It's one of the tallest buildings in Palo Alto, though few would say it's one of its most welcoming.
A giant concrete slab that stands just north of the city's most congested intersection, the Brutalist building at 2600 El Camino Real looks like nothing around it.
The structure hulks over the Palo Alto/Stanford Soccer Fields to its south and a construction site to its north, where Stanford University is building a new housing complex.
Despite its prominent location near El Camino and Page Mill Road, few would ever refer to it as a landmark, much less a "gateway."
In fact, it seems to mock just about every major design guideline that many in Palo Alto holds dear. At 75 feet tall, it towers over the city's 50-foot height limit, having been built years before this "sacred cow" restriction was established.
In a town that worships stucco walls and red-tile roofs, its exterior is unapologetically mid-century modern and the top four stories resemble a colossal brick with punched windows balancing on the bottom two stories. And while ground-floor retail is generally the rule for mixed-use developments around town, the building forces patrons of its retail tenant, Fambrini's Cafe, to march up the stairs to the second story.
Now, plans are afoot to tear down the building and to redevelop the site to something deemed more appropriate. Exactly what that something would look like remains to be determined, though on Sept. 18 the city's Architectural Review Board launched the conversation with a preliminary review of the project plans.
The concept currently on the table calls for a new four-story building that would have the same density as the existing structure but would be more compatible with its neighbors.
At more than 62,616 square feet, the building would remain one of the tallest and most dense in the immediate area. But the developer, Sand Hill Property Company, wrote in a letter to the city that the new building would reflect "the goals of human-scale design along the El Camino Real corridor, which we believe should cater to the pedestrian; progressive transportation strategies in support of future tenants' use of alternate modes of transportation; and modern, sustainable design features that have come to be expected in Stanford Research Park and Palo Alto."
Though both the existing building and the proposed development far exceed the density requirements of the underlying "service commercial" (CS) zoning designation, the developer will be allowed to keep density at existing levels because of a provision in city code.
Sheldon Singh, a consulting planner with the city, said the building was constructed in 1966, before the city's height and density restrictions were put in place. City code allows new buildings to have the same floor-area ratio (a measurement of density) as the non-compliant buildings they are replacing, though no additional square footage can be added, Singh said.
Under the proposal from Sand Hill Property Company, the new building would still have about 55,000 square feet of office space and would retain the underground garage currently at the site, though it would also add a parking deck to the rear, creating 31 additional parking spaces.
The Architectural Review Board did not take any votes on the project during its Sept. 18 hearing, but board members did express some concerns about the proposed size of the new building and the ways in which it would relate to the three-story residential buildings next door.
No one disputed architect Cliff Chang's assessment of the existing building, which he called "an incredibly antiquated building in almost every aspect" and a great example of what to do "if you want to make the least expensive building the fastest."
"This could be Houston," Chang said. "A tower with a big parking lot around it, versus a building that starts to actually define space."
Under the proposed plans, the new building would feature a main lobby entry from El Camino, as well as a patio facing the main street. There would be a gym and lockers at the ground floor and exterior decks on upper floors. The architectural style would remain modern, with metal panels and stone columns. There would also be an outdoor gathering place near the main entrance to the building, according to a staff report.
The board, however, wasn't entirely sold on the need to grant the applicant a "design enhancement exemption" that would allow the building to exceed the maximum height by 2 feet. Chang said the request was made out of a desire to add two feet to the ground floor, to better accommodate financial office and retail uses.
Board member Kyu Kim said it's "difficult to say that the exception can be granted" and advised the applicant to "avoid height exceptions altogether" and "stay within zoning regulations."
Chair Robert Gooyer and board member Alexander Lew both agreed. Going beyond the 50-foot height in the current political climate would likely trigger a citizens appeal and force the issue to go to the council, Lew said.
"The 50-foot ceiling thing has a strong following in Palo Alto," he said. "People don't want to chip away at it."
Lew observed that the new building, while shorter than the existing one, will "stand out." He urged the applicant to pay more attention to making the development more compatible with neighboring properties.
"My issue is that somehow it needs to blend in with the lower buildings," Lew said. "If some of it pops up above, that's fine, but I don't want it to overwhelm all the rest of the smaller buildings around it."
Board member Wynne Furth was more skeptical and said she was disappointed with the lack of a planning process or any real collaboration between the city and Stanford for this central site. She suggested that the building include more retail space on the ground floor and a more "effective, attractive, useable open space." The proposed retail space, she said, "is too small to be effective."
Board members didn't express any sadness in seeing the existing building go, though Furth praised one of its features: a second-floor terrace that is currently being used by Fambrini's. Even so, Furth acknowledged that she wasn't even aware that the cafe existed before the new project surfaced.
"I've lived here for 17 years and I never knew it was there until I did a site visit," Furth said. "So clearly it doesn't engage the street and the public in the way it might."
Lew also said he was pleased to see the new plans emerge for the prominent site.
"This building is so big and non-conforming that I thought we'd be stuck with it forever," Lew said. "I'm actually happy to see this project."