New Urbanism project heads for council vote | February 24, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 24, 2012

New Urbanism project heads for council vote

Across the street from Caltrain, downtown Palo Alto 'Gateway' building would be denser, taller

by Gennady Sheyner

An ambitious proposal to build a five-story building featuring a glassy, 84-foot-tall tower, offices, apartments and a coffee shop at one of downtown Palo Alto's most prominent corners took a major stride toward winning the city's approval Wednesday night, Feb. 22, when the Planning and Transportation Commission agreed to rezone the site to make the project possible.

It took four public hearings and a long debate over "public benefits" before the project at 355 Alma St. gained the endorsement of the commission, which voted 5-2, with Susan Fineberg and Greg Tanaka dissenting, to rezone the site. Because the project's density far exceeds the site's zoning, the applicants requested a change to a "planned community" zone — a designation that allows developers to build beyond the city's restrictions in exchange for public benefits.

The "Lytton Gateway" project, proposed by Lund Smith, Boyd Smith, Jim Baer and Scott Foster, represents in many ways the city's drive to encourage dense developments near major transit centers — a key tenet of New Urbanism. The proposed 64-foot-tall building would stand at the intersection of Alma Street and Lytton Avenue, right across the street from the downtown Caltrain station. A Shell gas station that formerly occupied the property closed in 2010.

Without the zoning change, the development would have been limited to a two-story office building.

The planning commission had previously endorsed the appearance and the concept of the new building, which the city's Architectural Review Board had also approved. But at the Jan. 22 hearing, commissioners argued that the applicants should provide more benefits to justify the increased intensity. The applicants returned this week with an expanded proposal, one that would provide more public parking, more units of affordable housing and a pledge to help the city fund a downtown parking study and landscape improvements. The proposal includes 14 units of housing, seven of which would be below market rate, ground-floor retail and offices on the floors one through four.

At a previous hearing, commissioners said they were concerned about the insufficient number of parking spaces proposed by the applicants. Several residents from the adjacent Downtown North neighborhood near the site urged the commission Wednesday not to green-light the project unless it provides more parking spaces. Among them was Sally-Ann Rudd, president of the Downtown North Residents Association. Rudd said she was concerned about the prospect of Lytton Gateway employees taking over the parking spaces in her residential neighborhood.

"We're already parked up during the day from a mixture of Caltrain commuters and downtown employees," Rudd said. "This has been a subject of some irritation from the residents."

To address the community's and the commission's concerns, the applicants agreed to provide eight surface parking spots and 14 underground-parking spots to the public in addition to the 123 spots they had previously said the project would include. The applicants also agreed to pay $60,000 to help the city fund a downtown parking study and to launch a full-service attendant-parking program that would add another 34 spots to the building.

"We truly believe this is the wave of the future for downtown parking," Lund Smith told the commission, referring to the attendant-parking program.

The applicants also offered to buy Caltrain Go Passes for all of the building's tenants to encourage less driving and to provide two electric-vehicle charging stations.

Tanaka, the most vehement advocate of more parking, urged the applicants to make these 34 attended spots available to the public as metered parking. The rest of the commission rejected the proposal and the applicants said Tanaka's proposal would create security concerns for the building's tenants.

Fineberg was the only other commissioner to vote against the proposal though even she conceded that the new package of public benefits is sufficient. Her main concern was that the project is inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan, the city's land-use document that is currently undergoing revision.

While the planning commission had earlier voiced reservations about the project's proposed benefits, members agreed Wednesday that the applicants' latest revisions are up to par. Chair Eduardo Martinez called Lytton Gateway a "good project," and Commissioner Samir Tuma thanked the applicants for being "dogged in their efforts to come up with more creative, different public benefits." He praised the project's evolution over the past four meetings.

