For real-estate developers in Palo Alto, 2014 may be looked back on as a turning point in how things work for them at city hall.
Experienced property owner-developers with track records of quality projects have enjoyed a relatively hospitable environment at city hall for a long time. The likes of Chop Keenan, Jim Baer and Roxy Rapp, and the architects they hire, have had good professional relationships with city staff and commission members and enjoy easy access to council members. And they have generally been more appreciated than criticized for their projects, even as they ask for zoning concessions or favorable rules interpretations.
More often than not, these developers have been able to win approvals because the quality of their buildings has been viewed as superior to what others might build. They also have an advantage of more historical knowledge about the details of the zoning laws and how they've been applied in the past than the planners who are reviewing their applications.
But there is a palpable change taking place, and it is disrupting council alliances and creating angst and discomfort among planning staff and city management. It's as if a metaphorical compass has been lost, and everyone is trying to sort out this new political landscape, unsure of just how tough to be with these familiar developers with long track records in the community.
At least between now and the November election, there is little appetite on the city council for giving any more ammunition to vocal critics of past policy decisions.
The city council's heightened sensitivity to a wave of public concern over development, parking and traffic, particularly downtown, was on full display Monday night, when it appropriately rejected a staff recommendation allowing for a significant expansion of the iconic historic building at 261 Hamilton Ave. just vacated by University Art.
A few years ago, it is likely that a majority of the council would have voted to support this project. Instead, it was rejected on an 8-1 vote, with only Gail Price supporting it.
The key issue was building owner Roxy Rapp's plan to expand the building with a new three-story wing behind the current historic structure, along the alley called "Centennial Walk."
The existing building size already vastly exceeds the current zoning limits but is grandfathered under the law, meaning that Rapp can maintain the current usable square footage but not add to it. In an ingenious move, he proposed converting the large basement to a garage with parking for nine cars, which he argued then allowed him to reallocate the 6,000 square feet of basement space to enable the building of the new three-story office wing.
His reasoning was that since below-grade parking does not normally count in a building's square footage under the zoning law, by switching the basement's use to parking he "gained" 6,000 feet in new above-ground development potential.
As opponents pointed out, this method of creating 6,000 square feet of brand-new additional commercial office space where the existing building already exceeds the current zoning is just the sort of increased development that residents are rebelling against. The nine new parking spaces wouldn't begin to accommodate the number of workers who would occupy the new wing of the building, so downtown's parking deficit would have only worsened with Rapp's proposal.
Remarkably, the planning staff went along with Rapp's interpretation of the rules and recommended that his plan be approved.
Fortunately, the proposal found an ally only in Gail Price, who felt the benefit of the building being renovated with improved fire-safety features was worth the additional square footage. The other council members, especially those anxious to be responsive to a restless electorate, could hardly wait to go on record opposing the project. It is but another indication of the sea-change in attitude that has come over Palo Alto politics.
The council clearly made the right decision in this case, and by doing so hopefully makes clear to developers that under-parked projects are dead-on-arrival no matter the offsetting benefits. And the same should apply to other creative developer efforts to stretch current zoning limits by offering offsetting benefits.
We have little doubt this will remain the current council's attitude until the election; our hope is that the council elected in November will make this a clear mandate for the future.