Developer of controversial downtown Palo Alto project tries again

Four-story 429 University Ave. now has fourth architect, another hearing before Architectural Review Board

Among the many questions pending at Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board meeting on Thursday, perhaps the most important will be this: Have developers Elizabeth and Jaime Wong finally proposed a building for 429 University Ave. that will meet with city officials' approval?

The Wongs' effort to build at the corner of Kipling Street and University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, at the former site of the Shady Lane boutique, has been ongoing since 2013. Their project secured the city architecture board's endorsement in February 2015 only to be halted by a neighbor's appeal and the City Council's direction on a 5-to-4 vote in May 2015 that the project be revised.

Thursday will be the Wongs' seventh appearance before the board, a step they hope will take them one notch closer to the council's approval.

Throughout the process, their project has come to embody local political debate about over-development, preservation of neighborhood character versus architectural evolution, and when to follow the spirit versus the letter of the city's zoning laws.

The most significant controversy has centered around the proposed development's compatibility with its surroundings. On the south side, it would front the bustling University, where the eclectic mix of architectural styles is dominated by Spanish-style buildings, some designed by Palo Alto's renown architect Birge Clark. The historic Varsity Theater lies catty-corner from the parcel.

To the east, it would front the narrower Kipling, which is dominated by Victorian homes and a city parking lot. Directly across Kipling from 429 University, however, is the blocky, semi-industrial wall of the former Apple Store.

Throughout the project's many iterations, the proposed building has retained a modernist style. Some versions have nodded toward neighboring buildings by using similar materials, such as natural stone. But none has attempted to mimic or emulate the designs of adjacent structures.

Michael Harbour, who works on Kipling and appealed the project, explained his objections to the council in May 2015.

"This design is simply not compatible," he said. "There are no shared characteristics or design linkages with neighboring buildings."

Besides the question of architectural compatibility is the issue of the four-story project's sheer mass. Harbour has long maintained that a four-story-tall structure doesn't belong on Kipling, especially not when replacing two one-story buildings.

"To put four stories here on this narrow street ... just is not right," Harbour told the architecture board in March. "If we were here dealing with maybe a two-story structure with a third-floor set back, we probably would not (be) here."

Frustrating the Wongs, however, is the fact that the project meets objective development standards, such as parking requirements and allowed square footage. The issue of compatibility is largely subjective, they alleged -- a perspective that city officials agree with, even while insisting that the project be redesigned.

"Your ARB did not fulfill their obligations," Elizabeth Wong told the council last November, when it voted 9-to-0 to send the project back, again, to the Architectural Review Board. "Your city did not fulfill its obligation. There is no guidance for a person who wants to do a building in the city."

Although the Wongs expressed doubt that they would continue their effort to build at 429 University, they returned to the architecture board in March for feedback on two revised designs. The board generally supported the direction the Wongs had taken, but Chairman Robert Gooyer summed up the ongoing conundrum: How do you make a four-story building not look like a four-story building?

Since then, the Wongs have secured yet another architect, the project's fourth. Joseph Bellomo's work has included designing the city garage on High Street and 102-116 University Ave., a mixed-use building at Alma Street that resembles the new design for 429 University.

Conceptual plans that the Wongs and Bellomo submitted to the city in July show significant changes from the plans the board reviewed in March. Materials, exterior shapes and setbacks have all changed.

Where once there was stone, now there is glass, steel and concrete. Bellomo has replaced the former plans' stone columns, which stretched two stories tall and created a strong, towering line, with a more pedestrian-friendly glassy ground floor, which sits below curved steel mesh panels that group the second and third floors. The width of the ground floor on University has been divided up into five entryways of alternating materials in order to follow the "rhythm" of the existing streetscape, according to a July letter from Elizabeth Wong to the City.

From Kipling, plans show that the building's once-visible fourth floor has been set back farther from the structure's edge. HVAC equipment on the roof has been submerged underground, leaving a rooftop terrace with room for potted plants and trees.

The proposed building would be 31,157 square feet, about 1,800 square feet smaller than would be allowed by city code, according to Wong's letter. It would house retail on the ground floor, office space on the second and fourth floors and residential space on the upper two floors.

