Office building planned for three Cambridge Avenue parcels

Development receives mixed reviews from Palo Alto's architecture board

A developer's proposal to enliven a mostly commercial street parallel to California Avenue with a new three-story office building earned a mixed reception on Thursday from city officials, who urged the developer to further refine the design.

The plan from Steve Pierce on behalf of Cambridge Investments, LLC, targets three buildings on Cambridge Avenue. It calls for demolishing the existing building at 380 Cambridge and renovating 400 and 410 Cambridge. The proposed replacement would be 35,000 square feet, with 33,400 square feet of space reserved for offices.

The overriding goal, Pierce said, is to "really create a much better experience on Cambridge," which currently houses a mix of small businesses, residential units and office buildings, including the Palo Alto Weekly's headquarters. While the Architectural Review Board agreed on Thursday that this is a worthy goal, members were skeptical about the building's ability to achieve it.

Board Chair Randy Popp said the proposed building is "just not exciting" and likened it to a building in an office park. The new development, he said, would span a major stretch of a street in an important commercial area.

"We really need a building that's going to be great here," Popp said. "It needs to be something that we can all say, 'It's the best possible solution for the site.'"

During the discussion -- known as a preliminary hearing -- board members offered initial reactions to the proposal but didn't take any votes. But others shared Popp's concern and urged the applicants to make the design more interesting.

Vice Chair Robert Gooyer called the proposed building "awfully big" and "a bit bland." He also recommended the developer include parking on the ground floor.

"It doesn't jump out at me," Gooyer said. "Part of it is that because it looks so large, so rigidly segmented, it comes across as one large structure."

Board member Alexander Lew had mixed feelings about the lack of windows in the back of the proposed buildings, which abut a residential neighborhood. He also called Cambridge "not that great of a street" and said the city should be looking at ways to make roads around California and University avenues better than they are.

He also asked whether the developer considered demolishing all three buildings and starting from scratch.

Pierce said in response that one reason for preserving two of the three buildings was to make the project financially viable. Both buildings are sound, he said; according to a staff report, 400 and 410 Cambridge were built in 1971 and 1963, respectively.

Board member Kyu Kim said he had no problem with Pierce's proposal to merge the three Cambridge sites, but like others he advocated for further design revisions. He urged the architect to do a better job in "giving a pedestrian rhythm to the building."

"I think there has to be some kind of interest introduced to the project so it doesn't feel like one long building," Kyu said.

The proposed development is just the latest in a stable of commercial projects that have recently been introduced (and, in most cases, approved) in the rapidly changing California Avenue Business District. These include a nearly finished three-story building at 260 California Ave., former site of Club Illusions; an under-construction four-story, mixed use building at 2650 Birch St.; a recently approved mixed-use development at 385 Sherman Ave.; and Stanford University's recently approved residential project at 2500 El Camino Real, which includes 70 housing units.

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22 people like this
Posted by shop elsewhere
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 6, 2015 at 10:27 am

More office space, less retail. The city sure is watching out for residents' interests.

4 people like this
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 6, 2015 at 11:29 am

@shop elsewhere: There is no retail in those buildings now. It would be a good idea if the new building had some. However, since there is no rule about ground floor retail on that street, there is no way for he city to force that. I think larger areas where ground floor retail is required would be one way to improve the retail environment here.

8 people like this
Posted by RP-Arch
a resident of Monroe Park
on Mar 6, 2015 at 11:36 am

RP-Arch is a registered user.

The proposal was clear in maintaining the identical square footage for the service/retail use currently in place. No reduction to retail component but an increase in the office area.

8 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 6, 2015 at 11:40 am

The architectural rendering of the new building looks 1000% better than what is there. What is the review board saying? Do they want another hideous looking structure like the Alma Street buildings near Homer? Is that what is meant by "something that pops"?

22 people like this
Posted by Gail
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 6, 2015 at 11:59 am

Palo Alto will soon be just one big, overcrowded office park. Oh, and a bunch of lousy restaurants mingled amongst the flat roofed, ugly, monster sized commercial buildings.

13 people like this
Posted by What???
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Mar 6, 2015 at 12:19 pm

>> Board member Alexander Lew had mixed feelings about the lack of windows in the back of the proposed buildings, which abut a residential neighborhood.

How can you have mixed feelings about no office windows looking out over a residential neighborhood? Sounds like the right thing to do for the residential neighbors! Then plant some trees so they don't have to look at the building at all.

>> He also called Cambridge "not that great of a street" and said the city should be looking at ways to make roads around California and University avenues better than they are.

So upgrading what's on those three sites is not enough, the developer is also responsible for improving the whole street? Or are these comments not abut this proposal and just random remarks about the whole area? What does "not so great" mean?

