Council hits the brakes on Mercedes proposal

Palo Alto officials vote to send plan for dealership in the Baylands back to the drawing board

A proposal to build a Mercedes-Benz dealership at the former site of Ming's Restaurant hit a dead end Tuesday morning when an ambivalent City Council ruled that the three-story building would be too tall for its environmentally sensitive surroundings in the Palo Alto Baylands.

Despite a year of design revisions, unanimous approvals by the city's two land-use and design commissions and widespread acknowledgement by the council that the site, at 1700 Embarcadero Road, would be perfectly suitable for an auto dealership, the proposal fizzled by a 3-5 vote, with only Councilmen Marc Berman, Tom DuBois and Greg Scharff voting to give the dealership application a green light.

Even those who ultimately voted against the project found many things to like about it. Mayor Pat Burt praised the design of the building, even as he deemed it too big, and Councilman Eric Filseth said the proposed land use is perfectly compatible with the site, which is in close proximity to other dealerships. Councilwoman Liz Kniss initially indicated that she would be supporting the project, saying that she "can't think of a better place for a commercial building."

Ultimately, however, the council majority ruled that the building is too tall and too dense. Critics of the project questioned whether the applicant was really entitled to the density exceptions that the application relied on, an issue that was brought up by resident Jeff Levinsky. Though the city's code allows auto dealerships to have additional density to accommodate showrooms, Levinsky argued that the applicant in this case used the exemption to make storage areas, hallways and other portions of the building larger than they otherwise would be.

While planning staff offered its own interpretation of the code, which suggested that the project complies with the rules, the dispute left some council members with a sense of discomfort about the density of the three-story building. There was no disputing, however, the fact that the Mercedes dealership would have been by far the tallest building in the area. That's because the site was rezoned in 2009 to accommodate a 50-foot hotel. Though that project fizzled, the zoning remained and the applicant, Fletcher Jones, had every intention of reaching that height.

Council members and citizen critics had other ideas. Shani Kleinhaus was one of several speakers who urged the council to limit the height to 35 feet, which would be better aligned with other buildings east of U.S. Highway 101.

Hamilton Hitchings, who lives across the highway from the Embarcadero Road site, made a similar request. The location, he told the council, is perfect for an auto dealership.

"However, I feel that 50 feet is too tall for the surrounding area of the Baylands," Hitchings added.

After a long debate, the council concurred. Filseth said that while he likes the land use, he has "a problem with the building." And Kniss, despite her earlier support for the project, said at the end of the discussion she was convinced by Burt's argument about the building's failure to be compatible with other facilities in the area.

Councilwoman Karen Holman was particularly vehement in her opposition, saying she has a "myriad concerns" about the project. While others focused on the building's size, Holman said she opposed the "spot zoning" that the council approved for the site in 2009, and said she would have preferred "planned-community" zone, which would have given the council greater control over the project.

But Scharff, DuBois and Berman argued that the project merits approval, especially given the long sequence of meetings and design revisions that the applicant had gone through, and the fact that the architects had agreed to make the glass on the building "bird friendly" and to keep the lighting relatively low so that it wouldn't interfere with wildlife.

"I think it's important to think about this in a holistic way and to say to ourselves that, on balance, there's some good things and bad things with every development project," Scharff said. "On balance, I think this one meets the requirement and it's one that we should approve."

William Garrett, an attorney with the firm Hanna and Van Atta, spoke on behalf of Fletcher Jones and also made a case for approving the project. The site, he said, is smaller than every other dealership within the Fletcher Jones owners group by a factor of four or five.

"The applicant has worked extremely hard here to accommodate its prospective business in Palo Alto and to provide the City of Palo Alto with $1 million roughly in sales taxes per year," Garrett said.

The city's Architectural Review Board (ARB) reached a similar conclusion after holding four formal hearings on the project, during which time the applicant reduced the height of the building by eliminating an elevator that was slated to go up to the roof (under the revised design, it will stop at the third floor) and making the colors and the materials more compatible with the Baylands.

Though some members, including board Chair Robert Gooyer, wondered whether the building is too big for the site, the board agreed that the it should be up to the council to rule on the density issue and voted unanimously to approve the project.

The city's Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) followed the ARB's approval with its own unanimous endorsement, a decision it reached with no dissent and after one relatively swift public hearing. But Burt saw things differently and suggested that the building's floor-area-ratio of 0.6 (a density measure that allows 0.6 square feet of building area per square foot of site space) should've been vetted more thoroughly.

