Despite a swell of neighborhood opposition, a proposal to build two five-story Marriott hotels on San Antonio Road scored a big victory Thursday morning when Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board voted to endorse the project.
By a 3-1 vote, with Chair Alexander Lew dissenting and board member Kyu Kim absent, the board approved a plan to build the two hotels – a Courtyard by Marriott and an AC by Marriott – at 744 and 748 San Antonio Road, a project that will bring 294 rooms to a block near the city's border with Mountain View. The City Council is scheduled to review the environmental analysis for the project and issue its final approval on June 12.
The board's Thursday approval came nearly two months after the board criticized an earlier design for the two hotels. At its April 6 meeting, board members argued that the buildings looked too massive; that the color scheme of the AC hotel was too dark and that the proposed landscaping was insufficient.
On Thursday, the board agreed that the applicant sufficiently addressed its earlier concerns with the revised design, which now includes landscaped terraces to break up massing, larger trees and deeper cornices.
But while these changes pleased the board, they did little to mollify the dozens of area residents who have been attending meetings and submitting letters to oppose the new developments. Some lamented the size and mass of the five-story buildings, with one area resident, Merridee Taylor, calling them an "eyesore" and likening them to prisons.
While visual impact was one area of concern, traffic impacts was another. Taylor was one of more than dozen residents who complained that the new hotels would further exacerbate the area's already considerable traffic jams. Resident Nancy Martin called the project "negative progress."
"We have lost so much," Martin said. "More businesses in the area do not add to a positive resident experience."
Janet Kahle, who has lived in the area for more than 40 years, recalled the old days when she could see the sun and the moon from her home. Joan Larrabee, who also lives in the area, argued that the project "ignores the requirement of the city that new developments be compatible with existing surroundings."
But despite the unanimous opposition from the speakers, the board agreed that the project meets code and warrants approval. After some discussion, the board voted to give the project the green light.
Board member Peter Baltay said the problem that seems to concern most residents isn't the new hotels but rather the worsening traffic situation. The hotels, he said, aren't going to dramatically change that.
And while some residents criticized the buildings' appearances, Baltay concluded that the hotel complex is compatible with the area and is "the best building we can hope for," given the density regulations.
"If you're unhappy with large buildings like this, change the zoning code," Baltay told the residents. "Don't ask the Architectural Review Board to reject a project like this, that meets the standards."
Board member Robert Gooyer agreed and alluded to the project's evolution over the past year.
"I'm sure the applicant will attest to the fact that we've been a royal pain-in-the-you-know-what because we demanded a lot of changes," Gooyer said. He acknowledged that many neighbors are upset about the project but said the board is "trying to do the best job for the community to get what's done."
Even Lew, who voted against the project, said he believes the project is "generally compatible with the neighborhood." His biggest concerns were over the circular drop-off area in front of the hotels and insufficient planting in the project's side-yard.
Architect Randy Popp noted that even with the new hotels that the city approved over the past decade, the total number of rooms in Palo Alto is 77 fewer than in 2005, when Hyatt Rickey's ended its operation. He estimated that the transient-occupancy tax in the third year of the hotels' operation is anticipated to be $3.6 million.
"It's pretty clear that although development has continued, it just hadn't kept pace," Popp said.
Editor's note: This story was initially published with an incorrect address for the proposed developments as 744 and 748 San Antonio Ave., but has since been corrected to San Antonio Road.