The planned Palo Alto History Museum received a vote of confidence from the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission on Wednesday night (June 8), with the caveat that the museum pay $1,250 toward a study of parking issues that have plagued the adjacent downtown neighborhood.
The commissioners were considering an appeal by Professorville resident Ken Alsman to halt the museum project, which has been 10 years in the making. Alsman, who is concerned about parking problems in his neighborhood, was appealing the March 21 tentative approval of the museum's conditional-use permit by the city's planning director.
Commissioners Eduardo Martinez, Daniel Garber, Lee Lippert, Susan Fineberg and Greg Tanaka voted to recommend the permit to the City Council; Arthur Keller and Samir Tuma were absent.
The museum is to be located in the historic Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave. The 1932 Birge Clark-designed structure was purchased by the city in April 2000 in conjunction with the South of Forest Avenue redevelopment plan commonly known as SOFA 1.
The City Council approved a lease-option agreement with the museum in 2004; the agreement is good until June 30.
Historic renovation would include 19,182 square feet plus a 1,462-square-foot addition at the rear of the building. The addition would house the museum, gallery space and offices for staff; a community meeting room; a gift shop; and a cafe. Offices for another nonprofit tenant would be provided on the second floor, museum proponents said.
Speakers at Wednesday's hearing, including opponents, said they approve of the museum, but some faulted the city's homework regarding parking impacts and compliance with state environmental law.
Alsman, a former Mountain View city-planning official, is a founder of the nonprofit group Palo Alto Stanford Heritage and a former member of the city's Historic Resources Board. He said he objects to the city's approving projects in the downtown area without regard -- in his opinion -- to parking problems created for surrounding neighborhoods. Professorville is a National Registered Historic District, he said.
"I have no doubt you will approve it. If I were sitting here, I'd do the same. I'm a supporter of it, but I also feel that Professorville is an important part of our historical community," he said.
Joy Ogawa told commissioners the project violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because the city did not do an environmental-impact report. There can be exemptions to CEQA but only in situations where renovations and usage are negligible and are not expansive, she said.
"This is a huge change in use. It's an expansive use," she said, adding: "I think it's a great project. I just don't think it's an excuse for shoddy environmental analysis and it wouldn't stand up in court."
But Assistant City Attorney Donald Larkin said courts have ruled parking is not an environmental issue and therefore can't be challenged under CEQA. Other avenues are available for addressing parking issues.
Several residents spoke in support of the museum, despite neighborhood parking issues they experience daily.
"The city has been working hard on this problem. Please don't let this last obstacle stand in the way," Chet Frankenfield said.
Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto History Museum said the construction still depends upon further fundraising, following approval by the City Council, which would bring far less traffic and parking than any other uses of the building -- a view that was supported through questioning by Lippert.
If the building were used for offices, it would require 80 to 100 parking spaces, staff said. The museum requires 68 spaces, contract planner Lata Vasudevan said.
About 60 parking spaces at 260 Homer Ave., across from the museum, are available. But staff acknowledged the spaces are for public use, not exclusively for museum visitors.
The spaces are available during evenings and weekends, and the times do not entirely coincide with the museum's proposed operating hours, staff noted.
Roth Building employees would be required to park in city parking facilities, staff said.
In response to Alsman, commissioners opted to drop the two-hour parking limit that staff was considering as a condition of the use permit approved March 21. The time limit would have applied to the south side of the entire block of Homer Avenue between Waverley and Bryant streets and along Bryant extending from the rear lease line of 300 Homer Ave. The limit could have prompted drivers wishing to stay longer to park in the neighborhood instead.
Residents have long complained about downtown employees parking on neighborhood streets, leaving no room for residents' guests. They say the commuters have also hit parked vehicles numerous times.
City officials approved a downtown parking study in March to identify the parking problems in Professorville and potential solutions. On April 26, the city held a community meeting to discuss recommendations from the parking study.
Commissioners agreed the parking problems in Professorville need to be addressed, but said the issues go beyond the scope of Wednesday's hearing.
Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said the city has not managed parking well, and that he is trying to remedy the situation. He hired a downtown-parking manager and is looking at ways to restructure the parking-permit program and to publicize existing, underutilized parking structures.
The city has a number of parking spaces within private structures that are designated for public use as part of "public benefits" that were required when infill housing and high-density projects were approved.
Other parking lots that have limited use, such as one behind a nearby church, might be used through an agreement, commissioners said. Lippert also suggested diagonal parking as a way to increase existing spaces. Parking for people with disabilities is sorely lacking, he said, and striped zones must be configured into street improvements that are a permit condition.
The City Council is scheduled to consider the conditional-use permit on July 18.