'Gateway' building sparks concerns over parking | March 16, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 16, 2012

'Gateway' building sparks concerns over parking

Council members ask developers to reduce number of floors, revise application for development near Caltrain station

by Gennady Sheyner

An ambitious proposal to construct a high-profile "gateway" building at a prominent corner of downtown Palo Alto is facing resistance from residents worried about the new building's parking impacts and concerns from city officials about its size and benefits.

The issues over parking and "benefits" bubbled up at the Monday, March 12, public hearing for the "Lytton Gateway" project, a marathon discussion that featured testimony from about 20 residents, a series of split votes and a wide-ranging debate by the City Council about what they want to see in the new building. Faced with competing priorities, council members ultimately decided to defer a final decision on the project.

Instead, the council voted 6-3 — with Councilwomen Karen Holman, Nancy Shepherd and Gail Price dissenting — to direct the applicants to further revise the application and to consider reducing the number of stories in the project.

The development under discussion — a five-story building featuring three stories of office space, ground-floor retail, 14 apartments and an underground garage — would stand at Alma Street and Lytton Avenue, near the downtown Caltrain station. The applicants — Lund Smith, Boyd Smith, Scott Foster and Jim Baer — characterized the project as the perfect example of a transit-oriented development — a dense, mixed-use building next to a major transit site.

Various downtown property owners have come out in favor of the project, as has the Sierra Club, which wrote a letter supporting the dense development because of its proximity to Caltrain. The Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a local nonprofit that manages the city's affordable-housing stock, also endorsed the project, which includes seven below-market-rate units.

The project has also received the blessings of the city's Architectural Review Board and, more recently, its Planning and Transportation Commission, which voted to approve the project last month after four lengthy meetings. While few residents attended the previous public hearings on 101 Lytton Ave., more than two dozen showed up to the Monday night council hearing.

Council members agreed that the site, which was previously occupied by a Shell gas station, is ideally suited for a large new development. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff called it "probably the best site in the city" for an office building and Councilman Sid Espinosa said it was "the right kind of a development, from my perspective, for the right site." But members had different ideas when it came to the details — namely, just how big the building should be and which "public benefits" the applicants should be forced to provide in exchange for dramatically exceeding the city's zoning regulations.

Concerns over the new building's parking impacts also loomed large during Monday's discussion. Residents and property owners from Downtown North and other nearby neighborhoods attended the meeting, with many arguing that the project is far too large and that it would burden the neighborhood with more cars than it can accommodate.

The project, as proposed, would include 130 parking spaces, including eight outdoor spaces that would be open to the public and 14 underground spots that would be available to the public on nights and weekends. The development would also include a valet-parking system that would allow the building to accommodate 164 cars and a transportation-demand management plan geared toward getting people out of their vehicles in favor of other modes of transportation. This includes buying Caltrain Go Passes for the building's occupants.

Boyd Smith of the applicant team told the council that his group has been meeting with neighborhood residents and striving to meet their concerns about parking. Unlike most of downtown, the residential Downtown North currently doesn't have any parking restrictions, a situation that prompts many office workers to leave their cars in the neighborhood, various residents told the council. Many have called for a parking-permit program that would limit the amount of time nonresidents can park in the neighborhood. Smith said the applicants are willing to pay the city $250,000 for a study to evaluate possible parking solutions for the neighborhood.

"We have done everything we can to be thoughtful and responsive to those (parking) concerns," Boyd Smith said.

Many remained skeptical. Sally-Ann Rudd, who lives in Downtown North, said her neighborhood had become the "overflow parking lot" of downtown and encouraged the council to institute a permit program. Another resident, Tina Peak, went a step further and said the project is far too big for the neighborhood. She asked the council to demand that the applicants reduce the building's size.

"Currently this city is not even close to being sustainable on its own and adding more and more development will get us no closer to this goal," Peak said. "Please send this project back to the drawing board or, better yet, to the chopping block to bring it down to size."

