Karen Price, a massage therapist with a practice on Cambridge Avenue, believes the three-story building on her block won't just change the character of the surrounding area.
It will also, she said Thursday, threaten the character of the city by accelerating the displacement of small, community-serving businesses like her own by tech companies with a global clientele.
Price was part of a group, which included area businesses and residents, who attended the Dec. 21 meeting of the Architectural Review Board to speak out against the project in the California Avenue Business District. The developers, Cambridge Investments, LLC, and Allhouse Deaton Management, have proposed demolishing three existing one-story buildings at 380-410 Cambridge Ave. and replacing them with a three-story development that would have retail on the ground floor and offices on the second and the third. A first-floor garage would include 14 new parking spaces; the remainder of the required parking has already been accounted for by parking infrastructure in the California Avenue Business District, according to the city staff report.
The top two floors of the 35,000-square-foot building would have open-floor layouts, which suggests that the future tenant will be a large company, rather than solo practitioners and the types of small businesses that currently comprise much of the block. That prospect, Price said, is disconcerting.
"These companies add no value to the neighborhood," Price said. "They greatly increase congestion and the lack of parking, as well as drive out local businesses. They destroy the character of California Avenue, which is so highly valued."
She also noted that the business district is zoned for personal services, not for research-and-development, and as such is not suitable for developments like the one proposed.
"This huge building will not help or benefit the people of Palo Alto at all," Price said. "As is happening with the rest of the country, only the few wealthy ones will benefit and the rest will suffer."
Andrew Gottlieb, a therapist with a practice at 415 Cambridge Ave., similarly argued that the project would "harm the neighborhood" and that it "makes no sense." In a letter to the board, he argued that the construction noise and disruption will negatively impact the adjacent residential building at 420 Cambridge Ave. and other office buildings along Cambridge.
The board did not rule on the project Thursday, opting to continue the discussion to a future date. Members made clear, however, that they do not support from the developers for a "design enhancement exception" (DEE) to allow an additional 8 feet of building height, above the 35 feet allowed in the commercial zone.
Steve Pierce, representing the developer team, said he requested the exception to accommodate the council's recent mandate that all current ground-floor retail space should be preserved as retail. When the council approved the law last year, it didn't take into account that retail "requires much greater height than office space would require," Pierce said.
Greater height would allow higher ceilings on the ground floor, which would promote a viable retail operation. Under the current plans, the floor-to-ceiling height would be 9 feet and 5 inches, while the second and third floor would each be 8 feet and 5 inches.
"If you want retail, you need to create the spaces that the retail needs to be successful," Pierce told the board.
The city's planning staff had determined that the height request "does not meet the intent, purpose or applicability requirements for a DEE," which is typically used for minor deviations from design standards, according to a staff report. The board generally agreed.
Board member Robert Gooyer said he believes the 35-foot height is sufficient to accommodate retail.
"The intent these spaces are to be community service spaces, not retail giants that you come a couple of miles to go to. I don't see any problem at all with being able to fit the height (for retail) in the 35 feet."
He also noted that if the developer really wants the additional height for retail, he should just propose a two-story building. Board member Osma Thompson agreed and said the building "begs for a two-story solution."
Board members Alexander Lew and Peter Baltay said the request for the additional height to make retail more viable is a substantive issue that is beyond the board's purview. Baltay noted that "design enhancement exceptions" are typically used to improve a building's design, which is not the case here.