Legal threats, late revisions pay off for developer | News | Palo Alto Online |


Legal threats, late revisions pay off for developer

After years of debate, council approves Elizabeth Wong's downtown project

Faced with a threat of a lawsuit, the Palo Alto City Council approved in one of its final actions of the year a highly contentious downtown development project that just two months ago was rejected by the city's own planning staff and panned by its Architectural Review Board.

In doing so, it handed a long-awaited victory to Elizabeth Wong, a developer who has been seeking approval to construct a four-story mixed-use building at 429 University Ave. in a process that has stretched over five years and has included at least four architects, dozens of public hearings and two appeals, the latest by Wong herself.

With its 6-3 vote early Tuesday morning, the council sought to conclude a process that began in 2014 and that has frustrated and exasperated both sides of the rancorous debate. Council members were well familiar with the project, having already approved it in February 2017. At that time, attached to their approval three conditions: that Wong's architects add a decorative design to the exterior wall, that they improve the landscaping plan and they include more "craftsmanship-related detailing" in the exterior.

This year, the Architectural Review Board heard three hearings on Wong's project to determine whether she had met those conditions. By a 2-1 vote, the board decided on Oct. 4 that it did not. Lait followed suit on Oct. 16 with his own "partial denial" after finding that she met the first two conditions but failed on "craftsmanship-related detailing." Wong promptly filed an appeal to Lait's letter of determination and her attorney, Timothy Kassouni, submitted several letters layout out numerous objections and threatening litigation.

In one such letter, Kassouni alleged that city planners had been "stonewalling" Wong in her attempt to obtain a building permit and accused the two members of the Architectural Review Board who voted against Wong's project — Robert Gooyer and Osma Thompson — of being "biased." He also blasted Lait for accepting the board's recommendation for denial.

Wong, meanwhile, has repeatedly pointed out that the project had already been approved and that the board's objections were based on general opposition to the project. Because the board was only charged with reviewing the elements included in the three conditions, Wong argued that its denial was improper.

But after a frustrating February, things began to look up for Wong in recent weeks. After several meetings between Kassouni and Palo Alto staff from the planning department and the city attorney's office, Wong last Friday submitted new plans. Lait promptly changed his mind about the earlier denial.

On Monday, Lait told the council that during the meetings between himself, the city attorney and the developer, he reiterated the items that he believes are vital to securing staff support. He presented the new memo to the council on Monday, immediately before the meeting.

Wong's recent revisions include an added sunscreen on the first floor, window screens on the second and a modified balcony on the third. Each of these changes, Lait wrote, "address concerns relevant to the Director's denial." The awnings, he wrote, "enhance the pedestrian space" and their fabric will "add warmth to the building colors." The window screens, he wrote, "add detailing, depth and visual relief that enhance the neighborhood."

"With these recent changes made by the applicant a meaningful effort has been made to address the concerns raised by the ARB and the Director's decision," Lait wrote. "Based on the entirety of the administrative record, including the recently submitted drawings, staff recommends the council modify the director's October 16, 2018 decision to provide for approval of all aspects of the architectural review application."

Wong's team continued to apply the pressure on Monday night, when Kassouni told the council that he had been authorized by Wong's company, Kipling Post, to immediately file a suit if the project is not approved.

"The timing is now. There really is no tomorrow," Kassouni said,

Jaime Wong, Elizabeth's husband, also complained about the city's process and staff's changing expectations. He told the council that "this is the end of the line."

"You get planted on the one-yard line and the goal posts move," Jaime Wong told the council. "That's not fair."

Michael Harbour, a vocal opponent of the project, agreed that the process is unfair. Harbour, whose appeal prompted the 2017 council hearing, noted that the public and the council hadn't had a chance to review Wong's recent design changes. He also observed that the building the council is being asked to approve looks very different from the one it supported in February 2017.

Other project opponents reiterated their prior objections to the glassy modernist building, which they argued is too massive in relation to Kipling, a narrow and eclectic street full of Victorian homes.

Sallyanne Rudd, a resident of Downtown North, described Wong's proposed development a "glass-and-steel Rubik's Cube" that lacks any pleasing or design linkages to neighboring structures. She also strongly objected to Wong's tactics in securing approval.

