News

Downtown housing project 'too dense, too tall'

Palo Alto planning commissioners concerned about 98-unit project's size and density on Alma Street, but launch zone-change process anyway

A proposal to bring 98 affordable-housing units and a handful of stores to the site of a former electric substation on Alma Street earned a small but hard-fought victory Wednesday when the city initiated a zone change for the site.

But most members of the Planning and Transportation Commission agreed with neighborhood residents that the project as submitted is too dense, too tall and needs to be altered before it gets all the approvals it needs.

The planning board, which heard its first presentation on the project Wednesday, voted 4-3 to initiate planned community (PC) zoning at the site, a necessary step to allow both commercial and residential use.

At the same time, commissioners agreed with both the project's supporters and critics, praising the proposal for its lofty goals while expressing concern about its size and potential traffic impacts.

The project proposed by a partnership of nonprofits, Eden Housing and the Community Housing Alliance would bring 49 affordable-housing units for families and 49 more for seniors to 801 Alma St., between Homer and Channing avenues.

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The development would consist of two five-story buildings, each of which would be 53-feet tall and feature stores on the ground floor. The family-housing building would also serve as the new, larger site for Palo Alto Hardware, now at Alma and Channing.

Though the commission was asked not to consider any specific project features but to focus on whether the proposal is appropriate for a PC zone, commissioners spent several hours criticizing the development's lack of open space, potential traffic issues and high number of units.

Commissioners Karen Holman, Arthur Keller and Susan Fineberg said they need more information before they could support beginning the zone change.

But Commissioner Lee Lippert enthusiastically praised the project for giving the city exactly what it needs and encouraged his colleagues to speed things along.

"If you look at the number of units being proposed for this project and our deficit in terms of unmet need for very low-income housing, (the project) begins to put a dent in that number without impacting the rest of the city in a significant way," Lippert said.

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Vice Chairman Samir Tuma also supported initiating the zone change, characterizing it as a good way for city officials to "walk the walk" and demonstrate how serious t he city is about bringing more affordable housing. He also praised the project for its proximity to downtown and public transportation, factors that would reduce traffic and benefit the environment.

"The concepts are right, the idea is right, the opportunities are fantastic and we need to take advantage of these opportunities," Tuma said

At the same time, he said the applicants will have to revisit numerous issues, including the number of units and the building heights.

The developers have already trimmed three units off the project since its presentation to the Architectural Review Board in September. But that isn't enough to satisfy Joseph Mallon and other residents of 800 High St., the building next to the proposed development site.

"It's just too much in too little space," Mallon told the board. "It's a good project gone bad by being too big."

Other speakers, including Channing House resident Janet Owens, said they were thrilled to see an affordable-housing project coming to a city that desperately needs such housing.

"I can't tell you how pleased I am about the many changes in standards that this housing project will bring," Owens said. "I'm delighted that this will be an introduction of a different type housing to Palo Alto and not only the residents but the neighbors will become used to it."

(Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at [email protected])

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Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

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Downtown housing project 'too dense, too tall'

Palo Alto planning commissioners concerned about 98-unit project's size and density on Alma Street, but launch zone-change process anyway

by / Palo Alto Online

Uploaded: Thu, Dec 11, 2008, 8:33 am

A proposal to bring 98 affordable-housing units and a handful of stores to the site of a former electric substation on Alma Street earned a small but hard-fought victory Wednesday when the city initiated a zone change for the site.

But most members of the Planning and Transportation Commission agreed with neighborhood residents that the project as submitted is too dense, too tall and needs to be altered before it gets all the approvals it needs.

The planning board, which heard its first presentation on the project Wednesday, voted 4-3 to initiate planned community (PC) zoning at the site, a necessary step to allow both commercial and residential use.

At the same time, commissioners agreed with both the project's supporters and critics, praising the proposal for its lofty goals while expressing concern about its size and potential traffic impacts.

