News

Palo Alto eyes new rules to promote architectural harmony

City Council supports revisions to 'findings' that must be met for new developments to win green light

From office buildings derided as "glass boxes" to a multi-family complex panned as a "fortress," examples abound of new developments that provoke ire in Palo Alto's citizen critics.

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.

Comments

31 people like this
Posted by Mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 12, 2016 at 10:23 am

Oh, dear. Are we forever slated to have only pink stucco with red tile roofs because that's what Birge Clark liked? I love the new modern styles. Let the city change and evolve and have variety from one building to the next. Each new development should be able to have its own character regardless of what's next door. That old building will probably just be torn down anyway next year


16 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2016 at 11:34 am

Is this going to be another pick and choose, where the city only requires buildings to "fit in" in the rich part of town?

People keep getting all upset about the new architecture downtown but when they inflict us with the Mitchell Park Library, they call it an architectural success. Explain to me how it fits into the stucco and tile roof building it replaced? Explain to me how it fits into the residential community it neighbors. Even better, explain to me the screwed up parking lot layout.

The only time the city cares about how buildings look is when it affects the rich part of town. Otherwise the rest of the city can look like crap.

The city didn't rip down the old main library and put up an ugly building. Nor the children's library. For the rich part of town they make the effort to keep the existing look of the buildings. But in South Palo Alto we can get any ugly building they can build.

/marc




16 people like this
Posted by Really!!??
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 12, 2016 at 11:44 am

"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."

With her almost perfect record of voting 'NO' on every development project she sees at Council I often wonder what Holman actually wants. Her goal of creating a city stuck in 1950 is not my vision of what Palo Alto should be. I love the variety and welcome the increased density to focus use near demand. Needing to be contextual makes sense when the context is valuable but where the adjacent structures are old and inefficient we should be striving for the best land use we can achieve - new buildings should be leading, not following.


23 people like this
Posted by homeowner
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 12, 2016 at 11:47 am

Modern clean lines, yes.

Orange County stucco, yawn.


52 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2016 at 12:28 pm

I wish the ARB would do a better job of rejecting projects that are dangerous or truly ugly. Recent examples of dangerous are the San Antonio shopping center or the shopping plaza on Alma Street that have narrow sidewalks and crosswalks adjacent to blind corners. A recent example of truly ugly is the JCC building with huge concrete walls that looks more like a jail than a facility for children.

I really do not care about adjacent buildings having matching colors. Variety is the spice of life.


16 people like this
Posted by Two actors
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Councilman Berman made his usual vacuous remarks, "I'm not an architect," and he doesn't want to make decisions "on the fly." So as usual he hasn't learned much despite being on the council since January 2013. He referred to this not being his expertise.
So, what is his expertise?

Councilman Wolbach really likes the motion. Then smiling, he throws a money wrench into it. Standard Wolbach duplicity. Developers can count on him. Residents cannot.


5 people like this
Posted by Tony Carrasco
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 12, 2016 at 1:41 pm

Thanks for strengthening Sustainability criteria. This emphasis will suggest alternate, innovative forms as compared to the forms that were functional and in vogue in earlier times.
For instance Sustainability criteria would suggest flat roofs that either produce energy: Photovoltaics or absorb carbon: Green Planted roofs.
These might not be "Compatible" with older forms.
Should innovation and Sustainability trump Compatibility?


Posted by having sex is masturbating in private,still masturbating , though!!
a resident of South of Midtown

on Apr 12, 2016 at 3:11 pm


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10 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 12, 2016 at 3:12 pm

commonsense is a registered user.

all these rules will make great architects run for the exit. how about one of the rules is that the architect needs to be creative. the "compatibility" rule is a just a land mine giving the arb and/or council the right to blow up any projects they simply don't like, irrespective of the rules and the rest of the population's approval. sounds like more of the same. until the 50' height limit is raised we will get more squashed in buildings with no room for significant landscaping.


16 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 12, 2016 at 3:22 pm

"all these rules will make great architects run for the exit."

How would we know? We haven't had any such around this town since Edward Durrell Stone in the sixties. Quite the opposite, in fact.


35 people like this
Posted by Anne
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2016 at 3:51 pm

My concern is residential architecture. Consideration has been given to building in Eichler neighborhoods and to Professorville. Now, please, could someone give some thought to what is happening in Old Palo Alto. Lovely, old, and well-maintained Spanish, Tudor, and colonial houses are being torn down and replaced by over-size structures resembling packing crates. These new buildings may be fine, but they definitely do not blend in with their surroundings and are really destroying the character of this part of town.


