News

Council strikes down Lytton Avenue project

Resident wins appeal over previously approved development in downtown Palo Alto

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."

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Comments

112 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 16, 2016 at 12:52 am

Thank you council for making the correct decision. Another overbuilt structure which will add more office space and traffic is not what Palo Alto currently needs.


92 people like this
Posted by JBL
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 16, 2016 at 12:55 am

Thank you Vincent


91 people like this
Posted by Notma
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 16, 2016 at 5:29 am

Cory's comments made no sense. He said that the building abides by zoning but it does not - it combines two lots to increase overall square footage, and the city does not have to allow that, so it's not only aesthetics as suggested by Cory.
Just to show that Cory supports ANY project, including this one which has 3 units of 3000 square feet each, and a lot of office space.
All the talk about jobs to housing ratio, and about affordable housing and small housing units, and then he votes for this?


91 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 16, 2016 at 6:44 am

mauricio is a registered user.

I didn't think it was possible, but Cory Wolbach has become even more pro development than Kniss and Scarff, or rather, he always has been, but now he doesn't even bother to hide it.


17 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 16, 2016 at 7:26 am

We should find out how the current council candidates would have voted.


37 people like this
Posted by Election Time
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 16, 2016 at 8:43 am

With a city council election looming, everyone is putting on their slow-growth clothes.


54 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2016 at 9:50 am

The appeal of 429 University was by the landlord at 421 Kipling NOT as in this case by the impacted home owner, like Mr. Leung. Thank you 8 electeds for siding with the people of Palo Alto here.
[Portion removed.]


24 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 16, 2016 at 10:24 am

Didn't the neighbors to this project purchase their homes next to a property that was zoned to allow this size of development? To say it's "too big" is ludicrous. It's the zoning that should dictate what can be built there, not the neighbors who should have known good and well that this size development was always possible. Shame on the council for making up new development rules as they go along instead of following their own rule book called the municipal code.


41 people like this
Posted by CC sheep in wolfs clothing
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2016 at 10:37 am

Now that there is an election coming up, so many of the CC Members are now "slow growth". However all one has to do is look at their records to see how PRO Growth they were up until about 3 months ago. CC Members will be running and trying to get votes, however editorials needs to do fact checking on their records. Lidia Kou is the one true Residentialist/Slow-Growth candidate. Yes, I do believe people can have a change of mind, however if your whole public career has been promoting growth and dev't., it is time to give other candidates a place on the Council.


58 people like this
Posted by NoMoPa
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 16, 2016 at 10:55 am

Next election, know who the Palo Alto Forward candidates are before you vote. Terrible shame Wolbach was elected.


75 people like this
Posted by Paul
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 16, 2016 at 11:10 am

Thank you, Mr. Leung, to speak for many of us.


67 people like this
Posted by THANK YOU
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2016 at 11:45 am

Thank you Mr. Leung!!


33 people like this
Posted by uncommon-sense
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2016 at 11:56 am

The evaluation of this project is an appropriate reminder to all of us that that zoning and code restrictions are more than just a couple of numbers. In order to be acceptable to the entire community, a project has to satisfy ALL of the zoning restrictions not just some of them. As with many development projects, this one seems to have been guided by a desire to push most code and zoning restrictions right to their limits. The developer should not be surprised to learn that it is costly in time and money to try to create a project that exceeds the limits that the nearby residents had long relied on for the defense of the value of their own property.


67 people like this
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 16, 2016 at 12:00 pm

@ Musical. I would have voted against the project.

I am also concerned about the potential that the two large residential units added may be illegally used as office space. We do not currently have adequate code enforcement to ensure residential space is not used for commercial purposes, and large housing units downtown are especially vulnerable.


65 people like this
Posted by Anne
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2016 at 12:05 pm

Thank you Mr. Leung and thank you to the City Council!


19 people like this
Posted by No to Arthur
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2016 at 12:15 pm

"I am also concerned about the potential that the two large residential units added may be illegally used as office space. We do not currently have adequate code enforcement to ensure residential space is not used for commercial purposes, and large housing units downtown are especially vulnerable."

Great - so here's a council candidate who is saying he will not vote for a downtown project that includes housing because it 'might' be used as office. I wish they had proposed many smaller units but our parking regs deter developers from that too forcefully.