Some on the council shared her view that the project, as proposed, is too big. The building would be 64-feet tall and would feature as its centerpiece a tower that rises higher than 80 feet. It would thus exceed the city's 50-foot height limit for new developments.


Do you think the Lytton Gateway project would have a significant impact on downtown's parking situation? Share your opinions on Town Square on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2012 at 10:17 am

River City went for a boys' band. Palo Alto falls for "gateway" buildings

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2012 at 10:48 am

wow that's a pretty sly but right on reference: "The Music Man" about the con man Henry Hill-or is that a character from "Goodfellas"? -- who gets people to order instruments for the marching band then skips town. you should sign your posts.
Reminds me that at unveiling of Sister Cities sign Le Levy sang a parody version of an obscure to most of us Broadway melody and I asked him if he wanted to collaborate on a project were he and I write pro-Palo Alto and topical new lyrics to more recent songs which he can then sing and record, like he did with Broadway tunes a couple years ago, a cd out, and he did live at least a version of "Loverly" about Lytton Plaza. I am thinking: "Heartshaped Box" "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Foster the People.

How many gateway buildings do we need? There are two or three now proposed.

I was gonna make fun of this process and blend it with "maple kind". Like the applicant goes thru a long list of benefits -- parking, parking incentives, space for an ngo, and free bacon for both the tenants and the neighbors, as a perk, the special bacon that is maple cured -- I am making a pop reference that 100 million people get but probably not anybody at The Weekly or the next five posters here -- and a council member, I won't name by name but like Gary Trudeau's "B.D" I think of him as having a football helmut, he goes (he's a guy, making the odds only 1 in 5 that you can guess who he's based on):

"You mean the maple kind?" and he votes yes, in all three amendments.

Good job council for lopping off the gratuitous fifth floor and tower. By the way, some say it should be 35' limit not 50' since it is a neighborhood after all.

Posted by JT, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 13, 2012 at 10:51 am

City council essentially told Baer that if you give us enough money, we'll pretend this project doesn't worsen the housing and parking problems facing the community. I agree that this is the wrong place for below-market rate housing, but it doesn't help to shift the parking to another location. This building should be able to park everybody who works there. Period.

Posted by Working on High Street, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2012 at 10:52 am

Working in this area, we already see a huge number or people parking all day on Palo Alto streets and taking the train out of the area - Avoids the cost of parking in the Caltrain lot!

In conjunction with this project a compatable/complimentary garage should be built (and paid for) by Caltrain to reduce the burden this causes to PA streets/parking.

Posted by mec, a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 13, 2012 at 11:13 am

Some modest setbacks of the upper stories would soften the impact of such a tall building.

Posted by FrankF, a resident of Ventura
on Mar 13, 2012 at 11:31 am

to JT: Where is the "right" place for below market rate housing?

I believe the right place for BMR housing is all over - mixed in with all other kinds of housing. This includes Crescent Park, Ventura (although Ventura already has a lot more affordable housing) and even Down Town. It's important to remember that when we say BMR housing we are typically not talking about the poor - the BMR program in Palo Alto does have a few units that are very cheap but the majority of their units are for folks we would have to call middle class (Teachers, Police, Hair Dressers, Sectaries and such).

Posted by No-BMR-Housing-For-Overpaid-Public-Employees, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 13, 2012 at 11:49 am

> Teachers, Police

Police are routinely making over 120K a year, some upwards of 200K a year. Teachers at the PAUSD now make over 120K a year, many of them.

So--why would these people also need subsidized housing?

Posted by Deal Maker, a resident of another community
on Mar 13, 2012 at 11:53 am

Pat Burt wants the non-profit organization on the first floor to be the Chamber of Commerce. Sly dog, making friends for his future money-requirements. Burt never misses the main chance, to make a deal with money.

