Residents cry foul over parking for proposed office building | News | Palo Alto Online |


Residents cry foul over parking for proposed office building

Critics say applicant received more exemptions that he was entitiled to

Residents concerned about downtown's parking shortage are calling for Palo Alto officials to hit the brakes on approving the latest office development that relies on zoning exemptions to reduce the number of parking spots it must provide.

The development at 240 Hamilton Ave. has already secured the approval of the Architectural Review Board and is set to get its final green light at tonight's City Council meeting. The project is listed on the council's consent calendar, which means it will be approved automatically and with no discussion unless three council members choose to remove it from the calendar.

The new four-story building would stand next to Reposado Restaurant, across the street from City Hall. In granting approval, the city exempted the applicant, Hayes Group Architects, from providing 20 parking spots that would normally have to be included in the project. That's because the new development would be replacing an existing commercial building. As a result, 7,000 square feet of the new development would be exempt from parking regulations because of a "grandfather" clause in the city code.

For project critics, that's a problem. The existing building, they note, is only 5,000 square feet. In coming up with the 7,000-square-foot figure, the developer and the city included a 2,000-square-foot "mezzanine" that was not considered usable space at the time of the initial assessment. Now, with the developer seeking parking exemptions, it is used in the application to increase the square footage of the existing building and reduce the number of spaces the new building would have to provide by eight.

Overall, the office building would provide four parking spaces on site, though it would also create a curb cut that would reduce the number of street spaces by two. With downtown already facing a steep parking shortage and officials scrambling for solutions, residents are appealing the approval and crying foul over the scope of the parking exemptions granted to 240 Hamilton Ave. In a strongly worded letter, Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), a coalition of neighborhoods, raised flags about what it called "significant problems with the project proposal, including the inappropriate loss of $486,000 of taxpayer money," the organization's estimate for what it would cost to provide those eight parking spaces.

"As you well know, the downtown parking crisis is getting worse month by month and city funds are always in short supply," Sheri Furman, the group's chair, wrote in the letter. "For an applicant to be given an exemption for eight parking spaces and not have to pay almost half-a-million dollars due to an erroneous project description and determination is unconscionable."

Jeff Levinsky, who brought up the parking issue at the Architectural Review Board meeting in July, sensed there might be a problem with the application when he saw the existing building being described as both a 5,000- and a 7,000-square-foot one. He and Doria Summa, a land-use watchdog from College Terrace, investigated the issue further and after visiting the building found that the extra 2,000 square feet refer to what basically amounts to a small attic, not a "usable space" that would trigger the exemption. The space has no windows and, until 2012, had no staircase access, Levinsky said. It was recently renovated by Inhabiture, a design firm that currently occupies the building, he said. Levinsky also cited numerous reports that peg the existing building at 5,000 square feet. These include the staff report from the July 18 meeting of the Architectural Review Board, which calls the new building a "5,000 sq. ft., two-story commercial building" (the report provided to the council for tonight's meeting says the building will "replace a 7,000 sq. ft. one-story building").

From critics like Levinsky, the difference amounts to a giveaway to the developer who does not wish to pay for adequate parking. He criticized the city for allowing the applicant to get a parking exemption for what he called a "phantom second floor."

"What they're claiming is that they have another 2,000 square feet of 'mezzanine' or 'partial second floor' and they don't," Levinsky said. "What is there is an attic that has been there since the building was built and that was only recently put into use."

The staff report states that the 2,000-square foot space was not included in the initial parking assessment because it was "considered as 'incidental office' to the previously permitted retail use or vacant at the time of the engineer's report ..."

The residents' appeal of 240 Hamilton Ave. was filed by Douglas Smith, a downtown resident concerned about the glassy, modern design of the new building, which he said isn't compatible with the more traditional buildings around the site. His appeal was co-signed by 23 other residents, including Ken Alsman and Neilson Buchanan, both of whom have long decried the spillover of cars from downtown's commercial core to the residential blocks.

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Posted by Marc F
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2013 at 11:56 am

Where was Douglas Smith when they were planning the new Mitchell Park Library? Now that is a "...modern design of the new building, which he said isn't compatible with the more traditional buildings ...". What an ugly out of place building. And the city can't even get it built on time and on budget.

