News

Council nixes planned Hamilton Avenue development

Palo Alto officials not sold on proposal to demolish building at 550 Hamilton Ave., replace it with mixed-use project

A contentious proposal to demolish an office building on Hamilton Avenue and replace it with a mixed-use development with roughly twice the square footage fizzled Monday night after fierce backlash from the surrounding community.

Without taking any formal votes, the Palo Alto City Council swiftly struck down a project that a developer was considering for 550 Hamilton Ave., currently the site of a three-story office building.

Under the proposal by developer C.M. Capital, that 43,272-square-foot building would be demolished and replaced with a 57,475-square-foot office building. The developer also proposed adding a 57,292-square-foot residential building, with 35 to 50 living units, on the parking lot at the site, which is between Cowper and Webster streets.

In pitching the mixed-use project, the developer requested changing the zoning designation from "planned community" to "downtown commercial" (CD-C (P)). Rob Zirkle, project architect, said that the idea behind the proposal was to support the concept of "sustainable cities" by including both jobs and housing. And in considering how much housing to add to this downtown location, the developer thought it would make sense to go for more, given the city's well-documented housing shortage.

"It seemed like a better idea to focus energy on housing than to pull housing away," Zirkle said.

Though the proposal remains in a conceptual state, with no application filed, it has been generating heated opposition around downtown and beyond. Many objected to the size and density of the proposed development. Others objected to the idea of adding more office space to downtown. Yet others questioned the wisdom of removing the existing building, which was constructed in 1971 and is currently occupied primarily by psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental-health professionals.

In recent weeks, residents and employees of the existing office building bombarded the council with protest letters to complain about a project that many deemed far too massive and disruptive for an area where parking and traffic concerns are already generating considerable anxiety. About 50 opponents also attended the Monday hearing, with many of them wearing "Save 550 Hamilton" buttons.

Jacob Towery, a psychiatrist who works at the building, said he regularly sees local high school students suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other serious mental-health issues. If the building were demolished, many mental-health professionals would end up leaving town, forcing patients to find new doctors or make longer trips to get the needed help.

Nancy Ginsburg, another psychologist who works at the building, made a similar point.

"If this project goes forward in any size or form, it will have a very negative effect on mental-health services in Palo Alto and the surrounding area," she said.

Others opposed the building's mass, density and potential traffic impacts. Some said they don't believe the new building would be compatible with the single-family homes on Webster Street.

Suzanne and Bruce Cocker, who live on Hamilton Avenue, urged the council to halt the project before it gets any further in the development process.

"Let's just stop this now," they wrote in an email to the council. "We are generally supportive of business and commerce but the City of Palo Alto is going through a period of apparently unrestrained development. It is time to take a pause and see where we are before considering another major project -- and it is not in anyone's interest to string the developers along."

The Monday meeting was a "prescreening," a type of hearing where the council offers early feedback to the applicant but takes no formal action. But given the surge of opposition and the general sentiment among council members that downtown office growth should be curtailed, rather than encouraged, the message from the council was clear: the project, as proposed, isn't getting anywhere.

While some council members said they were open to more housing, the idea of adding a larger office building to replace an existing one found no traction.

Mayor Pat Burt said he was surprised that the applicant even proposed it, given the council's recent moves to curtail office growth. These include placing an effective moratorium on "planned-community" projects, where developers barter with the City Council over entitlements and "public benefits"; and implementing an annual office cap of 50,000 square feet for new office space in the city's main commercial areas.

Burt acknowledged that some of the design features of the proposed project might be more favorable in some ways than in the existing building. Yet he also noted that by adding more office workers, the project would do little to diminish the city's jobs-to-housing imbalance, which is currently estimated at about 3 to 1.

"We don't attain anything in the jobs-housing imbalance," Burt said. "We just add more office and more housing."

His colleagues agreed that the project, as presented, has little chance of advancing. Councilman Tom DuBois said he's never gotten as many emails to oppose a project as in this case. The community's reaction to this proposal, he observed, was "pretty extreme."

