Proposed Avenidas renovation criticized over clashing styles

Historic Resources Board calls for more compatibility between proposed addition and existing Bryant Street building

Hoping to accommodate Palo Alto's rapidly rising senior population, Avenidas is moving ahead with an ambitious plan to build an addition to its heavily used Bryant Street facility.

While no one disputes the need to create space to accommodate more senior classes and programs, the details of the new proposal faced scrutiny and some criticism last week from the city's Historic Resources Board, which was reviewing the project.

Though the board did not take any votes at its July 23 discussion, members voiced deep concerns about the impact that the modernist addition would have on the historic, Mediterranean-style building designed by Palo Alto's beloved architect, Birge Clark.

Avenidas is proposing to renovate the main two-story building at 450 Bryant St., which was constructed in 1927, and a one-story addition that was built in 1950. It would also demolish a 1978 addition and build a new three-story, 10,100-square-foot addition next to the main building.

At the July 23 meeting, the board struggled to reconcile the modernist design of the proposed addition with the traditional Spanish Colonial look of the existing building, which includes an arcade on the ground floor, stucco walls and a roof made of red tiles.

The board was by and large sympathetic toward the project, with several members acknowledging that they will probably be using the facility themselves before too long. Yet they also called for a number of revisions to the project's design and urged the project architect to create a better transition between the old and the new.

The city's planning staff had similar concerns in its own review, ultimately determining that the proposed addition would not be consistent with the Secretary of Interior's Standards for historical preservation. The proposal, as designed, "lacks transitional connection between the proposed new building and the historic buildings, which could allow the mass and bulk of the proposed new addition to overwhelm the historic buildings," planner Matthew Weintraub wrote in a staff report. Furthermore, the design calls for removal of the existing building's historic eaves and roof sections to accommodate the addition.

Board member David Bower argued that this removal is unacceptable, saying, "I'd not be able to support the project if it takes away the eaves on backside. This building is so perfect in its construction right now that to remove that fabric would damage it forever."

The board had some disagreements with planning staff about what material should be used on the new addition, with Weintraub suggesting that stucco could be a better choice because it would be more compatible with the Birge Clark building and Bower favoring a different material, like limestone.

"It is a stucco building but it is not characterized by the stucco facades," Bower said of the existing Avenidas building. "I'd differ from staff in suggesting that the new walls be stucco. I think that would be a horrible addition to this particular building."

Other board members had different concerns. Martin Bernstein suggested that the addition be lowered by about two feet while Beth Bunnenberg wondered if it would possible to preserve the 1970s addition that is slated for demolition.

Margaret Wimmer said the addition of a "modern tower" would be "a departure from what's existing there."

"I think we have to make a choice about what's the most important thing," Wimmer said. "Is it the historic building, which I feel is the most important thing. I understand the needs of the building and the needs for more square footage. I think that that can still be achieved with a heck of a lot more sensitivity that I see here."

The most heated criticism came from Richard Elmore, an architect and member of Avenidas who attended the meeting to voice his own displeasure about the modernist addition, which he called "totally inappropriate" and "grossly incompatible with the existing Mediterranean style."

"You should not allow this modernist fungus to attach itself to this beautiful Mediterranean building," Elmore told the board.

Last week's discussion was a "preliminary review," a type of hearing in which the board gives early feedback on a project but does not take any votes. Kevin Jones, partner at Mountain View-based architecture firm Kenneth Rodrigues & Partners, said the design team continues to be "very positive" about the project.

"We're taking comments we're hearing from all different viewpoints and trying to insert them into something that's cohesive," Jones said.

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36 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 28, 2015 at 8:33 am

I agree with many of the concerns expressed by staff the HRB and Richard Elmore.

I wonder if Avenidas considered having another location in palo alto to expand their well needed services….south Palo alto would be a great location. There could be an opportunity to provide easier access for many seniors and it would probably be less expensive for a non-profit to renovate/build there.

Extra benefits would be NOT contributing to the congestion and parking deficit downtown, and retaining the integrity of the historic structure which belongs to Palo Alto, not Avenidas.