"We basically have a building that is a 50-foot building and an 0.6 FAR (floor-area-ratio) and it makes it a completely anomalous building in the Baylands," he said. "And for whatever reason, the PTC thought it was a non-issue and staff doesn't seem to be pretty concerned about it."

After Scharff's motion to approve the project failed by a 3-5 vote, with Councilman Cory Wolbach abstaining, the council voted to send the project back to the ARB for further review. Based on Holman's motion, the board was directed to "more carefully calculate the permissible FAR" and to adjust the building's height and mass to make it more compatible with its surroundings.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


35 people like this
Posted by Build Sensibly
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 7, 2016 at 4:42 am

Finally, sanity reins. Congratulations to the five council members with the integrity to vote down what would have been the tallest building around, housing three floors of cars plus more on the roof and towering over its neighbors. There are many nice office buildings in the area, but none over two stories.

And note how the developer tried to use tricks to justify the oversized building ... and then defended that by saying its other properties are even larger.

8 people like this
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 7, 2016 at 5:52 am

SEA_SEELAM REDDY is a registered user.

It is a good decision.

I am sure the architects can come up with a smaller and less imposing structure that pleases our community. Like the town and country.


54 people like this
Posted by SUPERPAC Tuesday
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 7, 2016 at 6:14 am

Marc Berman has the "independent" superpac money from the auto dealers supporting his current assembly campaign and amazingly votes to support this new car dealership. Get used to what it's going to be like in Sacramento if he elect this guy.

44 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of University South
on Jun 7, 2016 at 8:06 am

It really sounds like Council made a mess of the rules. The first Council spot zoned it to be bigger; this Council waited until the applicant had spent years of effort and then walked it back.

I don't particularly care for a giant auto dealer in the Baylands, but if a City Council can't make rules that it can follow itself, it's not doing it right. This is the second time, after the building at Kipling and University that Council refused a building that follows the zoning they set out for a site because they just didn't like the building.

Maybe rather than spot down zoning half the buildings that come before them, they should just make rules that they like up front? I don't have anything to do with the development industry, but I hate to see rule by whim instead of rule of law.

2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 7, 2016 at 9:58 am

Nobody pointed out that the existing dealerships don't fit on their sites either. Look at the Mings parking lot today and you'll see it already packed with new car inventory. Another dealership has leased our airport parking on the tower access road. Fletcher Jones considered holding their inventory over in Fremont.

15 people like this
Posted by Think green
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 7, 2016 at 10:09 am

Wow worry about jobs and the revnue the dealership will bring... Not the 15 feet that does mean anything to anyone except the people who thing their dirt and sky is worth something its not.... Grow up

8 people like this
Posted by ARB is a joke
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 7, 2016 at 10:11 am

The ARB eliminated an elevator on the roof and requested more appropriate colors. What a joke of a Review Board.
> Robert Gooyer, wondered whether the building is too big for the site, the board agreed that the it should be up to the council to rule on the density issue and voted unanimously to approve the project

Sounding troubled is not useful for a commissioner. Votes are what counts.

The developer refrain, Oh how hard we worked is a well known song. Translation, oh how hard we worked to make millions of dollars. Lots of us work hard for less.

16 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 7, 2016 at 10:21 am

I agree with think green. Only a few people that blog/whine here will claim to notice the reduced height of this building. Like 50' is a tall building. It's not. Shorter buildings only mean less interesting buildings that take up the whole lot. Council is out of control not following their own rules.

8 people like this
Posted by Mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 7, 2016 at 10:39 am

Mote too expensive cars for the 1% who can afford to live in Palo Alto or Atherton. Buy a Ford and donate the difference to East Palo Alto schools

Like this comment
Posted by Mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 7, 2016 at 10:40 am

Oops. MORE too expensive cars. ....

11 people like this
Posted by Alice Smith
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 7, 2016 at 11:36 am

Sensible decision.

3 people like this
Posted by Reasonably
a resident of Ventura
on Jun 7, 2016 at 11:42 am

Our economy runs on consumption and the physical bettering of our lives.
Buy a ford if you want to but don't pretend that you don't benefit when others spend their money rather than hoard it. What's other goal is there in life other than bettering our existence? An afterlife?? Ha!

13 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 7, 2016 at 12:08 pm

I think the tower in the foreground is a nice touch. The rest of the design needs reworking.

But seriously, folks, stocking vehicle inventory onsite is so twentieth century and plebian. Why should we allow more such egregious uninnovativeness in Palo Alto?

Cadillac (yes, Cadillac) has the Silicon Valley thing. Their dealers will let customers choose their vehicles using state of the art virtual reality, then deliver the exact match to the customer's door from a central inventory. No dealer inventory carrying costs, no need to waste expensive acreage just warehousing stock. THAT'S the kind of innovation our town should go for.