The project proposed by a partnership of nonprofits, Eden Housing and the Community Housing Alliance would bring 49 affordable-housing units for families and 49 more for seniors to 801 Alma St., between Homer and Channing avenues.

The development would consist of two five-story buildings, each of which would be 53-feet tall and feature stores on the ground floor. The family-housing building would also serve as the new, larger site for Palo Alto Hardware, now at Alma and Channing.

Though the commission was asked not to consider any specific project features but to focus on whether the proposal is appropriate for a PC zone, commissioners spent several hours criticizing the development's lack of open space, potential traffic issues and high number of units.

Commissioners Karen Holman, Arthur Keller and Susan Fineberg said they need more information before they could support beginning the zone change.

But Commissioner Lee Lippert enthusiastically praised the project for giving the city exactly what it needs and encouraged his colleagues to speed things along.

"If you look at the number of units being proposed for this project and our deficit in terms of unmet need for very low-income housing, (the project) begins to put a dent in that number without impacting the rest of the city in a significant way," Lippert said.

Vice Chairman Samir Tuma also supported initiating the zone change, characterizing it as a good way for city officials to "walk the walk" and demonstrate how serious t he city is about bringing more affordable housing. He also praised the project for its proximity to downtown and public transportation, factors that would reduce traffic and benefit the environment.

"The concepts are right, the idea is right, the opportunities are fantastic and we need to take advantage of these opportunities," Tuma said

At the same time, he said the applicants will have to revisit numerous issues, including the number of units and the building heights.

The developers have already trimmed three units off the project since its presentation to the Architectural Review Board in September. But that isn't enough to satisfy Joseph Mallon and other residents of 800 High St., the building next to the proposed development site.

"It's just too much in too little space," Mallon told the board. "It's a good project gone bad by being too big."

Other speakers, including Channing House resident Janet Owens, said they were thrilled to see an affordable-housing project coming to a city that desperately needs such housing.

"I can't tell you how pleased I am about the many changes in standards that this housing project will bring," Owens said. "I'm delighted that this will be an introduction of a different type housing to Palo Alto and not only the residents but the neighbors will become used to it."

(Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at [email protected])

Comments

Frank Flynn
Ventura
on Dec 11, 2008 at 11:46 am
Frank Flynn, Ventura
on Dec 11, 2008 at 11:46 am

Does anyone else find it particularly ironic that residents of 800 High St are complaining that this is too big? Wasn't that the complain with their building - yet it turned out quite nice.

Personally, I like the idea of allowing more dense housing near transit and commercial areas. I also strongly agree that we need more low / moderate income housing in our city. I think we need more projects like this.

Frank


common sense
Midtown
on Dec 11, 2008 at 11:56 am
common sense, Midtown
on Dec 11, 2008 at 11:56 am

49 more family units means 49 - 98+ kids that won't go to their neighborhood school, since Addison is full. That equals 200 - 400 more car trips in the downtown area (an overflowed kid needs to taken to school, and the parent returns, then a pickup & return).

Development like this doesn't pay any property taxes for the non-profit units. So more infrastructure needs, more burden on the schools, and no offseting taxes! I don't think the council has thought about the needs of the current citizens.


Jenny
South of Midtown
on Dec 11, 2008 at 11:57 am
Jenny, South of Midtown
on Dec 11, 2008 at 11:57 am

So, they want a 3 foot variance to go over the 50 foot height limit, this does not seem unreasonable. The Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life was given a 12 foot variance over the 50 foot height limit.

If they can grant a 12 foot variance for a construction project in south Palo Alto, they can grant a 3 foot variance in north Palo Alto.


Out of place
Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 12:26 pm
Out of place, Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 12:26 pm

The 3 foot height variance is the smallest exception they asked for. It is a block long low income tenement. Looks like the old fashioned city tenements. It violates every zoning rule you can think of.
Yes the Campus for Jewish Life got a big variance they didn't deserve. So it should be done again? what kind of thinking is that?
The Architecture Reviewers criticized it very strongly but the design has not changed hardly at all. Look at the pictures, you will be surprised that something so unattractive and out of place could be proposed.


