Palo Alto Weekly
News - August 22, 2014
Controversial plan for office building ekes out approval
With neighbors protesting, Palo Alto's architecture board votes 3-2 in favor of three-story building on Sherman Avenue
by Gennady Sheyner
Despite a chorus of protests from residents, Palo Alto's architectural board on Thursday approved a new three-story building that will go up next to Sarah Wallis Park and inject more commercial space into the rapidly changing business district around California Avenue.
The Architectural Review Board voted 3-2, with Robert Gooyer and Alexander Lew dissenting, to support a largely commercial development at 385 Sherman Ave. The building would replace an existing one-story building and would feature office space on all three stories and four residential units on the ground floor. Chair Lee Lippert, Vice Chair Randy Popp and board member Clare Malone Prichard all voted to approve the proposal, with Lippert calling it a "wonderful project" and Popp describing it as "very good."
"Although this is a dramatic change in neighborhood, I think this is a proposal that will ultimately be reflected on by the larger community as a benefit," Popp said.
Others weren't so sure. The board's narrow approval followed extensive testimony from residents of Birch Court, a condominium community next door. Dozens submitted letters and spoke Thursday to urge further revisions to the project, with most citing the new building's creation of noise and its potential intrusion on their privacy.
The developer, Daniel Minkoff, has already made some revisions to the design, including lowering the building's height from 50 to 45 feet; adding trees that would screen the new building from Birch Court; and shifting the third story back from the bottom two.
For many residents and two board members, these steps weren't enough to compensate for the building's size and density. Many protested the proposed decks on the second floor, which would face the Birch Court condominiums.
Anne Steinle, who submitted a letter and spoke on behalf of a group of residents, was among the critics. The deck space, she wrote in a letter to the board, looks "directly onto and into the residences of Birch Court."
"This issue is a source of deep anguish to us and also dismay because we should not be in this position pleading for protection," Steinle wrote.
Minkoff countered that the deck will be too small to accommodate the types of crowded, noisy gatherings that nearby residents fear.
"You don't end up with huge parties on these decks," Minkoff said. "They're not that big. What you end up with is, on a nice day, four people having a meeting."
Even so, residents and dissenting board members criticized the building as too massive for the area, which is in the midst of a building boom. While California Avenue itself is undergoing a dramatic streetscape renovation, the streets around the eclectic strip have seen an influx of construction. Current projects in and around California Avenue include a new three-story building at 260 California Ave.; two dense, mixed-use projects currently developed by Harold Hohbach on Page Mill Road and on Grant Avenue; and two block-long buildings on El Camino Real — one around the old JJ&F Market and another a few blocks south, around Equinox Gym. Each of these developments has significant office space and each has sparked anxieties among neighbors about massing, traffic and parking.
In opposing the 385 Sherman plan, Gooyer and Lew both took the position, shared by many neighbors, that even after the latest design revisions, the project remains simply too big for the neighborhood. Gooyer, who criticized the scale of the 55,465-square-foot building during the board's last discussion on July 17, has not changed his views since.
"I just really don't see that any of the solutions I've seen really help the neighborhood," Gooyer said. "I think the building is too large; it's too close; it's overpowering to the residential uses adjacent to it. ... All in all, I wasn't able to support it then, and I still can't support the project."
Popp took the opposite stance and said the new building "creates massing and orientation" in a neighborhood that he described as "a hodgepodge of really nondescript and non-elegant buildings."
Because the project meets the property's zoning regulations and is not seeking a zone change, it will not require a City Council review unless someone appeals the board's decision. But Lippert cautioned against an appeal.
"What does frighten me is if the project is denied by the City Council — if it is appealed and denied — what we might wind up with," Lippert said.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by Tired of overdevelopment,
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 24, 2014 at 3:54 am
Palo alto resident,
Thanks for the info, it should be useful to the neighbors. (Neighbors: it's just a start...)
Palo Alto Native,
You should try to do the usual appeals, but you are unlikely to be successful. You should do them anyway, read on...
