Palo Alto struggles to strike a balance with sidewalk rules

City's architecture panel offers tepid endorsements, fresh concerns about proposed changes

A Palo Alto law that requires new development to be built close to the street may soon be scrapped or modified, though officials remain far from certain about what type of changes should be made.

The city's Architectural Review Board on Thursday considered a proposed elimination of what's known as "build-to line," a requirement that seeks to create an "urban edge" by mandating that buildings along major thoroughfares be within 12 feet of the street. When it was created, one of the rule's main objectives was to prevent developers from putting parking lots in front of their properties on major thoroughfares such as El Camino Real and Middlefield Road.

From the perspective of many residents and most council members, the rule worked a little too well. In the last few years, the council has been fielding concerns from the community about dense new developments such as 801 Alma St. and Arbor Real, which critics argue are far too massive and close to the street. In April 2013, council members Karen Holman, Greg Scharff, Gail Price and Greg Schmid penned a memo that urged staff to explore new rules that would encourage wider sidewalks and address community anxieties about buildings that "turn their backs on the public right of way."

But making these changes has proven to be a tougher task than most have imagined. The city's proposed "sidewalk ordinance," which applied to El Camino Real, ran into opposition from property owners and was ultimately rejected by the City Council. In July, members agreed to scale back the proposed changes and focus the new rules on the "build-to-line" requirement, which is generally seen as a relatively benign change.

The new proposal would entirely eliminate the requirement on all major thoroughfares except El Camino Real, thus giving builders the option of creating greater setbacks without requesting zoning exemptions from the city. On El Camino, the rule would be relaxed and applied based on context. Buildings would no longer have to have an "effective sidewalk" of 12 feet. The majority of the building's frontage would have to be within zero to 10 feet of the street property line, though the requirement is no longer seen as a fixed "line" but rather as an "area" in which the developer would have flexibility to get creative with the building's alignment.

Placement of the building's frontage on El Camino would be based on context "including land use, adjacent and nearby properties' existing building setbacks, proposed or adjacent building design, lot size and similar consideration," according to a staff report from Chief Planning Official Amy French.

"The goal would be to allow more variable placement of the El Camino facing wall and minor changes in alignment on the street wall from one site to the next," French wrote. "In this way, the urban design intent of the build-to requirement would be retained, but the restrictive language would be loosened."

But while the latest proposal is far more modest than the prior sidewalk ordinance, board members struggled on Thursday to determine whether it's the best solution for assuaging local anxieties. The board also heard from two property owners, Ben Cintz and Sal Giovanotto, as well as attorney Andrew Pierce, who represented a group of property owners. Though none of the speakers took a stance against the ordinance, all had questions about the effect the new rules will have on El Camino Real. Pierce said the group hasn't taken a position on the new ordinance but stressed that "any requirement for an effective sidewalk that is wider would be unconstitutional" and would constitute a "taking" of land from property owners.

Board members had their own concerns about the change, with some arguing that the flexibility built into the ordinance effectively makes the rules less clear. Chair Lee Lippert suggested that the city's effort to change the sidewalk rules has been hampered by miscommunications, with many property owners feeling like their properties will be impacted.

"It comes across that we're imposing a taking where in fact what we're trying to do is be a bit more liberal or flexible in terms of what we're providing or trying to do here," Lippert said.

He proposed including in the new rules incentives for property owners who are willing to include wide sidewalks as part of new developments. This could include allowing greater height, he said.

"Whatever we do has to be communicated in a clear and concise way and done in a way that people don't feel as though the city is reaching into their pockets and taking from them," Lippert said.

Vice Chair Randy Popp said he was concerned about the "piecemeal" approach that the city has taken to revising its sidewalk rules. Adding controversial incentives such as greater height allowances would "kill the discussion," he said, which is "exactly what the council was trying to avoid" when it asked staff to narrow its revision effort. He acknowledged that El Camino has a wide variety of properties, many of which are shallow or narrow and said he was concerned about the prospect of someone aggregating 10 parcels on El Camino and building parking lots that create a "big gap" on the thoroughfare.

Others argued that the cautious approach makes the ordinance too vague. Board member Alexander Lew said the new ordinance has "the right intent" but stressed that "for the people who are concerned about big walls on El Camino, this will not be reassuring." The nuances in the ordinance make it "not digestible to a lay person."

Board member Robert Gooyer called the ordinance "a step in the right direction" but also said he was worried that the new rules create too much of a "gray area."

"Sometimes flexible also makes things more gray," Gooyer said.

People are often happier, he said, when the rules are clearly stated and do not depend on vague concepts relating to context.

"How it's implemented is going to be tough because of the flexibility," Gooyer said.

The board is expected to further discuss and vote on the proposed ordinance on Sept. 18. After that, the proposal will go to the Planning and Transportation Commission and, ultimately, the City Council.