"No project is a perfect project; no project doesn't have an impact. But I think this has come a long way from the day you walked into the planning office and said you'll build this building," Tuma said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by Shut-It-Down, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 23, 2012 at 8:51 am

This building could be 500 stories high and it would have been approved by the so-called Planning Commission. Time for some sort of check-and-balance mechanism that allows the voters to terminate this commission rather than let it continue to operate without any controls other than being ignored by the City Council.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 23, 2012 at 9:00 am

What does "attendant parking spots" mean in plain English?

Are we talking about valet parking?

On top of this, the building is too close to the street and the artists impression shows a few people wandering around and a couple of cars. The reality will be lots of pedestrians walking in both directions in a hurry to get where they are going and not enough space to do so, with cars rushing by each time the lights change.

Stop giving us false impressions of what the reality of this building will be. It is too close to the street and will not look anything like the spacious building shown in artists impressions.

Posted by John, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 23, 2012 at 10:40 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by resident, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 23, 2012 at 10:41 am

Not only is this an unattractive design, it is overwhelming for the intended space and neighborhood location. This area could welcome a much less imposing building, especially if it were in keeping with the existing environment.

Posted by KP, a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 23, 2012 at 11:05 am

Just another building exceeding our city codes that will lead to more and more and then, so much for our nice little Palo Alto.
Each end posted with giant buildings - JCC on one end and now Lytton Behemoth...Come on PA. We DON'T need it.
Greedy people don't care as long as the hand gets greased.

Posted by Who gets payoffs?, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 23, 2012 at 11:06 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by mmmmMom, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 23, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Another too tall, too big for the space building that will add to the ruination of Palo Alto's charm.

Yeah, yeah..... I get that things, including towns, change over time. But change does not have to mean the loss of what was best & of greatest value.

I especially agree with Resident's comments that the illustration is not reality. That corner is already super busy - this will make it worse.

Posted by Maria, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Palo Alto used to be a residential community with a business district at University Ave. Now we are becoming a business community with a few residential districts. I haven't shopped on University in years because it does not have any of the stores ordinary families need, except for the pharmacies. It gets more ugly office buildings which aren't even all rented. Midtown has taken over and is a more pedestrian-friendly area. Good bye, downtown, I'll move my prescriptions to a Midtown pharmacy and never will see your ugly face again.

Posted by Sally, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 23, 2012 at 2:33 pm

I find the idea and the design very positive. I find the comments from the endless whiners to be tedious. Many people seem to want everything: endless parking, but no new parking garages; transportation alternatives but no new stop lights; a wide variety of shopping and dining alternatives, but no new parking, etc. etc. I continue to be amazed at how many people have so much time to whine. I, for one, appreciate all the effort our city employees and business developers and others make to try to meet everyone's needs. Thank you all.

Posted by coooper, a resident of another community
on Feb 23, 2012 at 3:03 pm

I'm tired of these idealistic urban-planner drawings faking out the planning commission.
I'm tired of the notion that, if fewer spaces are provided, fewer cars will come.
I'm tired of looming buildings too close to the street.
I'm tired of walking in shadow where the sun used to be.

Posted by Gethin, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 23, 2012 at 4:21 pm

It looks like a very well designed building to me, I think it will be a big improvement over what was there before.

Posted by Money, money, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 23, 2012 at 4:28 pm

You can judge its oversized beauty from an artist's rendering? That's a joke.
Commissioner Tuma never met a huge building (or builder) he didn't like.
Some commissioners earn money from real estate transactions. They should not be planning commissioners..

Posted by WilliamR, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 23, 2012 at 4:53 pm

I've stood on the Caltrain platform across Alma and tried to picture what the new building would look like, and my personal impression is that five stories, plus the 'tower' on the corner, is too large. The brick building on the other side of Lytton is about three stories.

Posted by enee, a resident of Professorville
on Feb 23, 2012 at 7:25 pm

I don't mind the height or the bulk. What I do mind is the design. It looks like a parking lot in San Jose, with the tower a glorified stairwell. How about something interesting and bold, more like the buildings south of University on Alma.

Posted by Under the table, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 23, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Greedy developers and crooked politicians. An unfortunate combination for the future of Palo Alto.