"I'm disgusted that the developer has resorted to threats like this against the City Council (and) against the city that acts to uphold agreed community standards for the design and livability of Palo Alto," Rudd said.

The unusual process also irked several council members and residents. Councilman Tom DuBois agreed with Harbour that the building no longer looks like the one the council considered in 2017, while Councilwoman Karen Holman took issue with Wong's late submissions, which run counter to the council's normal policy. Councilwoman Lydia Kou bristled at Wong's lawsuit threats.

"It almost feels like a lot of this is acting under duress," Kou said. "I did not appreciate being threatened over here by the attorney."

Vice Chair Eric Filseth was initially ambivalent and voiced concerns about one of the most significant recent changes to the development: The relocation of 400 square feet of space from the lower three floors to the fourth floor. The change, he noted, could impact how the building is seen from the ground floor. But he ultimately sided with the council's pro-growth majority, ensuring that the project would move ahead by a 6-3 vote.

Councilman Adrian Fine made the motion to approve the project and Mayor Liz Kniss seconded the motion. Kniss called the process difficult and confusing.

"I think what's important on the last meeting, on the last item of the year is to have a decision on this," Kniss said, just before the early Tuesday morning vote.


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81 people like this
Posted by Stop Backroom Deals with Developers
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 18, 2018 at 6:48 am

It's getting to be a regular Monday night ritual: reading about the behind-the-scenes deals made by city staff to let developers have their way.

The developer already got to add thousands of square feet to this project using a bonus that wasn't legal -- but our city staff said "oops - too late."

Last night, staff let the developer submit plan changes past the deadline where these could be distributed to the public for review.

Tell councilmembers we want an end to these shenanigans. That includes councilmembers themselves taking donations from developers after the election reporting deadline. Maybe with Keene, Scharff, and Wolbach leaving, we can get some change.

80 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 18, 2018 at 6:54 am

Very sad that the majority of council does not find it necessary to follow the design standards for our city.
They have now set a precident that developers just have to ignore the laws and threaten a lawsuit to get their way.!
Thank you to the ARB and the three Council members who had the backbone to do the right thing.

25 people like this
Posted by Architectural Transition Time In Downtown PA
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 18, 2018 at 7:44 am

Is this all part of a 'new look' concept for downtown Palo Alto? It seems as though the intention here is to gradually do away with the older buildings and create a more modernistic look for the urban PA scene of the future.

Historical photographs of the downtown area show its transition from older 19th century era wooden buildings to the revisionist Spanish style-architecture of the 1920s and lastly to its 40s-50s flat stucco/plaster we are apparently headed towards more glass and steel structures.

The in-between periods always look out of whack and perhaps this is what the preservationists are howling about. In time, when downtown PA finally completes its 'new look' (with a few older buildings remaining for posterity), maybe this controversy will finally die then, many of us will have passed on.

43 people like this
Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 18, 2018 at 8:57 am

eileen is a registered user.

>>> Architectural Transition,

I think part of the controversy was NOT about the transition to a more modern look, modern can be very beautiful.
The ARB and Planning felt that the buildings modern architecture was massive, boring and souless.

Big win for developers and property owners, not so much for residents and the ARB and Planning Departments. :(

15 people like this
Posted by JCP
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 18, 2018 at 10:04 am

JCP is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

39 people like this
Posted by Darrel
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 18, 2018 at 10:33 am

Adrian Fine pushed for the removal and loosening building and zoning laws for demolition to build new, new, new which will be more expensive to rent or buy.

Is this "affordable"? Has it gotten cheaper to rent or buy in New York? Manhattan? HongKong? San Francisco?


19 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 18, 2018 at 11:20 am

Wong was her own worst enemy on this but at the end of the day, this building, like it or not, is allowed on this site. That's what the zoning says. [Portion removed.]

42 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 18, 2018 at 11:57 am

jh is a registered user.

The week before a previous council review of the Wong's plans, Greg Tanaka was so determined to cast a vote in favor that he returned the $5,000 donation from the Wong's son. [Portion removed due to factual inaccuracy.]

When council members were asked to disclose anything pertinent to the hearing, Greg Tanaka did not mention either the earlier donation [portion removed.] Eric Filseth declared he had received a contribution from the Wong's and returned it. [Portion removed.]

