Over the past three years, Elizabeth Wong's tortuous road toward winning approval for a new four-story development on University Avenue has tested the patience of all involved.
Residents charged that the project is too massive and architecturally incompatible with the area and successfully appealed its approval to the City Council. Council members acknowledged in May 2015 that the project meets all the objective criteria of the zoning code, but sent it back for revisions based on their view that it failed to meet subjective "compatibility" standards. And the Architectural Review Board (ARB), which had previously approved the project, found itself second-guessed and charged with holding a fresh series of reviews on the much-discussed project.
No one, perhaps, is more frustrated than Wong herself, who on Thursday presented her latest proposal for 429 University Ave., and argued to a skeptical architectural board that it would be unreasonable for the board to seek any more redesigns. After hearing the latest round of criticism from the board, Wong argued that the new building, designed by downtown architect Joseph Bollomo, should not be forced to mimic the structures around it.
"I think it's an injustice to ask the architect to copy other buildings when he has his own style," Wong told the board.
She added that Bellomo had the building reviewed by architects in the American Institute of Architects and it received "extremely positive comments." Wong told the board that, given its comments, she doesn't know if it's "even advisable to come back to the ARB."
For the board, though, the main issues weren't so much the building itself as its relationship with other structures in the area. Though tall buildings abound on University Avenue (both the Lululemon building, at 278 University Ave., and the Presidents Hotel loom well above the city's 50-foot height limit), residents and council members argued that having a large structure on this particular corner could negatively affect the smaller buildings on the famously narrow Kipling Street.
In recent weeks, Wong tried to respond to criticisms by reducing the square footage by 3,000 square feet, a move that eliminated residential space on the fourth floor. That did not, however, mollify Michael Harbour, whose office is on Kipling and whose appeal triggered the recent flurry of redesigns and hearings. The building's size, Harbour argued, is inconsistent with the context of the area.
"It still remains a colossal building on a narrow street in Palo Alto and it overshadows the first-floor neighbors," Harbour told the board Thursday.
The board, for its part, agreed that the new design represents an improvement over the prior version. On Aug. 4, members had encouraged the architect to "break down" the design of the building more, so that there wouldn't be large glass walls on every floor and so it wouldn't feel so "mysterious." On Thursday, board Chair Robert Gooyer offered a similar criticism and said the building has a "perception" problem and is too "monolithic."
"The building is just asking to have separate areas visually designated, which is the tendency to reduce the overall scale," Gooyer said during the discussion, which did not include a formal vote.
Board members also said that they aren't advocating for the building to look like others, but rather trying to make it be more compatible with them.
Board Vice Chair Alex Lew told Wong that there is an "in-between that you have refused to venture down, which is where the board wants you to go." And Gooyer stressed that the board isn't trying to design the building, but offering guidance that would help Wong reach a positive outcome with her neighbors.
"What we're trying to do is get you the ability to build a building and not have the neighborhood upset at you," Gooyer said. "That's the reality."