37 people like this
Posted by Agree
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 28, 2015 at 9:51 am

100% agree. The proposed building is way too modern, sterile and cold. The Mediterranean-style office building on the corner or Bryant and Lytton could be a model for the new Avenidas building.

29 people like this
Posted by Future Avenidas User
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2015 at 10:50 am

What is the process for a design to be brought before the Historic Resources Board? Anyone who
files an application?

It's obvious that the Kenneth Rodrigues and Partners firm does not understand the concept of the historical preservation. It's quite possible that someone(s) within the Avenidas hierarchy encouraged them, thinking that modern is just what Avenidas needs. Forget Birge Clark. One needs to know a bit of history of Palo Alto to
appreciate his designs. Possibly, the younger leadership of Avenidas may not understand the history. It is just a guess on my part. No hard facts.

The fact that the firm did not do its homework, indicates that they are NOT the firm to go ahead with
this project that is critical to the downtown's overall design.

Get another firm. There are many out there that would understand what historical preservation means.


33 people like this
Posted by Gail
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 28, 2015 at 10:54 am

Ghastly proposed addition. The addition should respect the existing elegant Spanish style building. Shame on the senior center.

Like this comment
Posted by Frank Lloyd wright
a resident of another community
on Jul 28, 2015 at 10:58 am

Just tear dOwn the Birge Clark designed eyesore and put up a modern, nice looking building.

32 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2015 at 11:32 am

Who or what is paying for this hideous remodel?

Rather than interrupt senior services for the next few years, why not open a new centrally located facility with parking?

26 people like this
Posted by Concerned Retiree
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 28, 2015 at 12:21 pm

This proposed design wouldn't even blend well if it were a separate structure. That it is a proposed addition, meant to compliment and be part of beautiful old building -- it's preposterous. Using legos for the addition would look better.

Please consider alternatives to the Rodriquez Firm.

16 people like this
Posted by who is architect?
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 28, 2015 at 12:23 pm

The architect is experienced with huge, mega-sized developments. Odd choice by Avenidas for a historic building.
Web Link

9 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 28, 2015 at 12:38 pm

It has to be ugly, gang, or the Architectural Review Board will flunk it and our seniors will have to make do with what is there.

17 people like this
Posted by no double standard
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2015 at 12:41 pm

This project as proposed would set new boundaries even in Palo Alto for what can be done, but the sudden concern about context, compatibility, design, scale,mass,bulk,texture, along with historic preservation,is so welcome after what has taken place here the last 15 years as the private sector has been given a free pass by the City. This is a public project so based on past experience this looks like an easy double standard being applied especially by the staff which has signed off on everything that has
happened in this City. So let's redo this project,and make this a defining moment in Palo Alto and move forward with no double standard, and a new
consciouness and resolve about what needs to be done in the Comp Plan, the zoning code, ARB review, and Single-Family Individual Review process.
No double standard.

30 people like this
Posted by Anciana
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 28, 2015 at 12:46 pm

What a hideous excrescence! I'm a member of Avenidas and was planning to make a gift toward the expansion, but that mess is so ugly that I won't give for the purpose. I like the idea of having a second senior center in South Palo Alto. Great idea!

10 people like this
Posted by Dennis
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 28, 2015 at 12:57 pm

Parking hawks should check out the image of the proposed addition. Do my eyes deceive me or is the plan going to eliminate several parking spaces? Maybe the drawing is simply a quick sketch and the spaces are in the actual plans.

20 people like this
Posted by LaNell Mimmack
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 28, 2015 at 2:31 pm

Eaton, Colorado just remodeled it's historic library. It is beautiful and
was done in the same style as the historic (1900) one. It is amazing that
Palo Alto is so unable to build a beautiful addition to a wonderful old building.

6 people like this
Posted by Mike-Crescent Park
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 28, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Mike-Crescent Park is a registered user.

But this should make members of Palo Alto Forward happy. Clinging to the past is not a preferred direction for them.

