Architecture critic threatens to sue over approved development

Douglas Smith says Palo Alto failed to follow its process in rejecting his appeal of 240 Hamilton Ave.

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."

Related content:

Downtown development sparks architecture debate

Modernist building faces citizen appeal

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31 people like this
Posted by judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 6, 2015 at 10:39 am

Some people can't take no for an answer. The appeal was rejected. That doesn't mean they didn't listen, it means they disagreed. Stop whining.

15 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 6, 2015 at 10:46 am

The proposed building is an absolute atrocity and so inappropriate. If it's approved, the last city council sure will have left its mark here.

12 people like this
Posted by pouting and whining
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 6, 2015 at 10:50 am

[Post removed.]

25 people like this
Posted by M Anderson
a resident of another community
on Apr 6, 2015 at 10:50 am

Shouldn't you know something about architecture before you become known as an "architecture critic?" Absent any architecture training makes you simply a critic.

13 people like this
Posted by Midtowner
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 6, 2015 at 10:58 am

We are back to the seventies.

City Hall: is it pretty? Do you like it as a building? Yes, anyone? It was supposed to be a bold design back then... Ditto with that tower on University. These are such disasters that residentialists were elected and put an end to such buildings for the next 30 years or so.

Well, we are doing the same thing all over again. These oversize blocks of glass are ugly and yet we are building them. I am glad someone is suing about it. If it is what it will take to stop the madness, so be it.

18 people like this
Posted by AlexDeLarge
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 6, 2015 at 11:01 am

I like it. When will it be completed?

15 people like this
Posted by Desert Jack
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 6, 2015 at 11:08 am

The Palo Alto Process plays itself out once more. Critics again imagine they have the right to tell property owners what they can do with their property. That's why we have a City Council (among other reasons) - to decide what's best for all concerned.

29 people like this
Posted by Commonsense
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 6, 2015 at 12:02 pm

Please stop calling this [portion removed] an "Architectural Critic" instead of what he is, a sore loser. You went through the established process and lost. It's a nice contemporary building. One way it could have looked nicer, more interesting and with more space at street level for seating and landscaping would be if it could be taller than 50'. The same size building but taller would be better for all of the newer downtown buildings.

9 people like this
Posted by muttiallen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 6, 2015 at 12:22 pm

muttiallen is a registered user.

I like the modern glass look! Enough of the old stucco and red tile roofs! We aren't living in 18th Century Norte California anymore!

23 people like this
Posted by Engineering not architecture
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 6, 2015 at 12:44 pm

The building may or may not be ugly depending on your taste, but it is an oversized, set of glass boxes plunked into a concrete frame. In an inappropriate location.

The absence of imagination and creativity is the hallmark of this architect. A grouping of boxes, pretending this is what modern architecture is. It's engineering, not architecture. And yes, very profitable.
Reminds me of the ridiculous "art" in front of the Mitchell Park library, also a series of boxes in a random arrangement, called "art".

25 people like this
Posted by Marci Lamb
a resident of Addison School
on Apr 6, 2015 at 1:26 pm

Whether or not this is "bad " or "good" design, it does not enhance Palo Alto's "pedestrian character." I see no setback for benches for seating. No planned open air dining. No bus stop. Bike station, play area or drinking fountain. No retractable windows and doors. No canopies for shade or interesting or informative use of retail signage. Lets be honest, the proposed Hamilton design appears to have even less curb appeal than the recent Walgreens, which is not "bad desgn" ... Merely a site specific missed opportunity or - planning failure?

I truly love contemporary design, but i also respect a sense of place and community, and i question if this proposal is out of sync/scale/proportion relative to the historical architecture of the community, especially on Ramona, where shops successfully spill out onto the sidewalks and have a busy night life.

If this proposal truly enhances "pedestrian character", i wonder why in the architect's rendering it appears to be best viewed from a vantage only seen by Palo Alto's high flying birds? I do not dispute that these birds would have an attractive view of this design; but will those pedestrians on the sidewalk feel the same appreciation or sense of attraction? Will they be compelled or invited inside? Or in truth, is this building merely provided to serve those lucky few who live on the 4th floor or work behind those glass panels on floors 2 &3? What happens inside the ground floor and for the Palo Alto's residents? Will we more and more look to Mountain View for our retail? An activated retail at street level is better for residents , commuters, day visitors, and ultimately for sales tax and even for property values/land owners.
Q I don't see a lot of people using the ground floor of Survey Monkey. Has it not yet opened for business?

15 people like this
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Apr 6, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Douglas Smith is making a fool of himself once again. Who appointed him to speak on behalf of all Palo Alto residents? I was surprised to see him referred to as an "Architectural Critic". I hope the Palo Alto Weekly isn't planning to hire him as Palo Alto's version of the Chronical's John King or the Mercury's Alan Hess.

It sounds like Douglas Smith is suffering from his own "Prince Charles complex".