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Posted by S. Coen
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 9, 2013 at 12:20 pm

The Staff from the planning department are either very ignorant or have been told by either City Department Heads or Council to approve this. If this was not the case then intelligence would have been at the head of the line and someone would have recognized the necessity to have the developer provide adequate underground parking for the correct amount of employees who may drive as well as consumers. This must be on the developer, not the city or the tax payers ( residents) nor the other local businesses. Sorry Developers, if you want to build in our city then YOU buck up the money for the parking without sacrificing existing parking that is already being used. This is how an efficient Building Department Staff and City Council work. Look at Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Santa clara, Cupertino and you will see not uneducated wanna be's " city council" but those that listen to the public, spend money wisely and use common sense. This and other operational issues within our city are causing us grief and wastes money that we should be putting back into our infrastructure. Maintain our streets, lights, city buildings and to keep from losing our employees to neighboring cities who show more interest. Who on the council are friends of some of these developers or know someone that is. Who on the council is blind to how to run a city and take care of the basic priorities without giving money to projects that are not infrastructure necessities. We do need business and I am sure that the correct style of office building will be gladly welcomed with the correct parking. However our current council is nowhere capable to handle our city functions and it appears that the leadership at the top from the City Manager and the Assistant City Manager seem to have communication issues between
them. Not quite sure what the issues are except that the Assistant City Manager seems to be on a power trip and not listening to lower level workers who have attempted to make suggestions but have been ignored. Too bad.

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Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 9, 2013 at 12:22 pm

To throw further light on how loopholes have been used to
calculate parking requirements for new mixed used buildings to
the benefit of the developer look at the staff report recommending
approval by the ARB dated Jan 20,2011 for 524 Hamilton, completed last year down the street from this proposed project. In that case
for the average citizen it is difficult to even understand the stream
of calculations or logic. But what the average citizen does understand is that parking overflow has extended down Hamilton
well past Guinda into Crescent Park.

Like this comment
Posted by JerryL
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 9, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Here we go again: Zoning exemptions to allow a developer to skirt
what rightfully should be normal requirements of an office building--
adequate parking for workers and customers.

Like this comment
Posted by ken
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 9, 2013 at 1:02 pm

On Design: In the 2009 review of the new green wall on Alma Staff wrote over 3 pages of glowing support of how well the design fit into the neighborhood, supported the Comprehensive Plan and the SOFA plan, added to the fine plans of Palo Alto and respected the streetscape of Alma. They felt “it will improve the tree canopy;” has “a well-designed building;” has “compatible materials, colors and construction details;” reflects “massing, facades and scale in keeping with Palo Alto Neighborhoods;” and creates “a presence on Alma.” Now, that it does do.

The ARB passed it unanimously with glowing support for this mixed-media modernist building including this from Clare Malone, “I appreciate the balance of openness and privacy along Alma.” David Solnick said: “I am very happy with the architecture.” Judith Wasserman said: “I am greatly in favor of this project. I think it is great.” Alex Lew added: “I support the project.” And, Grace Wu applauded: “It celebrates architecture.” Just their design opinions of course, but were they right? Did their opinions reflect the best of Palo Alto or just a bias towards anything, and I mean anything "Modern."

Other area architects asked to comment called it: A “Prison-like design. Worst example of social architecture I have ever seen. Completely out of scale with its surroundings. Architecturally incompatible with other buildings in SOFA II. No architectural style. No pedestrian scale to the single main residential entrance. Virtually no private open space.”

The only group to question the design, other than a member of the Planning Commission, were the neighbors who had worked to prepare the plan for the SOFA and who specifically noted the impact of the Wall on Alma, among other issues. But Council did not listen.

Given the concerns recently voiced about the Alma project, the glowing praise it received from staff and the ARB, maybe Council should listen and pay close attention to the residents commenting on the design of 240 Hamilton and the relationship to our community and to its values, not to the Staff or ARB.

Discussing the merits of architecture in a politically correct community like Palo Alto is a bit like Anderson’s tale of the Emperor and his fabulous clothes with the lesson: it really isn’t true what the “experts” may say; we all need to observe for ourselves and speak out more.

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Posted by AR
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 9, 2013 at 1:02 pm

When I see that Doria Summa is chiming in on a matter I pay attention b/c she is smart AND objective. Doria reliably bases her opinions on facts. Clearly this project needs additional review. To those who will roll their eyes and decry the Palo Alto Process please consider that if the City's decsion makers would stop the shenanigans, residents might not contribute to the process as frequently as is happening lately.

Like this comment
Posted by KEN AGAIN
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 9, 2013 at 1:05 pm

On Parking:If approved, the occupants of 240 Hamilton will push commercial nparking 3 – 4 blocks further into the surrounding neighborhoods and grant a $5 to $7 million public subsidy to the developers.

