To Elizabeth Wong, the building she's proposed for the prominent corner of University Avenue and Kipling Street is exactly what the city needs and precisely what Palo Alto's design guidelines seek to encourage: a modern and welcoming mixed-use development in the heart of downtown.
It follows all the zoning rules and respects the eclectic and diverse character of University Avenue, a collage of historical and modern buildings.
But several neighbors, the bare majority of the City Council and members of the city's Historical Resources Board don't quite see it that way. Earlier this year, the initial design for 429 University Ave. faced a citizen appeal from Michael Harbour, who argued that the building is too massive for the area and that it doesn't respect the largely Victorian and small-scale character of Kipling Street, where Harbour's office is located.
In May, the council voted 5-4 to approve the appeal and directed Wong to redesign the project to make it more compatible with the surrounding area.
On Nov. 30, the council will review the updated design for a project that has come to symbolize for many the broader political clash over downtown development, one pitting proponents of traditional architecture and slow-growth policies against those who prefer more urbanism and modernism in new buildings.
The glassy, 31,407-square-foot structure would replace two one-story buildings, including the shop that until recently housed Shady Lane, a popular purveyor of jewelry and figurines.
In addition to being one of the most prominent projects proposed for downtown, 429 University Ave. has also been one of the most divisive. On the council, the five members most closely associated with the slow-growth "residentialist" philosophy (Pat Burt, Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid) voted in May to send the project back for revisions, while those amenable to growth (Marc Berman, Liz Kniss, Greg Scharff and Cory Wolbach) favored approving the application as submitted.
The city's advisory bodies likewise reached different conclusions about the project, with the Architectural Review Board generally approving the proposed design and the Historic Resources Board raising alarms about the new building's impact on downtown's historic character and urging more analysis.
Since the council hearing in May, the Wongs have revised the design in hopes of minimizing the visual impact of the four-story building. Gone are the stone walls that in the initial design supported the terrace; and the overhang that framed the third floor revisions made to de-emphasize mass, verticality and height of the building.
The stone facade once envisioned for the third floor was moved to the second floor on both the University and Kipling sides, also to reduce the appearance of massing.
The new design also includes a new relationship with the street. In an attempt to make the four-story building look like a two-story building from street level, the third and fourth floors have been moved further back from the property line. Before, the two upper stories featured a modulated setback that ranged from 4 1/2 feet to 18 feet on the third floor and from 28 to 41 1/2 feet on the fourth floor. Now, the setback on the third floor is more uniform: a consistent 9 feet from University Avenue. The fourth-floor setback in the new design would range from 30.17 to 39.58 feet.
Not everyone, however, is excited about the change. The Architectural Review Board (ARB), which approved the initial design, was less enthusiastic about the new one. Though most board members generally agreed that the project continues to comply with downtown's design guidelines, some members said the changes have made the building "a lot blander than it was originally," in the words of board Chair Robert Gooyer. The revised design, he said, meets the setback requirements "almost to a fault."
"I think it works with the character of the buildings around it," Gooyer said during the ARB's review. "I mean, the reality of it is University Avenue is changing. Let's face it. A lot of the one- and two-story buildings that are there now are not going to be there."
Vice Chair Alexander Lew made the same point and lamented the removal of the stone elements from the building's facade. Something has been lost with the revised design, Lew said.
"The existing buildings, I mean most of them have railings, crenellations," Lew said. "They have more depth to their facades than this proposed project."
The Historical Resources Board, which focused on the building's compatibility with downtown's historical structures, took an even more critical stance. While the city's consultants and planning staff concurred that the proposed development would have no historical impact, under state law, the board argued that the analysis conducted to date was too limited.
Board member Beth Bunnenberg suggested expanding the study to consider a broader area and argued that the existing process "is not considering all of the cumulative impacts of this kind of building, this massing." The building in its present form, she said, is "very large."
"As we allow buildings to exceed the 50-foot height limit and they become extremely massive, we are setting the pattern and the cumulative effects will be felt all down the street that it's OK, you can take out these buildings and build something that is massive, that exceeds the height limit and it'll go through alright," she said.
Board member David Bower said the study area should be broadened at least to Cowper Street on the east and to Lytton Avenue to the north. Board Vice Chair Michael Makinen concurred and called the historical analysis "unduly limited."
"I would say that any historic buildings within eye sight of this should be included in the area of potential effect or the study area," Makinen said.
But after three years of work and countless studies and revisions, Elizabeth and Jamie Wong hope the Monday review will finally get them to the finish line.
In an interview with the Weekly, Elizabeth Wong emphasized that the project followed all the rules and that it seeks no exceptions. Beyond the normal requirements, there were also what she called "extraordinary analyses," including the historical-context study and the shadow analysis, all of which had been completed.
"From following the prescribed rules for use of Transferable Development Rights and the limitations on the floor-area ratio, to fully complying with the requirements for parking spaces, the Downtown Urban Design, and all other applicable laws, this project fully and completely fits with everything that the city requires and that the council has additional asked for," Elizabeth Wong said. "The City cannot fault us for delivering a project that meets all requirements, meets the scrutiny of professional consultants, the recommendations of the Architectural Review Board and the reviews of the planning and development staff."