Board still not sold on contentious University Avenue project

Despite reduction of square footage, Palo Alto architectural board agrees proposal for 429 University Ave. is still too monolithic

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."


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39 people like this
Posted by Eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 3, 2016 at 11:16 am

Eileen is a registered user.

Personally, I have no sympathy with Ms. Wong's plight. She herself has helped create a contentious relationship with
her Kipling neighbors by insisting on maxing out the square footage of this building at her neighbors expense. Lower the height and get rid of the endless glass otherwise It will look like a giant light bulb at night when the start-up moves in with all the worker bees... Neighbors have right too!

47 people like this
Posted by Pull-eeeze!
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 3, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Pull-eeeze! is a registered user.

Mrs. Wong should just give up on this.

She makes things worse on herself with her repeated attempt to produce a decent plan, but fails each time. Her whining and complaining have tested the ARB, the local residents, her own neighbor's, and most likely her architects.

Give up and sell the property, take the fortune from the sale and start over elsewhere!

15 people like this
Posted by Neal
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 4, 2016 at 6:28 am

There's no pleasing the ARB. Their criticism is too subjective using words like "mysterious", "monolithic", and "perception" problem. Maybe the ARB should design the building itself and save Ms. Wong the aggravation of constant redesigns. Better yet, get rid of the ARB.

18 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 6, 2016 at 11:31 am

38 year resident is a registered user.

To Pull-eeeze.....lest you forget, Ms. Wong's plans had been approved and given the go ahead. This is a case where a squeaky wheel (a Kipling property owner) got greased by appealing the approved plan resulting in Ms. Wong having to resubmit changes at a cost to her of who knows how much, after having gone through several revisions before her plan was approved. Like it or not, she met all the requirements the city requested. Would you give up if it were you?

25 people like this
Posted by Mark
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 6, 2016 at 11:42 am

Palo Alto Board members: As a long terms resident calling PA my home, I am grateful that you each have the ability to withstand the negativity served up to you by those that seek to profit from developing our town, banking the money from the development deal, and moving on-- while our community will then be left to live with the buildings that will still be standing thirty (30) plus years from now.

As I drive through San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara it has given me pause to consider why those town towns have continued to develop with shared character consistent with our lovely Spanish American architecture--similar to some Stanford University architecture, yet Palo Alto is growing further away from same--toward a kind of mis-mash of clashing architecture which to my eye is basically just future blight.

Thank you for standing up to developers so we have a community of buildings that has a shared vision of our past while integrating that past into our future.

18 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2016 at 11:58 am

A rendering should be made with this new building and the rest of the 400-block on University Ave. The new building would be quite incongruous in scale and aesthetic to the rest of the block. I have to stare at this block everyday, but everyone else needs to be able to see it too.

26 people like this
Posted by need downzoning
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2016 at 12:38 pm

It is nearing midnight in Palo Alto from a regulatory and governmental standpoint. We need a downzoning so that the starting point for office/commercial projects makes sense and then design review goes from there. The process right
now is inside/out and upside down and completely
broken. Palo Alto is well on the way toward complete degradation, destruction,transformation.
It is imperative that a new Council takes over and actually wades into this mess created then ignored and perpetuated by past Councils, the staff and
their developer friends.

10 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 6, 2016 at 5:34 pm

38 year resident is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

24 people like this
Posted by Wondering
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 6, 2016 at 6:02 pm

Agree with and share Mark's puzzlement about how beautiful cities like Santa Barbara have managed to grow and remain vibrant while still maintaining their unique, historic character. What a pleasure it is to walk down SB's State Street. All the big guys are there, but kept in check. (Even the Apple store's big glass box has been tucked off the street behind adobe-esque arches. Only city I know of that's been able to pull that one off.) Cohesiveness, character, and charm may be boring to some, I guess, but it's amazing how these qualities are reflected in the cities most want to visit. Too bad our city council lost sight of that in this drive to develop.

16 people like this
Posted by Its OK if it look OLD
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 6, 2016 at 6:54 pm

All Mrs. Wong needed to do is punch out yet another tired old Spanish Revival or Mediterranean cookie cutter building and it would have sailed through the process.

Once the Hayes Group Architects got involved, the world turned against the project.

In this bastion of high tech and reinventing tomorrow again and again and again…the folks still want their old, stale, obsolete early 20th century fake European buildings.

14 people like this
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2016 at 9:13 pm

It would be nice if deterministic rule of law, rather than subjective interpretation were how decisions were made in this town. There is a distinct Kafkaesque quality to how this is playing out. For those of you who support this nonsense, we should add a subjective "compatibility" cause to the drivers license test or IRS code just for you, to see how you like it.

23 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2016 at 11:07 pm

Totally in agreement with "need downzoning". Past city councils approved all sorts of exemptions and increases to zoning that have allowed these monster buildings all over town. If Palo Alto is to be saved we must elect the candidates for city council who really support the people who live here. Lydia Kou and Arthur Keller for sure and Stewart Carl is looking like another slow growth candidate. There are still a majority of growth council members and appointees to the ARB and planning commission. We need to clean house and lower zoning back to a more livable level.

13 people like this
Posted by liz
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 7, 2016 at 2:28 pm

The council doesn't seem capable of directing the ARB to come up with a set of architechtural and process criteria for University Ave that can be relied on by any developer; rather the ARB has this: "We'll know when we like it, so just keep coming back until you've read our collective mind, if you can find it." I don't like Wong's building, but I'm not sure it's more of an abomination than the ARB's decision-making process; although the building will last longer, maybe. This is the second time around for arbitrary and subjective decision-making by the ARB since I've lived here.

12 people like this
Posted by Be Positive
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 7, 2016 at 2:57 pm

Be Positive is a registered user.

Why is it that East Palo Alto keeps getting these normal, reasonably attractive office building and we get weird, ugly buildings? Not only this one, but the truly strange orange, striped building on El Camino?

11 people like this
Posted by Edgar
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 7, 2016 at 8:43 pm

The city has refused to implement zoning or architectural regulations, as pointed out by others. I assume at the request of developers, and blesses by successive City Managers and inaction by City Council members. Without such rules, building applicants, commercial and residential, should expect inconsistent and subjective evaluations of their proposals, and the city should expect to have good, bad and ugly permit applications at any time. This story is not a surprise.

16 people like this
Posted by need downzoning
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2016 at 8:45 am

@Be Positive @Edgar
Exactly. The surreally hideous orange College Terrace Centre which to compound it clashes with the Shell Station next to it, illustrates the problem. In practical terms there is no design review or zoning function operating in PA so it is hit and miss therefore, just depends on what the applicant submits (the College Terrace architect has done some good projects). And of course that is
why you can get a full-blown Cheesecake Factory on University Ave. This applies also of course to the Individual Review process for two-story houses
in our residential areas. PA has become a textbook
case in the worst way.

14 people like this
Posted by Time to Quit
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2016 at 9:19 am

Time to Quit is a registered user.

It is time for the Wongs to just cut their losses and sell the property.

They were unbending with their awful house, alienating neighbors. Now they are alienating most of the city with their awful plans.

Time to just stop it and move on to something else.

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

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