Despite heavy pushback from nearby residents, a proposal for a five-story hotel on the southern edge of Palo Alto scored a significant victory on Thursday, when the Architectural Review Board threw its support behind the contentious project.
The development calls for a 97-room hotel called Analog, which would be located at 4256 El Camino Real, the former site of Su Hong Eatery near the Palo Alto Redwoods condominium complex. The project has been going through the city's planning process for more than two years and has been subject to three reviews by the Architectural Review Board, which voted 4-1, with board member Osma Thompson dissenting, to support the project.
The board's vote of support means that, barring a successful appeal, the project can now move ahead.
Much like at previous hearings, the board heard on Thursday from dozens of residents of Palo Alto Redwoods, a 117-unit condominium development located near the back of the proposed hotel. Sharlene Carlson, president of the Palo Alto Redwoods Homeowners Association, submitted letters from more than 120 residents of the 117-unit condominium community, raising a long list of objections pertaining to the building's height, massing and parking and traffic impacts.
The design team has already made various significant revisions to the hotel's design, turning what was once an orange building with silver paneling into a brown one, with dark trimming. The hotel's interior courtyard, once envisioned as a site garden, is now slated to be a bar.
Randy Popp, the project applicant, pointed to the list of changes that have been made since the board last saw the application a year ago. The new design has dimmer colors, additional balconies and a reduction of guest rooms from 100 to 97.
"We worked hard over the last few years to adjust building massing and be responsible to neighbors," Popp said. "At this point, we believe we have reached the best balance that can be achieved."
Residents didn't see it that way.
"We have gone from Zen to bar, from meditation to libation, from bad to worse, in our opinion," Carlson said. "The developer has tried to make it as massive as possible on a small parcel and Palo Alto Redwoods objects to this massiveness."
Peter Mills, a board member of the Palo Alto Redwoods Homeowners Association, complained about the "privacy invasion" from the hotel, which he said would be "extreme and unfair."
Mills said the design of the building will require 56 windows from Palo Alto Redwoods to face "an expanse" of 70 windows, a layout that he said will make the area look like Manhattan buildings.
"We don't want to live in Manhattan," Mills said.
Josephine Schuster complained about the light impacts of the new building.
"I don't want to live out my last days in a dark, gloomy place," said Josephine Schuster, 89. "I live on the fourth floor and I will be impacted. I can't imagine how the three floors below me will feel, having no light and no air."
Neil Murphy complained that the new hotel will have significant traffic and parking impacts, with inadequate accommodation for rideshare services and insufficient parking for staff. These problems, he said, are symptoms of the project's "bad design."
"Clearly this is the antithesis of enhancing living conditions in the adjacent residential area," Murphy said.
The board had its own concerns about some of these items. Members generally agreed that the prior iteration of the building design did a better job than the current one in breaking up the massing in the back of the building. Thompson suggested that she would be unlikely to support the project, barring a "considerable redesign."
Her colleagues, however, felt that the new design is worthy of support. Chairman Peter Baltay argued that the hotel is consistent with the city's vision for south El Camino Real.
"It does a good job balancing between a residential facility in the back of the building and our desire to create a 'grand boulevard' in the front, on El Camino Real," Baltay said.
While some residents said they were concerned about the building overshadowing their complex and infringing on their privacy, Baltay pointed to an analysis commissioned by the city indicating that the building would not cast shadows on the Palo Alto Redwoods courtyard after 10:30 a.m. (11 a.m. during winter hours).
Both Baltay and Architectural Review Board member David Hirsch say they prefer the prior design in the back of the building, with massing more broken up. The board's approval included a condition that the design team reverts to that design, even if that means losing one or more rooms. A board subcommittee will work with the applicant to ensure the design is modified accordingly before the final approval is issued.
"I'd hope the community would recognize that if this is done well enough, with care about material and colors, that this is kind of an improvement over a big asphalt field in front of the one-story building ... It's not such a negative, really," Hirsch said.
The board's recommendation paves the way for Planning Director Jonathan Lait to give the project the final approval. Because the project is compliant with the site's commercial zoning, it does not need to go in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission or the City Council, though the council may get to weigh in on the development if residents appeal Lait's approval.