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Proposed downtown 'gateway' building debated

Palo Alto planning commissioners call for more apartments, greater height for 'Lytton Gateway'

Palo Alto officials would like to see larger developments near the city's transit stations, but they are still trying to hash out exactly who should occupy these buildings.

The question of what types of developments the city should encourage downtown bubbled up Wednesday night, when the Planning and Transportation Commission discussed a proposed four-story building that a developer hopes to construct at the site of a former Shell station on Alma Street and Lytton Avenue.

The developer, Lytton Gateway LLC, is seeking a zone change to a planned community (PC) zone, which would enable him to exceed the city's zoning regulations in exchange for a set of public benefits. Because the dense project would be next to the downtown Caltrain station, it would comport with the wishes of the City Council, which last year directed staff to explore allowing greater building heights and higher density near major transit centers.

The Lytton Gateway project at 355 Alma St. was proposed in March as a 64-foot tall, five-story building with a cafe on the ground floor, office space on the first four floors and five apartments on the fifth floor. At that time, the commission voted 6-1, with Susan Fineberg dissenting, to initiate the zone change.

Lytton Gateway LLC -- which consists of Boyd Smith, Lund Smith and Scott Foster, with consultant Jim Baer of Premier Properties -- has since scaled back the proposal to four floors and 50 feet in height. The retail component was roughly doubled and the number of apartments went up to six, which includes three units of affordable housing. The developers have also offered two electric vehicle recharging stations and new street trees. The project's biggest selling point, however, is the location. In a memo to the council, the applicants said the new building will "further entrench Palo Alto as a regional leader in progressive planning and design, unquestionably aided by the Bay Area's premier transit center across the street which beckons the features discussed below."

These features would include widened sidewalks, more street trees, ground-floor retail and shortened pedestrian crosswalks at Lytton and Alma.

Planning commissioners agreed that the proposed building's location presents the city with great opportunities, but they had different opinions about how to take advantage of these opportunities. Some called for more apartments, others said they would like to see even more height and others lobbied the applicants to reserve the apartments for seniors. The commission did not take any votes on the project Wednesday, but provided a series of comments -- some of them conflicting -- to the applicant's team.

Vice Chair Lee Lippert was the most enthusiastic about the latest proposal and praised the applicants for listening to the commission's earlier comments. At the March meeting, several commissioners said they would like to see more housing, more retail and more public benefits.

"You listened to our comments and you responded to them very appropriately," Lippert said. "I think you've done a great job here."

Others were less pleased and characterized the proposal as a wasted opportunity, given its prime location next to the Caltrain station. Commissioner Dan Garber said he would like to see the project exceed the city's allowed height limit of 50 feet.

"This is one of a few spots in Palo Alto where that argument can be made, and I think this is the place to make it," Garber said.

Chair Samir Tuma agreed, calling the project a "golden opportunity" to break the 50-foot limit. But Fineberg was more cautious and said the city hasn't fully evaluated the impacts of building beyond the currently allowed limits.

"I think it would be a mistake to start implementing project-based design, skipping the steps of doing the analysis and seeing what the impact is," she said.

Commissioners also split over the building's residential component, with Eduardo Martinez saying he'd like to see 10 or 12 units in this building rather than the proposed six. Lippert and Commissioner Greg Tanaka both encouraged the applicant to make the residential units senior housing.

"Having these units downtown would really help seniors who are less able to drive still live a fulfilling life," Tanaka said. "That would be a real public benefit."

The development will likely see further revisions before it goes to the City Council for a vote. Both the city's planning commission and the Architectural Review Board are currently reviewing the project and are scheduled to issue their own recommendations before the council rules on the zone change.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Not in the public interest
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 30, 2011 at 11:23 am

"Vice Chair Lee Lippert was the most enthusiastic". No surprises there. Architect Lippert is a long standing advocate of more development.
Tuma's "Golden opportunity" to break the 50 foot height limit is a golden opportunity to make money for developers, not a golden opportunity for the people who live here and for whom quality of life is important.
The commission is dominated by people who make money off of land development.


Like this comment
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 30, 2011 at 2:13 pm

What's wrong with people making money off land development as long as it follows guidelines?


Like this comment
Posted by Not in the public interest
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 30, 2011 at 2:31 pm

There is a lot wrong when a government official advocates policies that will benefit himself. There are lots of ways to describe it, like self-dealing, conflict of interest, etc.
For example, when such a person advocates changing the 50 foot height limit that will benefit his friends and indirectly therefore himself, that is wrong and immoral. The majority of the Planning Commissioners work for developers and advocate for their interests. That is wrong. Or they are involved in trading which benefits from greater density. Ethical government officials should not do that.


Like this comment
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 30, 2011 at 3:09 pm

As I said, "as long as it follows guidelines."
Your point seems to be that the officials responsible for this development are entirely corrupt. An entirely different issue and so I amend my comments to be that I see no reason for developers not to benefit from their developments. I see every reason for our officials to benefit from them


Like this comment
Posted by Not in the public interest
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 30, 2011 at 7:12 pm

"As long as it follows guidelines," I agree. Of course making money while obeying the law is fine. Did you really think I oppose that?
I cannot recall a recent project that didn't break the rules (not guidelines, zoning laws) and ask for a zoning change like this one or an exception for height, for reduced setbacks from the street or from the neighbors, a zoning variance, increased density, you name it, they study the code and look for ways to push, push as much as possible.
Jim Baer is an expert at this game, that's why they all hire him. He knows how to manipulate the system better than anyone.
They whitewash by offering a couple of below market rate apartments and green wash it with an electric charging station. Street trees and fixed sidewalks around the project are not public benefits, they are benefits to the project.The city pretends it doesn't know that.
There is unquestionably corruption involved, its just hard to pinpoint. But if the Planning Department said no, these abuses wouldn't happen. And the city council of course, never says no.


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