Nobu, the high-end Japanese restaurant at downtown Palo Alto's Epiphany Hotel, is poised to expand into an adjacent building on Emerson Street after the City Council rejected on Monday an appeal against the project.
The council voted 8-1, with Councilwoman Lydia Kou dissenting, to toss aside the appeal from downtown property owner Elizabeth Wong and to affirm the decision of its Department of Planning and Community Environment to approve the application. Nobu will extend to 620 Emerson Ave., the former location of Stanford Florist, across the street from City Hall.
It will be connected to the hotel at 180 Hamilton Ave., which will remodel its bathrooms so that they will support both buildings.
In appealing the project, Wong's company, Yo, LLC, argued that the project should be rejected because of "severe deficiencies in the proposal regarding parking, traffic and loading, issues of very grave concern in the City of Palo Alto, and even more so in the downtown commercial core."
The appeal specifically takes issue with the project's removal of three on-site parking spaces. Nobu's proposal calls for compensating for the loss by paying "in-lieu fees," which applicants are allowed to pay when providing parking is deemed to be infeasible. The appeal argues that relying on these fees "is sugar-coating the fact that there is no provision for off-site parking within walking distance."
The Nobu proposal should have considered other options, including mechanical lifts and underground parking, Wong's appeal argues. She also told the council on Monday that the applicant can also change the project from a one- to a two-story building to accommodate parking on the ground floor.
If the city allows Nobu to not provide parking, it should allow every other downtown property owner to do the same, Wong said.
"I think it would be a great disadvantage to the city in general," Wong said. "We would be losing a lot of parking spaces."
Wong is well-versed in the city's appeal process, having herself overcome an appeal from residents for her project at 429 University Ave., a 28,547-square-foot building that includes retail, offices and three housing units. The council approved her project in February 2017 after years of negotiations.
Michael Harbour, a resident of Kipling Street who appealed Wong's project, called Wong's challenge to the Nobu expansion ironic, given her own use of the zoning code to exceed the site's typical density regulations. Wong had relied on the city's "transfer of development rights" program for her University Avenue project. What goes around, comes around, Harbour said.
"She was able to take advantage of every goody bag that could have come for that," Harbour told the council, referring to Wong's use of zoning provisions to increase her project's density. "I ask you not to be fooled here by what's going on."
Though the council agreed to move the Nobu project ahead, several members voiced concerns about the parking issue. Councilwoman Lydia Kou noted that the project provides no mitigations for the lost spots and argued that the in-lieu fees may be insufficient.
Resident Jeff Levinsky had also criticized the city for effectively allowing developers to purchase "ghost spots" rather than provide parking, and saddling residents with real impacts in the form of employees' vehicles spilling over into neighborhoods.
"As long as you keep on not addressing all the developments that are coming through, or we are actually allowing them to purchase into the parking in-lieu fees and buying 'phantom' or 'ghost spots,' we are just compounding the issue," Kou said.
The parking issue notwithstanding, council members found plenty to like in the Nobu proposal, with Kou, Karen Holman and Greg Scharff all praising the proposed design of the new building. Councilman Adrian Fine made the motion to reject the appeal and most of his colleagues swiftly backed the motion.
"It seems like all the concerns addressed in the appeal are responded to well and professionally by staff," Fine said.