Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 27, 2014

Palo Alto nixes two-story additions to historic building

Nay votes indicate a shift toward narrower interpretations of law

by Sue Dremann

Calling a developer's planned renovation of a historic downtown building "a tipping point," Palo Alto City Council members voted Monday night 8-1 against developer Roxy Rapp's proposal for controversial additions to 261 Hamilton Ave.

The 1927 Birge Clark-designed building is located at the corner of Ramona Street and previously housed University Art. Rapp proposed adding to the 41,900-square-foot building a three-story office wing along Centennial Walk, an alley that runs from Hamilton to the north and parallels Ramona Street. Currently, the building consists of a four-story, tile-roofed "L" along Hamilton and Ramona and a one-story "wing" along Centennial.

The new wing was to be 49 feet, 8 inches tall — a hair below the city's 50-foot height limit.

Members of the residents group Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) opposed the project, arguing that city staff had misinterpreted the definition of "building envelope" to give more above-ground space to the developer than current law allows. Defined in city code as the three-dimensional spatial configuration of a building's volume and mass, the building envelope for 261 Hamilton would change with the proposed remodel, PAN members say.

Council members agreed Monday night that staff's interpretation of the city zoning code — as the three-dimensional "building area" of a project site that does not refer to the shape of the building — is a stretch.

"It doesn't pass a common-sense definition," Councilman Pat Burt said. "I don't understand how this interpretation of building envelope passes muster."

261 Hamilton's status as a "grandfathered" structure was also part of the debate. Under the "Grandfathered Uses and Facilities" ordinance in the Palo Alto Municipal Code, such structures are allowed to not be in compliance with city code and to be remodeled, provided the remodeling does not result in increased floor area and does not shift the building footprint. The ordinance also prohibits "any other increase in the size of the improvement," Burt noted.

Trading basement square footage for above-ground square footage, as proposed, is not an equal exchange and violates the city's grandfathered uses ordinance, he said.

Councilman Larry Klein agreed with Burt.

"There is hardly ever just one way to read an ordinance or law. If that was the case, we'd never have any disputes in court," Klein said. But, he added, "I believe staff misread the ordinance."

Rapp maintains the wing is not adding square footage to the building. The existing basement, currently used for storage and work space, would be converted to nine parking spaces and would no longer count as square footage. The rearrangement would result in a net-zero gain in floor area for the building itself, according to the developer's plans.

Council members did praise the work that Rapp has done with other buildings, which have been elegant and respectful of historical design, they repeatedly said. But the project vote was indicative of a growing intolerance of broad redevelopment interpretations that have eroded public trust on issues such as overly dense developments with inadequate parking.

"Roxy — Mr. Rapp — puts together good projects, but your particular project is a tipping point," Councilwoman Karen Holman said.

Rapp also asked to change the building's historic classification from the current Category 3 historic resource to the higher Category 2 standard. Following reclassification, he could request 15,000 square feet of Transferable Development Rights (TDR) because the building will undergo historic rehabilitation.

TDRs allow a property owner to sell that square footage to another developer to expand a project beyond what is allowed under zoning for the property.

Klein and Holman also touched upon the public benefit of the applicant's request to change the building's historical status to the stronger Category 2. The developer would certainly receive a large benefit by receiving TDRs that he could sell, but the public benefit would be a historically renovated building that is upgraded to modern safety and disability standards, and money from TDRs helps offset the significant cost of renovation, Holman said.

Rapp said Monday that the building needs significant safety upgrades, including an elevator that would accommodate an ambulance gurney and more stairwells allowing occupants to escape in an emergency. The building would also have restrooms that are accessible to people with disabilities.

Councilwoman Gail Price, who cast the dissenting vote, said she supported the project and the historic-category change. Rapp's project was a creative proposal that would beautify the area, she said.

The council vote allows Rapp to return with a revised proposal. The revisions could require him to return to the Historic Resources and Architectural Review boards, which both previously recommended approval of the project. In an effort to curb further broad interpretations for other projects, the council's vote also incorporated the more restrictive interpretation of the ordinance.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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