Palo Alto board strikes down proposed University Avenue building

In upholding appeal, architecture panel finds latest design still too massive, incompatible

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.”


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58 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 21, 2016 at 4:14 pm

I'm glad the ARB finally decided to make a firm decision on this project. It's a tremendous waste of everyone's valuable time and money to keep a project alive that has no chance of succeeding. Wong has made it clear through many revisions, over many years, that she has no intention of reducing the size.

52 people like this
Posted by Illegal Projects Harm Our Community
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 21, 2016 at 5:50 pm

We should all be thrilled that the ARB turned down this project. But now it heads back to the City Council, where the upcoming election could mean councilmembers in lockstep with developers may be enough to approve this illegal project anyway.

A quick summary of the current project:

* It would reduce ground floor retail space by almost 1,300 sq. ft., even though there's now a law against that.
* It would add room for about 40 office workers, but just 5 residences. So that's about an 8:1 jobs/housing imbalance, making our present situation even worse.
* It doesn't meet the building compatibility zoning laws in the Municipal Code.
* It requires alley access for cars and trucks, even though the Municipal Code states such buildings should leave downtown alleys for pedestrians and bikes.
* It doesn't provide an onsite loading area, even though one is mandated in the Municipal Code.
* It uses an exemption to add about 4,000 square feet of offices that the Municipal Code says the owner is not entitled to.

Another newspaper keeps reporting that this project is totally legal – ignoring the plain facts. And despite all the ways it violates our Municipal Code and policies in our Comprehensive Plan, councilmembers Kniss, Berman, Wolbach, and Scharff voted last year to approve this project anyway. That's why so many residents are upset with the developer-backed councilmembers. It's not just that they favor developers. They also approve projects that break the law.

39 people like this
Posted by Dispicable
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 21, 2016 at 6:28 pm

The owners arrogance and defiance is insulting to the residents of Palo Alto.

9 people like this
Posted by Jennifer
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 21, 2016 at 7:33 pm

The Wongs own the property, and they designed a building within the existing zoning regulations. The ARB is fully persuadable by the current political winds, and it is populated by highly subjective tastes. Our City Council is fully in the pocket of current trends in the winds. Reminds me of the outrage about new homes in Palo Alto that are surfaced with stucco. What about property rights?

47 people like this
Posted by Eric
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 21, 2016 at 9:02 pm

Is is my imagination, or is that architectural rendering by Joseph Bellomo Architects completely misleading? In order for a 4 story building to look like that, small and unobtrusive, the viewer surely needs to be over on Hamilton Ave looking through buildings that have miraculously disappeared. Shouldn't be surprised, most architectural renderings I've seen are manipulated to benefit the client. Bogus.

45 people like this
Posted by sjk
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 22, 2016 at 12:17 am


Not your imagination. As an enthusiast photographer I find many arch viz presented by developers deceptive as they defy the laws of physics. Many renderings simultaneously show wide angle perspectives along with telephoto image compression. Indeed, distant buildings magically tower over proposed projects to make it seem smaller. Some are taken looking through a viewpoint that isn't physically possible because you would behind the concrete wall of another building.

The rendering cited above shows University Ave to be wide enough for a parking lot. This is possible by using an ultra wide angle lens, around 11mm (on a full frame sensor). Wide angle perspective would also explain why narrow Kipling St looks like highway 405. However, at this focal length the building would very tiny. However, the perspective of the building is around 35mm if you were to photograph it standing on the sidewalk, in front of CREAM, as the render suggests.

To be fair, widely used architectural apps like Revit, Archicad, Chief Arhitect, etc. render mathematically accurate images. It's the architects that lie when the input the assumptions.

26 people like this
Posted by Shame for misrepresenting
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 22, 2016 at 2:15 pm

Thank you sjk for your expert analysis of the photo.
Shame on architect Bellomo. He's very accustomed to Palo Alto development shenanigans, having designed buildings downtown.
[Portion removed.]

24 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 22, 2016 at 5:11 pm

"...widely used architectural apps like Revit, Archicad, Chief Arhitect, etc. render mathematically accurate images. It's the architects that lie when the input the assumptions."

The developer of the controversial 800 High Street condo project used these techniques to make his proposed structure seem much smaller than it truly was relative to its environment in his main rendering. He was exposed and eventually confessed Web Link.

