In the debate over Palo Alto's built environment, there are several key issues that residents and City Council members are debating: whether to relax the city's building heights, require wider sidewalks and "reinvent" how the Architectural Review Board works.
These topics are expected to come to the forefront in the coming year, as the city updates its Comprehensive Plan and continues to engage the public through its "Our Palo Alto" program. Here are some of the questions the city will try to answer about the city's future.
Should Palo Alto relax its 50-foot height limit for new developments?
Since the early 1970s, the city's 50-foot height limit for new developments has been a sacred cow for slow-growth "residentialists" and a source of frustration for developers, architects and residents more comfortable with urbanization. The limit has occasionally been been breached -- the Taube Koret Campus of Jewish Life building is 62 feet tall while the new Stanford Hospital will be 135 feet once complete. Even so, it is seen by many residents as an important defense against the city becoming increasingly dense.
Now that the city is evaluating different visions for its long-term growth, the height limit is again on the table. One concept would allow new buildings to rise to 55 feet if they include residential units and are located near public transportation, most notably near the University Avenue and California Avenue transit hubs. Some think this doesn't go far enough, while others see this as a break for developers.
YES: In 2010, the Palo Alto council asked city staff to look into the building-height limit and made a case for relaxing it near train stations. Councilman Greg Scharff argued that the city should have flexibility in strategic development areas.
His view is shared by several members of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, which considered the topic last week.
"In the right area, I'd support a larger height limit," Commissioner Eric Rosenblum said, expressing favor for a relaxed limit within a quarter mile of transit hubs.
Commission Chair Mark Michael noted that taller buildings would allow for an additional story in transit-heavy areas like downtown, California Avenue and possibly El Camino Real.
The "sacrosanct nature of the height limit is a mistake," he said.
NO: Councilwoman Karen Holman opposed relaxing the limit in 2010, arguing that "once we start exceeding it or making exceptions to something, there tends to be a creep that starts happening." Downtown residents concerned about the parking impacts of recent developments like the Epiphany Hotel and the soon-to-be-completed Lytton Gateway building at 101 Lytton Ave. are also unlikely to support taller buildings. Nor are historic preservationists. Beth Bunnenberg, a member of the city's Historic Resources Board, said on July 9 that she "strongly recommends keeping the 50-foot height limit and sticking to it."
ACTION:The council will discuss the various alternatives for the city's future growth as part of the environmental analysis for the updated Comprehensive Plan on Aug. 4. These include an alternative that would allow greater heights near transit centers. The new Comprehensive Plan is scheduled to be adopted in late 2015.
Should Palo Alto require wider sidewalks and less massive building facades on El Camino and California Avenue?
"El Camino, as everyone agrees, is pretty ugly right now," Councilman Marc Berman said June 2, when the council discussed requiring new buildings on the busy commuter artery to be set farther back from streets, with wider "effective sidewalks."
"The Grand Boulevard proposal makes it look like Mayberry," he added, referring to a regional plan to make El Camino more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly.
No one expects the transition to take place any time soon, but few expected the early steps to be so onerous. For more than a year, Palo Alto's planning staff has been meeting with El Camino property owners on proposed changes to the city's zoning code that would eliminate the requirement to set buildings close to the street (known as "build-to line") and that would require greater sidewalk widths -- 12 to 18 feet, based on the building's context.
Angry property owners protested the changes, distributing yellow fliers proclaiming, "The City Wants Your Land for Their Sidewalks!" Members of the Architectural Review Board and the planning commission also expressed their own concerns. Ultimately, the council directed staff to pursue very limited changes (including eliminating the "build-to line") and to return with a recommendation for adopting El Camino's existing design guidelines as "standards."
"I think we've really got to go back to the drawing board," Councilman Larry Klein said at a June 2 meeting during which the subject was discussed.
YES: In an April 2013 memo urging wider sidewalks on El Camino, council members Holman, Scharff, Gail Price and Greg Schmid pointed to recent developments that caused "consternation in the community and a strong negative reaction by members of the public as to how close these new buildings are to the street and how the buildings turn their backs on the public right of way."
Making the sidewalks wider, proponents say, would make El Camino more pedestrian-friendly and more consistent with the Grand Boulevard Initiative, which recommends 18-foot sidewalks.
NO: Opponents of wider sidewalks say the proposal would unfairly strip them of property rights and make it more difficult to redevelop their properties. During community meetings leading up to the council's June 2 discussion, property owners argued that the city should give them something in return for the new sidewalk regulation, including "bonuses" to allow for taller and denser buildings. Others pointed out that El Camino has shallow lots that already constrain development.
"The city wants to take a sizable portion of land from miles of privately owned properties for the purpose of widening sidewalks," Tracy May, owner of 2080 El Camino, said on June 2.
ACTION: The council and the planning commission agreed that the debate over sidewalk width should be folded into a broader community conversation over the city's Comprehensive Plan, which will stretch on until the end of 2015.
Should it be more difficult for developers to request "design enhancement exceptions"?
It has become a common practice for architects to request and receive "DEEs" for projects, exceptions that allow them to go beyond what the zoning code allows. This could mean breaching the 50-foot ceiling or setting buildings closer to property lines than would otherwise be required.
