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.