The terms of the debate

When it comes to new buildings, city grapples with how -- or whether -- to regulate style, density, height

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.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Judith Wasserman
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 18, 2014 at 11:57 am

Building size and mass are governed by several aspects of the zoning code: floor area limits, setbacks and daylight planes among them. If the building is limited by floor area, why does it need a height limit? It would be equally "dense" if the FAR were distributed among 4 stories or 5. In the latter case, there would be more space around the building.

Also, to relieve the anxieties of those who fear the "Manhattanization" of Palo Alto, relax! We will never be Manhattan - we have no ballet, no opera, no symphony, no art museum, very little public transit and really much better weather!

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 18, 2014 at 12:30 pm

Judith leaves out other things that Manhattan has: gangs, crime, poor school system, etc.

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 18, 2014 at 3:10 pm

It seems to me, and I think recent history shows, that if you relax the height limitation for some buildings you create a slippery slope that the city pretty much will always slide down until we are mini-San Francisco or San Jose.

That is, if certain people can make their property more valuable by building something that will generate more profit on it, then it is discriminatory NOT to allow others to do the same thing, so that anyone who insists will get their waivers right up and until the whole idea of limitations becomes a joke.

Now, we have already gone down this path far enough to be a fairly comedic, if not totally a joke city, after all we all do live in a Tall Tree.

So, the point is that some property is commercial and extremely valuable, and the people who still live in residential see their communities eroded and changes at a rate that is really unmanageable at this point.

The choice is between actively scaling back and being responsible and fair ... which I don't think any bureaucracy in the area has shown itself capable of doing, or just moving forward and slowly San Franciscoalizing the Peninsula.

This preferentially selects development as the way to go, but the real deeper logic would say that it either has to end someday given everything we now know about sustainability, in fact most believe what we have done thus far needs to be reversed.

So, my preference would be to take on the cutting edge leadership by pioneering these efforts, with a certain mission statement that parses out the logic of future development of Palo Alto ... and maybe the people and the city would need to step up and get involved in that ... if it is possible.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2014 at 3:48 pm

I hear so many people in Palo Alto say, without a hint of irony, "we're going to become so dense that nobody will want to live here"

Like this comment
Posted by Remembering
a resident of The Greenhouse
on Jul 18, 2014 at 3:51 pm

If I remember correctly Judith Wasserman was very positive about the designs of the JCC and about 800 High St. While they were still in the design stage going through the city process, she opined that they would be beautiful! And we would love them. She was really enthusiastic.

I wonder whether she still holds those opinions.

Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Jul 18, 2014 at 4:09 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

It seems reasonable to assume that the people buying/renting now and paying very high prices or rents do not share the prevalent Town Square view that the quality of life in PA is rapidly deteriorating.

I guess viewpoints here can differ but the overwhelming evidence is that people want to live and or work in Palo Alto. That normally means that we are doing at least some things very "right" as far as quality of living.

Like this comment
Posted by R U Kidding
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 18, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Just ask ANY of the renters who have to live with 4 or more roommates in order to afford the rent on a small house or apartment in Palo Alto: they think that the quality of life here sucks. They can never afford to buy a home ( they think), well-paying jobs have a LOT of foreign competition hoping to fill the position, many can't afford a car, which is why they live where they work, and those that do have cars can't afford the wear and tear on them that commuting from a cheaper neighborhood causes.

Unless they work for Apple, Google, Facebook, or LinkedIn, all of whom pay 15%-25% above industry average! most of these kids feel that they have no real future! even in high tech. Not only that, most, unless foreign( most other countries pay for higher education), cannot afford to get graduate degrees needed to get higher pay ( neither can their soon-to-retire parents).

Get a dose of reality, Mr Levy. You made your money when the getting was much easier! Most of the under-30s feel disenfranchised.

Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 18, 2014 at 10:35 pm

Stephen people who buy or rent here are doing so based on the way the city is today - NOT what the Architectural Review Board, Planning & Transportation Commission or City Council wants to turn the city into - a high density city like Daly City or South San Francisco.

So they are buying into what previous generations of leaders did right, not what our current politicians are trying to ruin with their delusions / dreams.

