A proposal to construct a three-story building next to a historic home on Lytton Avenue in downtown Palo Alto is facing resistance, with more than a dozen residents signing an appeal petition calling for the City Council to strike down the recently approved project.
The appeal, which was filed by Vincent Leung and 13 other co-signers, is the latest skirmish between developers looking to build in downtown Palo Alto and residents who argue that the new proposals are incompatible with their neighborhoods. The City Council is set to consider the appeal on June 20.
Another mixed-use project, at 429 University Ave., was forced back to the drawing board by the City Council last November after residents similarly claimed that it doesn't fit in with the neighborhood. The project has since undergone a design makeover, though residents maintain that the planned building remains too massive and out of scale.
The latest appeal targets a development proposed for 411-437 Lytton Ave., which includes renovations to an existing single-story home (including construction of a new basement) and construction of a new three-story, 19,838-square-foot building with 13,522 square feet of office space and two residential units on the top floor. It also includes a two-level underground parking garage, which would be accessed from Kipling Street.
Though the project has succeeded in securing recent approvals from the city's Historic Resources and Architectural Review boards, residents maintain that it's incompatible with the area and that it would bring severe traffic congestion to Kipling, which appellants argue is too narrow to accommodate the traffic the new development would generate.
In his appeal letter, Leung argues that the intersection of Lytton and Kipling is already extremely busy during rush hour and building a garage in that corner could create traffic hazards.
Some cars, Leung wrote, would queue up on the garage ramp during the busy hours, possibly blocking the sidewalk. Others would try to avoid Lytton by taking Kipling to Everett Avenue, near Johnston Park, he wrote.
"Diverting traffic from a two-story parking garage to small residential streets will increase the risk for pedestrians in the area," the letter states. "Even without this project there are already recent reports of accidents in this area."
Critics are also arguing in their appeal that the proposed building is out of scale with the neighborhood and it would intrude on the privacy of neighbors, particularly given its second-floor terrace and a garden.
At the March 17 meeting of the Architectural Review Board, Leung argued that the noise impact from the new development will be significant, particularly from the new building's proposed second-story terrace. If the office space is rented out to a tech startup, Leung said, people are working around the clock and disturbing the residents next door.
"It's just going to be a big noise problem close to these residential people living next to it," said Leung, whose Kipling Street home is directly across from the site of the proposed development.
Height is also an issue for the project's opponents. Leung and his fellow appellants argue that the 40-foot building would not be compatible with the block's "modest two-story homes" and that there are "no buildings as large to be found for hundreds of feet in any direction." The appeal argues that the project in "vastly different in scale and massing" from neighboring buildings.
"Its windows, bays, doorways, and entryways are unlike those on nearby residences," the appeal states, arguing that the project "inserts a massive commercial building into a modest residential neighborhood that include historic properties."
Leung's appeal is co-signed by 12 other downtown property owners -- Neilson Buchanan, Malcolm Beasley, Tricia Dolkas, Michael Griffin, Diane Hakansson, Michael Hodos, Yen Nguyen, Marion Odell, Janice Sedriks, Carolyn and Bob Taber, and Jessica Woodside -- as well as JC Andrade, a partner at Vino Locale, a wine bar at 431 Kipling St.
Architectural Review Board (ARB) member Wynne Furth agreed with the critics that the proposed development doesn't meet the city's compatibility standards. The challenge of building on Lytton, she said, is figuring out "how to build at a higher intensity without damaging the pattern of the neighborhood that moves on toward the creek."
"I don't think this building does it," Furth said at the March 17 hearing. "I don't think it does it in terms of the way it works, and I don't think it does it in terms of the way it looks, which isn't to say I have any particular objection to the building as a detached entity somewhere else. ... In particular, the design as it functions is not going to make for a happy neighborhood situation."
Furth, however, was the lone dissenting voice as the board voted 3-1 to approve the project. Planning staff is also recommending that the City Council deny the appeal and let the project go forward.
As part of the approval, staff and the ARB required the development to include automatic night shades on the second-floor offices facing residents and landscaping to separate the building from adjacent homes on Kipling. Staff has also included in its approval a condition that the terrace be only used from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and not at all on the weekends.
City staff and the ARB also concluded that the project is compatible with its surroundings and that it meets all the development standards for the site, which means that the building setbacks, site coverage, height and density of the new development meet code and do not require design exemptions.
The resident appeal of the development will appear on the council's "consent calendar," which means that the appeal would be automatically denied without discussion unless three council members agree to remove the item from the calendar. If the council removes the item, it would schedule a new public hearing to discuss the merits of the appeal and consider whether to uphold staff's decision, reject the application or require further adjustments to the building's design.