News

City to consider appeal of Hamilton Ave. plan

Resident argues that modernist building doesn't fit with downtown Palo Alto block

The Palo Alto City Council will consider the appeal tonight of an approved modernist building that appellant Doug Smith, a downtown resident, says doesn't fit the traditional character of the area.

Smith wrote in a letter to the council that the planned four-story retail/office/residential building at 240 Hamilton Ave., which earned the approval of the city's Architectural Review Board in July, is inconsistent with the city's municipal code and its Comprehensive Plan, the "land-use bible" that guides development in the city.

The municipal code states the board should only approve a development if it is compatible with the immediate environment and -- if the area is considered to have a unifying design or historical character -- the design is compatible with that character.

The area surrounding 240 Hamilton has "more than a dozen structures that exemplify harmonious style and are officially recognized as deserving preservation and compatibility," Smith wrote. He called it "the most densely historic spot in any commercial area in Palo Alto."

The proposed building's austere Modernist design, on the other hand, would clash, Smith wrote. He faulted city staff and the Architectural Review Board for approving the development, and buildings like it.

In his letter, Smith also accuses members of the Architectural Review Board for serving their own individual interests as private architects rather than the public's interests. In the small world of local architects, it can be difficult to get big contracts, and Smith thinks board members are unlikely to vote against any project developed by someone they may do business with, fearing the decision will cost them future business.

The four-story, 15,000 square foot, mixed-use building would replace the existing 7,000-square-foot building. It would have retail space on the ground floor, offices on the second and third floors and residential space on the fourth floor.

Smith also expressed concerned about the development's effect on parking in the area, saying it would add about 50 cars to an area that already has parking problems.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Richard Elmore
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 7, 2013 at 2:19 am

Hamilton ave. Appeal: The Palo Alto Planning Dept's staff report & recommendations to the City Councils Architectural Board was strategically flawed by omitting any provisions for complying to the planning departments ordinances regarding that new projects applications architectural design demonstrate neighborhood COMPATIBILITY. The design style is contrary to any feature of the surrounding neighborhood. The City Councils Architectural Review Board also premeditatedly chose to ignore the planning staffs obvious,blatant over site and operating in there typical cronies manner voted to allow the new building a permitt to be constructed. The neighborhood happens to be the only historically protected local of the commercial downtown zone .A area proliferated with Palo Altos most charming human scale streetscapes and corresponding shops and street cafes.The design of the new building {monument to Bling } represents acres of vertical seamless glass&shinning steel LasVagas on Ramona Street. To what idealogical purpose this insensitive act of generational defiance is intended to serve is quite unclear.A survey of 1000 people indicated 82%disapproved.hopefully as will theCity Council Monday night?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2013 at 9:25 pm

If the problem is compatibility, can we stop people from ripping down Eichlers and replacing them with Spanish Colonial Revival architecture? Our neighborhood just lost yet another one this summer to a red roofed McMansion.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 8, 2013 at 7:32 am

The compatibility rules apply to the commercial zones not residential.


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Posted by questions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2013 at 8:44 am

The City ARB page has a Staff Report on 240 Hamilton which states on the first page

".....The design is consistent and compatible with applicable elements of the Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan.....project incorporates quality design that recognizes the regional and historical importance of the area as described in the Comprehensive Plan and reinforces its pedestrian character. .......

......In areas considered by the board as having a unified design character or historical
character, the design is compatible with such character. This finding can be made in
the affirmative in that the overall design is consistent with the Downtown Urban Design
Guide guidelines in the following ways:

a. The project creates enhanced vehicular and pedestrian entries;
b. The project provides varied building mass and height;
c. The project maintains Hamilton Ave. as pleasing, tree-lined pedestrian
environment with complimentary outdoor amenities.
(Web Link)

I'm sorry to ask probably dumb questions to the more experienced residents, but I am interested in figuring out some of the statements in the staff report.

1) Where can one find a copy of the Comprehensive Plan?

2) Where can one find the CP sections about 'varied building mass and height" and "unified historical character" ?

3) Is "pleasing, tree-lined pedestrian environment with complimentary outdoor amenities." also in the CP?

4) What are complimentary outdoor amenities?

5) How is compatibility defined in the CP for commercial buildings?

6) Does the ARB make the call that the building " recognizes regional and historical importance of the area " or wouldn't that involve a Historical commission?

Just from looking at the picture of this building, and using the term "compatibility" for what it means, this building looks ZERO compatible with the other buildings, the street, or even the rest of downtown. It would be of concern that anything can pass as compatible, is that really what the CP allows?