I was even further surprised to see this article refer to him as an "Art Historian". Is he really an art historian? I knew he was a music teacher but didn't think he was an actual art historian. From the way Doug Smith has been conducting himself he sounds like the type of "art historian" that would curate a museum full of Thomas Kinkaides.

22 people like this
Posted by Citizen PA
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 6, 2015 at 1:35 pm

Yay - Thank you Doug Smith for being willing to stand up for residents and quality of life here! And thank you for showing others that we can.

I hope you are networking with others in town who care, too.

18 people like this
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Apr 6, 2015 at 1:39 pm

Good for Douglas Smith and Marci Lamb said all of it best. Ditto.

12 people like this
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 6, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Gethin is a registered user.

#1. No matter his credentials its only his opinion which he is entitled to but I am not under any obligation to pay any attention to and nor is anyone else
#2. What makes him worth describing as an Architecture Critic? Doesn't Palo Alto have about 60,000 of them? Anyone can a critic of anything, so what?
#3. I really like the design and look forward to seeing it built
#4. Some people just love the sound of their own voice but it can become very very tiresome

15 people like this
Posted by jane
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 6, 2015 at 3:51 pm

My understanding is that the planning department ignored code violations by counting an attic storage area as existing office space thereby doubling the permitted square footage of the replacement building. The existing tenant had put some desks up there for a couple of years, but under the existing building code it was just an attic. Too low and no fire escape. And the planning staff also waived parking requirements. Classic example of the planning department taking the easy way out and looking the other way.

11 people like this
Posted by Wasteful
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 6, 2015 at 4:05 pm

Jane - your understanding would be wrong. Look at the records...

What a colossal waste of time and community resources. This guy just won't take no for an answer. You gotta know when you're beat.

11 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 6, 2015 at 4:07 pm

Jane-- if you read the history of this development, you will see that the developer is providing MORE than the required parking spaces. That may sound strange, but the developer followed the rules regarding parking offsets. So saying that the planning staff waived parking requirements is not true.
What I find disturbing about smiths actions is that he giving the city an ultimatum-- redo the appeal and rule in my favor or I will sue. Who appointed smith as the person who determines what is "good" and " bad" architecture in the city. Personally, I think that the style that smith likes ( based on his survey) is an abomination. I think this building will go a long way to making downtown Palo Alto look better than it does now.

19 people like this
Posted by Save PA
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 6, 2015 at 6:56 pm

Thank you Doug Smith. The proposed building is hideous and won't stand the test of time. Hayes is no Birge Clark!!

12 people like this
Posted by Down with Hayes
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 6, 2015 at 7:01 pm

[Post removed.]

9 people like this
Posted by Howard
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 6, 2015 at 7:04 pm

I can take the building design or leave it, but the notion that a court should rule on it is absurd.

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 6, 2015 at 7:46 pm

My wife and I just got back from S.F. south of Market. Nothing but ugly glass boxes. Then again it is not our property. To each his own.

18 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 6, 2015 at 8:14 pm

I don't understand why the city keeps waving parking requirements in new buildings. Why do we need to pay for the city building new parking garages. We shouldn't have to subsidize the developers.

16 people like this
Posted by m2grs
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 6, 2015 at 9:43 pm

Silicon Valley is destroying itself in many ways. One is the Los-Angelization of the streets: bulky, monotonic buildings that maximize inner commercial spaces while sacrificing the external space, aesthetic appeal and variety.

12 people like this
Posted by m2grs
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 6, 2015 at 11:15 pm

An example of contrast between good taste and style vs. pure utilitarian is on El Camino Real intersection of Charleston/Arastradero. On one side is a row house built about 10 years ago that, while huge, still possesses elements of style and taste that can endure the test of time.

On the other side is the new Hilton Garden Inn, a humongous collection of flat blocks that embodies, IMO, nothing but pure commercialism. Minimal setbacks. Bland flat tops. Cheap stucco sides, cheap windows, etc. In twenty years time people will ask who allowed that eyesore be built?

5 people like this
Posted by Citizen PA
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 6, 2015 at 11:49 pm

Twenty years time? I think that EVERY time I pass.

2 people like this
Posted by Citizen PA
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 6, 2015 at 11:50 pm

Really, seriously, had we understood what was going there, that would have been the referendum.

Too bad you can't make people move those things. If I was the owner of the apartment building behind that, I'd be so p.o.'d.

6 people like this
Posted by jaa
a resident of University South
on Apr 6, 2015 at 11:58 pm

Good for you Doug Smith! Rock On!

9 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 7, 2015 at 5:58 am

mauricio is a registered user.

Downtown Palo Alto is desperately trying to look like downtown Houston, an exercise in tackiness and bad taste, and Palo Alto is morphing into a mini Los Angeles. Kudos to Douglas Smith for trying to stop this nonsense.

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