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5 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2014 at 10:28 am

I didn't think the Architecture Review Board (ARB) could outdo itself, but it has. Do its members make decisions in caves? The so-called "build-to line" requirement is a disaster, as anyone walking the sidewalks outside buildings cheek by jowl up to the sidewalk can testify. The members of the ARB should be ashamed of themselves and should be relieved of their responsibilities post haste, before they hasten the degradation of Palo Alto any further.

Like this comment
Posted by mj
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 5, 2014 at 10:31 am

Perhaps residents should show up at council with a lawyer and demand to be allowed to build to the sidewalk and stress that "any requirement for an effective sidewalk that is wider would be unconstitutional" and would constitute a "taking" of land from property owners.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2014 at 11:07 am

The most inviting fa├žade of a building, whether approaching by car or by foot (or bike) is if the parking is in front of the building. This also makes it safer entrance and egress for all as there is much more visibility.

Please return parking and main entrance to the front, i.e. street, of buildings and leave the ugly service features to the rear where we do not have to see them.

Thank you.

3 people like this
Posted by C. M. Long
a resident of Mayfield
on Sep 5, 2014 at 2:14 pm

I agree with the comment above. Parking for a building does not need to be ugly. It can have a few spaces in front and, if more is needed, behind or underneath the building. The front of the building can then be designed to be welcoming. Variation in setback as well as variety of design and plantings contribute to the beauty of a city. Who says that "urban" is defined by the look of Manhattan. Our California "urban" should be a more relaxed and friendly sort of architecture.
Page Mill Road between El Camino Real and Junipero Serra is a high tech oasis. No, that amount of space is not appropriate for the central city, but its beauty can be achievable on a smaller scale so that the human element is not crushed.

2 people like this
Posted by rhody
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 5, 2014 at 2:16 pm

I never did understand what was so bad about parking lots in front of buildings on El Camino. I think it is much nicer to see space and maybe sky passing by as I drive (yes, I DRIVE, not walk) instead of walls of buildings. What is happening now in south Palo Alto is New-York-ification to me -- the road is becoming the bottom of a canyon. If the new rules are dependent on immediate neighbors for a proposed development then walls along El Camino will be continued ad infinitum.

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Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 8, 2014 at 10:43 am

Why does everything have to be codified in rock and anything that is different illegalized and vilified?

I have seen lots of parking lots in front of building that look fine as well as buildings close up to the street that have parking in the back that are just as nice. Depending on where or the owner's or architects visions both have their uses.

If you have a big parking lot in front, then if you approach from the front, or park down the street you have to travel through all the parked and parking cars. For example, the Whole Foods market in Los Altos has some parking in the front, and it is mostly just a pain in the neck. You can never see when there is a free space, and there rarely is. Yet people stop to look and block the way down to the underground parking leaving everyone hanging and waiting for one person who is often on their phone at the same time. God, I hate that.

But then there are places where parking in the front works fine, like the Safeway on Middlefield, or even the Safeway nearby Whole Foods in Los Altos.

Why can't decisions be based on what has gone before and works, whatever it is, or build on a contingency basis that will have to change if there are problems? That way they can follow the rules or design to take the consequences. Intelligence and flexibility would be nice.

There is another reason for parking in the rear, and that is to be nice and separate residential that may be in the back from commercial or office. If I owned a house in back of an office building I would rather there be parking over my back fence than a 3 or 4 story building that looks right down into my backyard or noise that goes right into my house, especially in the summer when windows often want to be open.

This idea of setting up these laws, written shoddily, capriciously and based on some inexact need or requirement needs to be moved away from.

Laws should have motivations that can be questioned, measured and looked at to see if they are meeting a public need ... and if not, they need to be struck down or changed.

Like this comment
Posted by Adrian
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 8, 2014 at 12:14 pm

It seems like there is a lot of name-calling and finger-pointing going on here without anyone acknowledging that pleasing multiple constituents and/or stakeholders (residents, property owners, developers, dog-walkers, street performers, etc) is inherently difficult. Parking in front is great for car access, but makes it less appealing to pedestrians. Parking in the rear allows entrances to front a street, but then it's harder for cars to park. This is a dilemma.

A decade or so ago, folks were complaining that El Camino and Middlefield were these vast canyons that were hard to cross and had no "street-life".. now there's lots of complaints that things are too dense, buildings are right next to the sidewalk.. I'm not sure there is a happy medium - you can't codify every street and sidewalk in the city.

To a large degree, city planning and architecture rely upon a "live and let live" philosophy.. just my two cents.

2 people like this
Posted by sidewinder
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 8, 2014 at 11:13 pm

REALLY UGLY buildings being built or recently built along Alma-- REALLY UGLY. we have an architectural review board??? REALLY what is the point. these are the ugliest buildings in Palo Alto--other than the grocery store that used to be Miki's at the Alma Village. sidewalks-- who needs sidewalks--just walk in the street---you will be safe since the traffic comes to a standstill with all of the expansive monstrosities resulting in stopped traffic. just wait---there are buildings in the works. who needs sidewalks anyhow.

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

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