Councilman Eric Filseth concurred and said that he generally opposes replacing existing buildings with larger ones unless there is a "clear reason to do so."

"One of the risks of putting up oversized -- relative with neighborhood surroundings -- buildings is that it makes it easier to build the next one," Filseth said.

Toward the end of the hearing, Councilwoman Liz Kniss summarized the overwhelming sentiment when she said that the proposal "does not have a great deal of legs."

"The developer really needs to know: Is there any appetite for this?" Kniss said. "I'm not hearing that tonight. And I think it's important that we deliver that in a straightforward way."

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Comments

59 people like this
Posted by Hurrah, Hurrah
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2016 at 9:25 am

No more ugly buildings, no more high density, no more traffic.

Portland, Oregon no longer allows high density buildings, not even condos. They found that if they added one residential building, limited to two stories, to every block, they would have enough housing for everyone. They are using the same parameters for offices: no higher than two stories, no more than one per block.

They got the city the RESIDENTS wanted. TA-DA!


7 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2016 at 9:27 am

How is the argument about who the current tenants are and what will happen if they are displaced relevant to the decision of whether the planned construction is approved? Why was it even brought up?

/marc


38 people like this
Posted by rita vrhel
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 17, 2016 at 9:30 am

Another great example of how the City Council listens when the public speaks.

Please continue to attend CC meetings and/or email to make your feelings know.

The proposal is out of place and scale. And not included in the Office Building cap by a mere block. Ouch!

The idea of buying a property and then playing the "I need to rezone so I can build a larger structure current zoning will not allow is unacceptable.

One of the speakers called the CC on this previously used practice; thank you.




Like this comment
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2016 at 9:35 am

@Hurrah, Hurrah Are you sure you are not reading the change.org neighborhood requests for building limits in Portland and not what are the real zoning restrictions?

/marc


7 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of University South
on May 17, 2016 at 10:46 am

Portland is not a great example. It was lauded for being affordable 15 years ago but failed to prepare for becoming a desirable place to live. Now residents are struggling to remain in their homes.

The Atlantic has an article today: "Will Portland Repeat the Mistakes of San Francisco?"

Web Link


12 people like this
Posted by Carla Carvalho
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 17, 2016 at 11:05 am

Well said, Rita Vrhel. There are several other issues now in Palo Alto that can surely use ongoing community support. This is a great example of how the community coming together can have an impact on City Government.


43 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on May 17, 2016 at 11:29 am

Yes, the residential community needs to stay focused. After the residents opposed to this massive development went home the city council then switched gears to discuss how development should be dealt with in the new comprehensive plan that is soon to be ratified. Everyone should be watching, because the various scenarios are filled with more growth and "magical thinking" about how traffic will be handled. Even a small growth of less than 1% a year will double the population here in 30 years. Some of us have lived here that long and we don't like what has happened in our 30 years. Imagine how much worse it will be in the next 30.
growth never goes away. The pro-growth contingent is driving the process and trying to get approval for massive housing developments that they claim will have no net increase to traffic (because "magically" none of the people who live in these new developments will drive cars). Plus this is driving a huge change in Palo Alto that has already begun with past city councils changing zoning rules to allow bigger and bigger developments. We are being urbanized by big money interests, and residents quality of life is being destroyed. Our schools, infrastructure and time spent on the road all suffer. It is time for residents to drive the process. It is OK to protect the environment that we want. Low density, cleaner air, water and a better quality of life. Every time you allow building it is bad for the environment. Too many people is bad for the environment. Don't be made to feel guilty that we aren't housing our share. There will never be enough housing in Palo Alto to make it affordable (see Manhattan or Tokyo). And it is past time that our government establish a sustainable population goal and how to achieve it. One that will provide clean water, air and food and resources to our population and not destroy the livable environment. Palo Alto can be a starting point for this discussion, but only if we stop rampant development first.


