News

Divisive downtown project suffers setback

Architectural Review Board rejects Elizabeth Wong's proposal to make design changes to proposed development at 429 University Ave.

Things were looking up for Elizabeth Wong in February 2017, when the Palo Alto City Council narrowly approved her plan to build a four-story mixed-use building on University Avenue site that once housed the popular Shady Lane boutique.

But 18 months later, the project at 429 University Ave. remains mired in the city's planning process, hampered by community opposition and skepticism from the city's Architectural Review Board. Last week, it faced a fresh setback when the board rejected proposed design changes, setting the stage for an appeal and potential litigation.

The board's 2-1 vote, with Vice Chair Alex Lew dissenting and board members Wynne Furth and Peter Baltay recused, was the latest turn in the road for a project that has been in the works since June 2014 and that has been subject to 14 public hearings before the council's 5-3 vote in in February 2017, which stipulated it had to meet a set of conditions pertaining to the building's design.

Since that vote, Wong has gone through several different architects and has made a number of tweaks with the intent of complying with the council's directions and the board's recommendations. But on Oct. 4, board members Osma Thompson and Robert Gooyer both agreed that it has not far enough and recommended denying the proposed changes.

Even though the board's decision was focused on three specific design elements – landscaping, building colors and the building's west wall – its vote makes it exceedingly likely that the project will go back to the council for another review. Given the board's negative recommendation, it will now be up to interim Planning Director Jonathan Lait to either overrule the board and approve the deeply polarizing project – all but guaranteeing that nearby residents will appeal – or reject the project and almost certainly face a challenge from Wong.

For Michael Harbour, who appealed the original project, the decision should be pretty straightforward. Harbour, a downtown resident with a medical practice on Kipling Street, has argued for years that the project is too massive for the area and incompatible with Kipling, a narrow street that includes numerous Victorian buildings.

"This proposed mammoth four-story building really overshadows it," Harbour told the board during the hearing.

Harbour noted that the council's conditions of approval included more details about the landscape plan, revision to building colors and a "decorative wall design treatment" to address the blank wall that would be visible when the building is approached from University Avenue. This treatment, the council’s motion states, should be "subject to review by the Architectural Review Board."

The board's vote, he argued, demonstrates that Wong has failed to do that. He also noted that because the building's design has been modified since the council’s 2017 vote, the new project no longer conforms to what was approved.

Wong took issue with that interpretation. The project, she told the board in another hearing on Sept. 20, has been thoroughly vetted by various city departments. The council, she noted, has already approved the building's massing, which was its most controversial element. Harbour's arguments, she said, are "water under the bridge." The board's discussions, she argued, should be narrowly focused on landscaping, building colors and the west wall.

Her husband, Jaime Wong, agreed.

"I don't think the City Council wants to see this again," Jaime Wong said Sept. 20, at the second of three public hearings on the project.

The city's planning staff had recommended approving the project based on recent revisions to the color scheme and the wall design, as well as the added landscaping elements. The board, however, found the design lacking. Thompson and Gooyer both said they couldn't make the necessary findings to approve the project.

Thompson said the project fails to have a "unified coherent design" and nor is it "of high aesthetic quality, using high quality, integrated materials and appropriate construction techniques, and incorporating textures, colors, and other details that are compatible with and enhance the surrounding area." She argued that the west wall of the modernist building continues to clash with the surrounding area.

"It's really just kind of a flat wall. It's a little bit of a stark contrast and I think it does a bit of a disservice to the neighborhood character on its own," Thompson said.

Gooyer agreed and noted that the board already rejected the project once, before the council effectively overruled the board and approved it. Even with the narrower purview, he said he cannot support the project.

"I don't think we're helping the community with this design," Gooyer said.

For the council, the project poses a tough dilemma. During its 2017 review, which followed two prior rejections, council members agreed that the proposed development complies with all the objective zoning criteria relating to density, height and setbacks. Even so, the project barely mustered the votes it needed for passage, and only after a threatened lawsuit. Even the five council members who supported the project -- Eric Filseth, Adrian Fine, Greg Scharff, Greg Tanaka and Cory Wolbach -- were less than thrilled about the project.

"Do I love the building? No. But the law is the law and the law doesn't say, 'You must love the building,'" Wolbach said during the Feb. 6, 2017, meeting.

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Comments

49 people like this
Posted by This is a Terrible Project
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 11, 2018 at 9:43 am

This building has never followed the law. The council members who voted against it pointed that out clearly.

For example, you're not supposed to get to erect giant buildings that next to small nearby businesses and houses. And you're not supposed to make traffic worse on small streets, as this will do on Kipling.

[Portion removed.] We need government leaders and city staff with stronger spines to stop this.


58 people like this
Posted by Michael Harbour, MD, MPH
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 11, 2018 at 10:02 am

The proposed building at the corner of University Avenue and Kipling Street is inappropriate in size, mass, scale and design. Kipling St is a charming street lined by Victorian homes. The solid cement square structure shares no design linkages with any of its surroundings. The proposed building violates the Palo Alto Municipal Code, the Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan,and Downtown Development Guidelines. This building has been rejected by the Palo Alto Architectural Review Board (ARB) numerous times. It was also unanimously rejected by the Historical Review Board (HRB) as being too large and incompatible with neighboring architectural design. Multiple Birge Clark will be demolished and replaced with a design that the ARB says does not benefit the city. The City Council gave the developer a gracious opportunity to get the design right, but the developer has failed to do that and now is the time for the this building design to be permanently denied.