17 people like this
Posted by Jean
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 28, 2015 at 2:56 pm

Absolutely atrocious design. I won't give a dime toward this. And I agree it is time to get Avenidas OUT of downtown. There are continuing transient problems and also transportation problems for attendees, to say the least.
I'd rather go to the Senior Center in Mt.View than go downtown - and now I rarely go at all to downtown PA. Computer classes, etc are in the basement. When the fire alarm goes off for drill or accidentally, handicapped seniors can't get up those steps if the elevator doesn't work . Go for lunch? Go with a group who speaks your language. Otherwise you may probably be seated at a table where no one speaks to you. Been there - done that. Don't go anymore. Hostess seems insensitive to this issue.

11 people like this
Posted by south Palo Alto
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2015 at 3:25 pm

Since Palo Altans like their facts before moving ahead (well, most of the time) why not find out where senior
citizens live in the city. I'll bet that the majority - or close to a majority - live south of Oregon Expressway.

Build a second center south of the Expressway. I agree with all the remarks about the interior of the current
building and how it does not accommodate seniors, especially the computer classes in the basement. I've taken them.
A new, or second, building should better accommodate seniors with limitations. Duh. Or, perhaps they just don't
use Avenidas. And, senior lunch at Cubberley just doesn't equate to a fully functioning Avenidas in southern Palo Alto.

15 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 28, 2015 at 3:41 pm

For the Historic Resources Board to express reservations, well, that is a breath of fresh air.

Let's hope they stick to their guns and just say "no" when it comes time to vote.

12 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 28, 2015 at 3:57 pm

I think the planning process is backwards in Palo Alto.

Avenidas has been working on the remodel in the past year. They must have spent a lot of money having an architectural design developed. That must have been done without first having the Historical Commission give guidelines or providing them with a sketch of the design without spending thousands.

This reminds me of a modern project on University recently reviewed by the City Council - many residents disliked the building and the Council asked that numerous changes be made. That was done AFTER the ARB and Planning staff approved it.

The cart before the horse? It costs developers and the city thousands of wasted dollars!

The City should revise the planning process, with resident input, so we don't waste time and none in the future. Residents also should be able to comment on proposed building/structure designs at the beginning of the planning process.

20 people like this
Posted by jimmyjoe
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 28, 2015 at 4:24 pm

Design seems to insult Birge Clark. Is there an architect somewhere who can design a compatible addition? Not a hideous box. And paying the city instead of fixing the parking problem is also an insult to seniors. I hope this design goes not further.

11 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Grandma
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 28, 2015 at 4:32 pm

Just out of curiosity, what is wrong with building an addition in the style of the present Birge Clark structure? Why does everything that is being built in PA these days have to be highly unattractive boxes of cement or of cement and glass? The Art League turned a charming building into an ugly one in their remodel. Why is that progress? And why would adding an ugly addition to the attractive Avenidas building be progress?

15 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 28, 2015 at 5:07 pm

Marie is a registered user.

As a member of Avenidas and a supporter of their programs, I was shocked at the proposed addition, which is so out of character with the original Birge Clark Building. I hope they will take the comments of the HRB to heart, and come up with a much better design for their addition that is compatible with the existing building.

6 people like this
Posted by Annie's Biped
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 28, 2015 at 10:57 pm

But is Avenidas paying attention to these comments?

4 people like this
Posted by who is architect?
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 28, 2015 at 11:23 pm

I would assume so. But this might encourage them to do so.

Avenidas Board of Directors (2014-2015)
Bruce Heister, Chair
James P. Phillips, Vice Chair
Bern Beecham, Treasurer
Barbara Krimsky Binder, Secretary
Loren Brown
Mike Couch
Bill Friedman
Nancy Goldcamp
Nancy McGaraghan
Eliane Neukermans
Deborah Radin
Carol S. Roberts
Paul Roskoph
Jerome B. Spector
Anne Taylor
Sylvie Way

Like this comment
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 29, 2015 at 10:06 am

I don't understand why everyone is so upset with the design. No one had problems with tearing down the old Mitchell Park library with it's stucco design and replacing it with a modern monster that looks so out of place.

Why do people only get excited about what happens north of Oregon Expressway and feel that anyone can build anything they want in South Palo Alto.

Get over it, Birge Clark is dead and the stucco and clay tile design is long gone. If you wanted to manage the look of downtown you are 50 years too late.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2015 at 10:48 am

I for one was very much against tearing down the old Mitchell park library rather than just a good remodel and was very vocal. Unfortunately the pta was too clever at hoodwinking the voters.

