Palo Alto rejects application for President Hotel

Planning director says proposal violates zoning code

A proposal to convert President Hotel Apartments to a luxury hotel hit a roadblock this week, when Palo Alto's Planning Director Jonathan Lait concluded that the project described in development application would violate numerous zoning laws.

The controversial project, which has prompted the eviction of about 100 residents from the historic building at 488 University Ave., does not comply with the city's parking laws, and its retail-preservation requirements, Lait stated in a rejection letter issued Wednesday to Alex Sanford, vice president for development and construction for the project developer, Adventurous Journeys Capital Partners.

The project also violates a recently revised law that bans the conversion of downtown's "grandfathered" buildings (those that were built before the current development standards were established and that don't meet these standards) from residential to non-residential use.

Until recently, the project violated two other zoning laws. It had exceeded downtown's 350,000 square foot cap for non-residential development, though that issue became moot last month, when the council repealed the cap. The council also approved a new zoning ordinance last month to allow roof decks on grandfathered downtown buildings, a change that will help AJ Capital move ahead with plans to change the building's roof deck.

Even though these laws will help address some of the project's zoning conflicts, "it appears other items will conflict with the zoning code absent project modifications." These include regulations relating to retail, off-street parking requirements and the "building envelope" (a three-dimensional configuration of the building's mass and volume).

Parking appears to be one of the thorniest issues. Under the city's standard of one parking space per 250 square feet of gross floor area, the development would have to include about 200 parking spaces. The application, which AJ Capital filed on Feb. 4, calls for adding one parking space, which would increase the total amount from 11 to 12.

"Furthermore, there are no provisions for a commercial parking reduction available to this property," Lait wrote.

Based on the numerous violations, Lait wrote, the city is unable to process the conversion application at this time. He noted that AJ Capital can withdraw its application and receive a refund of any unspent money from its deposit.

"If you intend to proceed with the application, please update the project scope, including proposed use, and submit the required application material, including revised plans that demonstrate compliance with all applicable municipal code regulations," Lait wrote.

In its application, AJ Capital had proposed converting 75 apartments into 100 guest rooms and keeping the existing roof gardens, according to the project plans. AJ Capital has also proposed to seismically retrofit the historic building, to repaint the building and to install new "historically correct storefront systems," which will include copper mullions and ceramic tile bases.


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102 people like this
Posted by Stop Developer Giveaways
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 9, 2019 at 9:05 am

AJ Capital is no doubt counting on pro-growth councilmembers to keep changing laws right and left to make the hotel conversion legal. Those councilmembers have a history of doing whatever developers want.

Our newest council member, Alison Cormack, said she saw no reason to get rid of the Downtown development cap. But that was when she was running for office. But once elected, she voted to lift it.

The council is also talking about creating a special waiver so that developers running afoul of the Downtown grandfathering rules can ask not only to be exempted from that law but also any other laws in the entire zoning code they don't like. That's like a "get out of jail" card on steroids.

Say no to the ravaging of our city by developers and the councilmembers helping them!

15 people like this
Posted by An Alternative
a resident of University South
on Mar 9, 2019 at 9:22 am

Best case scenario...AJ sells The President Hotel as it is too much trouble to contend with.

The new buyer/developer then demolishes this decrepit old building & erects a modern multi-story parking garage to accommodate the parking gridlock.

Downtown shoppers & hotels would all benefit from this measure.

63 people like this
Posted by Good for Lait
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2019 at 9:32 am

AJ Capital is proposing to add 1 parking space when about 200 are required by law? Now falling over laughing (silly AJ) or crying if the Fine, Kniss, Cormack and Tenaka continue to do AJ’s bidding by changing more laws to accommodate their now an illegal hotel conversion.
Good for Lait to write this letter. Now the City must walk the walk for downtown housing, not just talk the talk. It’s AJ Capital today, but tomorrow it can be other residential buildings that we lose to other use now that the Downtown Commercial Cap has been lifted, and if this Council majority continues to give way on other laws.
Stand up for housing, not developer interests!

38 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 9, 2019 at 10:16 am

What happens to all the apartment tenants now?

7 people like this
Posted by plot for sale
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 9, 2019 at 10:26 am

So, the only way this project can proceed is if AJ Capital buys another downtown plot and builds a 200 car garage on it.
Since they claim that they don't need 200 places, they can rent out any excess parking.

16 people like this
Posted by Just Tear It Down
a resident of University South
on Mar 9, 2019 at 10:26 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names.]

45 people like this
Posted by Disgusted
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 9, 2019 at 11:51 am

Don't worry about it! Big business, the lust for gentrification and the promise of untold amounts of gold will fix this problem.

All they have to do is what Elizabeth Wong did with the building right across the street. Keep throwing money at the problem and the city council until what they want is approved.

Two gargantuan projects with inadequate parking right across the street from the other. Brilliant planning. The entire City Counsil should get bounced.

50 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 9, 2019 at 12:29 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Impressive move on Lait's part, but I'm guessing this story is far from over. I'm also guessing our former City Manager wishes he could take back his very public "by right" comment. If the City gets sued I hope CC retains experienced land use counsel as I don't think we have the necessary expertise on staff. AJCap's counsel probably already has their complaint drafted given that they invested $65M to acquire the hotel. It's hard to imagine experienced investors doing that without solid assurance(s) that they could proceed.

On the other hand, single family homes on Cowper have sold for <$30M so maybe $65M isn't all that much of a loss to those with money to burn. What a weird bubble we live in.

