Guest Opinion: 'Gateway' project breaks all of city's zoning rules
The Palo Alto City Council seems to have forgotten that the role of a city council is to represent the will of public. For years our council did a good job of being in tune with the public and responsive to their concerns; those were years when we enacted the 50-foot height limit and adhered to it and when exemptions were truly exceptionally rare as they were intended to be.
The Lytton Gateway project at Alma and Lytton is simply a developer's dream. This building wildly exceeds our zoning code and is dramatically out of step with our Comprehensive Plan. It even calls for removing 30 mature trees in a community known for its trees. Are we really ready for another California Avenue tree fiasco? Appropriately, the council did send the developer back to the drawing board.
However, it also proposed awarding PC (Planned Community) zoning that is worth millions of dollars. As originally proposed, the project substantially exceeded code not only on height but also density FAR (floor-to-area ratio), and disregarded daylight plane and parking requirements. It simply thumbed its nose at the city's long-standing height limit — proposing 84 feet in a 50-foot zone, a whopping 68 percent more than code permits. Of course, the project is referred to as a 64-foot building with a 20-foot tower. In my book that's an 84-foot building. Appropriately, the council reduced the height by one floor but appears to accept the tower if reduced proportionately. That would still be about 36 percent taller than our 50-foot height limit.
The City's Architectural Review Board ignored its mandate and simply rubber-stamped the project stating, "The design is consistent and compatible with applicable elements of the city's Comprehensive Plan..." The board did so despite the fact that our Comprehensive Plan states, "Maintain the scale and character of the city. Avoid land uses that are overwhelming and unacceptable due to their size and scale." Talk about a feckless board.
In addition, since the project has the potential for creating 200 new jobs and provides for only 14 dwelling units, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) will surely seize on this to demand that Palo Alto build 186 more dwelling units somewhere.
The developer's proposed financial donation for a parking study won't begin to make up for the project's parking deficit. The money will be gone in a few years, and we will be left with the problems: a larger ABAG housing mandate and a truly serious parking deficit.
Ah yes, the parking deficit. New developments must provide parking for all employees and the developer speaks of 200. But shouldn't he provide parking for clients and customers as well? Parking is a serious problem now; just ask Downtown North or University South residents. New development cannot be allowed that exacerbates this problem.
One fact that cannot be ignored is that any building as excessively large as the proposed Lytton Gateway will serve as precedent. Approve one egregiously outsize structure, and it serves as precedent thereafter, thus encouraging more such deviations from code. Is this what we want?
The Weekly tells us that this project represents in many ways the city's drive to encourage more intense development near major traffic centers. Is this the city's new drive? Does the community support this "new urbanism" goal? I would wager that most residents couldn't even define "new urbanism" let alone have an informed opinion of it. The public was certainly not involved in adopting this "goal."
But three cheers for Planning Commissioner Susan Fineberg who voted against Lytton Gateway because it is inconsistent with Comprehensive Plan, the city's own land use document and guide mandated by the state that is supposed to govern the city's development. But where were the rest of our Planning Commissioners? And where oh where are our council members? They don't have to approve a project even in concept simply because someone proposes it.
Palo Alto needs to get back to involving the residents in setting public policy — and needs to do so quickly. The council must not assume that the community supports "new urbanism" or a seriously oversized Lytton Gateway.
Moreover, if the residents care about our community and the direction it's going, they need to get back to watching the council and current events and involving themselves in the discussions that set the direction of development. Palo Alto won't remain the attractive and inviting community with tree-lined streets that we all enjoy without awareness and involvement by each of us.
Ellen Wyman, a long-time Palo Alto resident, has been involved in numerous local issues from the time of the 1967 City Council recall to, most recently, preserving the historic "bird bath" fountain on California Avenue. •