The intense community dispute over a downtown development that is slated to go up at the former location of Shady Lane on University Avenue will soon be heading to the City Council for resolution.
Despite urgings from the project's developer, the council agreed on Monday night to schedule a public hearing to consider a citizen appeal of 429 University Ave., a project that has recently won the approval of the Architectural Review Board and the endorsement of the city's Planning Department.
In agreeing to consider the appeal on May 4, the council went against a staff recommendation and intense lobbying by the developer to let the approval stand.
Councilman Pat Burt, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and Councilman Eric Filseth all supported pulling the item from the council's "consent calendar," an action that requires support from three members. Without this action, the development would have been automatically approved.
The council made its decision after being flooded with letters from both sides of the dispute. Supporters of the projects argued that the applicants have already spent more than a year going through the planning process, revising the project's design and making sure it meets all code requirements. Opponents have maintained that the modernist building designed by Ken Hayes is incompatible with the Victorian-dominated block of Kipling Street, between University and Lytton avenues.
Elizabeth and Jaime Wong, who are trying to develop the property, insisted that they followed all the rules and that it's not fair for the city to add an unexpected hurdle at the end of the arduous process.
Jaime Wong asked the council to "do what's fair" and argued that it's not right for the city to tell him he cannot build a project that followed all the guidelines based on the caprice of a "disgruntled neighbor."
"I did what's right. I followed the rules. Now ... I urge the council to also do what's right and support the Architectural Review Board's and the director of planning's approval," Jaime Wong said.
The neighbor, Michael Harbour, took the opposite view. Harbour, who is appealing the project, thanked the council for considering his arguments and for "listening to the citizens who expressed lots of concerns."
Indeed, the huge packet of letters that the council received suggests that the dispute goes well beyond this particular project or Harbour's specific criticisms. Many letters supporting the appeal came from residents in other neighborhoods who have been persistent critics of recent development trends.
Elaine Meyer, who lives in the University South area, was one of those residents. In addressing the council Monday night, Meyer called the project at University Avenue "a poster child for everything that's wrong in our planning process.
"It offends and inconvenience its neighbors, it exacerbates the parking shortage, its style is incompatible with our main styles and it pushed out a beloved retail store, Shady Lane," Meyer said.
Ruth and Michael Lowy also urged the council to hear the appeal and not to let those who have been "destroying Palo Alto's building character and neighborhood over the past years ... to 'bulldoze' yet another downtown area with a massive building that will further destroy a pedestrian street and add to the parking problems."
Others disagreed and characterized the development as a well thought-out and thoroughly vetted proposal that would enrich downtown life.
David Kleiman, who is in the process of developing two modernist developments downtown, was in this camp.
"This project was carefully considered by the ARB (Architectural Review Board), and any further consideration of the project by the City Council would be a subversion of the ARB's process," Kleiman wrote in a letter. "The project is consistent with all Palo Alto codes, and it would be a welcome addition to University Avenue."
Attorney John Hanna also registered his disappointment at the council's decision to hear the appeal.
"This sends a very bad message," Hanna told the council. "Let's not kill the goose that laid the golden egg."
Both sides will have another chance to make their arguments on May 4, when the formal appeal hearing takes place.