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Posted by questions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2013 at 8:53 am

One more question

From the quotes above from the staff report, it made it seem that the compatibility guidance came from the comprehensive plan, but I just noticed it is referring to Downtown Urban Design Guide guidelines"

Where can one find a copy of the "Downtown Urban Design Guide guidelines"?

How do these guidelines square with the Comprehensive Plan?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2013 at 9:11 am

@CrescentParkDad

New two story houses go through an "individual review" that requires "neighborhood compatibility for height, mass and scale" and "resolution of architectural form, massing and roof lines" among other things.

Unfortunately staff are unwilling to enforce the published guidelines and @PatrickD is stuck with red tile eyesores.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rainer ingeborh eejit
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2013 at 9:27 am

Anonymous-- do the property owners have any rights or is it the neighbors that get the final say for what the owner can or cannot build? Patrick did not say that the home that was built was a 2 story one, either.


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Posted by questions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2013 at 9:59 am


Rainer....

PatrickD posted "Our neighborhood just lost yet another one this summer to a red roofed McMansion."

A McMansion is usually 2 story.

When it can be called a McMansion, it kind of doesn't matter if it's Spanish colonial, or Dutch farmhouse.

McMansions are of course the opposite of green architecture.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rainer Ingeborg eejit
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2013 at 10:08 am

What I find interesting is the insulting tone of the posters who refer to people's homes as " McMansions". The question is really do property owners, as long as they abide by the rules, have the right to build what they want. And not everyone thinks that eichlers are anything special. Palo Alto residents claim that they are understanding and civil, yet we have people like Patrick D and questions, who feel that they inject nasty rhetoric into the conversation because they did not get the final say on property that they do not own.


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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2013 at 10:24 am

@Rainer - of course property owners have rights. They also have responsibilities. Any style is fine if it's well designed.

If owners think about design guidelines from day one and hire a good architect it's easy to get a dream house at the budget. If owners ignore the guidelines until a neighbor speaks up, then it can lead to a restart and cost increases. Regrettably staff won't take design review seriously unless neighbors get involved. If staff doesn't speak up and neighbors don't say anything, bad design can happen.


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Posted by Rainer Ingeborg eejit
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2013 at 10:35 am

Anonymous-- bottom line we do not know if the house that Patrick d is complaining about is really an example of a "bad design"-- all we know is that he does not like it. As you will note above, I did say that property owners need to follow the rules. IMHO, the guidelines do not include the option that a neighbor wants an eichler. Also it does not help when the neighbor uses derogatory terms for his neighbors home. Two story homes are forbidden only in areas with a ban on second story overlays-- so building a two story home is not forbidden if it meets the guidelines. Neighbors should have limited input on a property that they have no financial stake in


 +   Like this comment
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 8, 2013 at 11:17 am

Anonymous, for the most part, the kind of things that neighbors have input on are the things that affect them - windows looking into their yard, landscaping to preserve privacy, etc. If a house fit the basic size requirements including height, setbacks and daylight planes, there is not much a neighbor can do.


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Posted by questions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Rainer,

"yet we have people like Patrick D and questions, who feel that they inject nasty rhetoric into the conversation because they did not get the final say on property that they do not own."

To clarify that the term McMansion is usually a 2 story house, or that it is not green architecture does not mean anything but that. You introduced the rhetoric about neighbors infringing on property rights. PatrickD made a style/wish comment, another poster clarified that compatibility rules only apply to commercial.

Reality is that residential compliance is pretty tight because there is a healthy balance between the rules from the City, what neighbors can do to each other or will allow, and it's rare to receive exceptions. Anyway, denigrating a McMansion is not an infringement of property rights. It's a matter of taste.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2013 at 10:40 am

@ Crescent Park Dad
Guideline two of the Palo Alto Single-Fmily Individual Review Guidelines
governing new two-story and remodeled homes pertains to "neighborhood
compatibilty for height,mass, and scale". Guideline three pertains to
"resolution of architectural form, massing and roof lines". Guideline four
pertains to "visual character of street facing facades and entries".
This ordinance is for the most part not enforced. In Eichler neighborhoods where there is an over-lay zone there is a one-story height limit but it is defined as that of the typical single-family house, about 17 feet, which exceeds Eichler roof lines. Other than the height limit there is no design
review in the Eichler over-lay zone unlike in Sunnyvale I believe.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Long time resident of PA
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2013 at 11:03 am

If we can't be at the meeting how can we voice our disapproval of this project?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by The Club for PA Growth
a resident of Woodside
on Dec 9, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Hold firm, council. If you retreat now the war is lost, and we'll take our business and campaign cash elsewhere.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Dec 9, 2013 at 12:23 pm

