One of downtown's most vehement critics of modernist architecture has threatened to file a lawsuit if Palo Alto officials don't reconsider their decision in late 2013 to approve a glassy four-story building across the street from City Hall.
Douglas Smith, an art historian who in 2013 appealed two development proposals by Ken Hayes, has submitted a letter to the City Council calling for them to revisit the appeal for 240 Hamilton Ave., which he argued is not compatible with the historic district on the 500 block of Ramona Street, directly across the street.
The City Council considered Smith's appeal in December 2013 but ultimately voted 6-3 to reject it and affirmed the project's approval.
Dissenting council members Pat Burt, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid all sided with Smith, with Burt calling the building's design "misguided and inappropriate" and Holman saying the building "misses the mark."
The majority, however, argued that the new building is compatible with downtown's eclectic collection of architectural styles. Liz Kniss said it fit in well with downtown's diverse character and former Councilwoman Gail Price said it was "very well designed."
Former City Planner Jason Nortz made the finding that the new 50-foot-tall building at the former Radio Shack site "incorporates quality design that recognizes the regional and historical importance of the area" and "reinforces its pedestrian character."
Nortz also wrote in a report that the project "creates enhanced vehicular and pedestrian entries," "provides varied building mass and height," and "maintains Hamilton Avenue as a pleasing, tree-lined pedestrian environment with complementary outdoor amenities."
Smith vehemently disagrees and is arguing in a letter that the council members who rejected his appeal failed to consider his arguments about why the building is incompatible. The majority of the 2013 council, he wrote in his letter, "failed to address the issues, one member even admitting on the dais that she did not understand compatibility, though it is explained in the Code."
"The issue is not trivial quibbling," Smith wrote. "The Municipal Code has the force of law, which even specifies penalties for individuals not conforming to its requirements. With this letter I ask the City Council to take up the appeal again, and for all members to make substantive Findings this time. I hope this can happen without litigation."
In case this hope proves unfounded, Smith also sent the council a formal complaint that would be filed in the Santa Clara County Superior Court if the council doesn't revisit the appeal. The complaint calls the city planner's design criteria "unstated" and "not objective," merely constituting "subjective opinion."
"The review process has nowhere produced any rationale to support the above alleged finding that this is a high-quality design," the complaint states.
The complaint also argues that the council majority, in declining to uphold his appeal, "failed to make any factual Findings on whether the proposed design was compatible with and considerate of buildings in its immediate environment," as required by law.
The complaint asks the court to order the council to reconsider 240 Hamilton Ave., and make the "factual findings" as to whether the project complies with the city's Comprehensive Plan and Municipal Code.
In an interview with the Weekly, Smith called the council's decision to green-light the project in 2013 a "travesty." The majority of the council, he argued, "dodged the issue, changed the subject and actually violated the Code requirements."
The project, he said, "is a very important one because it is directly across from City Hall, one of the most prominent intersections of the city, surrounded on three sides by heritage structures beloved by Palo Alto residents."
He also posited in an email that Palo Alto's newly constituted council is "much more likely to follow the prescriptions of the Code."
"And if the compatibility statutes are ignored, as they have been for decades in Palo Alto, we end up with a progressively more incoherent collection of buildings, and with more and more new structures that clash unpleasantly with their neighboring structures," Smith wrote.
"It's an uglification process that the residents will have to live with for the life of the buildings. It is precisely what the compatibility statutes were created to prevent."