9 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 22, 2016 at 5:14 pm

"What about property rights?"

Everybody is all for property rights, until their neighbor decides to assert his/her rights.

15 people like this
Posted by Eejits
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 23, 2016 at 1:30 pm

Eejits is a registered user.

The Wongs probably should have cut their losses three years ago and accepted the first or second rejection.

Now they should simply sell the periphery for lot value and let someone else deal with it!

8 people like this
Posted by Dagwood
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 23, 2016 at 2:24 pm

Dagwood is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Resident1
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 23, 2016 at 2:31 pm

Resident1 is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Not really
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 23, 2016 at 3:29 pm

[Post removed.]

15 people like this
Posted by good
a resident of Mayfield
on Oct 23, 2016 at 9:50 pm

That building is stale and ugly, just like all of the new buildings going up.

17 people like this
Posted by downtown north resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 24, 2016 at 6:52 am

It is sad how much of this town we are losing to folks who's main goal is profit. I grew up here, over 50 years ago and the charm Palo Alto once had is gone. I am all for new technology, providing spaces downtown for smaller companies that live among small retailers, interesting restaurants and enough housing for the elderly and blue collar workers.

Our focus should be long term, not instant gratification. Let's not make that mistake - we all know the economy goes through ups and downs and if we allow all business to take over, they will leave again and our town will be barron.

This requires discipline, and a long term approach, that includes a balance. Lets stop being divided and concentrate on the well being for all.

7 people like this
Posted by A
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 24, 2016 at 10:36 am

I don't understand why developers can't follow the rules that are in place. The planning department has all the rules. I'm sure they are very exact and explicit and for architects to take advantage of the English language and think it needs something else is ridiculous.

Everybody is copying everybody in design there is so much glass instead of actual wall being put up as a façade that I wonder how it's going to be when we have that big earthquake. There will be glass everywhere. I hate these new designs. This town used to look quaint but now it doesn't.

3 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 24, 2016 at 11:04 am

they are following all of the rules. Some of the posters above have provided misleading information. The fact is, the municipal code allows for a 50' tall building with zero setback on this site. They are using TDRs in order to provide less parking. This is also allowed in the municipal code. Reserving alleys for pedestrians is absurd and not a requirement. These owners have followed the city's rules and got screwed. If the city decides it does not want to allow these types of buildings the code should be changed. Leading owners down this rat hole is unfair and embarrassing.

9 people like this
Posted by lydia
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 24, 2016 at 12:20 pm

We have been in the area for 60 years and I approve of the decision to reject this building design. Greed seems the key reason for wanting this building to be built and not the welfare of downtown Palo Alto.

6 people like this
Posted by Illegal Projects Harm Our Community
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 24, 2016 at 12:39 pm

The poster above says "The fact is, the municipal code allows for a 50' tall building [] on this site."

The height limit is not why the project was turned down by the Council and the Architectural Review Board. The municipal code also requires Downtown buildings be compatible with neighboring buildings. See section 18.18.110. Those requirements are in addition to the 50' height limit. The massing of a building is one aspect of this. Note that the proposed building is four stories and would be right next to one story buildings. The Architectural Review Board found on repeated counts that the building was not compatible.

There are other rules the project failed to comply with. For example, they have no on-site loading area. It is required to be 12' by 45'. You won't find it anywhere in the plans. Instead, they wanted to use the public-owned alley for this, which does not qualify and would block other uses. Go read the code.

Bottom line: it does NOT follow the law. If the owners were to go to court, they will clearly lose.

12 people like this
Posted by
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 24, 2016 at 1:24 pm

is a registered user.

The proposed building looks cold and unwelcoming, not to mention plain old ugly...

The Wongs received enough " special" treatment in the past; I think the ARB simply had enough of the ugly renditions and finally put an end to it, most thankfully.

If only they had been more proactive when the Wings were building their abomination of a house! Where were their neighbors' property rights back then? It must be very uncomfortable having Windows look into your back yard!

9 people like this
Posted by Election
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 24, 2016 at 2:44 pm

Funny seeing. "Fine" ad on this page. Think about this project and who on council would support or oppose it. vote accordingly

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

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