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.