Guest Opinion: An architect critiques the Avenidas addition, with dismay

Birge Clark's legacy in Palo Alto deserves better consideration

For more than a year I have been following the process of review of the addition for Avenidas, the downtown Palo Alto nonprofit senior center. It began when I saw a newspaper illustration, the architect's rendering, announcing the project with a view from the parking lot on Ramona Street behind the existing and original Birge Clark historic building.

I'm a recent Palo Alto resident, an architect who has spent 50 years designing buildings in New York City, many of them renovations or additions to 19th century historic buildings. Some of these historic structures were by noted East Coast architects. Many have had intensive review by New York's Landmarks Commission, an important commission established to preserve New York's significant historic structures, created soon after the demolition of the famous Pennsylvania Station in 1966, an irreplaceable loss to the city.

David Hirsch
My first reaction to the Avenidas proposal was amazement. How was it possible that Palo Alto would allow the construction of the three-story addition of such incongruous quality relative to Birge Clark's modestly scaled two-story structure? Although the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for additions to historic structures suggests that the new element should not copy the original, it states that it should nonetheless be compatible in massing, size and scale with the original to protect the historic integrity of the project. This new addition's more massive design violates this principle. Furthermore, it provides a three-story glass entry directly facing a parking lot, an incompatible relationship in my opinion.

My second experience was to visit with the Avenidas director of the project to see how committed Avenidas was to this scheme and to ask why the program demanded such an out-of-scale structure. It was a polite discussion but one that made it clear that there was little flexibility.

Following this meeting I attended the Architectural Review Board (ARB) hearing, and after some time, the Historic Review Board (HRB) hearing. Both of these sessions were critical of many of the details, but neither suggested that there was any significant, irredeemable issue of design.

Reading the history of the building led to the realization that the real cause of the disparity in the design was the retention of a one-story garage at the rear of the original building, which was deemed to be a historic structure as evaluated by the consultant conservator. This conclusion was based on evidence that it was also designed by Birge Clark and constructed soon after the original building. The original maps of that time indicated that this structure and an adjacent landscaped court were completely hidden from view, surrounded by other buildings during that era prior to their demolition to become a parking lot. And it was likely an afterthought by Birge Clark following the overall building design.

The garage relative to the new construction in the architect's rendering reminded me of that old adage, the "tail wagging the dog." It is a minor and insignificant piece, hardly representative of the work of this distinguished Palo Alto architect. It is certain that this space, the combination of the garage and open space, could be used more effectively as a significant program facility, especially for seniors.

At the next HRB hearing I and one other speaker proposed that the commissioners should disregard the recommendation of the historic reviewers and ask Avenidas to explore a scheme that stretches across the entire rear of the original building and eliminates the garage. This exercise would be significant if it showed that the entire program would fit into a two-story scheme. It might not require such a massive projection into Cogswell Plaza and loom over the view of the most significant facade of the Birge Clark building, the Bryant Street elevation. This change would also eliminate the lopsided, incongruous view from the Ramona parking lot, allowing a consistent expression at a scale that was respectful of the Birge Clark building.

The HRB requested Avenidas to study the option. This week, the project was back at the HRB for review, with the garage preserved. According to city planning staff, this decision not to demolish the garage is because:

• It would add to the cost of the design.

• The original report from the applicant's historic consultant described the garage as a significant historic element.

• There was a previous, very preliminary scheme, which studied the elimination of the garage, but it was disqualified because of the historic report and Avenidas' desire to maintain the courtyard and garage.

These are all shopworn justifications for the original error, a slap in the face of the HRB and a violation of the due process of review. I am reminded of some of the critical issues I have faced in projects where I, as an architect, had to accept the direction of the duly empowered reviewing agency and my client was required to authorize the additional work.

It is unfortunate that Avenidas, such an esteemed and needed organization, is being guided by these illegitimate decisions that have limited the architect's options. One must realize, however, that once the building is constructed it will be a permanent commitment. The cost of redesign now is a small payment relative to the construction cost of the final building. Birge Clark's legacy in Palo Alto deserves a better consideration.

David Hirsch is an architect who spent most of his career in New York City but has moved to Crescent Park in Palo Alto. He is eager to continue his career interest and experience in the built environment by examining, understanding and sometimes critiquing his newfound community.

