Two months after it seemingly secured the city's approval, a divisive four-story development proposed for the former site of Shady Lane on University Avenue found itself back in planning purgatory Tuesday morning.
Following an exhaustive discussion, a split Palo Alto City Council sided with appellant Michael Harbour and dealt a heavy bureaucratic blow to the mixed-use building planned for 429 University Ave. While the council did not outright support Harbour's appeal or explicitly reject the project, it effectively ordered the project be redesigned, downsized and thoroughly re-reviewed.
The council's 5-4 vote followed the political division from last November's election, with the five candidates most closely identified with the slow-growth "residentialist" philosophy making up the bare majority. While in recent weeks, the council took unanimous stances on limiting office development and protecting ground-floor retail, the old fissure resurfaced on Monday.
Mayor Karen Holman and Councilman Pat Burt, both former planning commissioners, led the charge in crafting a motion that was so long and wide-ranging that it took up two printed pages and would not fit on the overhead projector in the Council Chambers.
At one point, with the clock ticking toward midnight, the council paused its meeting so that the deputy city clerk could go upstairs and make printed copies for council members to read before the vote.
Burt, Holman, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth all agreed that the proposed 31,407-square-foot building is too dense and too massive for its location.
"This motion would intend to have a building that would have less mass and scale -- by implication, a smaller building -- and have certain design changes that would make it more compatible," Burt said as he introduced the motion.
The dissenters, Marc Berman, Liz Kniss, Greg Scharff and Cory Wolbach, supported a separate proposal that would have required further analysis but that stopped well short of requiring the types of broad design revisions that the majority favored.
The City Council didn't explicitly deny the project. Rather, it continued its appeal hearing but required the project to undergo new reviews by the Historical Resources Board and the Architectural Review Board. The council's motion also included a catalog of issues each board should focus on.
The historic board will be asked to pay particular attention to the modernist building's impact on the largely Victorian block on Kipling Street. It will consider whether the mass and scale of the project would have an impact on existing historic properties, discuss the project's "area of potential effect," and consider whether there should be other "historic considerations" given to the approval.
The Architectural Review Board, which reviewed the project five times before voting unanimously to support it in February, will have a trickier task. Having already determined that the project is compatible with the surrounding area, the board will now be asked to consider the council's concerns about the project's purported incompatibility.
The architecture board's approval in February was quickly followed by a green light from the Planning Department. Normally, this would mean the end of the planning process, but because of Harbour's appeal, the project ended up going to the council.
The question of the project's compatibility was at the heart of Harbour's appeal and of Monday's debate. In the appeal, Harbour likens the building's angular design to a "parking garage." The problem is particularly severe on Kipling Street, he argued, which is narrow and dominated by Victorian buildings.
"The side and rear of the proposed building along Kipling Street is overly tall, massive and architecturally dissimilar to be remotely consistent with the existing one and two story Victorian or Spanish Colonial structures on Kipling Street," the appeal states.
Harbour elaborated during his presentation Monday.
"This design is simply not compatible," he said. "There are no shared characteristics or design linkages with neighboring buildings. ... This is a colossal building being proposed on the narrowest street in downtown Palo Alto."
But the architecture board, project architect Ken Hayes, and the project's supporters all argued that downtown has plenty of tall buildings (this one would be 50-feet tall) and a wide range of styles. Hayes cited Palo Alto's "eclecticism" as one of the city's defining positive traits.
"Palo Alto is recognized worldwide for its entrepreneurial environment, its innovation, its technology, its position on environmental concerns and sustainability," Hayes told the council. "Our architecture should be part of this forward thinking, not stuck in the past."
The development had its share of supporters at Monday's hearing. Brad Ehikian of Premier Properties made a pitch for diversity in architecture and suggested that 50 years from now people might talk about Ken Hayes the way they currently talk about Birge Clark.
"Why are we trying to recreate styles of the past? Why don't we celebrate the designs of the future and the designs that challenge the status quo?" Ehikian said.
But the project drew heavy fire from neighborhood leaders and land-use watchdogs, including members of the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning. While one supporter of 429 University Ave. analogized the building's forward-thinking design to the Transamerica Pyramid, one opponent likened it to a Soviet factory from 40 years ago.
Randy Popp, chair of the architecture board, noted that the design of the proposed development had evolved significantly over the two-year review process. Ultimately, after much debate, the architecture board agreed that the changes went far enough to warrant a finding of compatibility. Planning staff also confirmed that in approving projects, the department generally takes into heavy consideration how much the project had changed over the process.
Filseth took issue with this logic and suggested that staff is applying the wrong criteria. The findings shouldn't consider what the project plans looked like in the past but on whether they are compatible with the surroundings, he said.
To drive the point home, the council majority supplied the architecture board with a laundry list of issues they should now reconsider in determining compatibility. The overriding focus was on making the building smaller and more like its neighbors. The board was directed, for example, to focus on street building facades and return with "greater reinforcement of the relationship of the street with building mass."
"The upper floors need to have setbacks to fit in with the context of the neighborhood," the motion crafted by Burt and Holman stated. "Specifically, the look and feel from the street should be of a look and feel compatible with adjacent buildings, with the option of a third or fourth floor provided they are visually compatible from the street, requiring articulation or set-backs."
The council also requested a circulation analysis, a study of shadow patterns and "design linkages" between the new development and the "overall pattern of building" in the area.
The council's decision creates a potentially steep hurdle for the project, which included ground-floor retail, offices on the second floor and apartments on the third and fourth floors. The design also included an underground garage.
Yet critics were concerned that the new development would worsen downtown's already considerable parking problems. The project relies on various zoning exemptions, -- including a provision that allows developers to purchase entitlements in exchange for rehabilitation of seismic properties -- to reduce its parking requirement from 92 to 35 spaces. The development would have provided 40.
For many residents, that was far from good enough. Norm Beamer, speaking on behalf of the umbrella association Palo Alto Neighborhoods, cited the parking impact of the project as a reason for why the group supports Harbour's appeal.
"It's high time to eliminate the exceptions," Beamer said. "These exceptions make no sense given the crisis of inadequate parking in the downtown area."
Greg Schmid agreed that parking is a critical issue that should be addressed. But most of his colleagues were primarily concerned with building's size and design.
"It's completely striking how massive and out of scale this building is," DuBois said during the discussion.
The long discussion proved exasperating for applicant Elizabeth Wong, who after a long journey through the Palo Alto process suddenly found herself back at the drawing board.
She called the city's actions a "waste of time." Two years ago, when she began working on the project, she had offered to reduce her development's size by taking out the residential component or the underground parking garage but was deterred by staff, Wong said.
Furthermore, her team already made numerous revisions to the design to address concerns from neighbors and architectural board members.
"Your ARB did not fulfill their obligations," Wong told the council. "Your city did not fulfill its obligation. There is no guidance for a person who wants to do a building in the city.
"They would proceed but they are afraid that they could come back and be faced with this," she said, pointing to the long motion on the screen. "Maybe, they should come back in two years, after a new election, with a new set of people."