News

Guest opinion: 'Style Wars' a result of too much, too fast?

By Judith Wasserman

Before launching into a discussion of the latest Palo Alto architectural controversies, it is important to clarify several misconceptions about the Architectural Review Board.

1. ARB purview: The Architectural Review Board is charged with design review of all new construction, and changes and additions to commercial, industrial and multiple-family projects. Single-family and two-family residences, except in groups of three or more, are exempt. The ARB generally does not review houses.

The board's goals and purposes are to:

● promote orderly and harmonious development of the city;

● enhance the desirability of residence or investment in the city;

● encourage the attainment of the most desirable use of land and improvements;

● enhance the desirability of living conditions upon the immediate site or in adjacent areas; and

● promote visual environments which are of high aesthetic quality and variety and which, at the same time, are considerate of each other.

Note that "styles" are not mentioned.

The design review process begins after zoning compliance has been vetted, either by the staff or the Planning and Transportation Commission.

2. Conflicts of interest: Elaine Meyer said, "It's likely that some of the architects on the ARB hope to be employed by the large developers and architects who come before it, so they better not say anything too negative about the project or they'll be blackballed and they won't be able to work in this town".

Conflicts of interest are governed by state law. A board member must recuse herself if she has worked for the applicant within the last year, or if he has property within 100 feet of the project under review. There has never been an instance, to my knowledge, in which an applicant has hired an ARB member.

3. Professional vs. lay board: The ARB consists of "five persons appointed by the City Council, and at least three of whom shall be architects, landscape architects, building designers or other design professionals." There have been general contractors on the board at various times and their service was very valuable. No one else has applied for those other two positions.

One reason for a professional board is that trained design professionals are more able to correctly predict the three-dimensional outcome of two-dimensional drawings. Also, an architectural education gives one a broad view of the built environment. In addition, it shows respect for the profession to have us judged by our peers.

4. Fallibility: The Architectural Review Board does not claim to be perfect. It makes mistakes; the Cheesecake Factory is a case in point. All I can say about that is, "You should have seen it before we got through with it!" No excuse, of course. But the board reviews only what it is given; its job is not to design the building, but to try to improve the project that is presented.

The current disputes

The current disputes are about massing, density and style. The massing controversy sometimes masquerades as a fight over the height limit, but it really is a plea to keep buildings small. As such, the height limit is not the best tool. It is architecturally arbitrary and not as successful as a robust enforcement of the floor area limits. No developer would build a 10-foot-by-10-foot building 100 feet high. If a building were 60 feet high and had the same floor area as a similar 50-foot building, that space would go somewhere else -- perhaps a ground-floor plaza, or some other open space. A height limit precludes any variety in the skyline, practically requiring flat roofs, as well as eliminating options for decorative elements at the top.

"Density" can mean two things, and they are often conflated. In technical zoning terms, it means residential dwellings per acre or commercial "occupancy number" per square foot. But it is often used to mean floor area, or the number of square feet per lot size. Thus, the plea for "no more density" may mean either "no more people" or "no more big buildings." It would take at least a state law to prevent more people from coming here, so citizens are pleading for no more big buildings in the hope that that will keep people out.

The "style wars," as reporter Gennady Sheyner called them, may be a result of too much, too fast. People tend to like what they know and what is familiar. The answer to "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like" is: "The more you know about art, the more you like."

The Architectural Review Board does not dictate style. It has a list of 16 "findings" that it must make in order to approve a project. Only two refer to "style" in any way. Number 4 relates to areas "having a unified design character or historical character," such as Ramona Street Historic District downtown. Even new buildings on that block, such as 250 University Ave., are in the historic style. There are no other commercial areas in town that have been designated as having a unified design character. In determining what "fits" where, the ARB looks to the findings.

In fact, No. 12 is more to the point. Whether the "materials, textures, colors and details of construction are appropriate expression to the design" is a question that the ARB faces at every meeting. The board looks for inherent design consistency in the project itself, as well as "compatib(ility) with the adjacent and neighboring structures." But compatibility is not defined as "matching" or "similar to." It "is achieved when the apparent scale and mass of new buildings is (sic) consistent with the pattern of achieving a pedestrian oriented design, and when new construction shares general characteristics and establishes design linkages with the overall pattern of buildings so that the visual unity of the street is maintained" (Municipal Code Section 18.18.110). Nothing about style there, either.

It is ironic that, in this forward-looking town, where people drive the latest cars and carry the latest technology, they profess to want to see buildings that look old.

