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.