People get on these boards with very little qualification, and little or no ties to Palo Alto. Some of them (e.g. Lew and Gooyer) don't even live in Palo Alto, and yet they dictate what Palo Alto should look like and how residents should be impacted.

16 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 6, 2015 at 2:34 pm

I don't see anything wrong with the rendering I saw. I guess the ARB feels there are some tweaks that need to be made to get it approved. For the life of me I don't understand some of the comments made on both sides.

Pierce's comment: "really create a much better experience on Cambridge", what the heck does that mean? It's a bloody building.

And the board's comments:

Gooyer's comments: "awfully big", "a bit bland", and "It doesn't jump out at me". I'm thankful for that.

Lew's comment: "not that great of a street"

and Kim's comment: "giving a pedestrian rhythm to the building"

I don't know what the architect might have gotten out of those comments that he could take back to the drawing board to make changes with. Must be scratching his head on that. Seems like he'd have to guess at what they were really asking for.

Like this comment
Posted by Gail
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 6, 2015 at 3:49 pm

[Post removed due to inaccurate assertions of fact.]

2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 6, 2015 at 4:28 pm

[Post removed due to deletion of referenced comment.]

14 people like this
Posted by mj
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 6, 2015 at 4:50 pm

More cars on a not very wide street, and I suspect this is just the start. In ten years (almost) all the low buildings will be torn down to be replaced by high density three story offices. Shutting out the sky and views of trees and hills. Hope it is "so called" fully parked. In the middle of the day it is impossible to find a parking spot anywhere in the Cal Ave district.

Given the kind of buildings the ARB get excited about, I agree that bland is just fine. Then the focus is on the street trees.

9 people like this
Posted by Elegant
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 6, 2015 at 4:54 pm

The proposed building looks just fine to me (although I would prefer retail on the ground floor for sure). I don't know about the ARB. As a resident of Palo Alto, I don't want something that will "pop" at me in the same way at the new Mitchell Park Library, the JCC, and other assorted "unique" monsters built in PA in recent years. Understated elegance is fine by me.

8 people like this
Posted by Vox Populi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 6, 2015 at 5:15 pm

Listen to the residents: No more office buildings, no more non-residential or non-retail buildings!

10 people like this
Posted by skydoc
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 6, 2015 at 6:06 pm

So California Avenue is being narrowed so there will be more cars on a narrower street. What could possibly go wrong?

15 people like this
Posted by growth is not a four letter word
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 6, 2015 at 6:38 pm

Wake up PA ... you cant have parks and services without office. Retail will starve without office workers to support it ... you need high density office to make public transportation viable , otherwise you have sprawl . the self centered NIMBYism is shameful ... Grow or wither ... I bet Detroit would welcome this bldg.

3 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 6, 2015 at 6:42 pm

@ mj

There's a big two level parking complex across from my church, Wesley United Methodist. Are you saying it's full during the day?

1 person likes this
Posted by Sad
a resident of Mayfield
on Mar 6, 2015 at 9:35 pm

One of those buildings (380 Cambridege) used to house BCC. I feel sad every time I pass it and see that it has become yet another nondescript high tech office jammed full of more workers on computers. I hope that other nonprofits in the Cal Ave area aren't forced (or encouraged) to leave to make room for more office construction.

7 people like this
Posted by Marjorie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2015 at 8:48 am

The Bargain Box had to close due to lack of affordable space to rent. This was a non profit supporting the Children's Health council of Palo Alto. Could not the city council have asked a for a subsidized space so this valued non profit could continue?

This is a values issue. Who is asking the citizens about values and development? After 61 years of living in Palo Alto this sort of change makes me sad. This sort of progress diminishes us as a community.

6 people like this
Posted by Steve Pierce
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 7, 2015 at 11:21 am

For the record:

Size: 380-410 Cambridge is currently about 32,000 sf. The refurbished building will add 2800 sf, which will be fully parked.

Retail: There will be ground floor retail.

"create a much better experience on Cambridge" should read "visual" experience. Poorly defined entrances, lava rock accents, absence of landscaping, and so forth make for an unpleasant pedestrian environment. This will change.

Architecture: Design is personal matter. Of late we have seen tension between what some architects have offered and what much of the public prefers. The 400 Cambridge proposal is purposely not "edgy". It is a classical post and lintel design with modern elements that is meant to age well.

Like this comment
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Mar 7, 2015 at 1:20 pm

Keep retail on the main street, cheaper more afforable retail space on the side or right behind the main street. Offices building should be built facing those streets that retail won't surive.

