Concerns about new buildings have been on the rise in recent years, with the development climate sizzling and the number of complaints about the look and feel of these new buildings on the rise. Citizen appeals of new developments have become common-place, with new mixed-use projects at 240 Hamilton Ave. (which withstood such an appeal) and 429 University Ave. (which did not) each facing heavy scrutiny and neighborhood opposition.
Yet public frustration about the quality of local architecture does not limit itself to downtown. In this year's National Citizen Survey only 49 percent of the respondents gave the city a "good" or "excellent" rating when asked about the quality of new development (in South Palo Alto, the share was 44 percent, while in North Palo Alto it was 54 percent).
Some council members share the public's frustration, with Councilwoman Karen Holman noting on Monday night that in many new buildings, "it looks like the architecture is almost an afterthought." Now, a movement is afoot to review the way new developments get approved, and add new criteria that must be met before a building is deemed "compatible" with the area and approved.
Under existing rules, the city's Architectural Review Board (ARB) is charged with scrutinizing the design of every major new development and deciding whether the proposal meets 16 different "findings," covering everything from the building's compatibility with the immediate environment to sustainability features and easy access for cars and pedestrians.
A new proposal, which the City Council debated Monday night, would reduce the number of findings from 16 to six by eliminating some of the redundancies on the existing list. It would also revise the language in some of the findings to emphasize the design linkages between the new building and existing structures; ensure that the new building is consistent with the city's various land-use plans; and promote landscaping that is compatible with the new project.
The goal of the revisions, according to staff, is to both simplify the review process and to promote projects of higher quality. As a new staff report notes, many of the existing findings address "recurring concepts and some are unnecessary because the City has updated the code to address the issue via regulatory requirements since the findings were established."
The six new findings cover much of the same ground as their predecessors but place a greater emphasis on sustainability (the subject of the sixth and final finding), and add more specificity about the types of features that make a project compatible with its surrounding area. The city's ARB has already recommended the changes and its Planning and Transportation Commission has also endorsed them.
The council, for its part, had some hesitation with the proposed language and proceeded to add new sentences, clauses and entire sections to the new list of findings. After all the additions, the list of findings remained at six, though it now includes language specifying that new buildings must maintain "visual unity of the street" through siting, scale, massing, materials, window sizes, door orientations and entryway placement.
The new findings also call for the project under review to have a "unified and coherent design that creates a sense of order"; high aesthetic quality; a "functional" design that allows easy access for bicyclists and pedestrians; a landscape design that is compatible with the area and that uses drought-resistant plants; and green-building features that promote "energy efficiency, water conservation, building materials, landscaping, site planning and sensible design."
The council voted 7-0, with Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilman Eric Filseth absent, to revise the findings and to send them to the ARB for another review. Once that happens, the council is expected to adopt them.
In discussing the revisions, Holman led the charge by proposing a list of findings loosely based on the one approved by the ARB but with far more details. In proposing changes, Holman focused largely on the new building's compatibility with both neighboring structures and the city's design guidelines. Her motion specified the various elements that should be considered in making a finding of compatibility, including placement of bays, entryways and windows.
Holman, a long-time proponent of reforming the city's architectural process, also wondered whether there is a way for the council to have a role in reviewing major new projects without the requirement of a citizen appeal.
"I go downtown and look at projects that I'm not aware of until I see the building and I'm sometimes a bit thunderstruck at how incompatible (it is)," Holman said.
Though the architectural board is already required to confirm the building's compatibility, its recommendations often clash with the public's perception (429 University Ave., which the board approved but the council subsequently sent back to the drawing board after a citizen appeal, is the most recent example).
Alexander Lew, the board's longest-serving member, said Monday night that while he has occasionally voted against projects that he felt weren't compatible with the surrounding areas, the board hasn't always been as diligent about rejecting a project solely because of this factor.
"It's difficult to get a majority vote against a project solely based on compatibility criteria," Lew said.
Bob Moss, a land-use watchdog and frequent critic of new developments, also faulted the board for not considering the entire area in which a new building is going up before ruling on compatibility. Moss said he was skeptical that the revisions proposed by the architectural board would remedy the situation.
"You can have a beautiful Bauhaus-style building that, by itself is lovely, but when you drop it down next to buildings that are Eichlers it's not compatible at all," Moss said.
While Holman's proposed revisions focused on compatibility, Mayor Pat Burt zeroed in on the landscaping requirements and proposed that new projects be required to have landscaping that "complements and enhances building design and its compatibility with its surroundings."
After his colleagues agreed to adopt the changes proposed by him and Holman, he expressed hope that the changes will improve the quality of new projects.
"This can have a significant effect on the evolution of our projects to being higher quality, more sustainable in a number of different ways and more compatible with surroundings," Burt said. "I think these are things that have been extremely important to the community."
Councilman Tom DuBois agreed, even as he noted that the council has added a substantial amount of language to the list of findings this despite the stated goal of cutting down the list and making it clearer and less redundant.
"We used to have 16 findings now we're down to six," DuBois said. "I think we actually took a strong step in the right direction."
Others were more cautious, including Councilman Cory Wolbach, who was generally pleased with the council's proposed changes, but recommended that staff and the architectural board review them before they become official.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss embraced this suggestion, noting that the new findings will require developers to hire consultants to navigate the additional requirements. Along with the rest of her colleagues, Kniss supported having another round of review before adopting the new findings.
"We're discussing something that will be around for a long time something that will be quite prescriptive," Kniss said.