Judith Wasserman is a former member of the Palo Alto Architectural Review Board.

Read "Style wars: Is Palo Alto's architecture-review process broken?"

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 12, 2014 at 12:36 pm

> Conflicts of interest are governed by state law. A board member
> must recuse herself if she has worked for the applicant within
> the last year, or if he has property within 100 feet of the project
> under review.

The problem here is that there is no one insuring that the covered ARB members have actually recused themselves when required. Moreover, the requirements for recusal are very loose—providing the public little confidence that a covered pubic official is actually functioning in the public interest. The one year limit for client/architect interaction is too short. A longer period would provide a better buffer, providing the public more confidence that the ARB member is acting in an independent way.

> "The more you know about art, the more you like."

Not necessarily. There are many, many, art styles that have come, and gone, over time. When they go—it's because people don't like them anymore.

> The Architectural Review Board does not dictate style.
> It has a list of 16 "findings" that it must make in order to approve
> a project.

This is interesting. Does the ARB actually have a checklist of these findings, including these checklists as a part of the project documentation that is available to the public for review—perhaps posted on line as the project works its way thru the system?

> It is ironic that, in this forward-looking town, where people
> drive the latest cars and carry the latest technology, they
> profess to want to see buildings that look old.

Perhaps it's more human nature—rather than ironic. Most of these fads are gone before the next sunrise. Having some continuity in our collective existence provides a basis for our culture to provide the future some of that past that everyone can relate to.

Thanks, Ms. Wasserman, for taking the time to provide a little insight into the ARB. Don't think you will convince everyone that you are right and that they are all wrong. Might be interesting to try running a few projects thru the system without ARB review, to see what the difference in the end result might be.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Not so!
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 12, 2014 at 1:48 pm

I don't necessarily want old looking buildings. I want ARB to "promote visual environments which are of high aesthetic quality and variety and which, at the same time, are considerate of each other". That is their purview, correct?

If this city is so desirable then developers should up their game from privilege of developing here, not the city making the best of a bad situation.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 12, 2014 at 4:12 pm

jh is a registered user.

My observation of ARB meetings is that the architects in this town consider themselves professional colleagues and modify their comments accordingly. Judith Wasserman says that to her knowledge no one on the current or previous boards have worked for each other. But what about professional recommendations between them. What about someone hoping to have work referred after being on the board?

Although this was at a council meeting, I saw John Barton refuse to excuse himself from a discussion and a vote on a project that was designed by an architect that sometimes sub-contracted work to him. The city attorney didn't object either.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 12, 2014 at 5:25 pm

Judith Wasserman wrote a letter to the editor - opinion page for the San Jose Mercury extolling the requirement to prepare for HSR now - what ever that means. Clearly she is a lobbyist for the HSR so any comments from her need to be viewed from that perspective.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 12, 2014 at 7:21 pm

I am sorry my HSR comments were misinterpreted, and I am at a loss to see how they have anything to do with the ARB. My HSR point was that we should work our hardest to get them to put it underground.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by A
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 12, 2014 at 10:24 pm

The height requirement is much more than a stand-in to limit building volume or square footage, and it is disturbing that a professional on the ARB does not understand this. A tall building interferes with the view of the sky and mountains for many blocks around. Open sky was long ago determined by our town to be common property of everyone and excessive height intrudes on it.

I have heard that common open plazas should be a suitable compensation for a building that exceeds height limits. At best, a plaza might benefit the area around the building while the excessive height might blight the view from the whole downtown area. Often, though, a plaza not fronted by retail ends up as a rarely-visited, virtual desert with nothing to offer pedestrians. Sometimes such plazas are taken over for the use solely of the buildings tenants. For examples see City Hall, the Bank of America Building, and the public area now occupied by Cafe Riace's outdoor seating.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 13, 2014 at 10:53 am

I am thankful for (and somewhat pleasantly surprised at) the thoughtful and non-vitriolic comments on my opinion piece.
Joe -How do you know no one is checking up on recusals? The comment on art was never meant to imply people with art educations like everything, but the statement stands. You will find more art-educated people in modern art galleries than at traditional places. Every motion to approve a project begins with the words, "The project meets the findings," either as written in the staff report, or modified according to the analysis of the board member. I find your comment about comfort and human nature to be very cogent. Modern architecture will one day be old and historic, too, and part of our cultural continuity.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 13, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Judith - thanks for an educational piece!


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