News


Plan to replace Brutalist building sent back to drawing board

Palo Alto's architecture panel raises concerns about new building's parking lot, compatibility with surrounding area

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.

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Comments

12 people like this
Posted by TLM
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 24, 2016 at 9:45 am

"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.

I'm not sure what the panel is seeing...from the photo in the article, this seems to me to be a much more attractive building than the other ones (the bright mustard yellow one, for example) currently going up a few blocks north of it.


20 people like this
Posted by maditalian_1492
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 24, 2016 at 10:45 am

maditalian_1492 is a registered user.

"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."

Has Mr. Baltay looked at the building that replaced the old JJ&F Market? He cannot, with a straight face, tell me that the front of that building works with each building on El Camino Real. A circus, maybe!


30 people like this
Posted by Sand Hill history
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 24, 2016 at 10:56 am

Isn't Sand Hill Property still in violation of its contract in the city at Edgewood Plaza? The violations there are many, And the parking lot is too small for a proper grocery. But they sold 10 houses at 3 MILLION each. More violations.

How can you trust such a company? You can't.


2 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 24, 2016 at 11:00 am

I live in College Terrace, and I really like the replacement building at the old JJ&F site. Good job, Blach Construction (and the architect).


17 people like this
Posted by Gus L.
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 24, 2016 at 12:37 pm

"Isn't Sand Hill Property still in violation of its contract in the city at Edgewood Plaza? The violations there are many, And the parking lot is too small for a proper grocery. But they sold 10 houses at 3 MILLION each. More violations.

How can you trust such a company? You can't."

Exactly what will happen in Midtown if the neighbors aren't mindful.


27 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 24, 2016 at 7:30 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@John - It looks like an oversized jiffy lube. Cheap materials, gaudy yellow. It devalues the whole neighborhood.


10 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 24, 2016 at 8:36 pm

"this seems to me to be a much more attractive building than the other ones (the bright mustard yellow one, for example) currently going up a few blocks north of it."

Given its history of enthusiastic support for ugly designs, I suspect the ARB means the proposed new design doesn't fit in well with the character of the bright mustard yellow building on ECR.


6 people like this
Posted by TRS
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 25, 2016 at 9:07 am

I drive down past that building every day, and used to work nearby it. The new propsed structure looks fantastic and Palo Alto shoild be so lucky to have such a contemporary, functional structure that maintains the character of the area for 21st century. Batley, one of the board members, makes this highly personal to him, as if hes personally offended and offers no substantive feedback, unlike Furth that raises a valid point that should be addressed. Honestly, its comments by people like Batly that makes one lose faith in this system of board reviews. How on earth did that truly ugly eye sore of abuilding in mustard yellow get approval up the street where jjf market was? I would be embarrassed to have an office in that structure. What a joke!


2 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 25, 2016 at 9:23 am

The replacement for the JJ&F building is lively and bright and creative. Since I live in College Terrace and get to live with this building for decades to come, I just wanted to praise the designers. It will brighten my spirits every time I pass by it! It is just the opposite of the brutalist (Stalinist) building being discussed, which I always thought was depressive and reflective of that sad period in Palo Alto when such things were thought to be 'progressive'.


28 people like this
Posted by Lenore
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 25, 2016 at 9:37 am

I havent' seen the plans to replace the existing building on El Camino. However, it seems that Sand Hill's history of viiolation of its agreements at Edgewood Plaze would put anything new on hold in our City....until we know they will honor and fulfill the agreements they already signed.


14 people like this
Posted by sickened
a resident of Mayfield
on Dec 25, 2016 at 2:30 pm

just another ugly, building by a designer who lacks talent and style.


5 people like this
Posted by Left Field
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 26, 2016 at 10:24 am

I, for one, am baffled that there seems to be a desire to link Edgewood Plaza with this project.

It was no fault of Sand Hill that the grocer who signed a long term lease for the grocery space in Edgewood Plaza pulled out. Furthermore, it seems to me that Sand Hill has a HUGE incentive to get a new grocer to move in. Every month that goes by that the grocery space remains empty is a month that Sand Hill does not collect rent.

