Neighbor challenges downtown Palo Alto development

City Council prepares to rule on appeal of three-story building at 411-437 Lytton Ave.

Vincent Leung wasn't looking for a political battle, but when the Kipling Street resident learned about a three-story building that recently won approval for his downtown block, he found several reasons to feel concerned.

Designed by Ken Hayes and proposed by Ehikian and Company, the development would replace an existing two-story building and would occupy two parcels, at 411 and 437 Lytton Ave. It would include one single-family home at 411 Lytton and a three-story, 19,838-square-foot building at 437 Lytton, featuring 13,522 square feet of office space and two residential units. A new underground garage with 65 parking spaces would also be built at the site, with an entrance off Kipling Street.

This entrance is just one of many aspects of the project that are troubling Leung, who in May filed an appeal challenging the city's approval of the project. On Monday night, Aug. 15, in one of its first actions after a six-week summer break, the City Council will consider the appeal and decide whether to overturn the city's approval of the new development.

The debate is in some ways similar to the one that surrounded 429 University Ave., a project at the corner of University and Kipling that has been at the center of the city's tense tug-of-war between developers looking to add office space to downtown Palo Alto and residents anxious about the impacts of the new projects.

In that case, neighbors had also appealed the project after it won the approval from the Architectural Review Board, alleging that the four-story building is inappropriate for Kipling and incompatible with the smaller structures around it. The City Council ultimately sided with the appellant and sent the proposal back to the drawing board, where it remains today.

The proposal at 411 Lytton isn't as dense, tall or centrally located as the one on University, though many of the arguments are similar. In his appeal letter, Leung maintains that Kipling does not have the capacity for the extra traffic and the developer's decision to place the garage entrance on Kipling rather than Lytton could jeopardize the safety of the many children who use Kipling to get to Johnson Park, including his two young daughters.

"Diverting traffic from a two-story parking garage to small residential streets will increase the risk for pedestrians in the area," Leung wrote in the appeal letter. "Even without the project there are already recent reports of accidents in this area."

Leung brought up the concerns at the March 17 meeting of the Architectural Review Board, which ultimately voted 3-1 to approve the project. A traffic analysis concluded that the garage driveway would serve about 22 vehicles during the morning peak hour and 21 during the afternoon peak, an average of about three cars per minute. The project is also expected to generate 75 new vehicle trips daily, a number that the city's planning staff called "minimal" and too insignificant to warrant a full traffic study.

Traffic, however, is just part of the problem. According to planning staff, the 40-foot building complies with all city codes, including ones governing height, density and setbacks. But one design feature continues to irk Leung: a terrace that the developer plans to add to the second floor of the building. Once installed, the terrace would be located 10 feet away from the nearest home and 25 feet from Leung's.

"There is no setback requirement for this area and the developer is maximizing the square footage by putting this terrace next to someone's window," Leung told the Weekly.

The city tried to address these concerns by creating a condition that the terrace only be used between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekends and specifying that amplified sound is prohibited at the terrace. But for Leung, such a terrace is unprecedented in a neighborhood that is dominated by single-story homes (it's more typical, he told the Weekly, for such terraces to face the commercial side of the property).

In his letter, Leung noted that office-space tenants in Palo Alto are often tech startups with younger employees, who sometimes work around the clock (he recalled witnessing an employee of a previous tenant working at the office at 3 a.m. with the lights turned on).

“A second floor terrace enables outdoor breaks and cell conversations late at night as enforcement would be difficult," Leung wrote in the letter.

The broadest criticism of the project, however, is that it's simply not compatible with the area. While the designers of the project at 429 University Ave. could point to other tall structures along downtown's main commercial street, that is not the case on Lytton and Kipling. Here, Leung noted in his appeal letter, there are "no buildings as large to be found for hundreds of feet in any direction."

Furthermore, he wrote, the proposed project doesn't share any linkage in general characteristics with neighboring buildings and is "vastly different in scale and massing."

His appeal letter includes signatures from 14 other downtown residents. Many others, Leung said, have told him that they share his view about the new project. In some cases, he said, residents weren't aware of the new project until he informed them about it.

The council, for its part, has yet to weigh in. On June 20, however, Leung scored a limited victory when council members agreed to hold a full hearing on the project in August. Now, council members will weigh the concerns expressed by Leung and his neighbors against the recommendations of planning staff and the Architectural Review Board.

During its March 17 discussion, the architectural board majority agreed that after several rounds of revisions, the architect has made enough improvements to make the project "passable or approvable," in the words of board Chair Robert Gooyer, who praised the design for making the three-story structure look like a two-story building to pedestrians walking down the street.

Board member Kyu Kim concurred and lauded the project for trying to transition into the next to it residential zone.