@Rainer,

If you are such a delicate flower as to find the term 'McMansion' offensive and "nasty rhetoric" I would advise you stay off the internet! There are many more offensive things out there. I have a feeling you are trying to use a "mask of civility" to censor a legitimate observation.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rainer ingeborg enjoy
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2013 at 12:30 pm

SB resident--- any more advice you care to share. Yes, I find the use of the term "McMansion" to be an example of nasty rhetoric that people use to describe a home thatbthe do not like. And try to remember that we have no idea which home Patrick d is referring to-- just the fact that he does not like it. Also remember that Patrick d has no financial stake in this home and should have little input into a property thatbthe has no financial stake in. And finally, no one is censoring anybody, though you seem to be suggesting I not express my opinion.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Dec 9, 2013 at 2:17 pm

@Rainer,

I can't say I know the exact particulars of the house PatrickD is referring to either (other than a description as Spanish Colonial Revival) but I can say that driving through various Eichler developments in Palo Alto I've seen more than a fair share of hideous McMansions standing out like sore thumbs, marring what would otherwise be a harmonious street-scape of elegant mid-century modern designs. I've seen enough of it to know there is a problem. The new McMansions tend to be Spanish Colonial Revival which incidentally happens to be the style that Douglas Smith in his "infinite wisdom" seems to think Palo Alto should adopt as the "standard Palo Alto architectural style". Let's hope the Palo Alto city council is not so dim witted as to allow that to ever happen.

It is important to note that the ARB review process does not apply to all neighborhoods in Palo Alto. For much of south Palo Alto and the Eichler developments the owner or property developer just needs to comply with a basic check list of requirements and that's all. The city does not give any consideration to aesthetic compatibility before issuing a building permit. The projects do not even pass before the eyes of "those architect professionals on the ARB" with their "fancy-schmancy" architectural education that Douglas Smith is so intent on maligning.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rainer ingeborg eejit
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2013 at 2:31 pm

SB resident-- one persons sore thumb is another persons dream house. And remember the person who owns the " sore thumb" has money invested in it. The neighbors who do not like it have no financial stake in the matter. As long as the owner complies with the guidelines regarding privacy, sight lines etc, they can build whatever they want.
I am not a fan of Doug smith. I think he is a self center egoist who, using a biased survey, is claiming to soak for the entire city.
I like the modern buildings being put up in the city. I think Eichler homes are dumps and I am a strong supporter in private property rights, with limited input from neighbors with an axe to grind.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Money, Money, Money
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Right, Rainer, the only permissible axe to grind is yours: private property rights.
and Money, Money, Money should rule.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rainer ingeborg eejit
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 9, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Money-- you are not reading my comments. The homeowner needs to followtheguidelines with regard to height, privacy, blocking of the sunlight etc. private property rights are important. Look what happened years ago with the historic ordinance, which would have encroached on those private property rights . Or do you believe that neighbors should decide what a person can do with their property. Like it or not, money does rule.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 9, 2013 at 4:18 pm

> Or do you believe that neighbors should decide what a person
> can do with their property.

An interesting question. And one which will no not be answered to anyone's satisfaction.

If we lived in a rural settting, with only a few people per acre/square mile, it's fair to say that what your neighbors thought about how you upgraded the facilities on your property wouldn't matter much--providing that it didn't affect their property.

But in these dense urban areas, things become different. For instance, we have "overlay" zones here in Palo Alto that are driven by what the majority of the people in the overlay area want. And there there are historic preservation zones, which are also generally driven by the will of the people living in those areas. And we allow appeals of various zoning decisions, which can sometimes see a person's permit for some sort of improvement denied.

So--at the moment, it would seem that other people's opinions do matter.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Zoning Ordinances
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 9, 2013 at 6:50 pm

@ Wayne, In dense urban areas, we adopt a lot of rules so we can co-exist in a more crowded environment. We have traffic lights so cars can cross busy intersections peacefully. We have garbage/recycling pick-up so that refuse is handled properly. We pay the utility for water and sewerage so we can be spared from water borne illnesses.
We also have zoning ordinances that protect property interests. These ordinances are known before the purchase of property. While citizens have a reasonable expectation that they will be followed, a few property owners purchase their land believing that this Council will allow them unlimited development rights. They want to maximize the value of their land, even if it's not zoned for what they want to build.

That reasonable expectation that zoning ordinances will be followed is not a matter of opinion. It is law. Somehow our city government doesn't believe it applies in Palo Alto.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 9, 2013 at 9:01 pm

> That reasonable expectation that zoning ordinances will be followed
> is not a matter of opinion.