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 24, 2012 at 12:26 am

It is interesting how the perspective of this artist rendering shows what looks to be a very wide spacious avenue when it is really rendered from the parking lot across the street so far back to get the whole building into the picture.

Everything new now is jammed right up against the sidewalk and fills the whole lot. I suppose that is inevitable given the price of land and the lack of use of any setback.

I think least this building is at least 1 story too high, and the "tower" piece should be uniform with the rest of the building instead of popping up pointlessly taking up skyline.

Make it a uniform 4 stories and I could live with it. It might even act as a noise dampener to the rest of the neighborhood from the train noise.

Does anyone remember the days when every train that came through here in the middle of the night used to blast their horns so you could hear it a mile away from the tracks all the way to Middlefield - and in those days the horns were even louder than they are today?

Posted by Phil, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 24, 2012 at 8:19 am

Outstanding design and concept in my opinion. A great addition to our downtown area.

Posted by Edward, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm

That corner is very hard to negotiate as it is without adding more cars coming and going morning and evening. The road is constricted as it is. When someone at the front of the line wants to make a left turn into the Cal-Train parking lot, all those behind them (traveling North) are trapped. The other lane is a right-turn lane, and to make things worse its right after the hump of crossing over University.

I'm afraid this is going to make a mess an even bigger pain in the butt.

Posted by Cid Young, a resident of another community
on Feb 24, 2012 at 12:11 pm

I live out on the Coast where CHOP Keenan and his ilk have retreated to Make Money ... building structures that blocked our ocean views or won big lawsiuts because the H.M.Bay City Council members are a bunch of townies that did not see a slick, well-moneyed developer who LAYWERED UP when they got in his way, coming at them...!

My take on the entire situation ... no one is ever happy with the initial design put forth, so they need to attend every "Planning Commission" meeting, send in letters during the Public Comment period, and eventually NEGOTIATE. Developers know this, and always propose some huge , unpleasant 1st version, so they can give away a few bargaining chips during the public comment period, and make it look like they are conceding some height or bulk etc. Nothing ever is a win-win, just a who looses less. The proposals always "look good" for the Beauty Contest Judges.... and they are counting on the neighbors to be lazy or give up on the process so they can "Win".
At least over here we can appeal BIG projects to the Coastal Commission, or we would be wall to wall monstrosities by now.

Posted by parking, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 24, 2012 at 2:04 pm

What kind of public benefit are the onsite parking spots that can only be used during off peak hours? Downtown has a huge parking shortage. To be a real public benefit, the spaces should be available during peak periods as well.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 24, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Downtown does not have a parking shortage - it has expensive parking permits that are sold on a monthly basis, or daily permits which are very inconvient to purchase. Time to join the current decade and implement hourly permit machines in the garages and for dt street parking. Use a credit card, get a permit and place it on your dash. So simple, even Berkeley does it.

Posted by Longtime PA resident, a resident of Community Center
on Feb 24, 2012 at 11:06 pm

This is absolutely hideous! Where are the people in charge of keeping this monstrosity off of our city streets. Where are responsible City Council members? WHY is there no control???

Posted by maguro_01, a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 25, 2012 at 3:08 am

"Does anyone remember the days when every train that came through here in the middle of the night used to blast their horns so you could hear it a mile away from the tracks all the way to Middlefield - and in those days the horns were even louder than they are today?"

You're pulling our chains - everyone know that the old trains made discrete little beep sounds as they went through grade crossings so as to not disturb the fawns feeding on the flowers along University Avenue.....

Posted by Money, money, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 25, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Under the table got it right:
>Greedy developers and crooked politicians. An unfortunate combination for the future of Palo Alto.
Jim Baer offered the city money for a Traffic Study. We do not need another study. This is a simple PAYOFF to the Planning Dept. They get to hire people and waste time and money pontificating without solving anything.