After the council adopted a policy of not accepting last minute "behind closed doors" changes to the agenda to close that loophole and avoid just such a situation as this, really disappointed that once again staff turned their backs on residents. Also the only council member to point this out was Karen Holman.

The Wongs tell us they have had six years to get this right. If they choose to submit changes at the last minute that is on them. Either the Wong's last minute changes presented on the dais to council members should not have been accepted or the Wong's proposal scheduled for a future meeting.

Once again, with his immediate motion to approve these plans, Fine's attitude toward residents appears to be dismissive. [Portion removed.]

39 people like this
Posted by What’s Their Agenda?
a resident of University South
on Dec 18, 2018 at 12:02 pm

Trust to their big campaign donors, Fine and Tanaka have been the strongest supporters of lots of commercial development. Their votes last night were no surprise.
It will be interesting to hear their arguments next month about why the city should eliminate the downtown commercial cap. Fine has bemoaned that the loss of the President Hotel rental units undermined a net gain in new residential, but it was his vote to eliminate the cap that was the basis for AJ Capital thinking they could convert rentals to a hotel. Maintaining affordable market rate units is more important than building new luxury condos, but that is not what he and Tanaka and Palantir and the big developers want.

9 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 18, 2018 at 12:46 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I’ve been following this stuff pretty closely – I ran for council three times since 2009, applied for the planning commission at least twice —and now I live downtown north —but my concern contrary to type was that the Wongs’ were somehow getting short shrift compared to the more well-known and Anglo developers, whose projects seemed to jump ahead of 4 to 9 in the queue.
Disclosure: The Wongs’ son Andrew Wong, between semesters at MIT, Sometimes worked on the crew at my concert series at Cubberley back in the 1990s.
Good luck on your project I am anxious to see what it turns out to be good luck on your project I am anxious to see what it turns out to be.
Also I recall speaking with a well-known former councilmember parentheses and architect parentheses about what would happen if we turn the Kipling into a pedestrian mall?

6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 18, 2018 at 12:51 pm

[Post removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 18, 2018 at 12:53 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

But I admit it kind of reminds me of the famous film “the mystery of Picasso” in which he is painting with Grease over a glass canvas and he turns a tree into a duck in the last seconds of the film, or something.
And I invite you to use dear reader your imagination to correct it back to English with my computer thinks I might want to be saying.

25 people like this
Posted by Chito
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 18, 2018 at 4:03 pm

Chito is a registered user.

[Portion removed.] We have a bunch of spineless and incompetent City Staff members (Mr. Lait, Mrs. Stump, Mr. Keene) making behind-the-scenes deals that disregard the public's right to know and participate. Mrs. Stump fearmongers other Staff and the City Council members about lawsuits. Most of the City Council members are mere minions that can't question anything [portion removed] (Wolbach, Fine, and Tanaka). It's very troubling that some of the contentious points raised by other City Council members were not properly answered by Staff members or the Applicant, and yet, a project that still has too many holes and unknowns got approved. The state of our City and how things get decided was clearly illustrated by Scharff's irrelevant obsession with the proper color of the project's awnings. Who cares about rules, protocols, ordinances, code, or the public as long as the awnings are of a light taupe.

20 people like this
Posted by dtnnorth
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 18, 2018 at 4:25 pm

I am disgusted with our city council. This should of waited. I can't believe they rolled over with a threat of suit. [Portion removed.] There must be a way to stop this huge ugly bldg on the small street of Kipling

3 people like this
Posted by Concerned Observer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 18, 2018 at 4:43 pm

[Post removed.]

8 people like this
Posted by Concerned Observer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 18, 2018 at 4:48 pm

@Chito...could it be possible that she was the one who got bullied ??? Seems like she bent over backwards to comply with the demands of a vocal minority after her plans had already been approved. She has spent tens of thousands of dollars to re-comply because of a few persistent opponents. And, she has prevailed.

Think about it.

20 people like this
Posted by Ms. Wong Takes PA Into the Future
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 18, 2018 at 5:23 pm

> The ARB and Planning felt that the buildings modern architecture was massive, boring and souless.

Many of the newer buildings in this area share a similar appearance. It is stylization vs style and many design critics tend to overlook that.