Well .. maybe you can explain the role of "variances", where zoning is concerned? Do "variances" exist? If so--who decides the extent of each project's variances? Would "opinion" be involved in the granting of these "variances"?

> It is law.

Again .. please offer some insight into "variances"?

> Somehow our city government doesn't believe it applies in Palo Alto.

As long as PC (Planned Communities) are a part of the zoning code--I don't think you are going to be able to demonstrate a "hard edge" to the zoning codes that backs up your contention.

Recently I tried to dig into zoning codes a little--since a number of people seem to believe that these codes are "immutable", or are possibly a "contract" with people living in a given zoning code that buffers them from "change". I could not readily find anything that suggested that a given zoning code had a time frame associated with it.

It seemed to me after some review of this material that zoning was left in the hands of local governments so that the the best land use would result from people wanting to make use of a town's land. As such, it seemed to me that in the end--zoning was a "political" exercise, and as the "politics" of each community swayed in the wind--that the zoning was subject to change, also (perhaps not dramatically, but neither could one expect it to be static).

This point-of-view might not be popular with those who believe otherwise--since it means a lot of work by residents/property-owners in order to keep things the way they are. It means, it seems to me, that we need to start really grilling Council candidates about their understanding of land use law, and their opinions about the current land use/zoning issues here in Palo Alto. It also means that we need to recall a Council Member, or two, from time-to-time, in order to remind those who stand for election that they represent all of us, not just special interest groups--which it seems the current Council does not believe.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Watching
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2013 at 12:42 am

I tried watching this online and the media stream cut off at midnight. Did they continue the Maybell decision or in keeping with how it started, sneak it by in the middle of the night?

There are some good features of the building, and I'm not opposed to modern architecture, but I watched Ken Hays' presentation, and he showed us some lovely buildings he did, leading up to one that was incredibly ugly right before this one, which was similar and even uglier. It's plain, soulless and pedestrian looking. It could use one more round of revision. The inadequate parking was also a problem.

I'm also wondering about some of the speakers who spoke for it and their reasons for being there...(let's see, $20X...)

I hope the Council was listening to Doug Smith's proposal for revising the approval process. I doubt they were. But I am filled with awe at the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the people I live among (Council excepted).


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 10, 2013 at 7:50 am

Just circling back to this thread. What I meant by compatibility rules is that architectural design/style rules/restrictions (e.g., mid-century, Spanish, cottage, colonial) cannot be applied to residential projects.

Also - the ARB has no jurisdiction on residential projects.

Neighborhood reviews are implemented when a homeowner wants to either build new or remodel/add a two-story house. These reviews are managed by the city planning department. Daylight plane requirements are published building requirements that are well documented and available through the planning department. An outline of the requirements is available at the downtown office and online.

However, if you live in a non-overlay Eichler neighborhood...someone can build a 2-story Colonial house as long as they build within the city requirements. And if you live in a one-story overlay neighborhood, your neighbors can still build a non-Eichler house if they choose to...as long as it is one story.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Fell asleep
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 10, 2013 at 7:58 am

What happened? Did council vote on appeal? I couldn't take it any more and fell asleep before end of public comment. Limiting the appellants comments was a sham.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Fell asleep
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 10, 2013 at 7:58 am

What happened? Did council vote on appeal? I couldn't take it any more and fell asleep before end of public comment. Limiting the appellants comments was a sham.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by questions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2013 at 8:10 am

My questions were answered.

There really is no guidance form the Comp Plan and one council member said she appreciated being exposed to the Urban design guide for the first time. Sounds like a secret document.

Due to the project being evaluated during the summer, 3 ARB members voted on it.

Last night the appeal boiled down to the design (no traffic considerations), and that decision was left to City Council's personal taste.

All total, 12 people made the call on this project.

Among the comments I caught were Kniss saying that design is in the eye of the beholder, and Klein who shared that he finds Georgian architecture boring, glass seems to be refreshing for him.

A young tourist spoke on behalf of the architect saying that by having diversity of buildings in Palo Alto, it would make Palo Alto feel more welcoming of diversity.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by questions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2013 at 8:29 am

If the infamous Urban Design plan could be made public, it will be interesting to see what it says about approving projects without traffic or parking considerations.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 10, 2013 at 10:30 am

"What happened? Did council vote on appeal?"

I turned it off myself, needing to get some sleep. However, the odds against the appeal winning are historically about 99.44% to 0.56%. City hall would rather build its mistakes than admit them.


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