Board member Wynne Furth, however, saw things differently.

“This is a very eclectic neighborhood," Furth said at the March 17 meeting. “It's not that we expect everything to be the same. It's not that we don't know our backyard neighbors well, but I think this doesn't meet the compatibility standards."


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97 people like this
Posted by Jeff Levinsky
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 11, 2016 at 8:25 am

The article says staff claims the project complies with the municipal code, but it doesn’t. City staff are ignoring the code’s requirement that the building have an onsite area where trucks can pull in and park, load, and unload. Such a space would undoubtedly add cost to the developer. Instead, the staff agreed to have less street parking on Lytton and let the developer use those spaces as its private loading area. As everyone who lives, shops, or works near Downtown knows, parking there is often in short supply. So while the city proposes taxing residents to create more desperately-needed parking, behind the scenes it doles out public spaces to private owners.

Last year, a similar thing happened. The proposed plans for remodeling 261 Hamilton Avenue, former site of University Arts, showed the building being illegally underparked. We pointed out to the city’s Planning Department four separate times that the remodel wouldn’t comply with the parking laws, but they approved the plans anyway. So five of us filed an appeal and the building’s owners then quickly and graciously opted to fix the parking and other problems, perhaps realizing that once the appeal went public, they’d have to anyway. The owners gave up perhaps $2 million of office space to solve the parking shortfall.

The real story is that city staff, though paid by the public, refuse to enforce the law and instead work to enrich private developers. For 261 Hamilton, they knowingly approved a substantial violation of the law – and only our appeal stopped it. It's the same now for 411 Lytton. We hope our city council members will enforce the law and set things right.

105 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 11, 2016 at 8:46 am

As I have said before, our city does not need a single new office. Not now, and probably not in our lifetimes. The office-to-housing ratio in this city is one of the highest in the world. Nobody should have the right to build new office space in this city. Objective zoning compliance is just one of the criteria that a developer must satisfy. There are also subjective criteria such as compatibility, environmental impact, etc. Thus the city council has wide discretion to approve or disapprove new development. They should exercise that discretion to call an absolute and indefinite halt to office development.

80 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 11, 2016 at 9:00 am

The appellant and the two previous posters are completely correct. We do not need any new class A
office space rather we need to protect and preserve small( class B&C) office space where single practitioners medical, accountants etc and and other individuals work.

We need a Staff and City Council that will be sensible about our ability to grow and a Council that is willing to say no to projects such as this one that are incompatible with their neighbors.

When an applicant comes forward with a project that is not legal Staff should "nip it in the bud" rather than wasting everyones time and money by allowing such projects to proceed through the lengthy development process.

This is clearly a building that should not be approved!

71 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 11, 2016 at 9:06 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

I support Vincent. He knows his neighborhood and narrow Kipling Street. There are other important issues. The following issues apparently cannot be considered by the City Council because Administrative "Rules" for Permit Parking Program have not been finalized.

1. Kipling St from Everett to Hawthorne is saturated with parked vehicles most of every working day. Kipling, like High, Ramona and Palo Alto Avenue, is so narrow that two large trucks like UPS and FedEx can barely pass. The current permit parking program has not been able to manage parked vehicle density on neighborhood streets closest to Lytton. These streets are generated saturated with parked vehicles.

2. This development thankfully provides all of its "required" parking spaces with on-site below grade parking garage. However, tenants will be eligible to apply and pay for non-residential parking permits and park easily on Downtown North shaded streets. This is inequitable not only to residents but also for other downtown workers who do not have parking provided by their employers. Non-resident permits are fixed in number so it is poor public policy to not take full advantage on-site parking spaces. This may seem like a trivial matter but it is not. Employees in any development are not necessarily promised on-site parking by employer or landlord.

56 people like this
Posted by ANON
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 11, 2016 at 9:23 am

I appreciate Mr. Buchanan's very thoughtful points....however, The project is NOT properly parked as the first poster pointed out . The developer is being given two public parking spots on Lytton as a loading zone which should be provided on the site itself !!!

another developer give away and not legal!

70 people like this
Posted by Vincent
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 11, 2016 at 9:41 am

The traffic study mentioned in the article was conducted by Hexagon Transportation Consultants. The firm, using the "ITE Trip Generation" handbook, looked up the average number of car trips for a building of this size. They considered the change in traffic from the current building then concluded there would be no issues. They completely ignored the fact that the current building has a small four car parking area with entrance and exit on narrow Kipling St. A completely separate lot, with twenty spaces, has an entrance and exit on Lytton Ave. The proposed building will have a two story sixty-five car parking garage with exit and entrance solely on Kipling St. The traffic on Kipling St., the most narrow street in downtown, will increase by over 1,500%. This fact was conveniently ignored by Hexagon, a firm selected and compensated by the developer. Considering only the change in traffic they concluded that “new trips added by the proposed project are minimal. Therefore, it is probably not necessary to do any further focused traffic study.”