Posted by Consider this, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 27, 2012 at 10:43 am

Before this project gets a green light, the City needs to explain the glass box that is sitting vacant on the site of the other long gone gas station in Palo Alto. That midtown location has been vacant since the building was completed. meanwhile Palo Altan have to buy gas in neighboring cities.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 27, 2012 at 10:54 am

@ Consdier this:

Why does the city have to explain an empty building? It's not their building. Talk to the owner.

When the site was available for another gas station owner, no one stepped up. Quite possibly because it is not economically viable to run a gas station and/or garage at that location.

Is that the city's fault? I don't think so.

Same goes for the location where the proposed new building will go. It was a Shell station - no one stepped up to buy the business and/or take on the property lease. This is not the city's fault.

And we cannot expect the city to mandate that the site remain a gas station - especially if no one is willing to take on the costs and (the apparent) poor economic return.

Posted by Linda C, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 27, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Building height code is 3 stories or less. There should not be a trade off for a "so called public benefit" period. It's not written that if one is offered you have to take it. JUST SAY NO !!

The cost to the city for infrastructure, schools, safety, etc out weighs the tax income. So, these "over developments" are often a burden to a city as a whole. A owner has a right o build - BUT TO THE CODES LIKE EVERYONE ELSE. Of course deep pockets can sway public officials (who often don't live in Palo Alto) and they just like to "plan and develop" things for their resumes, etc. anyway and move up their ladders.

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of University South
on Feb 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

The building replaces a vacant gas station - enough said.
Oh, for those motorists who invested in electric cars - they'll even be able to 'fill up' there!
It does seem though that this city has a problem with parking - it's opposite the train station, but more parking was demanded by the planning commission and the neighborhood leaders.

Posted by steve, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 28, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Greedy developers, corrupt politicians, visa rigging for school entry. They think that Palo Alto will stay the nicest place to live in, but it wont. Its changing fast. Its not a place for big conservative business, that is what Facebook is and Google has become. All the hip young start ups are moving to San Francisco. This place is becoming crowded, corrupt and conservative. Problem with the greed is that it kills its host. Some will make a lot of money and the city will lose all its character and become a nasty, crowded conservative town.

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of University South
on Mar 2, 2012 at 8:41 am

YIMBY is a registered user.

"Resident" (above) asked, "What does "attendant parking spots" mean in plain English?

Are we talking about valet parking?"

Resident, you are not alone.

Commissioner Tanaka's alternative was in some ways superior.
"Tanaka, the most vehement advocate of more parking, urged the applicants to make these 34 attended spots available to the public at a market rate".
As for the 'security concerns', why not keep the valets - but charge 'market rate'?

I do take issue with Tanaka's insistence that "more parking will help the neighborhood" - it will only encourage more solo-vehicular commuting by the workers at the site, literally encouraging them to drive rather than take the trainbike, etc.

Along with the parking study that the developers will subsidize, there needs to be education on what parking guru, Professor Don Shoup terms the "High Cost of Free Parking".
Web Link

To put it quite simply, by demanding more free parking by the developer, neighbors only serve to make their 'besiegement by downtown commuters/shoppers' worse.

Posted by Ann, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I was at the meeting last night, and it is interesting that by the end of the long evening, the issue of how this development will effect parking in the adjacent neighborhoods was lost. This was so frustrating. Are the city council members once again not hearing how their choices affect the residents? Are the choices made from every other consideration but this one?

I have several issues with the building beside the parking one: the height, the design, how close to the street it is, and the additional traffic it will generate in an already very busy area. This was not even mentioned. Can you imagine what the intersection of Lytton and Alma will be like after this is built?

So frustrating.

Posted by Mark Weiss , a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2012 at 9:11 am

Palo Alto North neighborhood association is having a meeting on this topic -- Lytton and Alma development -- Tuesday, May 1 at Avenidas on Bryant at 7 p.m.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields


One more week to vote!

Don't forget to cast your ballot online. Voting ends May 29th. Stay tuned for the results in the July 21st issue of the Palo Alto Weekly.