9 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 12, 2016 at 4:27 pm

"Sustainability criteria would suggest flat roofs that either produce energy: Photovoltaics or absorb carbon: Green Planted roofs. These might not be "Compatible" with older forms. Should innovation and Sustainability trump Compatibility?"

This succinctly states the problem.

Ugliness, such as nakedly industrial racks of PV cells, is too often mistaken for Innovation or Sustainability or some other Euphonious Buzz du Jour. An eagerly naive city government panel dutifully concurs, and Palo Alto's aesthetics take yet another body blow.

On the other hand, the aesthetics of certain buildings could be greatly improved if they were fully cladded with PV cells: 801 Alma, the Alma Street Parking Garage, anything by the Hayes Group. Any takers?


14 people like this
Posted by Two actors
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2016 at 4:34 pm

"all these rules will make great architects run for the exit"

Can you name one great architect working in Palo Alto?

The notion that restrictions are a problem to an artist do not understand the creative process. That the 50 ft. height limit is a problem for a creative architect is ludicrous. For a moneymaking hack, yes, of course it is a problem.


14 people like this
Posted by Yeshaya Douglas Ballon
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 12, 2016 at 5:40 pm

As a retired architect I abhor tasteless (IMHO) buildings as much as the next person, and I fully support having new buildings respect their neighbors. That is a typical goal of a thoughtful architect.

On the other hand, I'm equally concerned about infringement of civil liberties and freedom of personal expression. I believe the Constitution protects our right to have bad taste. I agree with Mutti and I believe Birge Clark would as well. Let's tread carefully on mandating conformity disguised as "good taste.".

Lastly, I have to ask Bob Moss how would the first Bauhaus (or pick any other innovative architectural movement) get built if it had to conform to it's neighbors? There is plenty of room for creativity AND environmental sensitivity. They are not mutually exclusive. Moreover--and please excuse the reference, I would not have raised it myself--but since you brought it up, the Bauhaus itself was highly scorned in it's day, notably by Albert Speer.


19 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 12, 2016 at 6:34 pm

@Yeshaya Douglas Ballon: "Lastly, I have to ask Bob Moss how would the first Bauhaus (or pick any other innovative architectural movement) get built if it had to conform to it's neighbors?"

This observation was made during the Professorville Design Guidelines project, too. If today's rules had been in place, Spanish Colonial Revival houses could not have been built. (They're incompatible with the earlier Colonial Revival and Craftsman houses in terms of materials and massing.) As a consequence, we wouldn't have two of the four Category 1 significant houses that exist today in Professorville.

There will never be universal agreement on architectural style. However, we can reach some agreement on physical and functional constraints (setbacks, height, water use, and so on). I believe we should concentrate on those issues.


12 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 12, 2016 at 6:56 pm

"the Bauhaus itself was highly scorned in it's day, notably by Albert Speer."

No surprise; the history of architecture consists almost entirely of intensely fought rivalries based solely on ego. Being scorned by a notorious architect who is popularly detested due to his political associations does not vindicate an empty architectural fad.

The Bauhaus should have died a quick natural death after its first example exhausted its aesthetic potential, but any no-talent hack with a sharp HB pencil and a ruler can design glass boxes, and they are very very cheap to build.

And they look cheap. That inescapable honesty is the Bauhaus' only notable strength.


21 people like this
Posted by Mick
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 12, 2016 at 8:14 pm

For an example of an oversized piece of **** that the ARB no doubt approved, the Cheese Cake Factory building on University Ave stands studded peanuts and corn kernels above the rest. Clearly the old rules were not working, hopefully these new rules will improve matters.


5 people like this
Posted by Inside not Out
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 12, 2016 at 10:58 pm

All this talk speaks of the outside of a building and its sublime external aesthetics. How about rethinking from the inside, out? High density, YES! Sustainability, YES! Multi-use, YES! But what about from within the proposed or decided on development? Does it meet sustainability and accompanying spatial demands? Does it save water and other precious natural commodities? Does it provide a friendly and inviting presence? Is it desirable, compact yet purposeful and well thought out with enough natural light and window sills to put a potted plant? Is living in it or working in it evoke "form" and "function" at its best and for a lasting purpose? Why should "the look" in architecture only be concerned with its outside - somehow only to invite a passerby's opinion? We must look from within to maximize the entire dwelling from concept, precept, and ultimate inception. Yes. Public opinion weighs heavy, but human lives and longevity mean more!


