Despite a chorus of protests from residents, Palo Alto's architectural board on Thursday approved a new three-story building that will go up next to Sarah Wallis Park and inject more commercial space into the rapidly changing business district around California Avenue.
The Architectural Review Board voted 3-2, with Robert Gooyer and Alexander Lew dissenting, to support a largely commercial development at 385 Sherman Ave. The building would replace an existing one-story building and would feature office space on all three stories and four residential units on the ground floor. Chair Lee Lippert, Vice Chair Randy Popp and board member Clare Malone Prichard all voted to approve the proposal, with Lippert calling it a "wonderful project" and Popp describing it as "very good."
"Although this is a dramatic change in neighborhood, I think this is a proposal that will ultimately be reflected on by the larger community as a benefit," Popp said.
Others weren't so sure. The board's narrow approval followed extensive testimony from residents of Birch Court, a condominium community next door. Dozens submitted letters and spoke Thursday to urge further revisions to the project, with most citing the new building's creation of noise and its potential intrusion on their privacy.
The developer, Daniel Minkoff, has already made some revisions to the design, including lowering the building's height from 50 to 45 feet; adding trees that would screen the new building from Birch Court; and shifting the third story back from the bottom two.
For many residents and two board members, these steps weren't enough to compensate for the building's size and density. Many protested the proposed decks on the second floor, which would face the Birch Court condominiums.
Anne Steinle, who submitted a letter and spoke on behalf of a group of residents, was among the critics. The deck space, she wrote in a letter to the board, looks "directly onto and into the residences of Birch Court."
"This issue is a source of deep anguish to us and also dismay because we should not be in this position pleading for protection," Steinle wrote.
Minkoff countered that the deck will be too small to accommodate the types of crowded, noisy gatherings that nearby residents fear.
"You don't end up with huge parties on these decks," Minkoff said. "They're not that big. What you end up with is, on a nice day, four people having a meeting."
Even so, residents and dissenting board members criticized the building as too massive for the area, which is in the midst of a building boom. While California Avenue itself is undergoing a dramatic streetscape renovation, the streets around the eclectic strip have seen an influx of construction. Current projects in and around California Avenue include a new three-story building at 260 California Ave.; two dense, mixed-use projects currently developed by Harold Hohbach on Page Mill Road and on Grant Avenue; and two block-long buildings on El Camino Real -- one around the old JJ&F Market and another a few blocks south, around Equinox Gym. Each of these developments has significant office space and each has sparked anxieties among neighbors about massing, traffic and parking.
In opposing the 385 Sherman plan, Gooyer and Lew both took the position, shared by many neighbors, that even after the latest design revisions, the project remains simply too big for the neighborhood. Gooyer, who criticized the scale of the 55,465-square-foot building during the board's last discussion on July 17, has not changed his views since.
"I just really don't see that any of the solutions I've seen really help the neighborhood," Gooyer said. "I think the building is too large; it's too close; it's overpowering to the residential uses adjacent to it. ... All in all, I wasn't able to support it then, and I still can't support the project."
Popp took the opposite stance and said the new building "creates massing and orientation" in a neighborhood that he described as "a hodgepodge of really nondescript and non-elegant buildings."
Because the project meets the property's zoning regulations and is not seeking a zone change, it will not require a City Council review unless someone appeals the board's decision. But Lippert cautioned against an appeal.
"What does frighten me is if the project is denied by the City Council -- if it is appealed and denied -- what we might wind up with," Lippert said.