The City Council on Monday shot down an appeal of a modernist development at 240 Hamilton Ave. in Palo Alto that appellant Douglas Smith said was incompatible with the historic buildings surrounding it.
The 15,000-square-foot building, which will stand at the corner of Hamilton and Ramona Street, will replace an existing 7,000-square-foot building, the former home of Radio Shack. The new four-story, mixed-use building will include retail space on the ground floor, offices on the second and third floors and residential space on the fourth floor.
Smith, a Palo Alto resident, appealed the July Architectural Review Board approval of the project's design, saying that its modernist architecture clashed with the historic buildings in the Hamilton Avenue area, which he called "the most densely historic spot in any commercial area in Palo Alto."
The council voted 6-3 -- with Karen Holman, Greg Schmid and Pat Burt dissenting -- to deny the appeal, saying during a discussion that stretched well beyond midnight that the building's design was compatible with the surrounding area.
Smith said the building is inconsistent with the city's municipal code and its Comprehensive Plan, the "land-use bible" that guides development in the city.
The municipal code states the board should only approve a development if it is compatible with the immediate environment and -- if the area is considered to have a unifying design or historical character -- the design is compatible with that character.
Dozens of members of the public spoke for and against the development, so many that Mayor Greg Scharff limited their allotted speaking time to one minute each.
Most of comments were directed at the insufficient parking the developer would provide and the traffic and parking woes it would cause in the already traffic-plagued area surrounding the building.
Paul Machado expressed the concern of many other speakers Monday who said the building was one of several smaller developments, approved by the council, that cumulatively create large traffic problems.
Machado and others called for a traffic-impact study that would address all new developments in the downtown area instead of addressing them one at a time, saying that it was like "measuring one tributary in a river to determine what the spring runoff is going to be."
But legally, the council's decision had to be based on the issue of the appeal, which was the building's architectural design, not on the consequences to parking and traffic.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss said she thought the modernist design mixed well with the traditional designs of the surrounding buildings, saying it fits the city's diverse character. Councilwoman Gail Price agreed and called the building "very well designed" and said it "provides an anchor to the corner." Both councilwomen voted against the appeal.
Councilman Burt called the appeal "misguided and inappropriate" and lauded the compatibility of other buildings around town designed by architect Ken Hayes but voted for the appeal nonetheless.
He said the debate shouldn't be over the merits or appropriateness of modernist buildings in historic districts, but of whether the design characteristics of this development fit with its neighboring buildings. He said the "massive" building was out of scale with its neighbors and that the materials used were inappropriate for making it compatible.
Councilwoman Holman voted to support the appeal because she said the building's design doesn't fit with surrounding buildings, contrasting the solid glass walls of the 240 Hamilton Ave. building with the historic Cardinal Hotel on the opposite corner, which is punctuated by windows.
"I'm a fan of many of your buildings, Ken," she said, addressing Hayes. "I think this one misses the mark."
One resident, Elaine Meyer, echoed previous statements made by Smith, who said that the members of the Architectural Review Board were motivated to accept designs because, as architects, they didn't want to upset developers who could be potential employers.
"The approval process is broken," she said. The Architectural Review Board "is broken and has been for a long time. ... Occasionally a critique is expressed, but it gets buried in the lavish praise that follows."
Though her comments were cut short by the truncated public comment time limit, Meyer told the Weekly that she believes the board is subject to a revolving-door phenomenon in which board members are later hired by developers, knowing that their support will help get them the job.
Burt and Price strongly rejected this argument Monday.
"Scurrilous personal attacks against the commission does not make it easy to stand up to this kind of action," he said. "It has to come to a halt. It just lacks integrity; disagreeing with design guidelines is not making accusations against (the board)."
Price said she was also dismayed by the suggestion and "took exception and was quite upset about the assignment of malintent and personal gain (to the board)."
"These are volunteers, and we are lucky and blessed to have people with expertise, knowledge and commitment to architecture," she said. "We need to be thankful to the contributions these individuals make."
But some residents, like Robert Peterson, a former colleague of esteemed Palo Alto architect Birge Clark, came out in full support of Hayes and the board.
"We need a group of people who are educated, experienced and creative and can make a judgment of what can work in our community," he said.
Residents like Andrew Wong, Martin Bernstein and Todd Simon said the building fit into the city's portfolio and championed the idea of diverse architecture in Palo Alto.
Councilman Marc Berman, who didn't support the appeal, said that architecture is an art and is therefore inherently subjective. However, he did appreciate some of the design characteristics, such as widening the sidewalk at the corner, which he called the most "awkward, claustrophobic and weird" corner in the city.
Berman said he enjoyed historical architecture but listed a string of modernist developments downtown that he thought were designed tastefully.
"They're going to be downtown until 2040, and they don't need to look like they were built in 1940 or 1950," he said. "There's something to be said for having modernity as well.
"I don't love it -- I like it, but I hate that corner now."
Resident Paula Shaviv told the council it should not try to mimic historic architecture but embrace change.
"It makes no more sense to require (the building) to be built in a period frozen in time than it would to make me appear before you in a hoop skirt," she said.