After three years of revisions, hearings and neighborhood disputes, Elizabeth and Jaime Wong's proposal to construct a four-story building on University Avenue suffered what is likely a mortal blow Thursday when the city's Architectural Review Board upheld an appeal that challenged the project.
By a 3-0 vote, with board members Peter Baltay and Wynne Furth absent, the board recommended striking down the project after members found the design team didn't do enough to address their prior concerns about mass and compatibility. In doing so, they sided with Michael Harbour, a Kipling Street physician who appealed the board's earlier approval of the mixed-use building at the corner of University and Kipling.
In May 2015, the City Council voted 5-4 to accept the appeal, effectively overturning the board's approval, and directed the applicants to revise the design so that the building is less massive and more compatible with the surrounding area.
The vote led to a fresh procession of design revisions, including a recent one in September that reduced the square footage of the building by about 3,000 square feet, making it about 28,000 square feet. But on Thursday, that area was restored, much to the chagrin of the architectural board.
The new design included some changes that the board had requested, including a larger setback for the top two stories to make the building look less massive from the bottom floor. The new architect, Joseph Bellomo, also removed a concrete "eyebrow," a flat projection that would protrude horizontally from the building wall, that was featured in the earlier design.
Bellomo, whose downtown work includes the parking garage on University and Alma Street, highlighted the project's sustainability features, including renewable resources and hydraulic heating and cooling systems. He also argued that the building will mesh well with the surrounding area and withstand the test of time.
“We're really trying to design a building that fits in to the University Avenue streetscape,” Bellomo said.
Jaime Wong also addressed the board and made the case for approval. He characterized the opposition to his project as “fear of the unknown.”
“I think there are people who are just afraid that this building, because of its location and its design, is going to cause issues with how it fits in with the neighborhood, how it affects traffic, how it affects the pedestrian look and everything else,” Wong said. “I think those really are not the issues because as we see from a lot of construction that has occurred, Palo Alto grows organically and becomes a beautiful city.
“And I think this will be an addition that will be celebrated in the future if it's ever completed based on its architectural merit," he added.
But the building's massing remained a big issue for the board. While last month's proposal featured three units of housing, totaling 8,028 square feet, the revised proposal went up to five units, with 11,000 square feet of residential space. The office component was slightly reduced, from 13,013 to 12,889 square feet; while retail space was marginally increased, going from 7,393 to 7,518 square feet.
For Harbour and members of the architectural board, the massing remained a fatal flaw. The square footage, Harbour noted at the meeting, remains about the same as the project that was rejected. Harbour, who described the latest proposal as "a colossal building on the narrowest street of downtown Palo Alto," accused the applicants of delaying the project so that a new City Council could consider it after the November election.
“I'm angry that we wasted so much time and we haven't gotten anywhere,” he said. “We've gone backward.”
The board shared the same sentiment, with both board member Kyu Kim and Board Chair Robert Gooyer bemoaning the lack of progress. Kim prefaced his comments by saying he is “thoroughly worn out at this point.”
“I just don't know that it's heading in the right direction anymore,” he said.
His colleagues agreed, including Vice Chair Alexander Lew, who said he was torn between denying the project and approving it with a long series of conditions requiring revisions. He tilted toward denial, saying the massing remains too large.
“Honestly, the massing hasn't changed all that much,” Lew said. “It's really been a reskinning.”
Gooyer was more blunt and less torn.
“I think this project is going backward,” he said, shortly before he made the motion to affirm the appeal and deny the project. “We've seen numerous iterations, and I think none seem to be addressing what we asked for.”