To some, the Spanish revisionist architectural stylization is kind of boring as well. It's not exactly an original concept and there are plenty of these older buildings remaining even if a few of them are torn down.

The President Hotel is currently slated for some major changes (i.e. ownership, interior design, usage application etc.) and all things considered, the existing President Hotel can hardly be considered a beautiful or aesthetic's just a square building with windows and a tile roof. Palo Alto preservationists should be grateful that its exterior is being left intact as a more progressive PACC and visionary developer would target it for demolition and erect an entirely new that is reflective of the new millenium.

Ms. Wong is doing just that and in time, many of the older downtown buildings will be earmarked for demolition. As another contributor noted, we are in a period of architectural transition so naturally the older buildings are going to clash somewhat with the newer ones.

26 people like this
Posted by Sheri
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 18, 2018 at 5:55 pm

Sheri is a registered user.

I had hoped that after the Alma Plaza last-minute maneuvering and a change to Council protocols we had moved past these kinds of deals. Obviously, I was wrong.

4 people like this
Posted by Dude
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 19, 2018 at 10:14 am

I fail to understand why the city has the power to decide on the detailed aesthetics/artistic expression of your construction. This is likely to suppress creativity and expression and leave everything a boring valley nouveau-fab design. Zoning yes, safety yes, maybe a monstrosity of expression that insults the entire community, but not whether you have an awning, or a design on the face. Really? No wonder it costs so much to build here.

Is there an aesthetics section in the building code, or does the ARB and Development Office make this stuff up based on their own idea of best practices?

5 people like this
Posted by ARB
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 19, 2018 at 11:52 am

Aesthetics is a purely subjective thing determined by ARB and latched on to by opponents of buildings. Nobody has the courage to call this process what it is - purely subjective. Trying to see something as objective that which is subjective. So you have a code that says context and compatibility must be met, but it is determined by individual people who have their opinions and by those who cannot mask their disdain for a project any other way but through pointing out its lack of context and compatibility.

2 people like this
Posted by Wu Shen
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 19, 2018 at 2:16 pm

"Aesthetics is a purely subjective.."

As long as new building is safe and functional, do looks really matter?

10 people like this
Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 23, 2018 at 11:22 pm

[Post removed.]

17 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 23, 2018 at 11:38 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Why wasn't Mr. Tanaka forced to recuse himself after the campaign finance nonsense with this developer? And how's PA Online's award-winning continuing investigation into Mayor Kniss's campaign finance irregularity coming? Why hasn't she been forced to recuse herself during this long continuing investigation?

BP, speaking of favorite errand boys, pay attention to ABAG's CASA program designed to tax us to build new housing while commercial development continues apace. Remember that Mr. Scharff is ABAG's vp.

1 person likes this
Posted by Bye bye
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 24, 2018 at 8:02 am

[Post removed.]

6 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 24, 2018 at 9:29 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Bye bye, it was Mr. Tanaka who was connected to Ms. Wong via her contributions to HIS campaign, not the others so your "what-about=ism" doesn't work.

3 people like this
Posted by Bye bye
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 24, 2018 at 9:40 am

Online name—. Yeah, except the city attorney must have decided that he does not need to recuse himself. So what were you saying about “whataboutism”.

Isn’t about that time to start talking about a recall. LOL.

4 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 24, 2018 at 3:08 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Bye Bye, the city attorney is Molly Stump. a woman, a she. She's been the city attorney since 2011. Web Link

Please do your homework.

3 people like this
Posted by Bye bye
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 24, 2018 at 4:40 pm

Online name- perhaps you need to reread my post again, the " he does not need to recuse himself" refers to mr. Tanaka. I made no mention of the city attorneys gender in my comment.
I guess I should have mentioned Tanaka by name even though it was clear what the subject of our exchange was
Talk about deflection and whataboutism.

6 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 24, 2018 at 5:03 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Apologies. I misinterpreted your post. For my own whataboutism, the city attorney has made a number of rulings and statements that some see as missing the point and hedging the issues like when she denied that a CoolBlocks leader wasn't a paid city employee but neglected to mention the person was a paid city consultant/contractor.

Like this comment
Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 25, 2018 at 4:26 pm

Censor: Is it OK to state: Big developers like Adrian Fine?

Is that less harsh than what I posted before, and had removed?

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