No more housing, please
Menlo Park
on Dec 11, 2008 at 5:16 pm
No more housing, please, Menlo Park
on Dec 11, 2008 at 5:16 pm

Is no one paying attention to the fact that the demand for housing has decreased? There are two new housing developments in Menlo Park (on Linfield Drive and the 100 block of Willow Road) that are not selling. Allow me to repeat that - THE HOUSING UNITS ARE NOT SELLING!
Construction at the two Menlo Park developments is nearly at a standstill many months after the units were first offered for sale. It appears that they have been forced to enlist the help of real estate agencies to help them sell the units.

The new housing on Alma described above is about a mile from the units that are not selling in Menlo Park.

Sure, there is plenty of demand for subsidized housing. I'd like to have my housing costs subsidized too! Enough with this scam that the developers are pulling on us - the profits of the developers come at a huge cost for all of us who live in the area(overcrowding) and own property here(decreased property value).

Wake up Peninsula - it's not going to be so great to live here in 10 years.


Paul
Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 5:32 pm
Paul, Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 5:32 pm

"The Architecture Reviewers criticized it very strongly"

I beg to differ. This development will be totally architecturally compatible with its San Quentin-like neighbor at 800 High. And it has far more justification to support its special zoning.

The 800 High residents' opposition is understandable and ironic. Understandable because who wants to buy a $1.5M dollar condo and then have families pulling in less than $40,000 a year a mere spitwad's throw away. Ironic because it must have been disclosed to them at sales time that there would be a low-income development across the alley, and that its residents would share the 800 High's parking garage entry. That arrangement was, after all, a "public benefit" of 800 High which was much touted by its developer during the 2003 referendum. If this disclosure was not made, then 800 High's residents need to consult their lawyers instead of whining to the city.



Steve
University South
on Dec 11, 2008 at 6:11 pm
Steve, University South
on Dec 11, 2008 at 6:11 pm

Yes it was disclosed - as a proposed 50 unit low-income senior project on the electrical substation property.

The 50 unit project would have been wonderful - but Eden got incredibly greedy and turned it into a 101 unit project in the last year (recently scaled back to 98 units)

I completely supported (and would still support) the original 50 unit plan. The new plan that DOUBLES in size is the problem.


Addison is full!
Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 7:45 pm
Addison is full!, Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 7:45 pm

My kids is not attending Addison because when it was full when I moved to Downtown Palo Alto. My children are now attending other schools, and this will also happen to more than one hundred children that will be leaving in this new project. The city must re-think and organize schooling for all those children before approving such a project. And I am doing the math right. In 49 low income apartments there will be FOR SURE MORE THAN 100 KIDS.


common sense
Midtown
on Dec 11, 2008 at 9:12 pm
common sense, Midtown
on Dec 11, 2008 at 9:12 pm

The article writes

- Planning Commissioner Samir Tuma "praised the project for its proximity to downtown and public transportation, factors that would reduce traffic and benefit the environment", and
- Planning Commissioner Lee Lippert says "the number of units being proposed for this project and our deficit in terms of unmet need for very low-income housing, (the project) begins to put a dent in that number without impacting the rest of the city in a significant way"

Did these commissioners compute the added traffic from overflowed kids? how does that reduce trafic?

What about the financial impact of no property taxes? and on the schools?

How do people like this get appointed? Are they in the council member's network?

They aren't thinking about all the impacts.


common sense
Midtown
on Dec 11, 2008 at 9:27 pm
common sense, Midtown
on Dec 11, 2008 at 9:27 pm

Do very low income do their basic needs shopping at Whole Foods? or would they shop at Safeway? and do they go to Stanford Shopping Center or big box retailers? Those trips just keep adding up.


I wonder
Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 9:42 pm
I wonder, Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 9:42 pm

I wonder how Whole Foods Market feel about this low income community moving so close to their store. I know that that their managers worked hard to get the expansion of the sit-lie ordinance approved to cover Homer street in order to get the homeless folks out of their site. Now the homeless people are out. Victor has moved to another area.