I don't think you can put it to a referendum like Maybell, because there is no ordinance, but you can probably do something similar that will be even better. A referendum isn't the right thing because it deals with setting aside an ordinance -- at Maybell, the City Council confused the rezoning with the project itself as a political tactic to bias the ballot, but there never was a vote about whether senior housing could go there, for example, only about whether the ordinance to change the height limit, density, daylight plane, lack of parking, etc would go into effect.
But you may have other recourse. If Palo Alto were not a charter city -- or if like most charter cities, following the comprehensive plan had more teeth -- you could probably take your case to a judge and get the development stopped if it was inconsistent with the comprehensive plan.
You may still be able to take your case to a judge and just get the development stopped, that is I think what usually happens in other places when a development violates the comprehensive plan. If the property has to go through any kind of subdivision in order to put in the residential units, or some other legal procedure, there may be an opportunity to have a judge stop it there if it's inconsistent with the comprehensive plan. That's what neighbors did in the Glenbrook extension, they stopped an overdevelopment plan at the subdivision level.
The most decisive thing you can do is probably to start an INITIATIVE to drop the zoning in the whole area back to what it was prior to Council's recent increase around Cal Ave. It's too late to do a referendum to put aside that ordinance, but if you and your neighbors put together an initiative, you would likely get broad support in the community.
A referendum allows citizens to set aside an ordinance enacted by Council, and Council can decide whether to accept the will of the people or put it to vote to try to enact the ordinance, which they did in Measure D. An initiative allows citizens to basically enact their own ordinance, so if it's too late to do a referendum, you could just do an initiative instead.
I do not know the best thing to do, you and your neighbors know your neighborhood, and have a good understanding of what would hurt the character of the neighborhood and cause a huge disruption in the quality of your lives. If that's what's really happening here, you are the ones to judge, and you do have recourse.
Is the project really within zoning and meeting all the land use requirements? What recourse do you have with a development that is out of scale with the neighborhood or inconsistent with the comprehensive plan, or otherwise changes the character of your neighborhood?
I don't know what your recourse is, I'm only guessing. But neither did anyone at Maybell.
What Maybell neighbors did was realize the development was too big for the neighborhood and would almost certainly lead to further densification of that corridor, so (after it was obvious no one planning it was listening) they decided to seek information from a good land use attorney, as well as other experts like a traffic engineer. Sadly, they didn't realize what was going on with that enormous hotel next to Hobee's first or that would probably have been referended instead.
You may have to go through the City appeals process anyway in order to get all of your concerns on record in the event of further legal action. The only way to know the best way to go is to consult with a good land use attorney.
Neighbors at Maybell shared their concerns with each other early on and pooled money to hire a land use attorney. Attorneys are not going to want to be hired by a large group of people, in other words, you'll have to have a few people who hire the attorney and enter into the legal relationship. The best neighbors to do this are those who already know how to work with attorneys to be very efficient with their time. It helps if everyone is willing to donate, but if you're really serious, it also helps if there are a few neighbors willing to make a larger commitment up front.
Another thing the neighbors at Maybell did was immediately reach out to people like Bob Moss with long institutional memories, and ask what could be done. They also simply asked City Council, former mayors, the then head of planning, etc., about what the process was. They didn't get a complete answer from them, but all information was good. But no one in the City is going to do anything that reverses any overdevelopment even if it is changing your neighborhood as the planning commission seems to have admitted here. You will have to take matters into your own hands like the neighbors did at Maybell.
However, if you do that, it's a good time for it, as all of these issues are coming to a head right now with the upcoming election. You don't have time to get an initiative on the ballot for this election, but if you start collecting signatures soon, you can certainly get the matter put before the Council and see if they adopt the initiative to reduce the zoning back to what it was (or something your neighbors deem acceptable), or if they put it to an expensive vote. You would have a lot of leverage since Scharff and Shepherd are seeking re-election. You may even be able to get help and advice from PASZ people because a larger development initiative at this time would keep these issues on the front burner through the election. It's also probably the greatest time ever to collect your signatures, I'm guessing if you got together a good, well-supported initiative and had it well vetted by a land use attorney and government law firm, you could get your signatures in a matter of days with all the networks of citizens now around these issues.