Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 24, 2014

Plans surface, change for Palo Alto's central downtown site

As city proposes a new engagement process for 27 University Ave., graduate students offer their own visions

by Gennady Sheyner

When Palo Alto officials unveiled in early 2012 a proposal by billionaire developer John Arrillaga to turn a central downtown site into an office-and-theater complex, they unwittingly triggered a community backlash that continues to haunt the city to this day.

The proposal, which included four office towers far exceeding the city's 50-foot height limit, became a political nightmare. Residents blasted the city's lack of transparency in working with Arrillaga and panned the proposal's blatant disregard for the city's Comprehensive Plan, which discourages building heights that interfere with views of the foothills and encourages protection of historic structures (in this case, the historic Julia Morgan building, which currently houses the MacArthur Park restaurant). Though the City Council effectively pulled the plug on the proposal in December 2012, council members still refer to the political damage done. Last month, Councilman Pat Burt noted that many people still think the project is alive and argued that allowing the proposal to "get too far in the process has undermined the credibility of the council."

"The harm that gets done when we allow projects like this to go far along is very difficult to repair," Burt said.

But even as the city has hit the brakes on Arrillaga's proposal, the prospect of redeveloping the 4.3-acre site at 27 University Ave., which is next to a busy Caltrain station and which serves as a gateway between Stanford and downtown Palo Alto, continues to inspire urban planners, architects and graduate students. The city had initially planned to hold six to eight community meetings to solicit public input about what to do with the site — an approach that the council endorsed last June. But now, city staff is backing away from that plan in favor of a more general conversation about downtown's future.

For a group of graduate students from Stanford University and its partners abroad, though, the prospect of redeveloping the site and creating a "21st Century Research Park" is more than a pipe dream. It's also a homework assignment.

Coordinated by local architect and former Councilman John Barton, the project pits teams of students from different disciplines and schools, with each team offering a particular vision for 27 University. Each team has been working on its vision since last fall and each presented its concept on Thursday at City Hall in front of a crowd of faculty, students and local commissioners. In an interview earlier this week, Barton told the Weekly that the goal of the project is not to pre-empt the citywide discussion but to "augment it" and to give the participating students a chance to blend pure theory with real-world application.

"If the only thing that comes out of this is students learning to present ideas to people who are highly engaged in a particular project, that's great," Barton said. "If cool ideas come out and the community rallies around some set of ideas, that's great too, but it's not our expectation."

The ideas presented Thursday were ambitious and far-ranging, with the first team, dubbed Team Nukak, offering a "hybrid" model in which buildings are envisioned as flexible spaces with an eclectic mix of changing uses. The goal, according to the presentation, was to "create this timeless building and to give the opportunity to have long- and short-term models and uses."

Team Nukak was followed by Team Atsina, which offered as part of its scheme a set of "porous" buildings where high-tech workers can congregate, ample open space and a tall tower that combines commercial uses (an accelerator for startups, for instance) and residential ones (affordable housing, for example).

"We kind of tried to get people to mix within the tower, create this sort of vibrant urban experience for users, much like you can get in San Francisco but you won't necessarily get in Palo Alto with the low-rise housing," said Sebastian Pertl, an architecture student from Bern University of Applied Sciences and a member of Team Atsina.

Team Kuchi, by contrast, imagined the site as a "hive" that would support and nurture the swarm of people from Stanford, Palo Alto and the train station. The plan, according to the presentation was to use "the swarming of people and create on the site a hive for people to come together and create a community." This included creation of a space for density and "intense experiences" and improved paths between the site and the nearby San Francisquito Creek. Land uses would follow the theme of "mind, body and soul," with amenities that include a gym, a library and an amphitheater.

Like developers at public hearings, the students had to defend their visions against criticism, though the concerns came mostly from faculty members rather than land-use watchdogs and growth-weary residentialists. One question for Team Atsina was: How do you propose to make the housing at the new tower affordable, given the area's astronomical land values?

Steve Barg, a Stanford student in structural engineering, responded that the vision is to have the development operated by a "private partner partnership," possibly involving Stanford, the local government and a non-government organization. That way, the new development can consider "community needs" and not base all decisions on dollars and cents.

While the students had to wrestle with space and time constraints, they were insulated to a large extent from Palo Alto's political realities. Much like Arrillaga, the students had no qualms about relocating the historical Julia Morgan-designed Hostess House building. This prompted a comment from one member of the viewing public, Historic Resource Board Member Beth Bunnenberg, who pointed out that even though the building was initially built in Menlo Park, it has been in Palo alto for most of its life.

"It was named historic on this site, and there are many people who would say it needs to remain there," Bunnenberg said after Team Atsina made its presentation.

Barton said the program chose this politically hot issue specifically because of the challenges it offers to the many disciplines involved, including engineers, urban planners and architects.

"You want to choose a difficult challenge," Barton said Thursday. "It's a political challenge, it's an architectural challenge and it's got a question of place. Is it Stanford, Palo Alto or something different?"

The City Council and local residents plan to consider these challenges over the next two years, though the city's plan for facilitating conversation continues to shift. Earlier this month, City Manager James Keene mentioned at a council meeting that staff is no longer planning to proceed with the site-specific process approved last June, but hopes to fold the debate over 27 University Ave. into the broader conversation about the city's future. This week, Keene unveiled the city's new initiative called "Our Palo Alto" that aims to bring the public into the discussion.

When asked about the staff's decision not to proceed with the visioning process that the council approved last June, Keene said the new approach made sense given the broad range of related issues that have surfaced since the summer of 2013. These include the city's ongoing "downtown cap study," which aims to determine downtown's capacity for new development; proposed parking-permit programs and transportation-demand-management programs; exploration of new downtown garages; and the city's update of its Comprehensive Plan.

Keene said staff will present ideas for approaching 27 University and related downtown planning issues on Feb. 3, as it introduces its new initiative, Our Palo Alto. The topic may also come up on Feb. 24, when the council is scheduled to discuss the Comprehensive Plan update.

"In June, we were looking at (27 University) as a one-off issue," Keene said. "Now, we're having a much bigger conversation about the whole city."

"It seemed to us that it would be confusing and potentially redundant and presumably even cost ineffective to try to be running some separate parallel process when we are having a much grander discussion around the Comprehensive Plan," Keene said.

"The question of whether that project or any project should go forward at that site is up in the air" and will not be answered until the broader conversation over the Comprehensive Plan takes place.

He added that the council can always redirect staff to launch the specific 27 University dialogue as originally envisioned in June.

"We're very focused on this broad community dialogue that I think will take several years," Keene said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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