Located at the doorstep of the sprawling and bustling Stanford Research Park, Hotel Parmani keeps a decidedly low profile.
Built in 1948, before the city's primary innovation zone was established, Parmani is a two-story, 36-room hotel with a surface parking lot. Now, a plan is under way to demolish the building at El Camino Real and Hansen Way and construct the sort of development that has become increasingly common in recent years: a four-story, 93-room hotel with two levels of underground parking.
Yatin Patel, whose family has owned the hotel for the past 30 years, told the City Council on Monday that the family embarked on a journey early last year "to replace the mid-century hotel with a product that more closely matches the demands of today's travelers, particularly given our proximity to the Stanford Research Park."
There's just one problem: an old law that was enacted after the hotel was constructed that requires a 50-foot "special setback" on Hansen Way. Neither the property owner nor the city's planning staff could say with any certainty exactly why the rule was implemented for this part of the city in 1959.
The current Hotel Parmani does not conform to this rule (it intrudes into the setback zone by 18 feet); neither do the buildings on the adjacent site (some of which intrude 14 feet into the zone). The new hotel, however, would have to follow the rule.
Unless of course, the City Council either grants the applicant an exception or agrees to scrap the 50-foot rule altogether. On Monday night, the applicants made a case for why the new hotel should be allowed to intrude into the forbidden zone to a council that was only mildly receptive to the arguments. The council didn't take any votes in the "pre-screening" hearing, which was intended to offer early feedback and help the applicants decide whether and how to proceed with the application.
Randy Popp, a local architect who is on the applicant team, called the rule "archaic" and said the site would be "virtually undevelopable" if the setback remains in place. The site, which is in the service commercial (CS) zone, is very different from the lots in the adjacent research park (RP) zone. The research zone, Popp said, requires lots to have a minimum zone of 5 acres (the Parmani site is 0.6 acres). If applied, it would leave the hotel with less room that he has available across the width of his single-family parcel, Popp said.
"The first thing we want to understand is how much of a site we have the ability to use," Popp said. "That will determine whether we will be going with this project."
Rather than offer a firm answer, the council responded to the request with a wide range of comments, largely corresponding to their philosophical leanings on the subject of development.
Councilman Greg Scharff was open to scrapping the setback rule, though he strongly favored actually changing the law rather than granting a variance. Scharff said he would support having a broader policy discussion about what the setback in this area should be.
"It doesn't seem to make sense to have the 50-foot setback," Scharff said. "From a policy perspective, why wouldn't we just get rid of the 50-foot setback along Hansen Way? If this came before us today, should we be imposing a 50-foot setback or not?"
Councilman Cory Wolbach, like Scharff, also favored a "legislative solution" (zone change) over a variance, though he said he is still undecided about whether one should be pursued.
Councilman Marc Berman likewise said he was ambivalent about the proposal, though he also made a case for why an exception is warranted.
"Every other site on Hansen Way is hundreds of feet deep, therefore it's a lot easier to have wider setback and not impact the usage of the parcel," Berman said. "This site is long and narrow, with the long side on Hansen. So there is not a lot that you can do."
Berman also argued that the site should be evaluated based on present circumstances rather than the council's rationale 50 years ago.
But others were less gung-ho about messing with the existing zoning. Councilwoman Karen Holman argued that the establishment of the setback was not an "accident" but a "conscious decision to continue this as part of a thoroughfare or boulevard."
Holman also said she has a hard time considering this issue without also evaluating the density of the proposed building (a conversation that the applicants didn't want to have Monday because the building's design would depend in large part on the setback decision). She also cited concerns from the community about new buildings being "unsympathetic" with adjacent properties and offered her own thoughts on new developments.
"I'm pretty tired of us just redeveloping everything, as opposed to adaptive reuse," Holman said. "It's not green to just tear down everything and build new. It doesn't consider what the material, manufacture and transport of energy it takes to build new buildings and it's not a very creative, in my way of thinking."
Councilmen Eric Filseth and Tom DuBois, who like Holman are affiliated with the council's slow-growth "residentialist" wing, agreed that it's tough to make a decision on the setback without considering the broader issues surrounding height and density. Mayor Pat Burt concurred and said his support for a variance or a zone change would depend on the scale and the massing of the building.
DuBois said he would oppose a "hard corner" at this site and recommended that the applicant consider more landscaping, though he didn't rule out reducing the required setback. The Research Park has a "campus feel" and the new project should respect the park setting.
Filseth was more cautious about changing zoning and said that the city should, in general, "try really hard to minimize the number of variances and spot zoning we have." These requests, he said, require a large amount of staff time and they change property owner's expectations about their sites.
"Each time we do one of these things, it basically opens the door for the person who owns the property next door to come to us and ask for the same thing," Filseth said.