Out of place
Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 9:44 pm
Out of place, Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 9:44 pm

The commissioners who voted for this monster development are Lee Lippert, Dan Garber (both architects), Samir Tuma (investor?developer?), and Paula Sandas, who is leaving the commission to become CEO of the Chamber of Commerce.
What more is there to know?


Curious
Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 9:49 pm
Curious, Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 9:49 pm

Question: Where exactly all those kids going to go to school? Addison is full. Walter Hays is also getting full because of the overflown kids from Addison.

And if they are going to schools far from their homes, how will they get to school? Will 1st and 2nd graders bike by themselves? Will the PAUSD provide bus service to those kids to their new schools?

Right now there is no school bus for kids living in downtown Palo Alto. Maybe that is how they will send those kids to Palo Verde, Nixon, Escondido or any other school. 100+ kids taking school bus in Palo Alto... will be that the solution? And do we have 100 spots in our schools?



Citizen
University South
on Dec 11, 2008 at 10:21 pm
Citizen, University South
on Dec 11, 2008 at 10:21 pm

It is good for hard working people who deserve to live in a neighborhood that once is not affordable. It gives us an opportunity to live in Palo Alto and contribute to the community. Diversity is very important and will help the community in long run. We need more of affordable housing in Palo Alto!!


Standford Alumni
College Terrace
on Dec 11, 2008 at 10:33 pm
Standford Alumni, College Terrace
on Dec 11, 2008 at 10:33 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


Paul
Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 10:34 pm
Paul, Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 10:34 pm

"Yes it was disclosed - as a proposed 50 unit low-income senior project on the electrical substation property"

I take it you're an 800 Highster. You might want to consult your lawyer. Can a disclosure limit development of a neighboring property? Probaby not. Was there a deception on the part of your developer?

You might just have to suck it up, or do like the anti-800 High crowd did and referend the city ordinance that authorizes the affordable housing that you don't want. Watch the process and have fun.


Knight
Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 10:37 pm
Knight, Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2008 at 10:37 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


Jake
Midtown
on Dec 12, 2008 at 7:07 am
Jake, Midtown
on Dec 12, 2008 at 7:07 am

"It is a block long low income tenement." What is wrong with "low income?" This project is all part of the City's policy to provide in fill affordable housing. It is close to public transportation and seem to be an ideal location for affordable housing.


Parent
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2008 at 8:37 am
Parent, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2008 at 8:37 am

And I assume the city and the developers will be disclosing the impacts to the eventual residents of this development (and other developments in the area), of the High Speed Rail line?

The Final Bay Area to Central Valley EIR/EIS from the CAlifornia High Speed Rail Authority shows 4-wide tracks (expanded from only 2-wide today) which will spread across the entire Caltrain right away (100 feet wide). With the tracks and trains running ON TOP OF a 15 foot high solid retained wall through entire North Palo Alto down past Paly. And the high voltage electrical infrastructure that powers the train, sits 35-45 feet tall OVER the trains, so all in all about 50-60 foot solid wall/high voltage infrastructure packed right up against Alma. Buffering trees along Alma likely gone when the HSR comes through... And a three fold increase of train volume (noise, vibration, etc).

So I'm sure this will be disclosed to the future residents and owners of this project, because what kind of social injustice would THAT be to build a slum sitting just about right underneath this kind of high speed train/high voltage infrastructure, and stick a whole bunch of unsuspecting very low income occupants there without full disclosure?

Although, this would explain how the city could ensure that the project remains a low income housing project over time, without much need to engineer the resale values.


Parent
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2008 at 8:38 am
Parent, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2008 at 8:38 am

The City attorney in Wednesday night's meeting kept repeating that this commission was not allowed to consider impacts on schools. Why is that? What does that mean? And if not the planning commission of the city, then who?


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2008 at 9:44 am
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2008 at 9:44 am

Is this right? The City cannot consider impact on schools when it considers housing? And who says so? Is it the City themselves that has instituted this rule? Or, is it some CA rule?

