A downtown resident scored a victory Monday night in his battle against a three-story development planned on his block when the City Council upheld his appeal and sent the previously approved project back to the drawing board.
By an 8-to-1 vote, with Councilman Cory Wolbach dissenting, the council dealt a potentially mortal blow to a proposed development at 411 and 437 Lytton Ave., a project that had already secured the approval of the city's Architectural Review Board and the city's planning department. But rather than upholding the findings of the board, as staff had suggested, the council sided with Kipling Street resident Vincent Leung, who argued in his appeal that the proposed project is too massive and intrusive for the eclectic area of the Downtown North neighborhood.
The council offered a variety of views on the project, which consists of a three-story, 40-foot building with 13,552 square feet of office space and two residential units and one separate single-family home. All roads, however, led to denial. Councilwoman Karen Holman and Mayor Pat Burt both argued that the project's design isn't compatible with the buildings around it. Councilwoman Liz Kniss focused on the traffic congestion that already exists on Lytton Avenue and said she was reluctant to support more construction in the area before the situation is improved. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff called for the developer to offer retail space on the ground floor and, if possible, more housing.
"For me, it'll require a minimal of ground-floor retail, or else I won't support it," Scharff said.
Even Wolbach, the sole dissenter, pointedly said that he doesn't like the project and lamented the fact that it doesn't include more housing. Yet he also concluded that the proposed building is superior to what exists there today and said it would be hard for him to justify voting against a project that obeys all the zoning rules.
Other council members didn't share his misgivings. Some proved sympathetic with Leung's assertion that the garage entrance for the new building should be moved from Kipling Street to Lytton. Kipling, Leung wrote in the appeal, has considerable pedestrian traffic between Everett and Lytton avenues “as families with young children walk between Johnson Park and downtown."
"Lytton Avenue is the more appropriate street for garage access," Leung wrote. "Moving the garage entrance and exit to Lytton Ave. would mitigate the traffic and safety issues."
The project architect, Ken Hayes, said the applicant team discussed possible changes with Leung and determined that moving the garage entrance to Lytton simply wouldn't be possible given the site's constraints. Nearly every commercial project on Lytton that has a parking facility has access to that facility through a side street, Hayes said. He also pointed to a traffic study that was performed for the project, which found that the new building would not significantly affect traffic.
Hayes also disputed the idea that the project is inconsistent with other buildings in the area. The new three-story building, he said, has an assortment of “design linkages" to historic buildings in the area, including shingle siding, an angled roof and floor elevations that parallel those in surrounding structures.
Even so, the Lytton Avenue project ultimately suffered the same fate that befell the proposal at 429 University Ave., a four-story development that similarly won approval from the Architectural Review Board only to be thrown back into planning purgatory by the council after an appeal from a different Kipling Street resident.
In both cases, appellants argued that Kipling is too narrow to accommodate a dense new development and that the proposal is out of context with existing structures, most of which are single-story homes and businesses. In both cases, the council agreed.
"There are locations where a three-story building can be accommodated and be in better transition and be appropriate," Holman said. "And there are places where it isn't. I think this is a situation where it isn't."
Holman offered a list of changes that she said she'd like to see in the project, including a lower height, an off-street loading zone and the movement of the garage from Kipling to Lytton, as requested by Leung. She also made a motion, which was seconded by Kniss, affirming the appeal and effectively concluding that the project is not compatible with the surroundings.
Now it will be up to the developer, Brad Ehikian, to determine whether to abandon the application or to revise the project with the hope of getting a better result next time around. Shortly before the council's vote, Ehikian made the case that after five years of design work, public hearings and neighborhood outreach, the project should be allowed to proceed.
"It's just one of those things where we've gone out to our neighbors on multiple occasions and altered our plan numerous times to try to deal with the issues raised by the board and the community," Ehikian said. "I know everyone here is very passionate and protective of Palo Alto, as we are. I'm very proud of the project because we are able to provide much-needed housing under the allowable square footage, under the allowable height limit. And we're overparked."