It would be FOOLISH to assume that San Hill is somehow benefiting from the Edgewood Plaza site remaining empty. In FACT, Sand Hill is taking a HUGE rent hit each month the building remains vacant.

I would expect that if you wanted to fine Sand Hill for the vacancy, they would mitigate their exposure by finding the fastest tenant...and that would VERY LIKELY not be in either the neighborhood or Sand Hill's interest.

As far as the El Camino building is concerned, it's way better than the unexplainable orange J&J replacement structure. What possible hallucinogenic drug was the ARB taking when they approved That carnival tent freak show reject?


28 people like this
Posted by Duveneck Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 26, 2016 at 10:49 am

This project should not be approved till Sand Hill stops suing the city and starts paying its $5000 a day fine for not meeting the terms of the Edgewood Plaza agreement. Sand Hill has not disclosed the terms of their contract with the grocer, who still holds the lease and has been trying to rent it out for more than their exiting monthly rent. Either Sand Hill is choosing not to release the grocer or they signed a flawed contract, which allows the building to remain unoccupied while they collect rent. Which is it?

Also, Sand Hill had numerous violations with the Edgewood project, including "accidentally" demolishing a building they promised to preserve.


24 people like this
Posted by KarenP
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 26, 2016 at 10:54 am

No further Sand Hill projects should be approved until the developer honors its commitment to maintain a grocery store at Edgewood Plaza. Sand Hill made millions developing this commercial/residential site, still collects rent from the former store operator, yet the space has remained vacant (and an eyesore to the neighborhood) for over a year. Regarding the new proposed design, it should have adequate parking, be set back farther from the street, and include rooftop solar.


4 people like this
Posted by Richard
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 26, 2016 at 2:33 pm

I agree with those, especially with some College terrace residents, who are supportive of our new building that will house the College Terrace Market and First Republic Bank. You may not like the design or the color, but you have to agree that it is unusual and not like anything else in Palo Alto, and it is quite a distinctive entrance to College Terrace. No longer will College Terrace residents have to tell visitors to drive five streets north of Oregon Expressway and turn left, but now they will be able to tell them to look for a yellow building with a clock tower. You can't miss it. And I agree it is cheerful rather than dull, normal. I suppose we can say the same thing for the Stanford Band. That should get the ball rolling for another debate.


20 people like this
Posted by City friendly development g
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 26, 2016 at 10:23 pm

Sand hill or any other developer that has a history of not delivering on their project commitments and are actively suing the city of Palo Alto to reverse project commitments should not be allowed to proceed with new projects in Palo Alto. Builders must be held accountable to their project commitments (i.e. Operating grocery store at Edgewood plaza in exchange for 6 extra $3M homes increased density variance) or they will continue to promise anything to make millions extra on their project. Architectural review board, planning department and city council need to do their job to protect our citizens while supporting Palo Alto growth.


5 people like this
Posted by yuck
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 27, 2016 at 9:29 am

yuck is a registered user.

If this style of architecture is so great, why was it given such a negative name as "Brutalist".

As the name implies, it is a stark, cold, unfriendly, unwelcoming, off-putting and austere style. Who would want that? Such buildings create negative feelings in the people who look at, live in or work in them.

Kill it now!


2 people like this
Posted by allen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 27, 2016 at 10:24 am

This should be easy. It is in compliance with all building codes. Approve it. It is proposed by Sandhill Developers, not until they are in compliance on their past projects. Even easier.


21 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 27, 2016 at 12:23 pm

El Camino is the ugliest, dirtiest, smelliest, noisiest, most air polluted street in Palo Alto. No one looks at the building while they are trying not to get nailed by distracted drivers on the street. No one cares how ugly they are. Just don't build them so close to the street that they make the street more claustrophobic.