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27 people like this
Posted by Thank you
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 14, 2016 at 8:57 am

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for your expertise and good architectural values.

Avenidas is controlled by development interests and wraps itself in sentimentality to cover its money making intentions.

To a developer everything needs demolition. In fact the current building needs a modest upgrade, not the mega project they are proposing.

12 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2016 at 5:34 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I agree with Thank you and David Hirsch. Greatly enlarging a building with no additional parking makes a joke of providing for seniors. If they truly cared about their clients, they would be looking at a permanent facility at Cubberley which would serve South Palo Alto and not just cram more services in an area already overbuilt and underparked. Expecting seniors to give up driving to Avenidas is unrealistic, given the poor quality of mass transit in Palo Alto. We are talking about transit within Palo Alto. And while offering discounts to Lyft is fine, I doubt many people are going to spend that much to get to classes at Avenidas.

If they do persist in adding space, I totally agree with Hirsch and the HRB that they should remove the old former garage and add only a two story building that matches the mass of the old historic Birge Clark building.

At least I think they changed the color of the addition from bright yellow to a color matching the rest of the building.

8 people like this
Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 16, 2016 at 6:23 pm

A photo of the existing building and a picture or drawing of the proposed building would be very helpful!

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 16, 2016 at 6:52 pm

It is not always cheaper to remodel. The Bay Area can be vastly different than New York City in regards to building codes. For example; earthquake retrofitting of buildings, which sometimes involves underpinning of existing foundations, setbacks,drainage ect....Most of the time it is better to start with a clean slate. I am always wary when a retired, out of town, architect comes into a project and gives his two cents...... Just say'in.

BTW This project should triple it's parking spaces. Or not be built at all.

11 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 16, 2016 at 7:12 pm

" Although the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for additions to historic structures suggests that the new element should not copy the original, it states that it should nonetheless be compatible in massing, size and scale with the original to protect the historic integrity of the project."

The author is new to the local architectural scene. The local custom is to exploit the first part of the above statement to build the biggest feasible addition as cheaply as possible, while ignoring or sneeringly disparaging the second part. Money trumps aesthetics.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 16, 2016 at 7:21 pm

Or not be built at all. Just say'in.

10 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 17, 2016 at 10:17 am

Shame on you Thank You. Avenidas is NOT controlled by development interests. It's owned by the city and run by a fantastic and much needed non-profit to help less fortunate seniors and seniors looking to stay busy. Design ideas are one thing but how dare you put forth 100% misinformation about this fabulous organization.

10 people like this
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Oct 17, 2016 at 11:17 am

I almost don't care what you do with the building, for me the issue should be parking, parking, parking.

2 people like this
Posted by cur Mudgeon
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 17, 2016 at 12:02 pm

We are closer to the senior center in Mountain View than Avenidas. No traffic hassles, good parking, and neither of us even likes to go to downtown Palo Alto. Build a satellite center at Cubberley.

8 people like this
Posted by Thank you
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 17, 2016 at 12:06 pm

To know who controls an organization, you have to look at its leadership.
Partial list of Avenidas Board:

Larry Klein - attorney, Thoits Law. on Council voted for major development
Rick Stern - Stern Mortgage Co.
Loren Brown -President of Vance Brown, Inc., Construction
Bern Beecham - many years voted on Council for major developments
Nancy Goldcamp - Realtor with Coldwell Banker
John Melton -years in corporate finance
Barbara Krimsky Binder - founder of investment advisory firm

Liz Kniss, PaloAlto Council Liaison-Years of support for major developers

[Portion removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by margaret
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 17, 2016 at 12:13 pm

yes! Please, please, listen to the comments. Nice to have a real architect (even though a city architect) tell us how we have done whatever the faceless developer corporations want, encouraging them to run amok and destroy all the beautiful spaces this Mid-size Town used to have

Everything will have to start over, all the developments of the past 20 years are iconic fetishes to our commercial corruption...not who we are, we are become its prisoners

4 people like this
Posted by LaNell
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 17, 2016 at 1:03 pm

Today I am visiting Eaton, Colorado, where the town recently remodeled the
historic library building. The remodel has been so seamlessly done that you do not know where the original building was. Eaton, CO knows how to remodel an historic building. Why can't Palo Alto, CA do it right?