10 people like this
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 7, 2016 at 12:15 pm

I completely agree with "Observer." Our city council (and basically the whole city government, in my opinion) acts like some sort of keystone cops bureaucracy, capriciously and arbitrarily changing zoning, and decisions of their own planning and architectural boards, and interpreting guidelines purely based on subjective opinion and public pressure.

It seems like it is too much to ask that the city be run in a professional manner.

14 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 7, 2016 at 1:14 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

We need the same kind of decision for housing and office development suggested projects. Now is the time to stop the drive to turn Palo Alto into initially a mid-size city like Berkeley, and eventually into just another big, dense depressing big city.

14 people like this
Posted by Jay Ess
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jun 7, 2016 at 1:43 pm

Does anyone realize that it will be under water in a few years or at least in a swamp.?

11 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 7, 2016 at 2:39 pm

To those that think Palo Alto has become such a horrible place - please leave. There are plenty of other, more progressive, less whiney people to take your place. Farewell!

16 people like this
Posted by Barking up the wrong tree
a resident of Mayfield
on Jun 7, 2016 at 2:54 pm

This project came before the city council because it does not comply with current zoning. The plot of land is not zoned for an auto dealership. If it had been compliant with current zoning it would not have required the council's approval. That was the council's basis for rejecting the project. The majority indicated they would approve an auto dealership just not the mass and scale that was being proposed.

15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 7, 2016 at 4:50 pm

The Architectural Review Board and Planning & Transportation Committee both signed off on this oversized building that is almost twice the height of nearby buildings and next to the Baylands. Other recent oversized projects they've signed off on include the Olive Garden replacement on El Camino and the Shady Lane project on University Ave.

12 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 7, 2016 at 6:08 pm

Doesn't seem bad to me. What else are you going to put near the big power lines and tower?? A Mercedes dealership would be of great convenience to local Palo Alto Mercedes drivers, too. I think the building fits fine in this location. A lot better than a hotel!

6 people like this
Posted by Online
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2016 at 11:14 pm

Let us make it 43 feet tall and make a deal!

I was rooting for the MB dealership. Maybe some of that tax $ could have been used to maintain the trails to bayland.

8 people like this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 8, 2016 at 11:15 am

I love how a parcel ringed by a miserable intersection/freeway offramp, two office parks,a power line right of way, and another car dealership has been transformed into some sort of preservationist eco-park fantasy.

9 people like this
Posted by She's against it
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 8, 2016 at 11:44 am

You hit the nail right on the head, mr.recycle. and that is why it makes Holmans comments look more ridiculous and her more clueless than usual. But had karen ever not opposed anything?

Like this comment
Posted by ARB is a joke
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 8, 2016 at 11:41 pm

Sounds like Mr. "She's against it" didn't read the story. Or the other posts.
1.If the Staff had done its job the project would not have come to the council.
- It is in the Baylands (you've heard of the Baylands, or have you?)
- it is much bigger and taller and denser than all the surrounding buildings.
2. If the ARB had done its job it would not have come to council.
3. If the PTC had done its job it would not have come to council.

If the architects can't come up with a more compatible design, they are incompetent. Perhaps what is needed is more talent and less greed.

3 people like this
Posted by Don Sturdy
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2016 at 12:01 am

I worked for several years near the old Ming's Restaurant in one if those "two" story office buildings. That whole area is run down and having some new buildings would be an improvement. Nearly all of the car dealers are space constrained and build multi/level garages to store cars. I am always amazed on how righteous Pslo Alto residents get when some new building is proposed. They immediately jump to curb it's construction on very shaky grounds. Wake up people, old dumpy buildings should be torn down and replaced with new one's.

2 people like this
Posted by She's against it
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 9, 2016 at 8:42 am

Mrs. Arb is a joke-- it is the entrance to the bay lands. If it is the bay lands then how come they're ate so many buildings in the bay lands- along with a highway on/ of ramp and massive electrical tower? Maybe they're were no finder fees available

Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 9, 2016 at 6:33 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

"Perhaps what is needed is more talent and less greed."

Both are upstream swims as of late.

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

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Palo Alto, rejoice. Mike's Cafe is back.
By Elena Kadvany | 5 comments | 2,279 views

Premarital and Couples: Musings on Life
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,632 views

Why we are Warming
By Sherry Listgarten | 30 comments | 1,563 views

Cap On? Cap Off? The Cities Respond
By Laura Stec | 4 comments | 1,290 views

List for a new baby
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 410 views