Seriously - complies with all of the objective zoning rules, as opposed to many of the surrounding structures that could never be replicated today, and includes housing - just the subjective opinion that it is not compatible. Sheesh. This is crazy. Build us some housing! Replace old inefficient buildings with new that have parking and can obligate owners to TDM programs. Stop all the obstructionist politics and let's move forward as Palo Alto always has...


14 people like this
Posted by No to Arthur
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2016 at 12:19 pm

And Cory - Thanks for being the voice of reason so close to an election.


30 people like this
Posted by Election time conversions
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2016 at 12:38 pm

>With a city council election looming, everyone is putting on their slow-growth clothes.

Sad but true. Liz Kniss is suddenly concerned about the traffic on Lytton and Middlefield. Of course she voted to approve the oversized developments that cause it. Such "heartfelt" concern.
Councilwoman is very good at "heartfelt" and calling on people in the audience to show how much she cares. Anyone who has watched her over time recognizes the election year conversion.
I nominate her for an Oscar for Best Actress award. And Greg Scharff for Best Actor. The duplicity is so obvious unless you are new to the game.


3 people like this
Posted by Jerry Hole
a resident of Monroe Park
on Aug 16, 2016 at 12:41 pm

[Post removed.]


23 people like this
Posted by California Resident
a resident of another community
on Aug 16, 2016 at 12:53 pm

The rest of California is watching. We've had enough of your games, and we are simply going to take away your zoning power. You will have no recourse. Get ready.


4 people like this
Posted by @No to Arthur
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2016 at 12:55 pm

[Post removed.]


41 people like this
Posted by Bad Boy
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 16, 2016 at 1:12 pm

[Post removed.]


33 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 16, 2016 at 1:32 pm

Annette is a registered user.

It's not difficult to determine which way a candidate leans. Just save the promotional fliers that come in the mail and look at the list of endorsers. Also pay attention to who is hosting meet-the-candidate events and the list of donors. No one should be surprised at the positions Mr. Wolbach has taken on CC.


17 people like this
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 16, 2016 at 1:52 pm

@ No to Arthur

Please do not put words in my mouth. I said that large housing units downtown are prone to being used as office space. Zoning currently allows it, and that the two housing units are large is not the reason I would have voted against the project.

But I agree with Councilmember Wolbach and others that the housing units should be smaller, but the Council will need to change zoning rules to require that.


17 people like this
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 16, 2016 at 1:56 pm

To clarify, zoning currently allows large housing units downtown. Zoning does not allow housing units to be used as commercial space, but our code enforcement efforts fall short of preventing that. A 2500 sqft +- housing unit may well be used as office space, because rents for office space are higher than rent for housing. An 800 sqft housing unit is less likely to be used for office space.


3 people like this
Posted by sheri
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2016 at 3:09 pm

sheri is a registered user.

@CC sheep in wolfs clothing

Only one council member is running--Liz Kniss.


4 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 16, 2016 at 4:01 pm

Yes, about Liz, and two members are termed out so didn't have any political motivations, one way or the other, but still voted against the project.
Unfortunately, I didn't watch last night's meeting so I don't have much to offer other than saying/asking if the rendering is good, is that a single story house right next door to that proposed building? And to Greg Scharff's demand for retail...just give up on retail...go for more housing. Modern retail is so much different than retail I remember (bear in mind I'm old and have lived here since 1961). We had good serious retail for everyone back then, not just for ladies wanting their hair and nails done. People in my day hardly knew what the word "boutique" meant.

One more thing. PAO needs to do something about allowing such hateful vituperative posts. Delete them. There were way too many allowed that went overboard on my friend Cory Wolbach. And no, I don't always agree with him, but we talk about issues in a polite way. I have also made some bad comments about people in the past, then regretted it and apologized online. I would hope some of the posters would do that also. Let's clean up our acts.

[Portion removed.]


11 people like this
Posted by Jenn
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2016 at 5:00 pm

You can't always tell by endorsers - remember at the last council election when somehow Scharff got 3 well known slow growth activists to not only endorse him but use their photos on his ads and flyers? Everyone was shocked and still wonder what he promised and how they could fall for it. So be very vigilant and don't be used as they were.