2 people like this
Posted by Mark
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 17, 2016 at 1:57 pm

Think Like an Architect (Roger Fullington Series in Architecture) - by the late Hal Box,
Box Amazon Link: Web Link
On link: Web Link
has recently been released in audiobook format on Audible/Amazon and iTunes. Box was the retired Dean and Professor Emeritus of the University of Texas School of Architecture, and an award winning architect himself. Full disclosure - I was the narrator. This book is written in a simple style as a series of personal letters to answer many of the non-architects open questions about design, process, history… , and

Like this comment
Posted by Lisa Hendrickson
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 17, 2016 at 2:12 pm

To Thank You, I want to correct misstatements that you made. I am the former President & CEO of Avenidas, for 15 years, and I did NOT support any office building proposed on Lytton Ave. nor anywhere else in Palo Alto. Also, the current President & CEO, Amy Andonian, is NOT connected to an Andonian Construction nor any other related business.

5 people like this
Posted by Move to Cubberly
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 17, 2016 at 2:54 pm

Move to Cubberly is a registered user.

I propose one of two things:
1) Do a modest update to the existing building in keeping with the amount of parking and make the main Avenidas at Cubberly

2)Sell/Rent the existing building and totally move to Cubberly. Use the shuttles to pick people up at the DT location and bring them to Cubberly.

Like this comment
Posted by Thank you
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 17, 2016 at 4:14 pm

[Post removed; duplicate comment.]

2 people like this
Posted by stay at Cubberly
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2016 at 6:41 pm

I currently go to Hillview in Los Altos for their senior program. We should have something in south Palo Alto. I look forward to Avenidas locating in Cubberly for the near future but think they should have a permanent program and building for those of us in south Palo Alto!

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2016 at 8:39 pm

When the proposal was presented to the public for the construction for Oshman's center on San Antonio and Charleston, was it not for senior housing? As I recall there was a variance given for this monstrosity of a building, in particular to the blast wall. Am I missing something?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2016 at 8:43 pm

My bad, Oshman's was for profit, were as Avenidas is non-profit. Just say'in.

4 people like this
Posted by David Hirsch, letter author
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2016 at 8:44 pm

The Cubberly relocation certainly sounds very reasonable. It would be much less expensive to build, provide plenty of area for parking, allow the present program to remain in place at Bryant Street during the construction (especially the dining facility) and would permit a fresh start with program planning which is always a problem with a rehabilitation. Given the possible savings, I'd bet there could be some special landscape possibilities for an integrated indoor/outdoor plan and expanded activity areas.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2016 at 8:59 pm

I thought Cubberly is owned by PAUSD, it comes with restrictions in regards to it's land use, no? I thought it is only to be used for school purposes only. Correct me if I am wrong.

1 person likes this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 18, 2016 at 2:19 pm

The city owns 8-acres of the Cubberly site and leases the remainder from PAUSD.

5 people like this
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 19, 2016 at 9:45 am

The planned expansion is INCONGRUOUS. David Hirsch's critique was to the point.
The building should be preserved for its historical value, period. Expand somewhere else

3 people like this
Posted by Annie's Biped
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 21, 2016 at 11:02 am

The current Avenidas facility, city owned, has a dining room used by La Comida, the Palo Alto Senior Nutrition Program. La Comida serves lunch to at least 140 seniors Monday through Friday. Frequently the number of seniors eating lunch in the La Comida dining room exceeds 200. La Comida, also a City of Palo Alto sponsored senior program, is the largest daily program in the building. The new expansion plans for Avenidas call for REDUCING the size of the dining room so that it will only hold 90 people. This seems unreasonable. One wonders why the City of Palo Alto would allow this to happen. If the demand for senior services is projected to increase, why would the City willingly allow Avenidas to make its dining room 50% smaller, thereby limiting the number of lunches served by the La Comida Senior Nutrition Program? This makes no sense.

Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 21, 2016 at 1:35 pm

Weighing the strong pro-development connections of the majority of Avenidas board members, I have to suspect some sort of scheme to enrich some cronies at city expense.

This whole project needs to be reconsidered in plain public view, closely monitored by a citizen watchdog committee.

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

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