It is ludicrous to think that the City can happily consider housing all over Palo Alto and not consider the impact on schools. It is ludicrous because our schools are so over-crowded. It is ludicrous because already kids are being ferried all over town to get to schools and often even at the elementary age siblings are being put into separate schools. It is ludicrous that housing which is being considered as being near public transport as a plus, is not able to get the kids into schools nearby and there is no transport to get them there. We don't have school buses, we don't have adequate vta or even shuttles to cater for all the kids who want to use them for school whereby all the kids can get on a bus and have a seat. We don't even have a city public transport czar who actually looks at this crazy situation. Anyone who drives around Palo Alto during school commute hours in the morning (not having to do school runs themselves) knows that the traffic is so much easier on days when there is no school which proves that so much of the morning traffic problems are school related.

The City must consider impacts on school and school commutes when it considers housing.


Paul
Downtown North
on Dec 12, 2008 at 10:00 am
Paul, Downtown North
on Dec 12, 2008 at 10:00 am

"The City cannot consider impact on schools when it considers housing? And who says so? Is it the City themselves that has instituted this rule? Or, is it some CA rule?"

CA. Developers pay a one time impact fee to the school district and they're done.


Does he care?
Downtown North
on Dec 12, 2008 at 3:38 pm
Does he care?, Downtown North
on Dec 12, 2008 at 3:38 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2008 at 4:34 pm
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2008 at 4:34 pm

Paying a one time impact fee to the school district is not enough. We have remodled and had to pay this fee. So the district does get money out of it. But I can't see that this is going to alleviate the overcrowding. The elementary school sites in the north of the city are all bursting at the seams, putting in additional classrooms is not the answer. The middle schools are full and so are both Gunn and Paly and the idea of reopening Cubberley is distasteful due to the fact that no one would want to send their kids to an untried new high school, even if it is reopened with Gunn/Paly teachers and administrators. This money could go towards funding to reopen Garland, but kids in this new development would still need to get into cars to get to Garland. True, Garland could possibly take some of the pressures off the north schools but many are not going to like the boundary changes.


Citizen
University South
on Dec 12, 2008 at 7:59 pm
Citizen, University South
on Dec 12, 2008 at 7:59 pm

Our school system is the best in the area. The city has done it right for the past so many years. Why are we worried about it now? When PA is looking at this project, it has confirmed that the impact in the school system is minimal and our school system will preserve the excellence in years to come. Please support our city officers!! All they are doing is for the best of the city.


paly parent
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 12, 2008 at 9:04 pm
paly parent, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 12, 2008 at 9:04 pm

Two comments- #1 we need lower-income housing (to live in this area you need to have a family income of 77K+...)

#2 PAUSD is going to reopen Garland as an elementary school Web Link which will help significantly with the overcrowding in north PA schools, (but will cause a huge outrage from current Duveneck and especially hays parents.}

BTW - PAUSD does not have buses except for EPA students.


Out of place
Downtown North
on Dec 12, 2008 at 10:00 pm
Out of place, Downtown North
on Dec 12, 2008 at 10:00 pm

The Below Market Rate program already houses approximately 1,500 people in some 20 housing establishments in Palo Alto. Many more are being constructed. People who say we need more housing should look at the numbers, not just repeat the knee jerk cliches.
The school district doesn't seem to face up to the problem. They adapt and add a portable, and transfer the children, without facing the real problem, too many people are being brought into the district. Opening Garland will cost many millions. That doesn't take care of the Jr High and High Schools.


zanon
Esther Clark Park
on Dec 12, 2008 at 11:09 pm
zanon, Esther Clark Park
on Dec 12, 2008 at 11:09 pm

I think it is shameful that they are building more housing in Palo Alto. Palo Alto does not need more housing, it needs *less* housing!

Also, I think opening new schools is a disgrace. Everybody knows that children are not the future, so why we are bringing more in boggles the mind.