In that discussion about 801 Alma the main concern from the Chamber and other commercial interests dealt with – ready? – The impact the project would have on “their” parking, so desperately needed in 2009. Wonder where they are on this project?

I close with this quote from a major downtown business expressing their concern about 801 Alma:

“I am speaking on behalf of IDEO today. IDEO is a design firm that has been in Palo Alto for something on the order of 20 years now. We are based in the 600, 700, and 800 blocks of High Street, and have some offices at 100 Forest as well. We really like being in Palo Alto. It is a really central part of what it means to be at IDEO and it is a real part of kind of the experience of being at the organization that so many of our clients come out to visit us and get to have.

I would say one of the very few nuisances that actually affect us on a day-to-day basis being where we are is parking as it is already today. It is a real pain. The two-hour parking around means that we have to go out and move our cars all the time. A lot of people walk many, many blocks in order to find a place where they can park more in a long-term way in what we call the ‘burbs.’ (That must mean where I live, in the burbs.) Some going back out beyond the 800 block. (Today that goes beyond the 1100 block.)

We are really concerned that if there is an added reduction of parking based on the addition of so many units without adequate parking as well that that is just going to increase what is already a frustrating problem. Just one anecdote for that. We have gotten a bit of notoriety because we have started a valet service for our clients. They have such a difficult time parking in the area that they will actually come and drop off their keys and our reception service will go out and move their car every couple of hours or take the car out to the burbs (again, the burbs) in order to make sure that they can still have a nice experience coming to IDEO. So it seems like a small deal but it actually does add up and really affect the work experience. We would really love to see parking get better not worse in that area.

So would we, the residents, the citizens who live in the BURBS.

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2013 at 1:55 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Solving Parking
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 9, 2013 at 2:36 pm

The only solution here is permit parking in the residential areas. This will force the companies wishing to construct new buildings to consider parking as a real issue.

Like this comment
Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 9, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Isn't part of the problem is that the city refuses to address the general parking issues in downtown??
There is the ridulous 2 hour parking limit and the reported underuse of the parking garages. This problem is more than just new buildings without enough parking

Like this comment
Posted by Dan
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 9, 2013 at 4:21 pm

With builders eager to build anywhere in Palo Alto, and making a fortune doing it, one has to wonder why the City Council would grant exemptions on every single commercial property. In today's market, there's no reason our City should indirectly subsidize builders in order to encourage development. Builders request clever exemptions like this simply to increase their profit margin. Does anyone really believe this building wouldn't be built if the developer had to create 8 or even more spaces. If that's not feasible, they could contribute $500k or $1.25M to a City parking fund.

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Posted by Bad design is a tradition
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 9, 2013 at 4:23 pm

I walked by 801 Alma recently and could not believe the awful Alma side. There is some kind of a wall, big and heavy,in front of the entry, holding up the upper floors. About 2 ft. thick and very wide maybe 5 feet, on the property line.
In your face, hostile structure, unlike anything I've ever seen. Of course it has only 1.45 parking spaces per unit.

These are the city officials who first promoted 801 Alma:
____Andy Coe Consultant, Planning and Community Environment

______ Steve Emslie Director of Planning and Community Environment

____________ Frank Benest City Manager

Like this comment
Posted by Incompetence or corruption?
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 9, 2013 at 6:47 pm

It's unbelievable that staff would include 2,000 square feet of what had been uninhabitable attic space in the square footage calculations for the parking exemption. Since the owners of the property never paid into the parking district for the attic space there is no rational reason to grant them a parking exemption for the attic.

Is this an example of incompetence or corruption?

Will Council listen to citizens and pull the item off the Consent Calendar or does this question apply to them too?

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 9, 2013 at 6:54 pm

It's simple. What we are witnessing is exploitation and incompetency
on a grand scale.

Like this comment
Posted by bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 10, 2013 at 11:49 am

bru is a registered user.

If you build a building in Palo Alto you should create enough parking to service that building as some realistic function of the the highest possible parking need that it could have.

