A contentious proposal to build a Mercedes-Benz and Audi dealership in the Palo Alto Baylands won the City Council's approval on Monday night, despite concerns from citizens and major reservations from the city's Architectural Review Board.
The council voted 6-1, with Councilwoman Lydia Kou dissenting, to approve a development that Holman Automotive Group had proposed more than a year ago for the former site of Ming's Restaurant at 1700 and 1730 Embarcadero Road. The site has been vacant since Ming's closed in late 2014, and while the city had previously considered a four-story hotel and a different Mercedes dealership for the site, neither of those projects ultimately advanced.
The proposal from Holman Automotive fared better. After a lengthy discussion, the council agreed to rezone a site on Embarcadero to enable the new Mercedes and Audi dealership and to approve the environmental analysis for the project.
The vote came despite major concerns from some residents and council members about the development's lighting plan, its landscaping and the potential removal of numerous mature trees. These issues, and others, will ultimately be vetted by the Architectural Review Board.
The decision represents a significant and hard-fought victory for a project has been going through the city's tortuous design-review process for the past year, which included three reviews by the Architectural Review Board. Despite the numerous revisions, the project has failed to get the garner the board's support. Instead, the board voted at its June 6 meeting to continue the project to a later date, citing concerns about the building's color, size of trees and perimeter landscaping, as well as other issues.
While board members indicated that they would like to see the project one more time, the city's planning staff decided to bring the proposal to the council, without the benefit of a board recommendation. Planning Director Jonathan Lait noted in a report that the city's municipal code encourages a "streamlined" review with no more than three meetings.
Though city code gives the planning director the authority to add more meetings, Lait found that in this case, the board's concerns pertain to details that "do not have a significant impact to the overall building mass or design." As such, he opted to advance the project to the council for approval.
In a memo to the council, Lait and City Manager Ed Shikada argued that if the city does not apply its three-meeting rule, "there would be no limit to the number of meetings the ARB could request."
"While a fourth meeting is not unreasonable under certain circumstances, the benefit to hearing the Council's direction on the broader code interpretation issues concerning this project in advance of further ARB meetings is believed by staff to be consistent with City processes," the memo states.
The decision faced some pushback from residents, some of whom had argued in recent weeks that it would be irresponsible to approve a large commercial building near the Baylands without a board recommendation. More than a dozen critics of the proposal attended the Monday meeting and demanded that the council hit the brakes on the new dealership. Some argued that the project is too massive and dense for the area; others worried about the lighting from the new dealership and its impact on Baylands birds.
Land-use watchdog Bob Moss was part of a group urging for a more stringent review of the two-dealership development, which also includes a service area and a car wash. Moss rejected the notion that the council should vote on the project before the Architectural Review Board resolves the various outstanding issues.
"Each one is not considered major by itself, but the combination of all the issues makes it bizarre that it's going to the City Council at this point," Moss said. "At the very least, send it back to ARB until all the questions are satisfactorily resolved."
Former Mayor Karen Holman concurred and argued that approving the project without having the details resolved would send the wrong message about what types of developments are suitable for the Baylands. And while city staff still plans to send the project to the board to resolve these issues, Holman argued that with the project already approved, any future revisions would end up being "around the edges" and not significant.
"If there are so many issues outstanding, we must send the project back to make it right," Holman said.
Several residents characterized the former Ming's site as a "gateway to the Baylands" and urged the council to be extra careful about approving new developments there.
"The Baylands is a precious part of Palo Alto," said downtown resident Elaine Meyer. "I don't think we should be giving the entry way to such a huge, inappropriate commercial project."
Councilwoman Lydia Kou shared the residents' concerns and moved to deny the project. The building, she argued, is not harmonious with the Baylands setting and not compatible with the city's master plan for the Baylands.
"This does not make it look like gateway to the Baylands," Kou said. "It's just a tower with no trees and a very commercialized building."
Most of her colleagues rejected that view. Councilwoman Liz Kniss noted that the area already includes numerous industrial and commercial properties, including other dealerships.
"This is an industrial area. This is not a gateway to the Baylands," Kniss said.
Councilman Tom DuBois and Kou were both loath to approve the project without having the benefit of an Architectural Review Board recommendations. DuBois said he felt the project was coming to the council "prematurely" and said he is concerned about its traffic impacts and landscaping, among other things.
Ultimately, however, he joined the council majority in supporting a motion from Kniss, which called for approving the project with the understanding that it will later return to the architectural board for further refinements.
The council specified as part of its approval that it wants the board to work with the applicant to include larger trees that would shield the building from the Baylands, to refine the lighting plan and to ensure that the building has "muted colors" that are compatible with the marshy open space preserve.