With the clock ticking toward the deadline for new office developments in Palo Alto, two proposals by the same architecture firm are racing to complete their applications and become eligible for approval this year.
The larger of these, a proposal to demolish the Olive Garden restaurant and replace it with a three-story, mixed-use building at 2515-2585 El Camino Real, faces a particularly intense time crunch. The development proposed by Hayes Group faces a hearing in front of a Planning and Transportation Commission on March 10 and then a review by the Architectural Review Board on March 17. It will need to clear both hurdles to make the March 31 deadline that was established by the city's ordinance capping new office development.
The firm is also pursuing a separate project at 411-437 Lytton Ave., a 19,776-square-foot building with 13,360 square feet of commercial space and one residential unit. Because of its office space, this project is also subject to the 50,000-square-foot annual limit on total office development that the council approved last year. The Historic Resources Board is set to review this project on March 10.
The office cap, which applies to proposals downtown, around California Avenue and on El Camino Real, sets up a process in which office projects compete against each other for approval if they total 50,000 square feet or more. Because the Lytton Avenue project has been in the city's approval process since early 2015, it is considered a priority project and would thus get priority over other proposals in the pipeline. (There are two other priority projects, at 2747 Park Blvd. and at 3225 El Camino Real; collectively, the three projects total 37,604 square feet of office space.)
The redevelopment of the Olive Garden site, meanwhile, does not enjoy the priority status and, as a result, still faces a few significant hurdles. Even if it receives the needed votes of approval from the two city commissions in the weeks ahead, it may have to vie with at least one other project: 901 High St., a 20,288-square-foot project that includes 5,000 square feet of office space.
On Thursday morning, the city's Architectural Review Board indicated that its approval of 2515 El Camino -- which includes 13 condominiums, 10,122 square feet of retail and 9,835 square feet of office -- is far from certain. At a public hearing that featured no formal votes, the board gave the project a mixed review, with one board member indicating that he would oppose the design as currently proposed.
The board also lauded certain elements of the project, including a new plaza on Sherman Avenue, a proposed walkway through the site and the development's general conformance with the city's design guidelines for El Camino Real. The project also meets all the specifications of both the "neighborhood commercial" zone that comprises most of the project and the "community commercial" zone that makes up a small portion of one of the site's two parcels.
Board member Peter Baltay characterized the modern design as "good architecture" and praised the project for meeting the area's design guidelines. He also recommended to architect Ken Hayes that he modify the building's corner at El Camino and Grant Avenue to make it more interesting and distinct from the building's facade.
Board member Wynne Furth's biggest issues with the project had to with landscaping and how pedestrians relate to the site. Furth called the landscaping plan "too bright, too hard and insufficiently green" and suggested that the architect will have to make major changes to make the project compatible with the surrounding area. She suggested more landscaping along the sidewalk, near the building's El Camino frontage.
At the same time, Furth lauded the "wonderful plaza" proposed for the area near Sherman Avenue, saying that it "seems like a place where people would like to spend time."
She also joined her colleagues in praising the walkway proposed by Hayes Group Architects, which would connect Sherman and Grant avenues. She also said it's essential that the pedestrian walkway be "available, open and inviting" for the public.
Board member Alexander Lew, meanwhile, said he opposes the project. Lew agreed with Baltay that the architectural style of the proposed 40-foot-tall building is compatible with other developments in the area. Yet he also said that he opposes the development because of the length of its facade on El Camino and a residential component that "is too overwhelming for the block and doesn't really fit the urban pattern on El Camino."
"Your building is longer than any other building in the vicinity on El Camino Real and there's less modulation than in any of the other buildings in the vicinity," Lew told Hayes.
The building design also presented a problem for Chair Robert Gooyer, who recommended that some of the massing be shifted from the middle of the site to the corner so that the walkway would remain entirely open. Under the existing design, it stretches through the building's lobby, which would be locked during certain hours, making the path impassible.
"I'd like to approve it, but it's not there for me yet," Gooyer said.
Planning staff, for its part, concluded that the project is consistent with both the property's zoning and the area's context. A staff report for the project states that the design is pedestrian-friendly, with floor-to-ceiling storefront glazing, a recessed entry on Sherman Avenue and a colonnade along El Camino Real.