25 people like this
Posted by Jim Colton
a resident of Green Acres
on May 17, 2016 at 12:14 pm

This developer apparently has not been reading the tea leaves right about residents having an impact on massive developments in Palo Alto. I'm so glad to hear that the City Council got this one right and nipped this proposal in the bud. Let's hope this discourages other outrageous projects from even being proposed.


15 people like this
Posted by University South resident
a resident of University South
on May 17, 2016 at 12:29 pm

Marc, to answer your question, the argument about who the current tenants are and what will happen to them speaks to the trend that more and more offices in downtown Palo Alto are being snatched up by tech companies (e.g., Palantir), which is not a permitted use of Downtown, commented by the Mayor himself in the meeting yesterday.

There are over 90 mental health practitioners in 550 Hamilton who are providing much-needed services for our youth and adults in Palo Alto and the surrounding areas. With the demolishing of the existing building, they will most likely be forced to move out of Palo Alto. As a result, our community will lose these valuable resources. Care to guess who will take their place in this new shining building? More tech companies.


3 people like this
Posted by University South resident
a resident of University South
on May 17, 2016 at 12:33 pm

I'd like to clarify something in the comment above that I just made. Mayor Burt was speaking about the general trend of more and more tech companies in Downtown, but he did not mention Palantir by name. I put that in () as an example.


25 people like this
Posted by Sick of the growth
a resident of Downtown North
on May 17, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Thank you city council for listening to the people. People continue to fight over growth. This city has changed exponentially in the last 5 years and not for the better. Continue the community activism. This is helping but it will take more. Good new on this and the Cuckoos Nest Bar in Menlo Park due to citizens expressing outrage.


29 people like this
Posted by long gone
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 17, 2016 at 1:49 pm

I commend city council for stop this project from moving forward, but sadly so many unsightly buildings have gone up too fast and the charm of Palo Alto has been replaced by an office version of tract homes. What was once a darling college town has now moved toward a city like San Jose with higher crime, fewer mom and pop stores with now a split community and careless drivers. Our Palo Alto culture has already begun to deteriorate. Sometimes you can see remnants of it like in the May Fete parade or occasional block parties. But the tone of long time residents when you're at the grocery store or bank is sorrow and mourning at what this city has become.


22 people like this
Posted by Sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on May 17, 2016 at 1:59 pm

Happy that we are not going build this dense building out of step with nice neighborhood.

We need limited growth not in line with Palo Alto life.

It's true for all of our 24th assembly district.

Respectfully


14 people like this
Posted by Housing costs, not growth
a resident of University South
on May 17, 2016 at 2:16 pm

Actually, the city did a poll for the transportation tax and they asked residents which of a list of problems they considered urgent.

76% of residents consider housing costs to be an extremely or seriously urgent problem for the city. Only 30% consider "too much growth and development" to be as urgent. (See Web Link or the city's website for the full poll results.)

Clearly, most residents care about housing costs. A small minority of residents are sick of the growth.


24 people like this
Posted by marian
a resident of Professorville
on May 17, 2016 at 2:17 pm

Here is another ugly building being protected when something much more beautiful and useful could have been built.


20 people like this
Posted by Please
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2016 at 5:05 pm

Before you praise the CC for listening to the public, see what they do with the project at
University/Kipling. This project was an outlier,
a bunch of outsiders doing it, not wired in, and so outrageous in its impacts that it was ludicrous. So the CC can make a show of standing up to it. This has nothing to do with a responsive CC or staff.


21 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 17, 2016 at 6:51 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

This shows that growth and density are not inevitable, as some pro growth and density posters keep claiming on TS. If the real owners of this town become active and aware, growth will stop, and just perhaps, this town will be saved.

As far as Portland goes, they keep fighting growth. The problem is that many Bay area residents, sick of the growth, density and overpopulation in our area, have been flocking up to Portland, and that increased housing prices up there tremendously. The residents are fighting back, and they will eventually win.


4 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on May 17, 2016 at 9:30 pm

"The problem is that many Bay area residents, sick of the growth, density and overpopulation in our area, have been flocking up to Portland."