The Architectural Review Board on Thursday is faced with either setting another meeting for a final review and recommendation to the council, if it finds the new plans compatible, or recommending that the city deny the project if it finds the plans have not addressed the council's concerns.

The meeting will begin at 8:30 a.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.


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56 people like this
Posted by sheri
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 3, 2016 at 3:39 pm

sheri is a registered user.

Why even pretend downtown Palo Alto is anything more than a business park? This is still so out of scale and sets an unfortunate precedent for future design.

104 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Aug 3, 2016 at 5:29 pm

The Palo Alto ARB has exceptionally poor taste. If you are a developer, make sure you align your designs with their level.

42 people like this
Posted by disastrous decline
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 3, 2016 at 6:41 pm

Design review and zoning control are completely broken in Palo Alto. As a result the outcomes are disastrous and the City is not just losing its unique character and qualities, it is being destroyed.The first problem in this case is the underlying zoning allows too high a density. We need a new Council which actually deals with the
issues and does not simply slow the rate of destruction of our City. The street signing/
striping which the staff piggybacks on the over-development completes the picture of a City
in disastrous decline.

50 people like this
Posted by Palo Altan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 3, 2016 at 7:52 pm

Downtown Palo Alto has been destroyed. This proposed building is a monstrosity. Sadly, Palo Alto has indeed become an office park. The residential neighborhoods are becoming rental properties for foreign investors.

20 people like this
Posted by American
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 3, 2016 at 7:54 pm

[Post removed.]

42 people like this
Posted by No taste
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 3, 2016 at 11:01 pm

Bellomo is the FOURTH architect to design this ridiculous structure.
The Apple building across the street is also owned by the Wongs. They remodeled that facade in 2010 (PA File No. 09PLN=00262).
Their architect for that dysfunctional building was Daniel Garber of Fergus Garber Group.
Not only is the ostentatious, attention-grabbing facade of the Apple building also incompatible with University Avenue, it has no parking. Zero. The staff refers you to the city parking garage on Florence. So you lug your computer over to the store.

Inside, the huge cavernous store has the ambience of a railroad station, noisy, hard to figure out where to go. Hard surfaces glass and steel on walls floor and ceiling. Even their classes and paid consultations are held in that big noisy place, there are no smaller rooms for these functions.(Makes me think of the descriptions of Trump tower.)

Clearly wealth is no guarantee of taste and they are proving it again at 429 University.

36 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 3, 2016 at 11:52 pm

This design is still unattractive as the previous designs, and is high in contrast to the look and feel of all buildings around it.

33 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of another community
on Aug 4, 2016 at 9:01 am

My wife and I used to enjoy coming to downtown Palo Alto. University Avenue was a treat. No longer.

The hideous architecture coming in -- I mean really hideous, of which this newer ugly one is just another incarnation -- has completely ruined the downtown. It's just office buildings and pretentious restaurants now, with new buildings that are totally out of scale and which are disconcerting to the eye. Sheer greed has destroyed what once was a fine downtown--one of the finest in California. It's no longer pleasant to be in downtown Palo Alto.

This new building should not be allowed.

33 people like this
Posted by Melissa
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 4, 2016 at 11:26 am

I knew downtown Palo Alto was in trouble when the Cheesecake Factory building was allowed. Very sad. :(

26 people like this
Posted by Just Wondering
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 4, 2016 at 11:33 am

While walking downtown yesterday - I noticed that there were two pop up stores at 429 University. One pop up store sold similar furniture, but I am sure less quality than the established business of Design Within Reach (long time tenant of 429 University). We can see what kind of business person these owners are. I also wonder if those two "pop up" businesses have occupancy permits with the city and how did they get those permanent looking signs adhered to the outside of the building? Did they put in for sign permits? Did they pay the business license fees?

I know that the Design Within Reach people are trying to move out as soon as possible - can someone in the City help them get out of 429 and work with them on getting their permits cleared for the dilapidated spot down the street that they are trying to fix up and move to?

Just wondering if anyone else is asking these questions

9 people like this
Posted by GetOverIt
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 4, 2016 at 11:45 am

[Portion removed.] Change happens. And property owners have rights. Like the right to design and build within the existing zoning. Less than 50', less than permitted FAR, enough parking, proper setbacks -- just approve it already.