60 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 11, 2016 at 10:25 am

Perhaps others remember Hexagon's study of the Maybell proposal. As I recall they studied the traffic on Maybell when school was not in session.
The city keeps hiring them.

9 people like this
Posted by Why?
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 11, 2016 at 10:38 am

(honest question)
What is the benefit of Class A office space to the City of Palo Alto?
Do these bring in more taxes? More jabs, and indirectly more taxes/income for the city?

43 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 11, 2016 at 10:47 am

"The city keeps hiring them."

Historically the city hired a firm for an independent review. Developers now get to select and compensate whoever they want for their traffic study. The same conflict of interest contributed to the housing bubble. Appraisers were hired by banks eager to originate mortgages. An "unfriendly" appraisal would mean the bank would no longer hire you. This issue also exists for food certifications and analysts working for investment banks. It's very difficult for anyone to write a negative report that kills a valuable deal for their employer.

30 people like this
Posted by Mama
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 11, 2016 at 11:06 am

Please Jeff, Norman, for City Council!!

52 people like this
Posted by Mr Logic
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 11, 2016 at 11:29 am

And further---NO more Ken Hayes Volumetric Buildings. They are void of imagination and simply provide the maximum (unseeded) density that this pocketed planning department will approve.

Palo Alto has LOST its charm and is now being fed and digested to developers to manipulate and control.

Wake the heck up and take this city back


49 people like this
Posted by Max
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 11, 2016 at 11:34 am

Absolutely frustrating situation for the residents of downtown north who already are enduring a huge surge of loud noisy traffic going up and down Everett and Hawthorne as cut throughs to Alma and Middlefield. When these employees come to and from work they will all exit Kipling and drive through our neighborhood to reach Alma or Middlefield. I can't imagine having 65 more cars racing through our neighborhood. It's unbearable now and the traffic on Everett begins at 5:30am. If this building is built, all cars should be required to use Lytton instead of our neighborhood streets! Again the council takes no action on neighborhood preservation or quality of life.

39 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 11, 2016 at 11:42 am

When I saw the names Ken Hayes and Hexagon, I thought, how cozy. But it got cozier because Ehikian is Partner at Premier Properties, Jim Baer's company.
Web Link

46 people like this
Posted by bp, no not that BP
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 11, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Is Ken Hayes the only architect allowed to work in Palo Alto? WE can count on the usual arrangement of boxes. Lytton Avenue has several attractive, even charming buildings with an inviting architectural style. But, I suppose charm no longer enters into the equation.

52 people like this
Posted by failed govt
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2016 at 12:44 pm

What is clear from these very informed posts is that the insiders game in Palo Alto is in full force, and the staff is right at the center of it. The problem goes beyond all aspects of development
to traffic engineering on our streets. Our City
government does not work in the public interest.

43 people like this
Posted by Carla Carvalho
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 11, 2016 at 1:54 pm

This is yet another example of City staff and City Council bowing to Developers with cost to the residents. Over the past year, I have been very involved in the Edgewood Plaza Grocer Situation. What I have learned - and has been most troubling - is that City Council and City Staff are the "Great Enablers" of neighborhood destruction by big Development. Developers are going to do what it is that they do - try to develop and make money - but our elected officials have the ability to curb such development by enforcing the law. In the case of Edgewood Plaza, the absence of a Grocery Store is NOT - despite some neighbors' perception - because of a lack of interest from local Grocers. Rather, it is likely a numbers game for the Developer. And we, as neighbors, are pawns in that game. While City Council can enforce compliance with the PC (ie encourage the Developer to stop being greedy) through increased fines, it has chosen not to. While this situation is different than the Building situation at Lytton, there are many, many similarities.

39 people like this
Posted by dtn
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 11, 2016 at 2:29 pm

I am curious if any of these ARB people or city council people take a field trip to see what is being proposed or do they look at paper. Also do any of the city council or ARB look at these comments. I would say no. Case in futility. We don't need dtn to be a small office park, that is what office parks are for. We even have small business in around the homes that are housing 12 or 14 people. I am sure they are startups but renting a home is cheaper than office space. Have any of our council members walk the los altos downtown or redwood city. There are still a nice mix of retail and restaurants and live music.

47 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 11, 2016 at 3:38 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

It's very obvious that the city won't need a single additional office for decades. It's also obvious that the city stuff is not working for the residents, but for the real estate industry that perceives development in Palo Alto as an enormous profit enterprise. The greatest scandal is that city stuff has been allowed for so many years to work for the development private sector, and no council members raised hi/her voice in a manner that would've put an end to this deplorable tradition.