Interesting how these people from the bay area, attempting to escape overpopulation, move to a city of 2+ million, rather than any other part of what is arguably the most rural mainland state on the west coast. You certainly have an interesting take on these things, mauricio.


18 people like this
Posted by Today I am a residentialist
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 17, 2016 at 9:56 pm

@Please has got it right.
Burt would never be so straightforward with local developers like Rapp, Boyd and Lund Smith, Baer, Hayes, Giovanotto, Drew Maran etc. Even Arrillaga.
CMC are outsiders so he was safe lashing into them. They deserved it. He wears the residentialist costume well, if only temporarily.

Development advocates Kniss and Wohlbach never said they didn't like the project. Both said they did not hear any support for it. Good teamwork! Never criticize a developer.


11 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on May 18, 2016 at 12:52 am

I am not a proponent of continued density-oriented development but I don't see that blame rests with the developers b/c they are essentially just walking through a door that City Staff and developer-friendly Council members have held wide open for a long time.


20 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 18, 2016 at 5:58 am

mauricio is a registered user.

This should be the trigger that creates a resident movement to reduce growth, density and population increase to zero. We don't need any more growth, we don't need any more office buildings and we need less people in Palo Alto. Overpopulation and density are a global existential problem, but need to be tackled locally. I believe that it is absolutely essential to get Palantir to leave downtown, and hopefully Palo Alto alltogether. Planter helped [portion removed] helped usher in PAF which infiltrated a prominent commission, and is pushing very aggressively an agenda of what would end up as massive growth, density and urbanization of what was and is essentially a small college town.

There are millions who want to live in big cities like Hong Kong, NYC and London, but can't, there is no reason why Palo Alto should accommodate all who want to live here, and why we should allow developers to destroy this place so they can line up their pocket. This NO to development should become permanent.


7 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 18, 2016 at 7:52 am

"As far as Portland goes, they keep fighting growth. The problem is that many Bay area residents, sick of the growth, density and overpopulation in our area, have been flocking up to Portland, and that increased housing prices up there tremendously. The residents are fighting back, and they will eventually win."

Hilarious doublespeak. No they won't. They'll just end up like San Francisco.

[Portion removed.] Don't complain about your children not being able to afford to live in Palo Alto when you try to stop all development. But this is what you get when you cap property taxes with Prop 13. The unintended consequence of commercial tax revenue bringing in more than residential.

If you want your cheap Prop 13 property tax, then maybe you shouldn't be complaining about all this.

[Portion removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on May 18, 2016 at 9:14 am

@Me

Well keep in mind that in mauricio's world the "existential problem" of population growth and overpopulation is caused by developers' housing construction, rather than, you know, people having more kids, which would mean he'd have to take personal responsibility for it rather than blame others.


Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 18, 2016 at 11:15 am

re: Portland. Obviously some of you have not seen photos of local real estate for sale signs that say, "No Californians".


11 people like this
Posted by Margaret
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 18, 2016 at 1:41 pm

Ok, I'll say it again…

Palo Alto is a Town of 66,642 residents

Wikipedia: The population of a city is over 100,000 people up to 300,000. Large town – a large town has a population of 20,000 to 100,000. Town – a town has a population of 1,000 to 20,000.

Somebody keeps telling architects (and all the residents) that we are a City… and we keep getting these horrific designs that belong to Cities, not to us.

Please, please fix this… we want our Town back!



Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 18, 2016 at 2:22 pm

@Margaret, we'll fix that with the proposed 2.5% annual population growth rate for the next 16 years, putting Palo Alto firmly into Wikipedia's definition of a city. These fixes take time, like climate change and sea level rise. It's all good, they tell me...


7 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 18, 2016 at 2:33 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

I didn't benefit from Prop 13, which I always thought was a terrible idea, and my kids not only refuse to live in Palo Alto, they refuse to even visit, neither set foot in Palo Alto since graduating from college, the youngest 4 years ago, so disgusted they are with this town.