Like variances and sign exceptions, these exemptions have come under closer scrutiny lately, with critics of new developments blaming them for making large buildings even larger. The most recent development proposal, at 385 Sherman Ave., initially requested a DEE for a reduced setback but ultimately agreed not to pursue it after feedback from the architecture board.
YES: Holman believes the entire process needs to be re-evaluated. It's her belief that the city has been misinterpreting the ordinance and that design exceptions should pertain to architectural elements rather than standards like height and setbacks.
"When you start tacking on all these exemptions, you get a project that is more out of scale than the zoning designation would allow," Holman told the Weekly.
NO: Architectural Review Board Vice Chair Randy Popp defends the city's DEE process and stated on June 9 that the board considers the context of each exception that's requested.
"There is no one project that is the same as another," he said. "One of the very capable and thoughtful components of our regulation is an aspect that allows for exceptions within context."
In an recent interview, former architecture board Chair Heather Young noted that applicants have to navigate through many different city departments, including Fire, Public Works, Utilities, Planning and Building. In many cases, exemptions are requested when applicants are trying to meet the occasionally conflicting requirements from different departments.
ACTION: Holman and Councilman Pat Burt have both criticized developments that use exemptions to go beyond the "maximums" set by the city's zoning code. Holman said one of the goals of a memo she is working on right now is to clarify the purpose of DEEs and to take a closer look at how they've been used.
Should the role of the city's Architectural Review Board change?
Recent public outcry over new developments has prompted questions about the Architectural Review Board's function and about whether the approval process is "broken." Critics have argued that the five-member board, which must be composed of at least three architects, landscape architects, building designers or other design professionals, is biased toward modern architecture and too friendly to developers. Others suggest that the board should give its feedback to developers earlier in the design-review process so as to achieve better results.
YES: In April, former Planning and Transportation Eduardo Martinez called for the city to "reinvent the ARB" and set up a process in which the review body and the public can give their input earlier.
Resident Douglas Smith, who filed appeals of the approvals of two modernist developments, argued in December that the review process is "backward" because the design is already set before the city reviews the development's aesthetics and density. He advocated a process in which "design would be developed slowly" in consultation with planners, a consultant from a historic-preservation firm and with "one or more representatives from the city's populace."
NO: Board Vice Chair Popp defends the city's process for reviewing designs of new developments. The city's zoning code, he said on June 9, "is written quite well" and is "one of the most thoughtful and most capable that I've come across in my career."
Popp also defended the role of the ARB, which he described as "five individuals who have a very wide range of experience and very different educational backgrounds."
"We all bring that to the table in a way that I think helps create a dialogue ... that brings projects forward in what I consider to be an efficient and effective manner."
ACTION: Councilwoman Holman plans to address the ARB's role in an upcoming memo, which could spur a conversation on the City Council about possible reforms.
Should Palo Alto regulate the style of new buildings?
In December, dozens of people attended a City Council meeting to appeal the recent approval of 240 Hamilton Ave., a modernist building designed by architect Ken Hayes. Opponents claimed that the building clashes with the traditional architecture in "the most densely historic spot in any commercial area in Palo Alto," as appellant Douglas Smith put it.
With new developments almost invariably embracing modernist designs, these arguments between traditional and modern architecture are becoming louder and more frequent. And while no one is calling for Palo Alto to adopt a particular city-wide style, residents and some council members are increasingly concerned about abrupt changes in style between adjacent buildings.
YES: Members of the Architectural Review Board often say they don't dictate style -- and they'd like to keep it that way.
"We're not a design-and-control board as is the case of many jurisdictions," board Chair Lee Lippert explained on June 9. "You have communities like Santa Barbara that dictate what the standards are for all buildings. If you want Palo Alto to have a particular style, the City Council is free to adopt something like that."
Such a move is unlikely. But there is a movement favoring greater stylistic compatibility of neighboring buildings, a sentiment that might become more prevalent behind the dais after the November election. During the December hearing on Smith's appeal, council members Holman, Burt and Schmid stated that the new modernist building would be incompatible with surrounding structures.
Holman told the Weekly that while she has nothing against "modernist" buildings, she believes that the recent influx of this style is threatening the city's eclectic character.
NO: Members of the ARB have lauded the city's wide mix of styles. Board member Clare Malone Prichard said some cities encourage buildings to all look the same and said it's "not something I'd want for Palo Alto."
"I think other ARB members would agree this is a very eclectic place. It has grown up over time."
Tony Carrasco, a local architect with decades of experience in Palo Alto, also argued against encouraging any particular style. A building's style, he said, tends to evolve in response to environmental conditions, the balance between community and privacy and the use of current technology.
"In general I wish Palo Alto would encourage the exploration of designs that embody these three criteria rather than adopt some past historical styles that are not relevant today and also because innovation, computability with our environment and technology is in Palo Alto's cultural DNA."
ACTION: While no one is proposing approving only one architectural style, debates over the compatibility of various styles on a single block have become more common place. They are expected to remain so in the coming months as more developments are proposed and as modern buildings become more common in settings where traditional architecture has long been the norm.