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.
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.