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)… 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.