - don't blame the architect and developer, blame the ARB. The original exterior design was more in keeping with "tradional Palo Alto and Stanford" appearances. The ARB said "No" and told them to come back with a "modern" design instead.

Posted by Stick to the Zoning, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 8, 2013 at 1:43 pm

So now we have THREE story building that can't fit in 50 feet?! It used to be that four story building would push the height limit, by double height retail floors. Somehow, this building just MUST go to 53 and 1/2 feet high, because it can't be designed to follow the rules?

This is a concerted effort to chip away at our general plan until there is no general plan. 50 feet was agreed to as a limit for very good reasons. The process should be followed. Let's have a community discussion while we update the Comprehensive Plan (our general plan) and define areas where the height limit can be reached, if that's what we want. THEN let's discuss projects. Instead the planning department is going full tilt ahead of the process.

And then people are surprised at the anger in the community?

Posted by midtown resident, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Let me put it this way. In general I'm ok with reasonable accomodation. However, after various debacles like Alma Plaza, I do not trust city council or the developers anymore. There is clearly some collusion going on at the expense of the citizens of Palo Alto. Also, when I remodeled my house, I was not allowed to break any of the daylight plane or setback rules. In fact a neighbor of mine had to demolish part of the strutcture that was violating the daylight plane. Which is OK with me. We have rules for a reason. Let's stick to the rules.

Posted by Eejitz, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Obviously, they are taking the old adage about rules being made to be broken too literally! What gives them the right to override a long-established law, anyway?

Must be that holier-than-thou attitude,

Posted by Not angry, just disgusted, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 8, 2013 at 6:46 pm

I think a tipping point was reached with the Maybell referendum. The frustrations of parking hell, bogus traffic studies, ugly architecture and increased density finally boiled over, resulting in the Maybell defeat (keep in mind that residents were significantly outspent). City council has united the community, but in a way precisely opposite to what they would have wanted. People know they can win now against city council, even if city council ignores them as it did the Maybell opponents.

Palo Alto is getting harder and harder to live in. Every time I head northbound on ECR to take a right onto Page Mill, I curse that AT&T store on the corner. The space where it stands could have been and should have been a right turn lane, easing traffic congestion at that busy intersection but no, by some logic that escapes me, a cell phone store is a greater public benefit than a right turn lane.

And if you've ever been in the left lane on Page Mill waiting for the light at ECR to head south, you might have noticed that big tractor-trailer trucks cannot make a right turn there without running over the curb next to the AT&T store. (A truck's other option is to run over the divider next to the cars waiting to take a southbound left, there is a certain vested interest in watching what happens if you are sitting there waiting for the arrow.) Next time you are northbound on ECR at the intersection with Page Mill, notice that the curb by the AT&T store is plenty beat up by trucks having to drive over it. Pedestrians stand close to that corner at their peril.

It would be lovely if all residents could bike or walk to work, but the reality for many residents, as the recent traffic survey showed, is very different. If someone has a couple of children of different ages attending different schools and a job outside Palo Alto, they drive their kids to school on rainy days rather than have the kids bike. To me this is in the "duh" category, its what any rational parent will do.

Can we operate this city based on the reality of residents lives, and not based on some unrealistic vision of what ought to be? Put in the infrastructure to move people around without cars, don't punish people with gridlock for doing what it takes to live in Palo Alto.

Posted by boscoli, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 9, 2013 at 8:06 am

When has the ARB ever rejected a large development design?

Posted by AllYouCanEat, a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 9, 2013 at 9:50 am

[Post removed.]

Posted by Hello , a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 9, 2013 at 10:10 am

As long as there is enough parking to accommodate all the office building dwellers and office visitors then it is all fine with me. The increased office rental supply in DTPA will drive office rents down. Palo Alto is becoming an urban town and traffic is a huge issue in every city and is and will continue to be in Palo Alto. I don't have a solution plan.

I dreaded moving here from SF prior to that I lived in NYNY but it seems that the city lifestyle has followed me here. This is not a farm, as it use to be 100+ years ago, or an orchard, like Sunnyvale use to be less than 50 years ago. The small town mentality is no longer valid here, consider living in a secluded Portolla Valley with no traffic and lots of space and privacy. Sorry, but the current trend fits my style and many other younger urban sophisticated professionals. The dynamics of Palo Alto has and will continue to change and the newcomers will be plenty happy to take the city ASIS.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Just wanted to make sure everyone understands the facts on the heights, waivers, etc.

- 3 floors, height at top of 3 floors is 41 feet, not 53.5 ft.

- mechanical massing is 61 feet, 4 feet below allowable mechanical incursion. Notice must be given but the (automatic) waiver is allowed under current/long-time zoning. 15 ft (65 ft total) incursion above 50 ft is allowed for mechanical massing by code.

- architectural element (an arch on the roof top patio) is 53.5 feet, 3.5 feet incursion --- can't be seen from the street. This incursion must be voted upon - no automatic waiver.

- 64 parking spaces in a 2 floor underground garage, only 23 spaces required by current code (reduced parking requirements were eliminated two months ago).

You can bash on the waiver all you want - but please realize that the only real bashing can be about the 3.5 ft incursion of the arch. The mechanical waiver is SOP and has been part of current code for decades.

Posted by Jennifer Landesmann, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2013 at 5:56 pm

Hi Crescent Park Dad,

My hope is that the ARB will be tougher on new buildings asking for more than the maximum allowed, even if it is just one foot over. Anything can be scaled down to fit the limits.

