Despite zoning concerns, Protégé wins approval | News | Palo Alto Online |


Despite zoning concerns, Protégé wins approval

City Council approves high-end offering from French Laundry alums

A proposal by two French Laundry alums to build a high-end restaurant at the former site of Club Illusions on California Avenue received a long-sought go-ahead on Monday night, despite arguments from residents and some City Council members that the approval process was deeply flawed.

Critics of the proposal said they have no problem with having a world-class restaurant called Protégé setting up shop on California Avenue. What they had a hard time stomaching was the last-minute design changes and the ambiguous zoning exemptions that characterized the approval process at 260 California Ave. The developer's application, which the council approved in 2013, dedicated the ground floor to retail space. The building owner later changed it to restaurant use, which has more stringent parking requirements.

Resident Jeff Levinsky also pointed to discrepancies in staff's calculations of the building's density, which also determines parking requirements. The issues he brought up, which relate to the building's storage area and outdoor seating area, were the subject of two long public hearings last week and, ultimately, approval from both the Architectural Review Board and Planning and Transportation Commission.

The council's discussion was, by comparison, very brief. The item was approved on the council's consent calendar through a process that precludes debate before the vote. Even so, council members Karen Holman, Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou all took issue with the evolving plans and voted against the project, which nevertheless advanced by a 6-3 vote.

Several residents joined Levinsky before the vote in calling for the council to hold developers accountable to the city's zoning laws. While the developer, Mark Conroe, and the two restauranteurs, Anthony Secviar and Dennis Kelly, complained at prior meetings about the 10-month process they had to go through to get a permit, residents countered that it was the developer team that caused these delays.

"Had the owner added sufficient parking and not tried to exceed the building-size limit and submitted proper plans, we'd all be having dinner there today," said Becky Sanders, a resident of the Ventura neighborhood.

Rita Vrhel agreed and said "everyone is tired of developers coming to the City Council with developments that don't meet requirements and whining month after month after month." And Neilson Buchanan urged the council to pay careful attention to the parking impacts of commercial developments.

"To say that developers play games with their architectural plans would be an understatement of the year," downtown resident Neilson Buchanan said.

In explaining their votes, all three dissenting council members pointed to the changing nature of the building plans.

"I'm concerned about the shifting exemptions and just the appearance that we were changing things in the last second to make the project work," DuBois said. "I would like to see staff apply consistent rules."


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21 people like this
Posted by yeah!
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 13, 2017 at 5:26 pm

glad this finally won approval. When i read a paragraph like this belowi shake my head at the rules, regulations, NIMBYism, codes, edicts, rules that choke our economy. The only people that benefit from this are consultants, lawyers and politicians.

"Resident Jeff Levinsky also pointed to discrepancies in staff's calculations of the building's density, which also determines parking requirements. The issues he brought up, which relate to the building's storage area and outdoor seating area, were the subject of two long public hearings last week and, ultimately, approval from both the Architectural Review Board and Planning and Transportation Commission."

21 people like this
Posted by PA local
a resident of Mayfield
on Jun 13, 2017 at 7:14 pm

I agree with the comment above...those who have something to gain by haulting small businesses from contributing to our local economy are 1. Not in the majority 2. Need to widen their interpretations of our codes and policies to better our community and 3. Are (considering the outcome) wasting valuable time and tax dollars. Jeff Levinsky doesn't have my vote, support or thank you. Cant wait to eat at Protege!

7 people like this
Posted by Nancy
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 13, 2017 at 7:50 pm

[Post removed.]

19 people like this
Posted by Palo Altan for Sensible Zoning
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 14, 2017 at 2:45 am

All this to allow a small business to occupy the ground floor of a store front which has remained vacant since 2014?

Seems political activists imposed an extremely narrow interpretation of the code on this business in order to delay their project.

Nice to see the city government utilize common sense and finally approve this restaurant!

