Randy Popp, chair of Palo Alto's influential and occasionally embattled Architectural Review Board (ARB), resigned from the board Friday, citing concerns about how his dual role as an applicant to the board and as its chair may be perceived.
Popp, a local architect, is part of a development team that is designing the two Marriott complexes at 744-748 San Antonio Road. On June 4, he presented the project to his board colleagues at a preliminary hearing and was instructed to make significant revisions to the design to make it fit better with the surrounding area.
Though a situation in which a board member is also an applicant is by no means unprecedented, Popp said he decided that balancing the two roles in this case would be extremely difficult. In a resignation letter submitted Friday, Popp noted that as a sole practitioner, it would be possible for him to proceed with both the project and his board position without violating the California Fair Political Practices Regulations. Yet he also wrote that "some may incorrectly perceive my role on the ARB as being unfairly influential toward the project outcome."
"This perception would severely limit my effectiveness as an architectural professional," Popp wrote.
While law would permit conducting conversations with city staff, which would be considered ministerial in nature, Popp would be limited by a clause that prohibits him from raising or questioning an interpretation or making an attempt "to persuade the agency in making a determination relative to the project."
"While I do feel this limitation would be manageable, it is out of an abundance of caution, concern and a respect for public perception that I am choosing to step down from the Board," Popp wrote. "Unfortunately, I am in a position where I must prioritize my work over my volunteer activities. I wish it were otherwise."
Though other board members have in the past served as applicants on projects (Historic Resources Board members Roger Kohler and Margaret Wimmer each had a project go in front of the historic board in recent weeks), Popp said the clause limiting his involvement would make it difficult for him to hold both roles. Public perception is also a major issue, he added.
"My concern is that people might anticipate or assume something different from what is happening," Popp said. "Not everyone can be in the room. There might be a public concern about whether or not that would be managed appropriately.
"My reputation and my ethical approach are paramount," he added. "It's how I conduct my business."
Popp told the Weekly that he discussed the possible perception issues about his dual roles with city staff in recent weeks. And over the past few days, he received a broadly circulated message about his involvement with the Marriott project.
Sheri Furman, president of the umbrella organization Palo Alto Neighborhoods, also brought up the issue at a June 9 meeting of the council's Policy and Services Committee. The organization's board, she said, is concerned about the appropriateness of a board member representing an applicant before the board. She asked the council committee to consider the appropriateness of active board and commission members.
"While this person obviously will not participate in the discussion of the application, many of us feel that a person who is a board member will have an undue, even if unintentional, impact on other members," Furman said.
Popp's resignation leaves the Architectural Review Board short-handed once again. The normally five-member board had four members since February, when Catherine Ballantyne resigned. The council on June 8 appointed Wynne Furth to the open seat. Furth participated in her first meeting last week.
The small roster has at times posed a challenge. When Popp presented his project earlier this month (before Furth was appointed), only two members, Robert Gooyer and Alex Lew, were able to participate. The other member of the board, Kyu Kim, recused himself because he had worked with Popp in the past.
Popp, who was appointed to the board in 2012, is also its second longest-serving member, behind only Lew.
In his resignation letter, Popp raised concerns about possible long-term effects that the perceptions of impropriety -- and responses to these perceptions -- may mean for the board.
"Finding an applicant who cares for Palo Alto, who has the training and experience necessary to evaluate detailed and complex design applications and at the same time is willing to limit their work to projects not within Palo Alto in order to avoid the conflict I am confronted by, may prove challenging."