The idea of using some kind of urban planning social / engineering excuse of motivating people to magically invent or find some new kind of transportation is the highest form of BS around. This is the most dishonest idiocy that developers have latched on to to try to make more profit by externalizing parking issues under the guise of something positive. Developers that engage in this kind of subliminal dishonest discussion should be banned from working in Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by TADART
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 10, 2013 at 4:03 pm

I have lived and own my home in the Downtown North Neighborhood for 25 years+ now, and I am afraid to ride my bicycle down the street trying to dodge the cars vying for a parking spot so all the New employees can walk to work somewhere on University or at one of the new office buildings e.g. 240 Hamilton. Despite the new signs on Bryant Street calling to mind that it is "The Bike street of Palo Alto", cars treat the road like an expressway to the garage called "My Neighborhood" and City Council and the ARB CONTINUE to let the Developers (Keenan, Baer, Rapp, Arrillaga to name the biggies) build and new businesses get away with it by not insisting that parking is an integral part of the deal or are there other deals going on? Palo Alto continues to lose its charm by allowing skyscraper modernist buildings and homes ruin the views of our streets and the blue sky. I am saddened to see our streets looking more like strip malls with the same old franchised stores and most of all to see such disrespect for the surrounding neighborhoods that support the downtown yet merchants are allowing this traffic to get more out of control.
Historic buildings like "The Nevada Building" that once housed offices and studios for Artists, Writers and Film-makers of which I was one is now gone as rents went sky high. I was told this beautiful building would be renovated but instead was mowed down by tractors and another ugly building was plopped down and a "Keen Garage" store now exists. YUCK!
I thank local citizens like Nielson Buchanan who is voluntarily heading our neighborhood alliance and bringing to light this outrageous parking problem. Why is their so much disregard for the history of Palo Alto and it's neighborhoods?
I'm tired of it and I wish other citizens would voice their opinion too!!!
Truly yours, TADART / Bryant Street Homeowner

Like this comment
Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 10, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Developers should definitely provide parking for new buildings for the workers/ tenants. That will go a long way to solve the parking problem in nearby neighborhoods. Not sure what is the accepted ration of parking spots/ workers, but I assure it is out there.

However, parking for shoppers/ visitors to downtown needs to be provided by the city-- that is why we have street parking, parking lots and garages with time limits

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Posted by bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 10, 2013 at 4:20 pm

bru is a registered user.

> However, parking for shoppers/ visitors to downtown needs to be provided by the city-- that is why we have street parking, parking lots and garages with time limits

Not all developments work the same. Look at the new Safeway in Mountain View on San Antonio ... it has parking on its roof and the stores there have parking underneath as well. Some percentage of public spaces should be mandatory in any development. For example high-density housing rarely has enough parking for all the people who live their, and guests and repair or delivery people.

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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 10, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Bru-- you may have a point, though shopping centers are a different beast. But even requiring public spaces in new developments should not mean that the city does need to provide public parking. Most businesses in downtown have no parking-- they rely on public parking, as do most downtowns.
The city has failed to address parking n a timely manner, instead seem stuck with the 2 hour parking limit for visitors and not addressing the lack of parking fr workers?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2013 at 4:43 pm

It is precisely the time limits in the garages and lots that cause a lot of the problems.

I often have need to park half a day downtown. Many workers may only need to drive to work two times a week. Many business visitors may need to park several hours just once. At present, the garages and lots are free for 2 or 3 hours and trying to park longer is almost impossible for anyone not in the know.

It is not shoppers alone who want to park for short periods or occasional full days. We need a system whereby those who are willing to pay to park for a full day or more than 3 hours can do so at every lot and garage. Otherwise, these people will look for street parking in residential neighborhoods as the easiest option. Their needs are not being met. My needs are not being met. Make it easier for those of us whose needs are not being met, please.

Like this comment
Posted by BruOffline
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 10, 2013 at 4:45 pm

> though shopping centers are a different beast.

Well, all the local city centers are turning into what is basically a shopping center, so by my updated way of looking at things the responsibility should be carefully and rationally shared, but it does exist.

I've been really happy with the parking structures in Palo Alto. It took a while before I started to use them, but now if I don't see an obvious space somewhere I just dive into a parking structure and start going to the top until I find a space ... I also usually try for one by the elevator or stairwell. It's reliable and quick. In years now I've only ever found one full about twice, always the smallest one over off Alma.

They don't look ugly or obnoxious, it's not like SF where signs are all over the place and it is a ripoff ... it makes Palo Alto look and seem good, and I think we'd be well served by putting in parking structures along with local parking under or on top of buildings.

Like this comment
Posted by Toxic Mix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 11, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Incompetence, corruption, and City Council members who should be disqualified from even being on the council ( are you listening, Liz Kniss?).

These are the bane of every development in Palo Alto

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Mountain View

on Jun 4, 2017 at 6:50 pm

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