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."