Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 8, 2014

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 that are of high aesthetic quality and variety and that, 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 better 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 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.

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