The success of office space or even retail in Palo Alto has never been conditioned on ceiling heights. A recent store front success story is Fraiche, if you recall the tiny space it had on Emerson.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2013 at 6:05 pm

@ Jennifer - fair enough! I can't disagree with your POV and I appreciate your concern for our city.

Yes Fraiche is a wonderful success story. I go in there once/week for a breakfast yogurt combo. Delicious and healthy.

Posted by NIMBY, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2013 at 10:19 am

WHY won't the city enforce the 50 foot height limit? City Council obviously doesn't care about quality of life for Palo Altans. Tear down City Hall, the VA Hospital, and El Palo Alto! Nothing above 50 feet in this town, period.

Posted by midtown resident, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 10, 2013 at 4:21 pm

I don't like the waiver either but in the big scheme of things the citizens of palo alto have bigger battles to fight with the city-hall-developer nexus. Let's focus on those instead of this small violation.

Posted by Ahahahaha!, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 11, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Usually, people who think rules are made to be broken end up in prison or at least civil court. We have a whole bunch of such people in the city offices, especially on the city council. What is wrong with the system here that they are allowed to get away with this?

This is one for the DA, methinks.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 11, 2013 at 11:25 pm

@ Aha...

What rule has been broken?

The developer/owner (family business) and the architect asked for a waiver. This is allowed by code; no rule was broken.

They were granted a waiver by the ARB and the Planning Department. This is allowed by code; no rule was broken.

Absolutely nothing illegal happened. No one is getting away with anything.

Posted by Insufficient, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 12, 2013 at 7:42 pm

What about sufficient parking for such a large building? Do the ARB and city council think that if they do not provide adequate parking, people will bikeride to get there instead? Or take the bus?

Get real! Without sufficient parking, people will either learn to stay away and go elsewhere, OR, worse, they will go to Downtown North or Professorville and park there, then walk in.

Not only does the city give us ugly, out-of-character buildings, they live in a different reality. One that does not exist, even.

Makes me wonder what they have been smoking! Something hallucinogenic, no doubt.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South
on Dec 12, 2013 at 8:38 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.


If you actually read the post you will see that this application comes with EXTRA parking.

Perhaps the council is not the one hallucinating in this case.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 12, 2013 at 11:28 pm

40 extra parking spaces...

Posted by Crescent Park Resident, a resident of Crescent Park
4 hours ago

What I don't understand is where the planning / ARB people get the authority to "interpret" the rules. I imagine a lawsuit could stop the ability to "interpret" rules but rather just follow them to the letter.

Why is it standard operating procedure to get an automatic waiver for the 50' rule for mechanical items? Who decided that?

Perhaps the answer is to have a petition for a ballot measure to limit height to 30'. Then maybe we'll end up with 40' high structures. And for those of you who say you can't see such protrusions from the street, it depends where you are. If you are in your 2 story home 1.5 blocks away, you do see the ugly mechanical equipment on the roof of the building.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park
4 hours ago

> Not angry, just disgusted said
> Palo Alto is getting harder and harder to live in.

Yeah, this is true. There is more cost and less benefit as time goes on.
Eventually Palo Alto will become what the economic pressures make it.
I appreciate that people try, some try to run for city council, some write
here, some do amazing things, but this town has changed so incredibly
much from what it was.

Part of that is that the world has changed to, and Palo Alto is right in the
middle of that with Stanford, Silicon Valley, Investment firms, etc.

These are a different kind of people than used to make up Palo Alto.
Not saying they are all bad or anything but there are trends in the way
many of these people live, and mostly their children. Both parents often
work, they are raised by nannies, they grow up very manipulated with
parental guilt that gives them any material thing they want. They have
tutors, they learn ways to game the system, they have parents with power
enough to protect them - even when they are in the wrong. This is a
viral meme in this city, this culture, and as they get more, stronger,
coordinated they change life for everyone else. In my opinion, mostly
for the worse.

The way they do it is by show "democracy" up for the failure it has been.
There is very little neighborhood cohesiveness in Palo Alto anymore. Heck,
when I moved to Palo Alto from Texas as a kid there was hardly any here
then. Everywhere else my family lived there were community and friends
and neighbors. Californians were just weird and have been since way back.
Most of that had a lot of innocence and positivity back when, but today it's
just all about money and power.

There is no way to keep this town in the bubble ... Under The Dome, so
to speak, and it would not survive if it could be. What we could do is
use everyone's experience to try to make things innovative and improved.

Why do we have some of the worst phone service, or cable, or Internet. We
hear about our genius wise ones waiting and waiting to being us the best in
technology, and we actually have pretty much gotten stuck with the worst.

A few tall buildings are not a problem in my opinion, or an oversized sign
or two ... but what is the problems is the image the city projects, and the
debilitating effect this has on community and city cohesion. When one sign
gets OK'ed and one building gets OK'ed, then we get more and more because
that seems to be what the city moves for ... start it up and them milk it for
all its worth. That is what we need to stop.

There needs to be some kind of citizen OK on some of these projects. Maybe
a poll that says 60% of people have to OK the city council's actions. That would
stall things and force economic interests to start to find an aboveboard way
of dealing with Palo Altans instead of just steamrolling them.

Posted by Wondering, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
4 hours ago

I'm curious that Crescent Park Dad is so enthusiastic about this huge building, and so knowledgeable about it.
Connected to the developer perhaps? Just like seeing oversized office buildings? Just like "Design Enhancements"? that make the building bigger?
Please enlighten us.

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