A proposal to build two Marriott hotels on the southern edge of Palo Alto got off to a shaky start Thursday morning, when residents from nearby properties panned the project in front of the city's Architectural Review Board.
The plan calls for merging two parcels on San Antonio, just east of Middlefield Road, and building a hotel complex that includes two separate five-story hotels that would be united by an interior court. The 49-foot-tall buildings would go up in an area near the Mountain View border that currently includes a mix of low-density commercial and residential uses.
The project at 744 and [748 San Antonio Road 748 San Antonio Road is still in its early phase and a formal application has yet to be submitted. The city's architectural board had its first look at the project in what's known as a "preliminary hearing," where board members give early feedback but do not vote on the project. The board also heard from numerous speakers who complained that the project is too massive, that it offers insufficient parking and that the two hotels would create a traffic nightmare in their neighborhood.
Board members, for their part, focused largely on the design of the two buildings. They also concluded, however, that the initial design leaves much to be desired. Some of the board's concerns mirrored those of the neighbors, with Vice Chair Robert Gooyer agreeing that the five-story building would be a "sore thumb" for neighboring properties.
"It could be a very nicely designed sore thumb, but it will be a sore thumb to the people around it," Gooyer.
Board Chair Randy Popp participated in the discussion from the opposite side of the dais. Popp, an architect, is a member of the development team that is looking to build the new hotels, a Courtyard by Marriott and an AC by Marriott. It fell to him to present the project to his board colleagues and solicit their comments for revisions.
Popp noted that placing the two buildings next to each other will create efficiencies by allowing them to share amenities, including valet parking. He also emphasized that having the two different hotels would bring some variety to the site and make for a more interesting experience. AC by Marriott brands itself as a hip, cosmopolitan and "ultramodern" destination, while Courtyard has a contemporary feel.
"Our intent is that the architecture is compatible and consistent, but the two buildings are different," Popp said.
Much of the opposition to the new hotels is coming from residents of Greenhouse and Greenhouse 2, two condominium complexes that are located near the site. Nancy Martin, a resident of Greenhouse since 1976, told the board that, in her opinion, "Everything is wrong with this plan." The two buildings are too large for a neighborhood where most of the other structures have one or two stories, she said.
"I think developers would love nothing more than to get their hands on our wonderful property so they can put 500 units in there, other than the 140 we have," Martin said.
She argued that the 235 parking spaces in the plan is insufficient for the two buildings that between them would have 301 rooms. She also complained about the hotels' design, likening them to "Soviet Bloc-era" buildings.
Alex Van Riesen, pastor at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, was part of a group of speakers who attended the meeting to voice concerns about the new hotels. His church currently rents space at 744 San Antonio.
Van Riesen argued that without a broader vision for the area in the southern portion of the city, approving large developments there is premature.
"Is there a plan for mixed-use development that involves local businesses, housing and a development like a hotel, which could be useful?" he asked. "I don't see an overall plan for that, and I don't see how that would fit into the plan. It seems like we're putting the cart before the horse."
Board members agreed that the new hotels would clash with the surrounding buildings and urged the applicant to refine the design. Board member Alex Lew observed that the project is "so completely different than the context."
"I'll have to look really hard at the project to find ways in which it's compatible with adjacent properties," Lew said.
Gooyer characterized the project as "a large box in an area that is either low-key commercial or residential." While the area is expected to ultimately get redeveloped and see an increase in density (Palo Alto's official housing-vision document, the Housing Element, includes both San Antonio parcels on its list of locations for future housing), most developments on the site today are modest in size and density.
"It's much tougher for someone to come into this area and do a first project in a new concept and try to make it fit," Gooyer said. "If you're the first one on the block to do it, that's great, but don't expect to max out everything and get it to work. You're going to get objections of the neighbors, and that's what's happening this morning."
Given the high standard, Gooyer urged Popp to spare no money in making this a first-class building.
"It really has to be an A1-plus example," Gooyer said.