3 people like this
Posted by no double standard
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2015 at 10:57 am

Yes, it is very late in the game. We have The Cheesecake Factory on University Ave approved more than ten years ago and the huge modern office building directly behind the Birge Clark columns at 323 University both of which sailed right through the ARB/staff review, among a long list of
bad projects.

5 people like this
Posted by Future Avenidas User
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2015 at 3:32 pm

I have typed out a page -long letter to ALL of the board members at Avenidas
and will hand deliver them to Avenidas tomorrow.

If you want a copy of the letter (modify it for your purposes) that you want to mail or hand carry to Avenidas, email me at Hurry, b/c we leave for abroad this Saturday. 8-1-15

My particular point was that probably at least 50%, if not more, Palo Altans live south of Oregon E., and 95% live
independently in homes or apartments. Downtown has Webster House, Channing House, and Lytton Gardens all of whom do not need Avenidas. Why on earth can there NOT be a fully functioning branch south of
Oregon. Or, better yet, move Avenidas south. And, senior-sponsored lunch at Cubberley doesn't count, folks.

6 people like this
Posted by who is architect?
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 29, 2015 at 3:41 pm

A great many people were against tearing down that nice Mitchell Park library but some fancy folk who lived nearby didn't think it was fancy enough. So instead of adding on and updating the structure, they destroyed it. The Library Foundation was very influential.
I used to go to that library very often but don't anymore. The bloated, oversized, soulless, building is uninviting. Doesn't look like a library and doesn't feel like one.
When I drive by and see its vacuous sculpture on Middlefield, I marvel at the combination of no-taste and too much money that now dominates our construction. As though modern = big and vacuous.

I remember the then-Library Director lining the inside walk-through with tall bookcases parallel to the path, jammed with books, giving the impression of terrible overcrowding. The manipulation was evident.
I hope the Senior Center has better taste and judgement. So far not in evidence.

5 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2015 at 4:46 pm

We don't need another Apple store clone on university avenue. Most seniors I've spoken with feel a huge glass box on a mission revival style architecture looks ridiculous.

4 people like this
Posted by The Careys
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 31, 2015 at 9:30 am

Was there any effort or consideration given to matching the architectural style of the existing building? Given the level of protest, this project is not going to make Palo Alto's Happiness Map.

4 people like this
Posted by Richard Adler
a resident of another community
on Aug 2, 2015 at 8:29 pm

The existing Avenidas building is a wonderful historical structure, but it was built in a different time (1927) and for a different purpose (housing the city's police and fire departments). It has been retrofitted for use as a senior center, but the space is not ideal for this purpose.

Because the building is historically protected, the main structure will be preserved. But an addition can and should be designed according to the best contemporary standards in order to serve the needs of the next generation of older adults in the community. There is a well-established practice that has been used in many locations to build additions that do not merely to try to duplicate existing historical architecture but to be compatible with it.

Rather than attempting to match the style of the existing building, guidelines developed by preservationists call for
"planning the new addition in a manner that provides some 
differentiation in material, color, and detailing so that the new
work does not appear to be part of the historic building. The 
character of the historic resource should be identifiable after the 
addition is constructed."

There are many examples of historically significant buildings in the U.S. and abroad that follow this guideline, where the original structure remains intact but is joined with a new contemporary addition. A few examples:
The Morgan Library and Museum, New York
Grand Rapids Public Library, Michigan
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio
St. James Cathedral Parish House in Toronto
Tulane School of Architecture, Louisiana
Royal Opera House, London

Like this comment
Posted by South of Page Mill
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 3, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Avenidas, as now located, has a sure clientele : the several retirement facilities around Lytton avenue at Middlefield.
Avenidas uses also, intermittently, the very old Cubberley Center in the South East part of the city. Not prestigious, but practical.... as long as Cubberley is available and standing, that is.
So the Southern part of the City would certainly benefit from new facilities, or facilities located in a more central part of Palo Alto ; but move and rent are expensive.
As for the debate new vs historical architecture : a better blend would be desirable.
Are we all paying for the different phases and studies of this project ?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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