13 people like this
Posted by Matt
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 13, 2016 at 7:41 am

I think that it is pretty certain that our iconic Eichlers would not have been approved had these rules been in place in the post-war years.


18 people like this
Posted by ugly alto
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 13, 2016 at 9:38 am

This city is turning ugly ugly ugly, it's about time they get some real regulations to preserve what little we have left of our charm.


9 people like this
Posted by nice
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 13, 2016 at 10:44 am

nice is a registered user.

I like the varied architecture in Palo Alto. The new building at 611 Cowper is looks very nice. Thank you


6 people like this
Posted by Professorvill Resident
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 13, 2016 at 11:51 am

I have to say that, at least for non-commercial structures, I don't see this actually helping the needs of our residents in particular those with kids or on busy streets.
For commercial structures-- absolutely, I welcome this change.

Better use of space, in particular, more living space inside the house is what parents today must have since we can no longer send kids to the park to play on their own without having the kids taken from us by child services.


13 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2016 at 11:51 am

611 Cowper "looks very nice"? To whom? It's more
than 50 spaces underparked with access off 10ft wide
Lane 39 and is outside the Downtown Parking
Assessment District. Looks "very nice" alright - to
the developer.


6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 13, 2016 at 1:12 pm

"How about rethinking from the inside, out? ... "

This otherwise thoughtful and comprehensive discussion overlooks the most important consideration: $$$.


19 people like this
Posted by Two actors
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2016 at 3:37 pm

611 Cowper looks nice if you are wearing side blinders (like a horse). It rudely overwhelms the structure next to it which has civilized set backs.

When you drive out of the Wells Fargo lot it hovers over the view like a monster gorilla in the movies.
62,818 square feet of commercial space and 62 spaces. It is underparked!
Totally inappropriate size and location.


10 people like this
Posted by Beauty Isn't In The Eye Of This Beholder
a resident of University South
on Apr 13, 2016 at 3:53 pm

"611 Cowper looks nice if you are wearing side blinders (like a horse)."

Like any other HayesStack.


6 people like this
Posted by Not Parochial
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 13, 2016 at 4:18 pm

I like 611 Cowper. [Portion removed.]

I can understand that not everybody has the same appreciation of architectural design as I do. [Portion removed.] Can you explain objectively why you think the building is not appropriate for the site and not pleasant to see? Hey being stuck in another time is not a decent explanation.


5 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2016 at 6:51 pm

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by A Humble Seeker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 13, 2016 at 6:53 pm

[Post removed.]


12 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2016 at 7:37 pm

Meis van der Rohe & Le Corbusier are spinning in their graves! 611 Cowper is NOT modern architecture. 611 Cowper is a cheap utilitarian parking structure camouflaged with a facade of horizontal slats tacked on the front, in a failed attempt to disguise its banality.

I'm tired of the [architects] in Palo Alto, explaining away their horrible strip-mall architecture to a gullible public, by calling it "modern architecture".


5 people like this
Posted by Not parochial
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 13, 2016 at 8:52 pm

My understanding of architecture is not better or worse than yours, but it's different. It's the product of many decades of seeing buildings in many parts of the world, looking at buildings (architect's daughter) and personal preference. [Portion removed.] True, we don't have any Corbusiers or Mies' here in Palo Alto but we have some "pretty decent" buildings (somehow Hanna Honeycomb comes to mind). Repetition and sameness do for Architecture what repetition and same old do for science , that is nothing. If you want to repeat elements of past styles fine, it's your prerogative, but it would be more honest to understand that not everybody has the same sense of what is beautiful and that nobody can dictate taste[portion removed.] I'm dying to see a Frank Gehry built right in Professorvile or near the Roosevelt circle....Should we be so lucky?
Oh, those East Menlo Park neighbors! How could they permit such "atrocity"?


7 people like this
Posted by A Humbke Seeker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 13, 2016 at 9:48 pm

It is easy to claim a special understanding of architecture, although being the offspring of an architect is very weak evidence. One's architectural understanding is best demonstrated by the quality of what one designs and builds, as perceived by the majority of its viewers. Example: 801 Alma Street.

