The 50-foot building-height limit championed by some Palo Alto City Council members is a desirable objective but ought not to be an unalterable regulation.
"Height" is a matter of perspective and perception. By perspective I mean visual not "point of view." By perception I mean actual, physical "observation" not "concept."
If one looks at a building with elements that are 60 feet tall on a large site and one is a considerable distance away, or if these elements are related to others in a proportional relationship, they may look quite appropriate. If these structures are on a narrow street with 30- to 40-foot-tall buildings as their immediate surroundings, they are likely to seem quite massive and the street will seem to be constricted.
Palo Alto's prime example is the iconic Ramona Street, with its incredible variety of scale and detail. The most recent modern building complements the historic Pedro de Lemos lower-scaled elements on the block. The early 20th century Birge Clark building at Hamilton Avenue and the corner tower element at University Avenue act as bookends, defining these two prominent corners. Both of these structures exceed the 50-foot height limit, a controversial issue that the council recent decided to codify in the city's zoning ordinance rather than include in the city's broader Comprehensive Plan.
The size and proportion of an element of a building or buildings that is higher or lower, is forward at the street edge or set back from it are important urban design considerations. Such variations allow for an opportunity to respond to different objectives: to reinforce a major street corner, to permit a juxtaposition of shapes and proportions, to provide useful exterior deck spaces, to allow sunlight to penetrate an inner courtyard. Together they allow for the possibility that a new and creative idea might enhance an otherwise ordinary design.
These design elements, along with the city's affordable housing and commercial initiatives, must be negotiated with the developer and will impact decisions regarding height and bulk. The city wants projects that include a significant proportion of affordable housing mixed with office or retail commercial uses. Perhaps such a project, strategically located, could include public amenity spaces. And to achieve all of these objectives the project developer would require an increase in the area of market-rate housing and commercial space, which could be achieved only if a portion or portions of the development exceeded the 50-foot height limitation.
The fears are obvious: Palo Alto is a low-scaled, pedestrian-oriented, mostly residential community. It is obvious that most residents do not want it to grow into a major urban environment, impersonal and congested. There is a balance right now with the quiet neighborhoods and an active downtown. The mistakes of the past, with high-rise commercial and seniors' buildings, have been curtailed. Vigilance is necessary lest these errors in judgment return. But such concerns should not overly restrict creative development.
The content of developers' presentations must demonstrate and emphasize sun angle studies, massing considerations, perspective street views, neighborhood context modeling and pedestrian impact well before facade designs, unit plans and construction materials are presented. This feasibility study is when the 50-foot height limitation is either justifiable or not. To exclude discussion of the aesthetic issues for a later date simplifies the analysis and eliminates the issue of taste, which is always subjective and time-consuming.
And although this discussion is about the physical nature of development, the city must also be careful to critically analyze the developer's pro forma. It is a "quid pro quo" issue. The developer expects to realize a significant profit as a reward for the risk taken, and the city is willing to provide a bonus by relaxing the zoning restrictions, including appropriate height exceptions. The developer in return commits to the important benefits for the community.
So while the 50-foot height is a desirable limit, exceptions should be allowed.
David Hirsch is an architect who spent most of his career in New York City but has moved to Crescent Park in Palo Alto.