14 people like this
Posted by Demolish The President Hotel
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 9, 2019 at 12:30 pm

@Just Tear It Down

I agree. Just demolish that old square building & replace it with something more modern. The President Hotel probably hasn't even been retrofitted for earthquakes.

The President Hotel served it purpose & it's not even worthy of being considered a historical landmark.

30 people like this
Posted by Rainer
a resident of Mayfield
on Mar 10, 2019 at 11:07 pm

Rainer is a registered user.

Amazing. hard to believe the City Planner (and maybe the City Attorney) has grown a back bone.

But while the developers have found a way to "help" City Councilors to be elected, with the most used way a very late late donation which is not published in time,and the fines for violations of rules are ridiculously low, legal bribing is more difficult for City Employees. Maybe we are lucky.

But what is also true, and apparently unknown to the City legal geniuses,while we all know that property may not be taken for public use without payment of just compensation to its owner (Cal. Const., art. I, § 19; U.S. Const., 5th Amend), in reality in the case of zoning changes in practice the courts have for 200 years deferred to the police power of Cities and Counties.
Particularly difficult to overcome is the threshold that a "mere diminution" in property value due to a zoning action is not compensable. (Agins v. City of Tiburon (1979) 24 Cal.3d 266, 273-274 [157 Cal.Rptr. 372, 598 P.2d 25], affd. (1980) 447 U.S. 255 [65 L.Ed.2d 106, 100 S.Ct. 2138].) The “mere” for the Supreme Court cases has meant diminution up to of 80%.

So Palo Alto should not be so timid in servings its citizen's interests, rather than the developers', with appropriate changes in the zoning, here down-zoning.

45 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 11, 2019 at 8:15 am

AJ Capital shouldn't be given a permit to change a light bulb in this city after what they did to the low-income residents of the President Hotel. Leeches are not welcome in Palo Alto.

6 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 11, 2019 at 12:03 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I am flipping my stated public position on this: I want them to build something in Palo Alto called the graduate I’m going to check in with only a toothbrush and pretend to yawn. I’m going to spread pictures of and bread and coffee all over my room Anne Bancroft.
I’m going to scream at the top of my lungs plastic plastic plastic i’m going to scream at the top of my lungs plastics plastics plastics
This is the best thing ever for Palo Alto. Please don’t tell my wife although as a former arts commissioner she would surely like my Paul McCarthy routine

11 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 11, 2019 at 1:06 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Stumps me! Why did it take so long to discover (or expose) these other violations? If they would have been exposed, even before the purchase, just think of all the wasted hours that could have been saved from all the staff and CC engagements on this contentious issue.

What happens now?? Sounds like the war might not be over and that there will be battles ahead...but if we win, then what? I love walking by that old building. There is just something about buildings from that era, when that type architecture ruled, and that I think is so attractive. Sadly, it might be gone forever. The new modernistic style (square curves or arches) steel and glass structures just don't catch my eye as being attractive (or creative from an architectural standpoint) like the Hotel President does and all of Birge Clark's creations in downtown Palo Alto do.

Yes, I am just an old fuddy duddy NIMBY contributor/poster/commenter, giving my two bits worth of thoughts and feelings on the issue. As far as advice? Fuggedaboutit! I'm older, but not necessarily wiser, and one day's brilliant thoughts seem to fade away into the next day's not so brilliant thoughts. Now, just think about that for a while!! Am I someone to be trusted for good advice?

3 people like this
Posted by Sally C
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 11, 2019 at 1:46 pm

I agree with RJ, well said RJ.

8 people like this
Posted by Leeches
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 11, 2019 at 2:02 pm

JR- the president hotel is private property. The owners have the right to ask the tenants to leave. The tenants were given a generous buyout. The tenants have no right to live on someone else's property in perpetuity .
The only leeches are the tenants and their supporters who feel they are owed something from the owners.

4 people like this
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 11, 2019 at 4:24 pm

Does anyone see high end condos in the President Hotel's future?

23 people like this
Posted by @Rainer
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 11, 2019 at 4:30 pm

Whatever happened with Liz Kniss and her flagrant abuse of the FPPC rules. Was she ever fined for declaring her donations months after the election? She has the hide of a rhinocerous and the ethics of a robber barron.

2 people like this
Posted by Robber Garron
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 11, 2019 at 4:40 pm

I resent that!

21 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 11, 2019 at 6:30 pm

Unfortunately, until now Mr. Lait has been sticking to his "narrow" and incorrect reading of the code that the downtown "grandfathering clause" in the code does not apply to this building. Therefore AJ Capital an change the use from residential to hotel. (Quite apart from the lack of parking or any other zoning problems.)

Looks like Mr. Lait and the legal staff finally figured out this issue was not going to fade away. Belatedly and inconveniently admitting with this ruling that if actually challenged in court their interpretation of the code would not stand.

In the meantime, just think how much time and money Mr. Lait and Mr. Keene have cost the city in staff hours, legal hours, and council members time, to accommodate AJ Capital's plans. Willing to preempting council agendas to to do the bidding of AJ Capital, and in doing so postponing and neglecting other higher priority city matters.

And now, finally, this ruling. What a farce.

5 people like this
Posted by Give him money
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 11, 2019 at 6:34 pm

Leeches- more insults against certain council members that are not removed by the editor ( see @ Rainer above). If the vitriol is posted by the people that bill Johnson obeys, they are not registered.

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