I think if retail market picks up or office boom slows down but who know both. Retail space can be convred back.

8 people like this
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 7, 2015 at 6:21 pm

" ...enliven a mostly commercial street ... with a new three-story office building..."

ENLIVEN with an office building??!! Only a developer could conceive that spin, and only PA city hall would believe it.

5 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 7, 2015 at 7:19 pm

No to high density office buildings. No to any waivers on height or density. To those recent techy imports who come to work in Palo Alto (and the very few who live here, too); now hear this: we locals are done. To you, we are just another work zone with an on-going urban sprawl. Nope - we will fight you on the beaches, fight you in the keep our town from looking like Manhattan West!

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 7, 2015 at 11:16 pm

uhhh. why any increase to office space at all being allowed?

4 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2015 at 4:08 pm

@steve pierce

Thank you for your clarification. You must have read my earlier comment. It looks like one of the better development proposals than we've seen in a while. I'm an old codger, lived here since 1961. I go to Wesley United Methodist Church on that avenue. When we first moved here our family doctor, Dr. Jenks, had his office there. That's where I got my vasectomy. I was sure you would want to know that. And there was a wonderful German deli there many years ago. California Avenue has changed so much. I had the privilege of meeting Jay Thorwaldsen, the iconic 'PA's Mr. Newspaperman'. It was over coffee at the Palo Alto Cafe in Midtown. We shared our 5 decades plus of experience living in PA. I'm in a Life Stories class at Avenidas and I plan to write a story about PA's past and how much it has changed. It will be from an old codger's viewpoint so I won't have much
good to say about the changes I'm afraid. But that's what old codgers do...we get consumed by nostalgia and like to remember the good old days even when we know they're gone forever. I have a title and I've started on it. "My Town Has Changed...And
It's Still A Changin?

3 people like this
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 8, 2015 at 7:11 pm

"The refurbished building will add 2800 sf, which will be fully parked."

Clarification call. Will the whole building be "fully parked", or only the added 2800 sf? Also, please define "fully parked" in the context of this project.

2 people like this
Posted by Renderings look good, don't they
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 9, 2015 at 10:14 am

Several posters above noted that they liked the "artist renderings" of these buildings. These always look good. The buildings are set alone (no comparative scale shown), they are surrounded by lots of space and big mature trees. But, what we get are big flat roofed boxes (the "square footage school of architecture" that is taking over Palo Alto) that dwarf the neighborhood, narrow front sidewalks, a few spindly tree planting and high-density office layouts with little to no parking.

As for retail, my concern is that it has become very difficult to get to the retail space because there is no parking. Its probably true that increasing office density and larger building might create more bar and restaurant business, but it does seem we are rapidly loosing general retail options.

The City Council -- why is it again that we don't elect a mayor directly -- needs to stop talking at each other and at least enforce existing quality of life regulations -- parking, building setbacks, heights, daylight plane, etc. -- aggressively, as opposed to meekly allowing exceptions, loop holes and one oversized building mistake being allowed to justify the next and worse.

2 people like this
Posted by Mike-Crescent Park
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 9, 2015 at 1:39 pm

Mike-Crescent Park is a registered user.

Growth is not a four letter word but it is derived from one.

Even here in Silicon Valley where most everyone is focused upon the next new idea, getting funded, go public or get acquired there is still the alternative concept of 'lifestyle companies' where the business provides owners and employees with a comfortable living and a fun place to work.

Growth is not the absolute given some continue to present such as Palo Alto Forward. Since residents are not likely to get rich from a Palo Alto public offering maybe we should stop letting others push for transformation and accept our current mix of dynamic businesses, world leading academics, interesting people and quality lifestyle neighborhoods.

But first we will have to stop worrying about what ABAG wants us to do.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 15, 2015 at 10:33 am

People should take a trip up to Redwood City on the train. There is a huge amount of development in the Sequoia Station area. The station has a large, super Safeway, CVS Pharmacy, and other stores.

A huge building is taking shape next to the tracks and it is beautiful - the facing on the building is more formal than what we are seeing here. And go down the street - huge apartment buildings that have 6 stories above the ground level - and these buildings are looking very good. And in town large buildings going up - they do not seem to have a four story limitation there.

I look at these buildings which are more formal that the latest of what we have on the street and think our ARB should take a trip and find out who the architects are so that we are getting better architectural choices.

Also - Menlo Park / Atherton is getting a new hotel on Marsh Road and 101 - a high end Marriott.

It looks like everyone is moving on and making their downtowns more formal and stately. We could use some of that. And this is not a PAF endorsement - when I listen to them they sound like cheap bee hives that will look tacky and bring us down.

We need better architects and architectural choices.

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

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