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."