An eclectic block of Waverley Street is about to get an infusion of glass-and-concrete modernism, a development that has downtown's brick-and-stucco traditionalists fuming.
For the second week in a row, Palo Alto officials on Monday rejected an appeal by downtown residents of the latest glass-heavy development set to make its way downtown, a four-story building at 636 Waverley St., between Hamilton and Forest avenues. The building received the blessing of the city's Architectural Review Board in October after several months of design revisions. It will have office space on the bottom two floors and one three-bedroom apartment on each of the top two.
In giving the project the green light, the architecture board and city planners agreed that the Waverley Street block is architecturally varied, with no strong patterns. The new building, with its angular design and glazed facade, would bring a little more diversity into the mix.
It would also bring more height, mass and in-your-face geometry to a peripheral downtown block that consists largely of one- and two-story buildings, many of which are designed in the traditional Spanish Revival style associated with popular architects like Birge Clark. This design irked Douglas Smith, who joined several block residents on Monday in arguing that the new building is poorly designed and completely incompatible with the surrounding area.
For area residents like Smith, who lives on Forest and has decidedly traditionalist leanings when it comes to architecture, and Roger McCarthy, the architecture board's logic is laughable. They noted Monday that most buildings on the block are one or two stories in height, have ample setback from the sidewalk and are composed of wood, brick or stucco. The new building, as well as a companion building eyed for an adjacent parcel at 640 Waverley, would stick out like a sore thumb, they argued. Smith made a similar argument on Dec. 9, when he lobbied the council to reject a glassy, blocky building at 240 Hamilton Ave., which like the Waverley development was designed by Ken Hayes.
On Monday, Smith put up a rendering of the two proposed buildings next to the much smaller buildings that currently exist on the block and warned about the "glass canyon which will completely change the nature of Waverley Street."
"It's changing everything that people know about the block," Smith said.
His views were shared by numerous area residents, 11 of whom co-signed the appeal. McCarthy, who lives across the street from the proposed development, argued that the building, as well as its future companion, are nothing more than a developer's attempt to build to the maximum.
"They are meant to be maximum, and they're right in your face, right on the street," McCarthy said. "If there's no architectural review warranted in this case, let's do away with architectural review. What we have is volumetric review if it fits within the volume, it's good to go."
In their appeal, the downtown residents argued that the proposed building is far too massive and aesthetically displeasing to anyone who is not an architect.
"On all levels, seen from a distance, the design composition is a jumbled mess of elements that fit together in a strictly utilitarian fashion, subject to no overall aesthetic pattern that would please a non-architect passerby," the appeal stated.
But much like his Dec. 9 challenge, Smith's latest appeal didn't get far. The council opted to keep the appeal on its "consent calendar," which includes a list of items that are approved with one vote, with no debate or discussion. Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilman Greg Schmid supported pulling the appeal off consent but they could not muster the third vote needed to do so. Both ultimately voted to uphold the appeal, though this proved moot with the other seven council members rejecting it.
David Kleiman, the developer behind 636 Waverley, defended his project against criticism and noted that his design team had responded to the architecture board's concerns and made revisions as recommended. This included increasing the setback on the fourth floor to break up the massing. Kleiman framed the debate as a clash of different tastes.
"The city doesn't mandate architectural styles," Kleiman said. "The appellant here really obviously prefers a style other than the one I prefer. This is my building, not his. I have a right to propose a modern building. I've done that and the ARB likes it."
After hearing from the neighbors, only Holman agreed that the building would not be compatible with the surrounding area. It has less to do with its style, she said, and more to do with its failure to have the kind of "finesse and fenestration" that other buildings on the block have.
Greg Schmid cited the comments of Alex Lew, the sole dissenter in the ARB's approval of the project. Lew criticized the building for being too massive and noted that it's located in a transitional zone between commercial and residential buildings. Schmid said discussing the appeal would allow the council to give feedback to the architecture board about how to proceed with projects in such transitional zones. He lamented the fact that his colleagues chose not to discuss the appeal.
"I'm sorry that we as a council are not using this opportunity," Schmid said.
The Smith appeal is one of two that the council rejected on Monday night. Members also considered an appeal from Midtown residents relating to a proposed sign at Alma Village for the new supermarket, Grocery Outlet. Residents Sheri Furman, Annette Glanckopf and Tom DuBois all argued that the proposed 91-square-foot sign would be excessive and unsightly. But after a long discussion, the council voted 6-3, with Holman, Schmid and Gail Price dissenting, to uphold the architecture board's approval of the sign.