Let's start with the downtown 50-foot height limit that was established in the 1970s in reaction to a "super block" 15-story building proposed where the Stanford Theater sits.
In today's work environment of LEED light and energy optimization and architectural excellence, a structural-steel building with 12-15-foot ground-floor retail ceilings (think the new Apple store) and 10-foot office ceilings requires 60-62 feet of height. It's still a four-story building, but designed for a healthy light-filled environment.
Interior environment healthiness has appropriately become paramount and natural light has proven to make a significant difference to employee morale, well-being and productivity. To transport sunlight into the workspace, taller windows and higher ceilings are critical. The best designs embrace this goal and some even incorporate floor-to-ceiling glass with reflectors to enhance the sunlight's penetration to the interior spaces. The secret sauce of the Valley has been our unique ability to innovate and create. Our entrepreneurial spirit thrives when people have serendipitous encounters and buildings play an important role. Offering people a healthier and more productive work environment is best and is one great way downtown Palo Alto can continue to lead. All of this means offices ideally have ceilings that are at least 10 feet tall.
Building codes have changed the construction of buildings. To incorporate greater seismic and safety prevention improvements along with the many great LEED best practices the interstitial spaces between ceilings and floors have increased. While there are many factors to consider it is commonly held that the appropriate space needed for a building's HVAC, electrical, plumbing, fire sprinklers, data cabling, and so on is at least foour feet.
Palo Alto should adopt a new height standard of 62 feet in the downtown area. This would permit each building to have a traditional structure with interior spaces that are modern, high-quality, flexible and cost effective. It eliminates the conflict of form at the expense of function. And finally, it translates a Class A desire into a Class A experience for residents, visitors and employees. Four-story buildings are architectural exclamation points, particularly on corner locations.
The AOL and MacArthur Park proposals are unique in their proximity to Caltrain, remote due to lack of immediate surrounding residential neighborhoods, properly parked, and most importantly they offer extraordinary public benefits. Each attribute needs to stand on its own, with the public benefits being the game changer. A new police building and the TheatreWorks Performing Art Center are unattainable without a public/private partnership. Also, both proposals will add to the long term retail vitality of California Avenue and downtown Palo Alto respectively.
People may get worried about height but this is misguided, as it is only a portion of a successful building equation. We should enable our community to grow and evolve with the industry's best practices. Our downtown will be a better place with first-class buildings that can be taller than three stories. The AOL and MacArthur Park projects are well thought-out tradeoffs for important public benefits in an era of ever-dwindling public capital. These projects are truly responsive to the Planned Community District mandate for public benefits.
With great design the issue will not be the height, but rather a proposed buildings context and influence on the neighborhood and community.
Editor's Note: On Dec. 3 the City Council is scheduled to discuss the huge project proposed by John Arrillaga at 27 University Ave. Among other things, the developer is asking the council to relax the city's 50-foot height limit on downtown buildings to make way for the project. Here are two guest opinions on the limit, from developer Chop Keenan and environmentalist Doug Moran.