Less housing! Fewer children! No new schools!

And no, I am not a NIMBY.


Out of place
Downtown North
on Dec 13, 2008 at 8:33 pm
Out of place, Downtown North
on Dec 13, 2008 at 8:33 pm

For those who are repeatedly impressed with the irony of the residents of 800 High St objecting to the proposed buildings, please remember that the people who live in the building are not the people who built it. They are not responsible for its size or appearance and I'm pretty sure they recognize those shortcomings.
It is important to understand that the new project is almost TWICE the density of the existing one. and taller. and less setback. and less parking, and on and on.
Likewise, the people who live the in monster buildings on Charleston also object to the construction across the street with inadequate parking for the same reasons. They want a safe, livable neighborhood.


Growth ain't that bad...
Crescent Park
on Dec 13, 2008 at 11:08 pm
Growth ain't that bad..., Crescent Park
on Dec 13, 2008 at 11:08 pm

"The City must consider impacts on school and school commutes when it considers housing."

Advice from the peanut gallery notwithstanding, the rules are the rules. The city does consider those impacts (although it's not compelled to), but can act if the impacts are more than you would like to see. We are going to build more housing in Palo Alto - both BMR, and otherwise. And, like in the past when population increased, we will adapt very well. Population is growing, and that's a fact. Unless some people want build a 20' wall around the city, manned by armed guards, forget about stopping growth.


emily
Charleston Gardens
on Dec 14, 2008 at 2:43 pm
emily, Charleston Gardens
on Dec 14, 2008 at 2:43 pm

Right now, it is economy downturn stage. In bay area, there are lots of "forclosure" houses, " unsold " houses. How come government cannot retreat those houses for " affordable houses" ? Why need to spend our tax money to get the builders another project to make them happy ?


chrisk
University South
on Dec 15, 2008 at 4:22 pm
chrisk, University South
on Dec 15, 2008 at 4:22 pm

Zanon,

I don't think most posters here appreciate your humor.

Do you think Resident of another Palo Alto Neighborhood is a NIMBY?
At least, SHE is very irrational.


Paul
Downtown North
on Dec 15, 2008 at 6:11 pm
Paul, Downtown North
on Dec 15, 2008 at 6:11 pm

"For those who are repeatedly impressed with the irony of the residents of 800 High St objecting to the proposed buildings, please remember that the people who live in the building are not the people who built it. They are not responsible for its size or appearance and I'm pretty sure they recognize those shortcomings.

True, but irrelevant. The irony is they are using precisely the same arguments the opponents of 800 High Street used five years ago.



Out of place
Downtown North
on Dec 15, 2008 at 11:17 pm
Out of place, Downtown North
on Dec 15, 2008 at 11:17 pm

You are correct, Paul. The arguments are the same, and the proponents are the same too, that is, they are made by the people who live near the project.
The developers of 800 High wanted and got extra height, reduced setbacks, extra density etc. The developers of 801 Alma want the same thing, and in addition they want even more height, even less setbacks, double the density, not enough parking, no real playspace for the children they will bring in (49 family units), and more.
The nearby residents want the same thing the previous residents wanted, and all of us do: adequate parking and traffic control, not too close the existing buildings, windows that don't look into the neighbors, internal open space for people to gather and children to play, and a decent streetscape.
And they don't like the bait and switch: they agreed to low cost housing on the electric substation site, not a full block of dense, crammed-in housing.

Developers want maximum return on investment; residents want light and air and they focus on quality of life issues. Same exact issues on Charleston Road.


Paul
Downtown North
on Dec 16, 2008 at 10:22 am
Paul, Downtown North
on Dec 16, 2008 at 10:22 am

Correct on all counts, Oop. There are other parallels. The 2003 opponents took on a developer that had potent city connections. Today's opponents take on a proposal that has potent city commitments. The first group lost and so will the second. That block will be our town's prime eyesore.

However, I still find it amusing that anybody who would live in a building as ugly as 800 High would object to a companion ugly building.



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