Months after losing an appeal, Palo Alto neighborhood leaders are raising fresh concerns about an approved development at 240 Hamilton Ave., a project that they claim violates local laws when it comes to density and parking.
The group Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), an umbrella organization representing a collection of neighborhoods, issued a statement Tuesday criticizing the city's planning staff for allowing the project across the street from City Hall to "circumvent laws" and calling on the city to halt the "illegal project."
The four-story development at the prominent downtown corner of Hamilton Avenue and Ramona Street would be more than twice the density of the existing building, which once housed RadioShack. The new 15,000-square-foot building will include retail space on the ground floor, offices on the second and third floors and residential space on the top floor. The project received the city's blessing last December, when the City Council voted 6-3 (with Pat Burt, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid dissenting) to reject an appeal from residents who argued that the boxy, glassy, 50-foot-tall building is architecturally incompatible with the surrounding area.
In their new statement, PAN leaders maintain that the project violates several provisions of the city's municipal code. Specifically, the applicant claimed an "exemption" from the city's parking and density requirements for a 319-foot area deemed necessary for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. City staff allegedly told the neighborhood group that the city does not grant ADA exemptions to new buildings, but it will allow it for 240 Hamilton Ave. Furthermore, the size of the exempted area was increased in recent months from 250 to 319 feet, according to PAN.
The group also remains opposed to the city's decision to treat the existing building's mezzanine space as a 2,000-square-foot "second story," a designation that justifies greater density for the new building under a "grandfather" clause in the city's code. The exemption will enable the developer to add 1,326 square feet of commercial space that would otherwise not be allowed. Land-use watchdogs have argued for the past year that the city was wrong in counting the small mezzanine space as a second floor and that this decision, while profitable for the developer, will only worsen downtown's parking and traffic problems.
"No documents substantiate that a second floor exists," the PAN statement reads. "City inspections reports dating back for decades describe the building as one story. A recent ad seeking a tenant for the building mentioned no second story. A casual glance out a window of City Hall would alert anyone that 240 Hamilton is not a two-story building."
The PAN statement also cites a December report from planning staff, which acknowledged that the 2,000-square-foot mezzanine "was part of the original construction but removed several years ago."
The project, which is being developed by Sal Giovanotto, is one of several recent downtown developments to spark criticism from the neighborhood group. In June, the group successfully appealed a proposal by developer Roxy Rapp to expand a historic building at 261 Hamilton Ave., the former home of University Art. In overturning staff's approval, the City Council disagreed with planners' definition of the term "building envelope" as one that refers to the three-dimensional space that the building occupies and does not refer to the shape of the building itself. This interpretation allowed the developer to claim that he is not increasing the building area despite including a 5,910-square-foot addition.
One point of dispute between planning staff and neighborhood critics is whether the ADA exemption should apply to only existing buildings or new ones as well. When asked about PAN's concerns, City Planner Jason Nortz noted that the ordinance granting density exceptions for handicapped access refers to a situation "when a building is being expanded." It does not specify that this applies only to "existing" buildings.
PAN maintains in its statement that the municipal code "does not allow new downtown buildings such as 240 Hamilton to claim any ADA exemption." Staff took a position that it does, though Nortz said that despite its approval of 240 Hamilton, staff is now "much more stringent about applying this code section to new developments going forward." This is based in part on the council's decision to uphold the appeal of 261 Hamilton Ave.
"Today we would limit the application of this 'exempt area' to additions only, and particularly would be strict with respect to replacement of a 'grandfathered' facility (based on the Council's direction related to the University Art building)," Nortz told the Weekly.