36 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 16, 2016 at 5:01 pm

@commonsense

"To say it's "too big" is ludicrous. It's the zoning that should dictate what can be built there, not the neighbors who should have known good and well that this size development was always possible"

Exactly. It is precisely the codes that the council members relied on to reach their correct conclusions. Codes go beyond just the simple objective ones such as FAR, height, and daylight planes. Assuming you're not in a historic neighborhood it would be ok for your neighbors to paint their houses hot pink ? Developers have been getting way with abusing the codes until recently. Planning staff is complicit in this.


2 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 16, 2016 at 5:02 pm

Put these buildings down on El Camino where we still have Quonset huts! Duh!


Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

on Aug 16, 2016 at 7:18 pm


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2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 16, 2016 at 7:41 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Now I understand Mark Weiss' post. He explained it offline to me. There was actually a little humor in it. He knew Cory was a good trombone player with Gunn's Jazz Band. And yes, I sang in a men's barbershop chorus so I know about that kind of woodshedding. We are at peace. Thanks, Mark!


33 people like this
Posted by Bob Taber
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2016 at 8:00 pm

As a homeowner living near the proposed 437 Lytton project, I am troubled that someone would call shame upon me for having confidence that the city of Palo Alto and its existing regulations would defend my property from abrupt decrease in value due to a disproportionate commercial development project. I have long held to the belief that Palo Alto would maintain regulations that “make sense,” and, so far at least, I have been correct.
Consider a single topic: The existing code is entirely clear that a project of the proposed scope requires a loading zone. This supports the idea that a business should not conduct its routine activities by imposing on the rights of its neighbors. Meanwhile, the piece of property in question does not have adequate space for the proposed project in addition to an off-street loading zone. At the city council meeting the architect (Ken Hayes) himself made this point clear: He said, in essence, “If there is a requirement for an off-street loading zone, we don’t have a project.” But this is not a matter of City Council making up development rules. The rule book of the municipal code is blunt and clear.
A disinterested bystander might conclude from this that the property is simply not adequate to support a project of the proposed scale. But it seems to be common for developers to possess a remarkable sense of entitlement. “If I am missing one or two of the pieces that would allow me to profit immensely from this investment, surely the city will magnanimously grant me what I don’t have so I can make the return on investment that I was hoping for.”
If the City were to grant a couple of parking places for conversion to a loading zone, then the project could go forward. But why on earth should the city do that? There appears to be broad agreement that Palo Alto already has too many office jobs. Traffic considerations alone support that view. Housing affordability is another indicator leading to the same conclusion.
Think of the City Council members as actors in a play. They have been told that the script requires them to declare that the City will gladly and freely relinquish parking spaces in order to sustain the momentum of the project. Surely they would be asking the writer, “what is my motivation here?”
Of course, the developer might propose to pay for the spaces, but it is hard to see the justification for that kind of transaction, either. If I told the City that I am prepared to pay a handsome price for complete control of the parking spaces in front of my house, I don’t expect that that proposal would go very far. If the City Council gets into the business of selling parking spaces, I don’t expect their re-election prospects to be very good.
Considerations such as this lead towards the conclusion that, if shame is to be called, it should be called upon developers who fail to look carefully at the full scope of limitations that pertain to the investments that they dive into. If only I can stretch the rules just a little bit, I can make a lot of money.


23 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2016 at 8:37 pm

If it hasn't been done already, add ugly to list of objections to this project. Glad it's gone.

Modern buildings can be classy. The right mix of historical buildings, classy traditional and modern structures, is what I think Palo Alto should be about. And decent setbacks so buildings aren's right next to the sidewalk. Lots of trees and vegetation!


7 people like this
Posted by Election time conversions
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2016 at 8:59 pm

@Jenn >remember at the last council election when somehow Scharff got 3 well known slow growth activists to not only endorse him but use their photos on his ads and flyers? Everyone was shocked and still wonder what he promised and how they could fall for it. So be very vigilant and don't be used as they were. <

That was astonishing. Probably they hadn't paid attention to his voting record. He's a smooth talker, and smart. That they fell for his line - or whatever he offered - and helped him get reelected, we all have been paying the price. Their endorsements in the future will have no effect.


Like this comment
Posted by Worthless Politician
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 16, 2016 at 9:10 pm

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Jenn
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2016 at 9:36 pm

[Post removed.]