If it were approved, the developer would nearly triple the existing cubic square footage due to a series of giveaways and incentives from the city including Transfer Development Rights (TDRs). This has allowed the building to go from an existing one story structure to a massive four story complex. It is not pedestrian friendly as it lacks overhangs, alcoves and warmth. It will cast a tall shadow neighboring buildings. It is located on the most narrow street in downtown Palo Alto where parking is already very difficult and cars sideswipe one another when passing. It is under parked by dozens of parking spaces and will further worsen the downtown parking problem and traffic congestion.

The developer has refused to work with the neighbors and citizen groups to offer any concessions. Unfortunately the goal of maximizing square footage for profit has torpedoed the age old adage of being a good neighbor. This building represents everything that is wrong with the current state of Palo Alto development including profits over people and community. Now is the time for this building to be permanently denied by the Palo Alto Planning Department and City Council. The citizenry deserves a better designed project that will benefit all.


47 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 11, 2018 at 11:00 am

Immediately before Elizabeth Wong's appeal was put on the Council agenda two years ago, newly elected Council member Greg Tanaka returned the $5,000 campaign contribution he had received from a member of the Wong family in order to participate and vote in favor of the Wong project. I trust that if this comes before the council again the City's legal council will rule that Tanaka has a conflict of interest and must excuse himself.


4 people like this
Posted by Broken process...
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 11, 2018 at 11:18 am

This should have been approved. Wong has been wronged.


32 people like this
Posted by Yes developer greed
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 11, 2018 at 11:38 am

If you need a poster example of developer greed, this is it. Some people object to that word but how else to explain the obsessive insistence on oversized and under-designed project on our major street. Yes, *our* main street.

Tanaka also had a banner or other advertisement over the property.


2 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2018 at 11:39 am

"This building has never followed the law. The council members who voted against it pointed that out clearly. "

Uh, in the story.

"council members agreed that the proposed development complies all the objective zoning criteria relating to density, height and setbacks."

Someone didn't read the article.


44 people like this
Posted by The Art of Deception
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 11, 2018 at 11:48 am

Mrs Wong's original project was not approved until she followed the City's recommendations and rules. Once approved she could have started building, but instead, she changed the approved project to something that would have NOT been originally approved. It's only fair that the "new" project goes to the City Council again. [Portion removed.]


9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 11, 2018 at 12:14 pm

[Post removed.]


16 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 11, 2018 at 12:43 pm

Rejected by ARB means it's not ugly enough.


32 people like this
Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 11, 2018 at 1:50 pm

eileen is a registered user.

I think Wong has shown that she has no interest in working with the Palo Alto community or city officials to get this right. It looks like the goal of the Wong family is to maximize their profits above all else by building an ugly, soulless structure right in the middle of our downtown.I hope the city will do the right thing for the residents and scrap this horrible project.


Like this comment
Posted by Fr0hickey
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 11, 2018 at 2:37 pm

Fr0hickey is a registered user.

Does Wong own the land/property?


30 people like this
Posted by We Are Devo
a resident of University South
on Oct 11, 2018 at 3:16 pm

> Immediately before Elizabeth Wong's appeal was put on the Council agenda two years ago, newly elected Council member Greg Tanaka returned the $5,000 campaign contribution he had received from a member of the Wong family in order to participate and vote in favor of the Wong project.

>> Tanaka also had a banner or other advertisement over the property.

Wow. So much for transparency.


>> This should have been approved. Wong has been wronged.

If so, how do you right a Wong? Especially if...

>>>...she intended to deceive the City of Palo Alto with her project in Feb 2017 when she had no intention to follow through that project.
>>>>...Wong has shown that she has no interest in working with the Palo Alto community or city officials to get this right.

Inquiring minds want to know.


12 people like this
Posted by carob trees lost
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 11, 2018 at 9:46 pm

If the project did not have final approval why
were the two beautiful large healthy ornamental carob trees on Kipling cut down by the City? They were a feature of not just Kipling but of Downtown Palo Alto.Every effort should have been made to preserve them even with the project. On the face of it - this is shocking even in present day Palo Alto.


Posted by Tanaka Approved Density
a resident of Barron Park

on Oct 12, 2018 at 5:38 am


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14 people like this
Posted by Kathy Bonte
a resident of another community
on Oct 12, 2018 at 4:58 pm

This proposed development has been a nightmare from the beginning. It’s too bad Shady Lane ended up leaving University Avenue because of this ill-fated project. They are sorely missed. I’m so glad they landed in wonderful new home-a beautiful, light filled octagonal building in the Sharon Heights Shopping Center in Menlo Park. And you can actually PARK there. :-)


13 people like this
Posted by Sandra Farrell
a resident of another community
on Oct 13, 2018 at 9:51 am

This building is so out of place on Kipling and on University. Where will the water and sewer accommodations for the increased number of tenants come from? Parking is already limited severely and traffic continues to pile up in both directions on University and it's connecting streets.
I would truly miss Shady Lane which was a tenant for more than 40 years and provided access to local artisans. Luckily,
Shady Lane has moved up to Sharon Heights Shopping Center where it has a beautiful, light filled octagon right next to Starbucks, Safeway, Wells Fargo, CVS and other businesses that make it a practical and lovely place with nothing but great parking.


11 people like this
Posted by UGH
a resident of Southgate
on Oct 20, 2018 at 2:59 pm

Aren’t those also Birge Clark buildings? Even if not, they are architectural delights, unlike Wong’s square and sharp edged glass and dull stoned half block mass of UGH.


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