11 people like this
Posted by There will always be complainers
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 4, 2016 at 11:46 am

Yes, downtown palo alto is so terrible (not). Reading this forum one would think it is a disaster. Not so, just remember, a small group of people who post on this forum ate not ready to let go of the past. As for this building- just remember that following the rules and adhering to code is not enough anymore. You are subject to the whims of an anti- everything bloc on the council. The wings are right the process is unfair and arbitrary.

10 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 4, 2016 at 1:34 pm

@ No Taste. Have you lived here for more than a few years? If so, you'd know that the previous building on the Apple site didn't have any is the situation with just about all of the store fronts on University since the 1890s.

17 people like this
Posted by SP
a resident of another community
on Aug 4, 2016 at 1:48 pm

There is a 4 story building across the street and a 15? story building one block away. There is very little continuity from build to building. Some have tried with some terra cotta tiles, but for the most part, its a pretty eclectic collection of old and new currently. Seems like it would fit right in.

Without some strong architectural guidance set in law, you just are not going to get continuity.

35 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 4, 2016 at 1:49 pm

jh is a registered user.

Are the Wongs presenting this design out of spite?

21 people like this
Posted by reident
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 4, 2016 at 2:55 pm

I stopped caring what will be build next in DT Palo Alto. I don't go there. If I want ambiance I go to Los Altos. People are right, there is just office park there.

28 people like this
Posted by Just don''t get it
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 4, 2016 at 3:42 pm

When the CheesyCake Factory went in there went the neighborhood and any sense of charm. The only thing worse than the exterior is the interior! The CVS building across the street managed to keep the old charm. Please, can't we have something other than glass/metal??

2 people like this
Posted by sue allen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 4, 2016 at 4:17 pm

Palo Alto should not be 'charming.' It should be new and bold and big and brash. That's what Silicon Valley is all about. The buildings should not all have the same architectural style. Variety is the spice of life. Stop it with the no-growth stuff. We are a CITY now, not some little farming town like before 1950 when Middlefield really did run through the middle of the fields and Bayshore was a 2-lane road.

14 people like this
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 4, 2016 at 6:53 pm

Another glass box with fly swatter screens to help it meet solar heat gain restrictions. @jh might be right... it's worse.

If they meet space, parking and set back limits, the city shouldn't be making it hard to build ... other than city growth limitations which should be applied to all builders equally. Selective enforcement of restrictions is simply corruption.

If the zoning is inappropriate, it should be changed in a public and specified process.

16 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 5, 2016 at 1:43 am

<<Palo Alto should not be 'charming.' It should be new and bold and big and brash. >> Huh?

Old, narrow streets only 2 lanes wide from El Camino to 101 don't support "new, & bold & & big & brash" cities. Movement throughout Old Palo Alto is crippled by lack of parking & streets too narrow for the traffic volume. I avoid downtown like the plague & now shop & eat elsewhere.
Real cities also have supermarkets other than Whole Food or Trader Joe's, both of which are boutique markets. We have to go to Menlo Park, Mountain View, or Los Altos for a decent supermarket. Yes, I know there's a grocery store on Middlefield in Midtown, but it certainly doesn't serve the needs of a "city."

There are already lots of ugly buildings downtown, both old & new. Developers over the years have had friends on planning commissions. Could we bulldoze all the ugly buildings & maybe double the width of University, Lytton, Hamilton, Middlefield, High, etc.?

16 people like this
Posted by No taste
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 5, 2016 at 11:06 pm

"new and bold and big and brash"
The are the values of teen aged boys and overly aggressive people. Those are the values expressed in many of the oversized, looming glass boxes being built.

As people get educated and have some life experience, they tend to prefer a more nuanced environment.

8 people like this
Posted by Tsk, Tsk
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Tsk, Tsk is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

10 people like this
Posted by Tsk, Tsk
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 7, 2016 at 5:01 pm

Tsk, Tsk is a registered user.

Why are the Wongs being so persistent? This is the fourth attempt and the fourth denial. They complain about the cost to them of the denials, so why don't they just stop the submissions, cut their losses, and sell the property? Make it a gain instead of a loss,... Instead of trying to force their ideas, unattractive and outside the boundaries of the rules, on the ARB and the Palo Alto residents.

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

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