Roof decks would be allowed at some of downtown Palo Alto's tallest buildings under a proposal that the city's Planning and Transportation Commission endorsed on Wednesday night.
The rule change was sparked by a proposal by development firm Thoits Brothers, which owns numerous commercial properties throughout downtown, to construct a roof deck at 285 Hamilton Ave., a five-story building across the street from City Hall. The property owner is hoping to build the roof deck for the exclusive use of Houzz, a home-design company that occupies floors two through five.
John Shenk, representing Thoits Brothers, made the case Wednesday that roof decks promote healthy lifestyles and encourage downtown's vibrancy. He noted that the city is trying to encourage more residential development downtown and rejected the notion that roof decks would disturb these plans.
"The vibrancy of the roof deck is wholly compatible with such environments and it's something we want to have," Shenk said.
He noted that the company's recently completed commercial development at 500 University Ave. has a "substantial rooftop deck" and that the facility has been used extensively since the building was occupied in February. To date, the property owner has not received a single note or comment from the public or the building's neighbors complaining about the facility.
The biggest hurdle that the proposal faces is the zoning code. The 47,344-square-foot building already exceeds the city's height and density regulations. Because it went up before these laws were adopted, it remains "grandfathered" as a non-complying facility. The new 2,660-square-foot deck would thus add more usable space to a building that is already among downtown's largest.
Resident Jeff Levinsky called the zone change "odd," and argued that it does little to protect downtown's residents from the noise impacts of the new facilities. While Shenk had argued that the city's noise ordinance provides protection for residents, Levinsky called the city's code-enforcement program a "travesty," with residents routinely calling in to report noise complaints and getting no response.
"Why do we have a law that gives special benefit to buildings that don't conform with the law and not to buildings that don't conform with the law?" Levinsky said. "We're basically giving extra rights to those who already have too much – an odd way of doing government."
The commission largely agreed with Shenk and voted 4-2, with Chair Ed Lauing and Commissioner Doria Summa dissenting and William Riggs absent, to move the zone changes ahead. Commissioner Michael Alcheck, the leading proponent of the zone change, argued that the commission should go beyond the staff recommendation and eliminate a condition banning uses of amplified music on the roof deck. The proposal was defeated by a 3-3 vote, with Vice Chair Susan Monk and Commissioner Przemek Gardias joining Alcheck.
"I don't want be the planning commission in sunny California that doesn't embrace the notion of roof decks," Alcheck said. "I think the notion that they are somehow incompatible with residential is baseless."
Alcheck also argued that Palo Alto should encourage the types of employers who invest in roof decks.
"We should be thrilled every time a commercial property (owner) in the downtown doesn't just demolish a building and build something new," he said. "We should be thrilled when they invest money for the improvements of existing tenants."
Summa also said that that she likes roof decks. But she objected to the zoning process, which creates new rules for a handful of specific properties. The zone changes would be limited to downtown's CD-C zone, which is roughly bounded by Lytton Avenue and Forest Avenue to the north and south and by Alma Street and Webster Street to the west and east, respectively. The amendment approved by the commission would apply to eight buildings in this area.
"It feels like spot zoning, which is something that I'm not very comfortable with," Summa said. "And it feels like we don't have any information about the other seven properties."