Speaking of towns, Palo Alto is a town in all but name. We should actually remove the misnomer "city" from Palo Alto. This should be the town of Palo Alto. Not only do we not qualify as a city based on the population, but our roads and streets are definitely those of a town, not a city.


1 person likes this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 18, 2016 at 3:03 pm

"re: Portland. Obviously some of you have not seen photos of local real estate for sale signs that say, "No Californians".

Having been up there quite a bit for work this year, I'm not sure I'd want Portlanders down here in Palo Alto myself.

"I didn't benefit from Prop 13, which I always thought was a terrible idea, and my kids not only refuse to live in Palo Alto, they refuse to even visit, neither set foot in Palo Alto since graduating from college, the youngest 4 years ago, so disgusted they are with this town."

Renter, Mauricio? How can you leave your house here empty when you move to Bolinas? Surely your landlord would have different ideas when you finally move.


4 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 18, 2016 at 5:19 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

@Me, I own my house in Palo Alto. Where did you get the idea I was a renter? I will not sell it during my lifetime, and I will not rent it out because I've been saying for years that we are a small town that's massively overpopulated and I was always a man of my word. I will not contribute to densifying this once wonderful town. When I die my kids will decide what to do with my house.


1 person likes this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on May 18, 2016 at 6:46 pm

@mauricio

"Where did you get the idea I was a renter?"

Because you stated you don't benefit from Prop 13, which you do by definition if you're a homeowner.


5 people like this
Posted by Today I am a residentialist
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2016 at 12:16 am

Back to 550 Hamilton.
I don't find myself passing that block very often but the controversy over the big project drew me to see the place. It's big, but set back from the street so that it doesn't overwhelm. It's a well mannered building.

But then I looked at the 500 block of Hamilton across the street and I went into shock. One strange office structure next to another, the ugliness and incompatibility is so screaming loud, one has to wonder did those office buildings get through the Architectural board? Immense lettering advertising venture capitalist companies.
Who are the architects of those buildings?


3 people like this
Posted by Sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on May 19, 2016 at 12:41 pm


I would like you present two examples of cities like Palo Alto that were nice and became bigger and bigger and lost identity.

Like Palo Alto, a farm became Irvine in 1972+. When we lived there in 1987-2009; the farm town, a college town, continued to develop and now it is 140,000 plus. It lost its charm.

Huntington Beach lost its charm with a population of 200,000 plus.

Yes, we have needs for more people to live around here. What about a new city slightly east of us between Menlo-Palo Alto-Freemont and Milpitas. Brand new city with lakes and lawns and commuter friendly new city like IRVINE was built.

Let us not spoil what we have in Palo Alto and 24th assembly district communities. Once we begin adding more buildings, it will be like new Irvine that lost its charm.

Can we keep Palo Alto to be about 70,000 for next 5-10 years?

Limited growth.

To afford to pay more rents; we need higher wages for middle class, engineers, female professionals and every body.

We cant be greedy. Prices have gone up. Wages have to go up too. A friend of my brother works for Netflix as a Tech DBA. He makes over $250,000. We need these kind of salaries. Let us do it.

Let us not spoil Palo Alto. Lets keep it limited growth and beautiful.

respectfully


Like this comment
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2016 at 12:58 pm

"Can we keep Palo Alto to be about 70,000 for next 5-10 years?"

No, unless you're willing to pay surrounding towns like EPA, Mountain View and Redwood City (forget Menlo Park) to pick up the slack for working to upper-middle class housing.

BTW, Uncle Jerry is ready to come down from the mountain (Sacramento) and lay waste to NIMBY restrictions. Good job being obstructionists. You're going to get a much worse result from it if the state ends up having to impose what we're unwilling to accept - responsible growth.


Like this comment
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 19, 2016 at 3:34 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

I noticed that Woodside, Atherton, Portola Valley, Atherton and Los Altos Hills have started huge housing construction projects to provide housing for all the working to middle class people who work in those towns: maids, house cleaners, childcare givers, firemen, gardeners, ranch hands, etc. They must be terrified by Uncle Jerry coming down from Sacramento.


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

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