Just outside of Sharlene Carlson's secluded condominium patio, redwood trees tower overhead and filtered sunlight dapples the cool dirt floor below.
"I love living here," said Carlson of the Palo Alto Redwoods, a 117-unit complex in south Palo Alto built on the site of a former redwood-tree nursery. "I thought I was going to buy and then move up, but I'm in a serene place. It's almost a spiritual place. I look at the redwood trees and feel peaceful and calm."
But that calm has recently been disrupted as plans have emerged to develop the property next to Palo Alto Redwoods: 4256 El Camino Real, the current site of Su Hong, a Chinese restaurant. The proposal to build a 69-room hotel and eight townhomes has galvanized to action not only Carlson, head of the homeowners association, but other Palo Alto Redwoods residents as well.
Seven condo owners voiced their concerns at Thursday's meeting of the city's Architectural Review Board, which held an initial study session on the 51,600-square-foot project.
Developer Mircea Voskerician and a principal architect from Studio T Square of Oakland, representing the owner, described the plans to the board: The building would be shaped like a U with a row of three-story townhomes on the north side stretching from El Camino back toward the rear of the property, the hotel lobby fronting El Camino, and a 50-foot-tall hotel wing to the south reaching from El Camino to the rear.
In between the hotel wing and townhomes would be a courtyard with a fire pit and lounge chairs and tables, according architectural plans submitted to the city. The contemporary hotel façade would feature glass, stone and stucco.
To the homeowners, whose complex wraps around the north side and rear of the Su Hong site, the whole plan would lead to a lower quality of life for them.
"There is not one single thing about the proposed development that benefits our community, but there are many harms," Carlson said at the meeting.
Among those alleged harms: noise pollution from the hotel courtyard and a rooftop terrace, especially from events such as weddings; tall buildings that would block sunlight and views; invasion of privacy, given that the Palo Alto Redwoods' wall is only 11 feet tall; and traffic and pedestrian safety hazards on El Camino, among others.
"A five-story hotel depriving our heritage redwoods trees of light to their lower branches will cause those branches to die off, removing our existing privacy barrier," said homeowner Neil Murphy, who added that by his calculations the hotel would take away 30 percent of daylight in the winter and 82 percent in the summer from 27 of the condos.
The development team and the homeowners have met three times over the past two months as the hotel plans have developed. The residents' objections frustrate Voskerician, who told the Weekly on Friday that he had initiated discussions with the homeowners and has made efforts to address their concerns.
Among the accommodations, he said: A swimming pool that was proposed for the rear of the property has been eliminated; a fire pit that was going to be next to that pool has been moved to the center of the courtyard; the layout of the townhomes' third floors has been flipped so that they don't overlook the Palo Alto Redwoods pool area; the townhomes rooftop "beaks" will be flipped to reduce shadows on the condo pool; and landscaping adjacent to the condo pool's wall has been altered so it protects privacy but does not cast shadows.
The architect has also matched the exterior color of the townhomes and part of the hotel building to match that of Palo Alto Redwoods. Even before meeting with the neighbors, Voskerician said, he decided to distance the underground garage from the rear property line by more than 20 feet so as not to harm the redwoods.
"I understand the worries that Palo Alto Redwoods residents have and want to help, but cooperation has to be mutual," Voskerician wrote in an email to the Weekly. "I have not seen any efforts from Palo Alto Redwoods to 'work with their new neighbor.'"
At a meeting with the homeowners on Aug. 10, attended by more than 30 residents, Voskerician said one man was so upset he started yelling at Voskerician.
"They're not realistic," the developer said. "Everyone has their own demands. ... They're not engaging in constructive conversation with us."
"We cannot be held hostage," he added. "We will not."
Unlike other developments proposed in Palo Alto, the hotel-and-townhome project is not asking for any land-use exemptions and fits into the parcel's "service commercial" zoning, which allows it to be developed with retail, hotel and residential buildings. Because of a City Council decision to prioritize the construction of hotels, the building can also be twice as dense as its lot would normally allow.
But just because it can be built doesn't mean it should, the Redwoods residents argue.
Already, the stretch of El Camino from Charleston/Arastradero Road to the Palo Alto border is home to seven hotels: Hilton Garden Inn, Palo Alto Inn, Americas Best Value Inn, Crowne Plaza Cabana, Dinah's Garden Hotel, Homewood Suites by Hilton and the Oak Motel.
"There is no such thing as an absolute right based on ordinance maximums -- every proposed project must be carefully scrutinized through a lens of reasonableness to assure that it meets the ARB goals of encouraging the attainment of the most desirable use of land and improvements and enhancing the desirability of living conditions on the immediate site and in adjacent areas," Carlson said to the architecture board.
Ironically, one factor working against the residents in their protest is not the hotel site's zoning but their own complex's, which is also service commercial. The identical zoning allows the hotel and townhomes to be 10 feet from the property line – closer than they could be had the condo complex been designated as purely residential when built in 1983.
"If the Palo Alto Redwoods were zoned correctly as multi-family residential, then the developer would have to restrict the height to 35 feet maximum within 150 feet of the Palo Alto Redwoods lot line," 18-year resident Anne Mason told the board.
Apartment buildings on neighboring McKeller Lane and the homes across El Camino behind the Elks Lodge are zoned as multi-family residential, noted Mason, whose large double-paned windows look directly out onto what is now the Su Hong parking lot. She called the project "aggressively dense and offensively taller than any other building on El Camino."
Architectural Review Board member Wynne Furth acknowledged the predicament of the Palo Alto Redwoods neighbors Thursday.
"I'm really troubled by this anomaly, that we have this residential development that's big, and while our code does not protect denser housing the way it protects single-family housing … I want to know that the building we approve does not diminish the quality of life on this parcel," she said.
Board member Peter Baltay noted that the city has design, context and "performance" criteria that also must be met by proposed developments, in addition to the zoning requirements. According to city municipal code, such criteria range from a development's pedestrian- and bicycle-friendliness to parking design to the building's mass and distance from property lines.
"I find most of the arguments we've heard from the community have quite a bit of merit. I find this project has quite a few of issues that need to be resolved before it moves forward," Baltay said, criticizing the building's massing and parking plan.
Sensitive not just to the project's architecture but also to the brewing neighborhood discord, Baltay had words of advice for both sides of the divide on Thursday.
"You'll save yourselves and us a lot of trouble if you can find a way to work together a little bit," Baltay said. "(To) the applicant: This is a challenging project and if you really want this big of a building it's going to be difficult. (To) the community: He has the right to develop this property; you cannot insist on it being an empty parking lot all the time. ... There's a possibility he'll make it better, not worse, as an amenity to you and everybody else.
"Listen to his concerns, allow him some latitude; he's going to build something there. As an applicant, try to make it so it's better for them, not worse," Baltay said.
Voskerician, who is himself a Palo Alto resident, told the Weekly that he intends to go back to the property owner and partners to discuss the architectural board's and residents' feedback and to decide on changes to the plan. He said he also hopes to meet with homeowners again, if they are willing.
• Watch the Architectural Review Board meeting (discussion of 4256 El Camino Real starts at 2:15:00)