Like this comment
Posted by What about your kids?
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 19, 2014 at 5:41 am

Interesting comment from Mr. Levy that people want to live and work in Palo Alto. Most of my friends with families are very content living in Los Altos and Menlo Park. Many of them grew up in Palo Alto. Check out downtown Menlo Park, or downtown Los Altos! They don't have to face out of control traffic while driving their kids to activities, schools, theater, playdates, restaurants, etc. (I gave up on creating friendships with certain families because of hassles involved with driving there). The 20/30 somethings I know are living in S.F. where they have a great community, recreation, beauty,big city amenities.....even with the commutes and high prices. Are your children willing to use all their salary to pay a $$$$mortgage or high rent just to live here in over-rated Palo Alto? As for amenities, the huge losses of retail stores, stack and pack housing,over-crowded schools, dirty downtown shopping experience, inability to find parking and more dense professional buildings push wonderful families to decide NOT to live in Palo Alto. Many families will pay the premium for the schools, but plan on moving out when kids done with High School, it's just not worth the money.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 20, 2014 at 12:27 am

RU Kidding,
The story has not changed since I moved here in the 8os. My friends who wanted to live in Palo Alto lived several to a house. I got a small apartment in Svl. My bedroom was the closet. One of my friends lived in his car and showered at the gym How do I have a house? My spouse got into the market by purchasing a broken down place in a neighborhood with drug dealer living next door, and funky neighbors all around. It was not easy, loans from family even for a modest downpayment, and fixing the place up little by little without professional help. Other friends lived in East PA until they could move to tiny quarters in South PA, and then to a nice place inOregon (the state). It can be done. Once you own, your living expenses freeze. Usually, you have to hemorrhage money and go into hock the first few years but then it gets easier than renting eventually. And then you can move up. if you rent, speaking from experience, it's always hard.

The thing that has changed in the last few years is that pLo Alto used to be THE desirable place one reason because it was so nice and easy to get around. Now it's so stressful, City Council sold off the City to developers who made out at the expense of our future appreciation in housing. There will be a tipping point, when it's too late.

Like this comment
Posted by voter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 20, 2014 at 10:14 am

Building height
Massive buildings and sidewalks

These are all related to the same thing. None previously an issue until developers decided to capitalize on office space and housing in a vanity address.

Trust was broken when the CIty Manager, the ARB, and the mouthpieces for developers on City Council picked one side of these issues - the side which would gift developers access to more square footage for their profits. Residents were told we could be Detroit if we didn't join the party.

I think somebody needs to add up the square footage that we are talking about. So, if the proposal is to bust building height above 50 feet, can we get specifics from these strategists about how many buildings, and how high? Would the plan be for all buildings? Say it's for downtown - would all parcels get to tear down and build higher?

Anyway, the idea is that it's about time that someone put numbers on a piece of paper and explained exactly what the economic benefit is to the CIty for going higher? I want to hear exactly what kind of numbers we are talking about.

Like this comment
Posted by voter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 20, 2014 at 10:27 am

Just in case busting building height is tagged to the housing imbalance, this should be up for debate as well.

When a City is generating jobs at the rate Palo Alto has, why does it have to fix the housing imbalance alone?

There should be some sort of formula which credits towns with jobs, and the towns with the jobs imbalance relative to Palo Alto, make up for it by building housing.

As long as ABAG is zoning us, busting building height would be a big mistake.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 21, 2014 at 12:12 pm

The people that live in Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Menlo Park, Atherton, Woodside work somewhere. They have the best of both worlds, - a normal city and short drive to wherever they work. They can go back home at the end of the day. There is no reason to build more housing in PA when the people who work here have better homes somewhere else.
I was in Los Gatos yesterday for an outside concert. Go look at that town - it is beautiful. And it is not built out with mega-business.
Every town is carving out their identity - we appear to be dragged around by outside and inside forces to make ourselves ugly. No other town is doing that.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

First Sunnyvale, then Australia: Mountain View's Le Plonc plots expansion
By Elena Kadvany | 1 comment | 2,452 views

Juggling Renewables
By Sherry Listgarten | 35 comments | 1,943 views

Premarital and Couples: Living as Roommates?
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,405 views

Homestead Faire at Hidden Villa 4/27
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 691 views

A trial run
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 525 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.