8 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 27, 2016 at 12:39 pm

At least this one isn't designed to match a Shell gas station like the one up the street. Too bad that one wasn't sent back to the drawing board.


10 people like this
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 27, 2016 at 5:42 pm

Thank you Palo Alto Weekly for doing your best to generate dislike and/or disgust for this building that was not in the community before. Although a distance away, this building matches the Palo Alto Square buildings; everything else that might have complemented it has been torn down. In my 35 years here, I never once thought the building was ugly; I guess I didn't think about it at all. Now, I downright LOVE it.


10 people like this
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 27, 2016 at 5:45 pm

Please - work to deny Sand Hill Properties any further approvals in the City of Palo Alto. As a resident nearby to Edgewood Shopping Center, I oppose any city agreements, contracts, approvals with Sand Hill until they live up to their written agreement/promises with regards to Edgewood. Neighbors of this potential project...beware of Sand Hill Properties!!! They do not live up to their promises much less their written agreements/contracts.


12 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 27, 2016 at 7:08 pm

I agree with banning, or stopping doing business with Sand Hill Properties, any subsidiary or partner, any company that has a relationship with SH or anyone from that company that might spin off from SH to try to get around their bad reputation. Enough is enough, incompetence and bad faith 2 times in a row, this should not even be an issue. Let SH have to fight to redeem itself and the right to do business with the City of Palo Alto by fixing some of its past messes, not creating new ones ... then maybe.


1 person likes this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 27, 2016 at 7:18 pm

"Yuck" ... if you look up Brutalism on Wikipedia. This building doesn't look Brutalist
at all. There are also good examples of Brutalism and bad. The Palo Alto
Square buildings and the Bofa Bank Building downtown could be called
Brutalist. I've always like both of them. There is the AT&T building downtown
near the Post Office that could be called Brutalist that is not really nice
to look at.

And there is a large office building on Castro downtown Mountain View
that would qualify. It is the one that looks like a big block covered with
1960's style TV screens ... and it's really ugly. The building in question
here doesn't in any way match the stereotyped Brutalist style shown -
at least in my opinion.

This is an editorial using a loaded term to frame and provoke a negative
reaction before you ever read the article. Way too much of this kind of
garbage in Internet news ( if you can call it that ) and information sites.

This is Putin's kind architecture and reporting.


11 people like this
Posted by Soccer player
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 27, 2016 at 7:54 pm

Brutalism was a creative style in Palo Alto and world history. The existing building is a very cool exemplar. The use of a high patio, with public access from the street, the openness of the lot by massing the offices in a large floating rectangular prism, leaves a lot of light plane space open to the imagination, to the air. From down the street the building is alternately hidden by trees, or stands out. I have always found it interesting, arresting, Brutalist but never brutal or forbidding.

Unfortunately it has not been maintained. The drapes are a disaster in a building with such large windows. With modern glass treatment the drapes should be not need. With open fenestration, the building would look light, not like it is fighting its occupants.

Many other Brutalism examples are gone. This is the one that deserves to stay. ARB is right to look closely at the merits of just tearing down something unique and building something that looks like every other dense building going up in Palo Alto these days.


42 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Dec 29, 2016 at 12:46 pm

The ARB has no taste.


Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 17, 2017 at 9:56 am

Here we have another opportunity for due diligence on the tax effect for the tear down and replacement of this building. Possibly the tax assessed value on the current property and the forecasted tax assessment on the rebuild can be included in the approval process can be printed as matter of record. Note that Sand Hill Properties is taking this project on while it has an on-going project (stalled) in Cupertino and it has a major disagreement with Palo Alto on the empty grocery building on Embarcadero. That empty building is a reduction in tax generation for the city. Isn't Proposition 13 fun? It can surface in all kinds of places and all kinds of "agreements" which are of no benefit to the city and county.


Like this comment
Posted by Untrustworthy developer
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2017 at 6:28 pm

Sand Hill Properties just bought the Fox Theater in Redwood City. New opportunity to screw the public.
Where does their wealth come from?


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

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