37 people like this
Posted by Grumpy
a resident of another community
on Aug 11, 2016 at 4:32 pm

Some very accurate comments here. The problem is quite simple: there is already as much housing as Palo Alto can bear, yet large companies continue to expand their office complexes and bring in thousands of new hires from outside the area knowing that there is insufficient housing. Then we hear a clamor for more housing. Why should Palo Alto and surrounding cities be responsible for housing these new arrivials? Why should people who have been here for 40 years have to defend themselves for not moving out to make room for new arrivals? The large companies then compound the problem by offering new hires housing benefits and other bonuses to allow them to outbid people in the area who have been struggling to buy their own house or pay rent.
Its time to limit further Spaceships, Googleplexes and new corporate offices in this area rather than being enticed by additional payroll taxes. Our infrastructure cannot support continued job growth.

35 people like this
Posted by Sophia
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 11, 2016 at 8:01 pm

Anyone who has an opinion should come out to speak on Mon, Aug 15 at 6pm. The meeting will be at 250 Hamilton.

It would also be very helpful to email your opinions to council at:

22 people like this
Posted by empty offices
a resident of Mayfield
on Aug 11, 2016 at 8:56 pm

All I'm saying is there are some empty office spaces on Cal Ave. that I haven't noticed anyone rushing into...look around City Council. And pretty soon what we know as Palo Alto will be a completely new and unrecognizable city. It already is.

6 people like this
Posted by Priced out resident
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 11, 2016 at 9:18 pm

Go Vincent, go! No new development. Save Palo Alto.

34 people like this
Posted by Jim Colton
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 11, 2016 at 9:29 pm

Jim Colton is a registered user.

I heartily agree with Norman Beamer--we do not need ANY new office space. By approving so much new office space in the past decade or so, we have put more pressure on new housing than the city can bear and have overloaded our infrastructure--our roads, parking and schools. Downtown Palo Alto has been transformed from small retail to densely packed offices, expensive restaurants and high end boutiques. There is no reason for me and my neighbors to fight the traffic and parking to go downtown anymore. The obvious first step is to not approve new office space such as proposed on Lytton. The next step is up to the voters. Vote for council members that want to limit office development and be sensible about other development.

37 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 11, 2016 at 10:27 pm

"The real story is that city staff, though paid by the public, refuse to enforce the law and instead work to enrich private developers."

This is nothing new. PA residents pay city staff while city staff works for its own interests.

Motivation: resumes. Shepherding office developments through the process is good experience to cite for the next, higher paying, job in a larger city. For staff, Palo Alto is a stepping stone on the career track. They don't expect to live with the mess they create.

Prior city councils have faithfully done their part in this Kabuki theatre, playing eagerly gullible marks for staff's advocacy. Fortunately for the town, the present council is much more sophisticated and therefore less a pushover than its predecessors. Staff must be fuming.

We should be demolishing offices, not giving away ever more public resources to promote them.

Fire Gitelman immediately.

23 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 12, 2016 at 1:41 pm

jh is a registered user.

"Fire Gitelman immediately."

Gitelman's boss is the city manager, James Keene, who is cozy with the big money who wish to influence city hall policies and decisions, many of whom live in Atherton and Woodside, or the lovely large properties north of Embarcadero. For the first time Keene has felt pushback from some of our current council members, although watching council meetings he does his best to resist! Although he has been more circumspect this past year.

The Planning Staff straight up ignore the Comprehensive Plan and city codes, which you know they wouldn't do for a resident, and wherever possible make the most generous interpretations and giveaways where they have discretionary judgement. It's hardly discretionary when used to give every developer the maximum leeway.

21 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 12, 2016 at 1:51 pm

jh is a registered user.

"empty offices"

Often a sign that an owner is planning to rebuild the property. And may even own adjacent buildings where waiting for the current tenant's lease to run out. As soon as the California Avenue area was rezoned for high density and 40' or 50' high buildings a few years ago, you can bet your bottom dollar a good many of the property owners are planning to do just that. When that happened my predictions was that in ten years time California Avenue and the adjacent area will be unrecognizable.

21 people like this
Posted by longtime resident
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 12, 2016 at 4:27 pm

Get rid of the staff. Starting with Keene.

15 people like this
Posted by Jd
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 12, 2016 at 5:18 pm

As the poster above mentioned please email your thoughts to council. It does make a difference as council is influenced by this

It shouldn't take more than a minute of your time.

2 people like this
Posted by Mark Rothschild
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 15, 2016 at 11:02 am

As a 3'rd generation PA person,when I return to the once peaceful town I grew up in,all I see are glimpses of what attracted people in the first place.It's now a,"Machine", not the PA my family enjoyed over generations.

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

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