Those possessing a true grasp of any art form understand how subjective art perception is. They know the futility of demanding that someone "explain objectively why you think the building is not appropriate for the site and not pleasant to see"

On the other hand, sometimes the acknowledged greats humorously indulge their versions of bad art. Example: Mozart's Ein musikalischer Spaß.

Say, maybe that's what Ken Hayes is doing at 611 Cowper, sandbagging the community while lol & rotf at the naifs who pronounce it good.

Naah.


1 person likes this
Posted by easong
a resident of another community
on Apr 13, 2016 at 9:52 pm

You know what would fit in? Eichler-styled commercial buildings, like the classic one-story residential structures only 4 stories high, with giant windows and doors. Painted in pastel colors with tree ferns strewn about the perimeter. Giant Eichlers, think about it! You're welcome, Palo Alto!


8 people like this
Posted by jui
a resident of University South
on Apr 14, 2016 at 4:18 am

Don't want to give up hope; however, I live right smack in a wee studio in the middle of the commercial district downtown. For many years it was an amazing experience. Magical. Invigorating and inspiring. With a degree in Art and Architectural History, I was in awe of Palo Alto's beauty, historic homes and gardens, an intact central downtown and walkable streets. This is a very rare phenomenon in America. There was a time when new architecture seemed to work here, because, as one poster said, setbacks and height were consistent. The thoughtful blend of old and new in harmony. Something changed in the last few years, however. Big money and business has bullied its way into, what was once, one of the last standing, truly charming American towns. They have ripped it apart, bulldozed and sandblasted it to death and it continues. Outside of the Category 2 historic structures, all of the new buildings seem to have no regard to scale. They appear, in my opinion, imprudent and marauding. Today, I had the honor of seeing the the new construction on the corner of Hamilton and Ramona for the first time. The visual experience was brutal. In fact, that building reminded me of the Brutalist movement in architecture from the 1950s-70s. It has no regard for its surroundings, the Cardinal Hotel or the lovely building that once housed University Art, as well, the small shops on Ramona. Perhaps that is their intention, it was certainly the case for the Brutalist movement. I could not believe the ARB approved it.


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 14, 2016 at 4:47 am

Sounds like they have too much time on their hands.
Stop being so frivolous and limit the construction, period.
The problem is density, not appearances!


4 people like this
Posted by reality check
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2016 at 8:11 am

The monstrously horrendous Cheesecake Factory wedged in on University Ave is not a matter of nuance- it is a mall prototype introduced onto a streetscape unprecedented and unique in such a location even for Cheesecake Factory. It was approved by the ARB and staff in 2003,without
modification, represented and symbolized complete failure of the design review process in PA and worse we all know an underlying greater failure of land use control and the governmental process itself in PA in this regard which has come to fruition and is producing disastrous results across the entire City in a strong economy with no market constraints. Now with a new Council majority and understanding of where we are in PA, we need strong action starting with a rollback of past mistakes where possible as well as a new direction going forward to maintain any semblance of the values and character of this City and even
basic functionality of the City as gridlock overtakes it and neighborhoods are ruined and commercial areas transformed. So in regards to Cheesecake Factory the Council needs to call on Roxy Rapp, the property owner, and major stake holder in this community, to work with Cheesecake Factory to do a complete remodel of the exterior on University Avenue. Why not? What is preventing this? We need to make a statement, as a community, and let's start here.


2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2016 at 9:39 am

Personally I love the "Santa Barbara style" architecture that some of the down town buildings have and would love to see more. When it comes to size and density, I am the first to say "lass can be more". However, I do not feel a developer is at fault when he or she is following the guidelines set up by the city. With property around here worth so much, and property owners obviously allowed to sell to whomever they choose, it doesn't realistically make any sense to keep a little building little. If many more restrictions were put in place, then property values would lower and I think the problem would take care of itself in the long run. I guess I am simply saying that I see it both ways.


6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 14, 2016 at 4:38 pm

"I could not believe the ARB approved it."

It's even worse. That HayesStack at Hamilton/Ramona was specifically blessed by our city council in response to a citizen's appeal of its mass and design.

Same for the HayesStack being erected in the 600 block Waverley, between and snug against two fine old structures.

The problem is right at the top of our city government.


5 people like this
Posted by Hayes destroyed PA
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 14, 2016 at 6:17 pm

Too little too late. The charm of the city has been destroyed.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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