And for some humor, "We have done everything we can to be thoughtful and responsive to those concerns," Boyd Smith said, referring to complaints about insufficient parking.
Done everything except put in enough parking for the building.

Posted by Jaccey, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2012 at 11:56 am

There is no right place for below market housing. Our schools are packed and so are our streets. We are maxed out! Doesn't anyone see that??

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm

I mean Harold Hill and not Henry Hill and not Jerry Hill either....

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Speaking of chamber of commerce, as a poster ("Deal Maker") just was, and if this is not too much of a red herring, but I saw an excellent presentation by a former US Attorney named Jeff Clements who is fighting to repeal Citizens United vs. FCC, which allows corporations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to give soft money unrestricted to elections. I actually texted YY our mayor suggesting a City resolution on that topic, as other municipalities have done. We should keep an eye, if I follow the gist of Deal Maker's comment, on who gives money to City Council race this summer. Let's see if we can elect a Palo Alto City Council member -- just one would be a small miracle, where have you gone LaDoris Cordell? -- independent of the developers, or better turn out an incumbent and pick two indies.

The reason I go bonkers on local land issues is that I am actually worried about what happens on a national level: wars, bailouts, etc. If democracy does not actually work here, how could it work scaled up to nation of 300 million?

Web Link

Posted by RayDempsey, a resident of Professorville
on Mar 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Parking aside and a bit off subject, I was puzzled that the representative from the Architectural Review Board presented the building as something extraordinary in appearance, especially the open tower at the corner. Somehow, it reminded me of something the Lego School of Architecture might have done.

Posted by wondering, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm

I am so surprised that this gets through with such little space in the area and schools but yet over in South Palo Alto, it took them 5 years to get something through to upgrade the old Lucky's. It might mean that downtown North better step up and start blocking this horrendous building.

Posted by More homes, more cars, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm

You MUST have enough PARKING spaces for the # of new people in the new building, or higher parking lots, or more underground parking. Not otherwise fair to the older homes in the nice areas of downtown Palo Alto!

Posted by Mary, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2012 at 2:13 pm

As a property owner in Downtown North, I am very concerned about the parking problem that will be exacerbated by this project. Infilling is a good idea, but please, the public benefits should be true benefits, e.g. parking, not the so-called art we have seen on other buildings.

Posted by Pay offs, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm

The architect for this monstrocity should be run out of town. He's no Birge Clark!! Let's hope the city council doesn't bow to this greedy developer who only wants to line his pockets.

Posted by Crooked Developer, a resident of Professorville
on Mar 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by bill g, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 13, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Another example of the City Council giving in to a developer. Why does every council seem to do this?

Posted by Deal Maker, a resident of another community
on Mar 13, 2012 at 2:57 pm

bill g asks Another example of the City Council giving in to a developer. Why does every council seem to do this?
That is the real question.
It's obvious why architects and land dealers give in,that's how they make connections and get jobs (for example the Planning Commission and Architect Review Boards are dominated by them), but why the council?
I think the payoffs there are more indirect. Developers now donate and participate on the boards of several non-profits, there are favors to families that can be done without the public knowing, there are investments that can be offered, help in building construction, and of course campaign contributions and campaign workers.
Some strong investigative reporting would uncover interesting stuff.

Posted by puzzled, a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 13, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Most of the PAOnline stories (particularly this one) seem to attract individuals with a strong sense of distrust and cynicism in the Palo Alto city council and government. I'm not saying that is wrong; only that I am surprised at how strongly negative the feelings are. Particularly those alluding to payments and cronyism.
Anyway ... several points and questions:
1. I agree with FrankF about BMR housing shsould be located "all over"
2. I believe this site is a good one for the kind of dense mixed use development.
3. I happen to like the design. But I'll admit concern over it being too tall. Exceptions, once given, are hard not to give again under similar circumstances. And I would not like to see Palo Alto become a 'higher rise community". So maybe 4 stories and a smaller tower (which I think looks good at the corner). Or as mec said, some kind of setback on the upper floors.
4. There was a parking garage article recently about spaces going unused in the downtown garages; that there should be more monthly spaces allocated. If the Alma garage south of University has capacity, perhaps those spaces could be used to augment parking for commuters to this new development.
5. I sympathize with the residents north of University and agree that there may need to be steps taken to keep commuters from parking in that neighborhood. However, I'd prefer some gradual or 'minimialist' approach first (I have no specific suggestions; only do not want to see more rules and restrictions than are necessary - there or anywhere else).