15 people like this
Posted by Reasonable Citzen
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 14, 2017 at 8:35 am

Why didn't Mr. Levinsky and/or the City staff bring up these issues much earlier. There was a giant "Restaurant for Lease" sign on the property for 2 years. Yet, neither the City Staff nor Mr. Levinsky brought up any of the issues regarding the parking. Instead, Mr. Levinsky waits until the innocent tenant, Protégé, submits plans. Protégé is not the BAD GUY here. If anyone is a BAD GUY, it is Mr. Conroe, the developer who played games on the parking back in 2013. So, Protégé gets tangled up in this mess and it becomes a black eye for the City because people trying to start a small business in our community get caught in "The Palo Alto Process". We spent $7 Million of taxpayers money on Cal Avenue TRYING TO REVITALIZE THE AREA AND ATTRACT NEW BUSINESSES. And then we hold Protégé to a ridiculous standard on outdoor seating. Really? Has any one looked at the outdoor seating at other restaurants on Cal. Ave. Terun has outdoor seating in from of its restaurant and another whole building! I don't mind this; I want these small businesses to succeed. The restaurants are busiest at night, when parking is much less constrained. Especially down by Protégé where the entire Cal Train lot is empty.

8 people like this
Posted by Becky Sanders
a resident of Ventura
on Jun 15, 2017 at 10:32 am

@Reasonable Citizen et al: Were you at the meeting Monday? Please don't believe everything you read. I REALLY LIKE the author of the article a bunch, but he missed some stuff here. The applicant kept recounting square footage in the project until the project came into compliance. I mean the building was already built for goodness sake and its size on paper miraculously changed. How could the building shrink? I spoke at the meeting and pointed this and others flaws out, as did many others, not only Mr. Levinsky. Mr. Levinsky was perhaps the most articulate and well prepared, which is why I guess folks are taking pot shots at him. Shoot the messenger syndrome.

The reason that staff etc. didn't catch this last year is that, as pointed out in the previous paragraph, the building miraculously shrunk in the last few months. The applicant did not count some stairwells and corridors this last round of playing the counting game. These stairwells and corridors have ALWAYS been included, but now we have a precedent that the rule skirters can point to. Going forward other developers can whine:

"260 Cal Ave got to do this, -- omit stairwells and corridors, so why can't we?"

Playing fast and loose with the zoning code puts all zoning code at risk. I don't understand why people get upset when citizens ask that Council kindly enforce the laws. How else are we to know what to expect?

It frustrates me when folks go off half cocked in the Online Forum here and know not whereof they speak. You are aiding in the promulgation of false information. It's a pity that the awesome author left some salient points out of his article.

On a related issue, I spoke at Plan and Tran last night where a different applicant received some indication that the city might give them a free upzoning away from Public Facility at 2755 ECR -- that essentially hands the owner millions of dollars by giving them wide latitude on what can now be built there. The purchaser bought the old VTA parking lot from the County on spec because it was and still is zoned PF (for public facility, meaning that the use is supposed to benefit the public), but if the upzoning is allowed, there goes a valuable parcel of public-serving property that can never be got back, and the City gets nothing.

Spot zoning hurts community trust and erodes our government's ability to be effective. Project 2755 has now come back 3 times with essentially the same building in hopes of wearing the community, staff and city down. It looks like they may get their way -- unless there is more public outcry.

Last night, I asked that if the property be rezoned, then let's house the homeless, seniors, service workers, make it below market rate... THAT will truly serve the public benefit. But the owner who bought it on spec will not be able to profit to the same extent. So there's little interest there.

Sometimes I feel like I am living Invasion of the Body Snatchers when I see our public servants disregarding our municipal code and not batting an eye. Waking up in the morning feeling content with my conduct the previous day is where it's at. Sure, some of us aren't too popular, but fortunately that's not where our treasure is stored. Despite all the hijinks, I have to say I do love this town and am grateful that we have citizens who study the code in order to help uphold it.

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