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Guest opinion: 'Style Wars' a result of too much, too fast?

Original post made on Aug 12, 2014

Palo Alto's latest architectural controversies center on questions of massing, density and style. And misconceptions about the function of the Architectural Review Board don't help. The writer hopes to clarify some issues.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, August 12, 2014, 6:47 AM

Comments (8)

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 12, 2014 at 12:36 pm

> 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.

The problem here is that there is no one insuring that the covered ARB members have actually recused themselves when required. Moreover, the requirements for recusal are very loose—providing the public little confidence that a covered pubic official is actually functioning in the public interest. The one year limit for client/architect interaction is too short. A longer period would provide a better buffer, providing the public more confidence that the ARB member is acting in an independent way.

> "The more you know about art, the more you like."

Not necessarily. There are many, many, art styles that have come, and gone, over time. When they go—it's because people don't like them anymore.

> 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.

This is interesting. Does the ARB actually have a checklist of these findings, including these checklists as a part of the project documentation that is available to the public for review—perhaps posted on line as the project works its way thru the system?

> 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.

Perhaps it's more human nature—rather than ironic. Most of these fads are gone before the next sunrise. Having some continuity in our collective existence provides a basis for our culture to provide the future some of that past that everyone can relate to.

Thanks, Ms. Wasserman, for taking the time to provide a little insight into the ARB. Don't think you will convince everyone that you are right and that they are all wrong. Might be interesting to try running a few projects thru the system without ARB review, to see what the difference in the end result might be.


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Posted by Not so!
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 12, 2014 at 1:48 pm

I don't necessarily want old looking buildings. I want ARB to "promote visual environments which are of high aesthetic quality and variety and which, at the same time, are considerate of each other". That is their purview, correct?

If this city is so desirable then developers should up their game from privilege of developing here, not the city making the best of a bad situation.


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Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 12, 2014 at 4:12 pm

jh is a registered user.

My observation of ARB meetings is that the architects in this town consider themselves professional colleagues and modify their comments accordingly. Judith Wasserman says that to her knowledge no one on the current or previous boards have worked for each other. But what about professional recommendations between them. What about someone hoping to have work referred after being on the board?

Although this was at a council meeting, I saw John Barton refuse to excuse himself from a discussion and a vote on a project that was designed by an architect that sometimes sub-contracted work to him. The city attorney didn't object either.


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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 12, 2014 at 5:25 pm

Judith Wasserman wrote a letter to the editor - opinion page for the San Jose Mercury extolling the requirement to prepare for HSR now - what ever that means. Clearly she is a lobbyist for the HSR so any comments from her need to be viewed from that perspective.


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Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 12, 2014 at 7:21 pm

I am sorry my HSR comments were misinterpreted, and I am at a loss to see how they have anything to do with the ARB. My HSR point was that we should work our hardest to get them to put it underground.


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Posted by A
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 12, 2014 at 10:24 pm

The height requirement is much more than a stand-in to limit building volume or square footage, and it is disturbing that a professional on the ARB does not understand this. A tall building interferes with the view of the sky and mountains for many blocks around. Open sky was long ago determined by our town to be common property of everyone and excessive height intrudes on it.

I have heard that common open plazas should be a suitable compensation for a building that exceeds height limits. At best, a plaza might benefit the area around the building while the excessive height might blight the view from the whole downtown area. Often, though, a plaza not fronted by retail ends up as a rarely-visited, virtual desert with nothing to offer pedestrians. Sometimes such plazas are taken over for the use solely of the buildings tenants. For examples see City Hall, the Bank of America Building, and the public area now occupied by Cafe Riace's outdoor seating.


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Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 13, 2014 at 10:53 am

I am thankful for (and somewhat pleasantly surprised at) the thoughtful and non-vitriolic comments on my opinion piece.
Joe -How do you know no one is checking up on recusals? The comment on art was never meant to imply people with art educations like everything, but the statement stands. You will find more art-educated people in modern art galleries than at traditional places. Every motion to approve a project begins with the words, "The project meets the findings," either as written in the staff report, or modified according to the analysis of the board member. I find your comment about comfort and human nature to be very cogent. Modern architecture will one day be old and historic, too, and part of our cultural continuity.


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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 13, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Judith - thanks for an educational piece!


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