Love it or hate it, the Brutalist six-story building at 2600 El Camino Real is unlike any other in Palo Alto, a city better known for architect Birge Clark's arches and red-tile roofs and for Joseph Eichler's glass walls and lavish yards.
While unique and highly visible, the concrete commercial building with a second-story patio also violates numerous zoning provisions, including the city's 50-foot height limit (the building is 81 feet tall) and parking requirements (it has 56 fewer parking spots than code requires). That's one reason why the city's planning staff recommended approving a proposal by Sand Hill Property Company to demolish the building and replace it with a four-story structure that would have more parking and the same amount of square footage.
But the replacement project raised some eyebrows earlier this month, with the city's Architectural Review Board offering the developer a mixed review before sending the project back to the drawing board.
Clifford Chang, the project architect, argued at several recent Architectural Review Board meetings that the new 62,616-square-foot building would be a great improvement over the existing one, which went up in 1967 and which Chang called "incredibly antiquated in almost every respect" at a meeting last September. After getting some broad feedback from the board last year, he returned to the board earlier this month with a revised proposal, on which the city body was scheduled to vote.
"We're coming in with a completely refined project that is in complete compliance with all city codes in the city's ordinance," Chang told the board on Dec. 14.
The board, however, wasn't convinced. Board member Peter Baltay delivered the broadest and most scathing critique, arguing that he wouldn't be able to support the project. The new building, while "sculptural," doesn't fit in well with the character of El Camino Real, Baltay argued.
"It's calling attention to itself in a way that I'm finding is uncomfortable," Baltay said.
The goal, he said, is to make sure that whatever gets built "works with each building on El Camino Real."
"Unfortunately, I just don't see this building doing it, and I don't see this building heading in this direction," he said.
Board member Wynne Furth had related concerns, specifically about the new building's relationship with an affordable-housing complex now going up just north of the project site. She said she was particularly worried about the balconies Sand Hill proposed for the new project, wondering what effect they would have on the privacy of the residents in the building next door.
"I'd like to be reassured that those balconies don't provide views into those residential uses because I don't think a balcony facing those uses is appropriate if they do," Furth said. "It shouldn't be up to the residential users to screen themselves for privacy for something that they reasonably anticipated wouldn't exist."
Other board members questioned whether the proposed reconfiguration of the surface parking lot would be safe and comfortable for users. Board member Kyu Kim and Chair Robert Gooyer both raised parking as an issue and requested that Sand Hill return with a fuller and clearer explanation of its parking plans. Gooyer suggested that the driving aisles in the proposed lot may be too tight.
"Not everyone is Mario Andretti when they're driving around," Gooyer said.
Given their questions and concerns, the board opted not to vote on the project but deferred it to a future date by a 4-1 vote, with Baltay dissenting. When the project returns, the board will consider other design options for parking and the possibility of removing two elm trees along El Camino to facilitate other design options for the building itself.