6 people like this
Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 17, 2016 at 4:01 am

If the project has taken so many years and changes and does comply with zoning regulations and so on, does PA have any liability? Possibly there ought to be. There needs to be a defined process with zoning and rules, even possible stylistic ones, then up or down. Perhaps Palo Alto should be compelled to buy the property at some valuation that doesn't take into account that it has no apparent commercial value. The city couldn't do anything with it. Micro-apartments for the homeless?

I must remark that in the last local elections here there were altogether too many expensive glossy advertisements in my mailbox for candidates disclosing that they were sponsored by real estate interests, not the candidates. Perhaps that is the inevitable result of the Citizens United decision at the local level?

In Mountain View the number of renters exceeds the number of owners of housing. Whether the number of eligible voters as renters or owners has a plurality, I don't know and have no basis even for a guess. The same may be true in Palo Alto - the number of owners eligible to vote may not be as high as people think. The growing difference of interests between these two groups will have a result. A voter registration drive aimed at renters may result in changes constructive or not at all.


25 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 17, 2016 at 1:10 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Why do people keep saying this project met zoning codes when it doesn't include a loading zone and requires a zoning change to combine two separate parcels?

Congrats to the council for turning down this nonconforming proposal. Please turn down all office construction that require any zoning changes unless and until Palo Alto has achieved the office/housing balance ABAG requires (whatever that is).

The appropriate place for new offices, dense housing and dedicated mass transit is west of Foothill Blvd and 280, where there is plenty of empty land and no threat of flooding from increases in sea level. Only vested interests prevent rational urban planning.


20 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2016 at 2:14 pm

"Why do people keep saying this project met zoning codes when it doesn't include a loading zone and requires a zoning change to combine two separate parcels?"

Great question. It's because some people commenting are absolutely clueless about regulations beyond the basic objective codes. Mr. Leung's appeal clearly cites the exact municipal codes that are being violated and council spent about 2 hours deliberating them. Appellants were simply asking council to enforce the existing codes. It was the developer that was asking council to make up new codes and exceptions for them.

Codes, like the law, require interpretation. If it was as easy as looking some numbers we wouldn't need a planning staff, architectural review board, or council to review. We wouldn't need courts, judges, or juries. We can do urban planning and litigation with a simple iPhone app.


2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 17, 2016 at 4:46 pm

Thanks PAO for removing inappropriate posts and even part of mine 'portion removed) in response to Mark Weiss' comment which triggered mine, and also his part that triggered it.

We've worked out our differences offline.


3 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2016 at 4:50 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

The vote was 8 to 1 with Cory Wohlbach the lone dissenter. I made a music-based simile, which relies on the fact that while at Gunn, Cory played in the trombone section. I was alluding to the sound of one voice in contrast to the other eight. Why is that controversial?

I am the only person in Palo Alto who posts under his own name and is consistently censored by the Weekly.

The Weekly should do some woodshedding!

How do you get to 450 Cambridge? Practic, Plactich, #@^iceplick


22 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 17, 2016 at 6:55 pm

jh is a registered user.

Perhaps the Planning staff, under Mr. Keene's management, leads developers to expect that violating codes, in this case a commercial development without a dedicated off-street loading zone, are automatically approved by them.

Didn't staff recently approve the "Olive Garden" development with no off street loading zone, and send it on up to the council? Seems to have been the norm for years for Planning staff to approve code violations to further the interests of developers, aided and abetted by past majority pro-growth at all costs council members.


11 people like this
Posted by enough
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 17, 2016 at 11:33 pm

It's possible that a new reality - political and on the ground - from really bad policies of our freewheeling government over the past dozen years is starting to confront the Council, the staff and their developer friends - their world is changing.
Enough is enough, hopefully. Previous prototype office projects like 611 Cowper and before that 524 Hamilton, both with residential penthouses on the top floor, a big money-maker for developers, Manhattanized projects, sailed right through. But here in this proposal two residential units on top of another office building are seen as a joke in the current context of our jobs/housing imbalance,
aside from the impacts of design,scale, traffic.


5 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 18, 2016 at 12:45 am

I see a nice 2-bedroom penthouse condo in downtown Los Altos currently listed at $4.8M.
Palo Alto is falling behind.


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

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