As Palo Alto's senior population continues to grow, the city's premier senior-services provider is preparing to do the same by building a three-story addition to its historic center on Bryant Street.
The ambitious plan, which was more than two years in the making, scored a huge victory Thursday morning, when the city's Architectural Review Board voted to approve the project. The vote came just six days after the Historic Resources Board voted similarly.
The two approvals mean that unless the project is appealed, Avenidas can move ahead with the project. On Thursday morning, just before the architecture board voted 3-0 to approve the project, with Peter Baltay and Wynne Furth recused, members praised the latest design changes, including a flatter roof, a slight height reduction (nine inches) and a 532-square-foot reduction in new floor area on the third floor, which aims to make the addition more compatible with the existing two-story building designed by the city's iconic architect Birge Clark.
By reducing the floor area on the third floor and setting the highest story farther back, the architect was able to create an outdoor deck overlooking the courtyard.
With the changes, the board agreed that the addition is now compatible with the rest of the site, particularly because it is positioned in a way that would make it subservient to the smaller building that currently exists. Chair Robert Gooyer called the project "nicely done."
"It's come a long way since we last saw it," Gooyer said. "It is a three-story building but I don't think, in the way it was designed, that it overwhelms the two-story building."
Board member Kyu Kim lauded the architect, Kevin Jones, for finding the balance between providing Avenidas the needed space while ensuring that the building is a good fit for the prominent downtown site next to Cogswell Plaza.
"I applaud your efforts and the resolution you've come to," Kim said. "I'd be more than happy to approve the project, seeing the revisions you made."
Vice Chair Alex Lew agreed with Kim and pointed to various three-story buildings both in the city and at Stanford that are surrounded by open space and courtyards.
"They're beautiful spaces and they're attractive," Lew said. "I think that's the case with this particular project."
The two recent approvals belied, however, the long road and the intense scrutiny that the project has been facing over the past two years and the criticism that it continues to face from some local architects, residents and users of Avenidas facilities. Over a series of meetings, both the architectural and the historic boards have struggled with the building's massing and with its compatibility with the rest of the site.
One particularly thorny question surrounded the one-story garage that was designed by Clark on the north side of the building. While Avenidas had initially intended to demolish the garage as part of its project, an analysis commissioned by Avenidas deemed it to be a historic structure, prompting significant revisions in plans.
Both reviewing boards struggled with the issue of whether the garage should be retained, with plenty of opinions on both sides of the debate. Baltay has been outspoken in his desire to see the garage demolished so that the site can accommodate a design that is more compatible with the old building. He attended the Sept. 8 meeting of the Historic Resources Board and argued that it's impossible to have a three-story addition that does not look overpowering in comparison with the existing structure (because he spoke to the historic board about this project before his own board considered the approval, Baltay had to recuse himself from Thursday hearing). Removing the structure would allow Avenidas to place the addition at a different location, he said.
"We owe it to ourselves, to our town and to our citizens to do the best building we can," Baltay told the historic board. "And I'm afraid what we see today is not the best building possible."
But last week, the previously skeptical historical board finally agreed with Avenidas' decision to retain the garage. Board member David Bower, who was initially troubled by the size of the addition, said on Oct. 11 that the project "now is compatible in its massing and material selection and does not overwhelm the original design."
"I think this project has gotten better as it has gone through evolutionary stage," Bower said at the meeting (the board approved the project at a subsequent meeting, the following day).
The two approvals are a big victory for Avenidas, which will see its total floor area expand by 7,158 square feet (an earlier proposal called for 11,000 additional square feet).
Prior to each board's discussion, Lisa Hendrickson, the capital project manager for Avenidas, urged board members to approve the application, noting that any further delays could jeopardize the entire project by adding costs and making it difficult for the organization to meet the conditions of several major donors.
"Our almost 90-year-old building is sorely in need of modernization," Hendrickson told the Historic Resources Board on Oct. 11. "Our community's seniors deserve a better community center, one that is safer and with enough space for the programs that they want."