Finally, as is demonstrated by the variety of personal opinions expressed in these comments, each of the members of the City Council has his/her own opinions of what a development should look like and what it should 'do' for the city. Each one says "I'd like to see this ...". And quickly you have design by committee. What is the architect(who has training in the design and organization of components within a space) supposed to do? And the developer, who is trying to work within some budget? I am not saying that the ARB and Council should just rubber stamp everything that comes to them. But I do wonder some time whether we as a community over do this whole process.
Anyway, there you have my $0.02.

Posted by public places, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 13, 2012 at 7:45 pm

"I'd prefer some gradual or 'minimialist' approach first"
I'd be concerned with a blanket 2 hour parking limit in downtown north. Johnson park is a popular park for North Palo Alto and people will often want to go there for more than 2 hours. To prevent all-day parking, perhaps restrict it to 4 or 5 hours if it is introduced.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 13, 2012 at 11:29 pm

This project is asking for a several variances:

1) Parking spaces will be about half of what would normally be required

2) Building height of 84 feet exceeds the 50 foot maximum

3) Square feet of development allowed for the property

The proposed "community benefits" are:

a) 8 parking spaces during the weekdays, 22 in the off hours (I find this ironic, given that the project is asking to build only half the parking normally required).

b) 7 "affordable housing" units.

Pat Burt thinks says "I'd be able to trade off some of the concerns over its height and mass for other values that we're seeking in the community."

What other "values" are we seeking in the community - more traffic congestion? Aggravating an already difficult parking situation? Adding to an already overcrowded neigbhorhood elementary school?

Does anyone remember what Greg Scharff told the Palo Alto Weekly when he was running for election:

"He is also critical of the city's "planned community" (PC) zoning process -- which allows developers to build at greater densities than would otherwise be allowed in exchange for "public benefits." The process, he said, is often abused by developers. He cited the recently approved Alma Plaza, which includes among other things a grocery store, 37 homes and 15 below-market apartments. He called the project, and its abundance of housing, a "good example of this process run amok."

In the middle of all this is Jim Baer, the campaign contributor & bundler of money, who adds in a little bit of this and that to get special interest group support - Affordable housing advocates, and Sierra Club (the same Sierra Club that endorsed and pushed for the High Speed Rail)

Now who is representing the residents? Many on the city council are too busy tripping over themselves to curry favor with the special interests, and NOT representing the residents.

We have an election coming in November - this is the time for residents to make themselves heard and DO NOT RE-ELECT the incumbents who place special interests ahead of the residents.

Posted by Deep Throat, a resident of another community
on Mar 14, 2012 at 11:20 am

Deal Maker says that bill g asks: "Another example of the City Council giving in to a developer. Why does every council seem to do this?", and Deal Maker answers: "That is the real question."

common sense answers Deeal Maker: "We have an election coming in November - this is the time for residents to make themselves heard and DO NOT RE-ELECT the incumbents who place special interests ahead of the residents."

In other words, why do the voters continue to elect Council Members who do this?

The project's fifth floor of housing, of which half would have been subsidized housing, would have provided the developer with a much lower rate of return than the three floors of offices.

The City Council did the developer a favor by eliminating the housing and thereby incresing the average rate of return of the project.

Nancy Shepherd wanted to give the developer more profit by replacing the housing floor with another floor of offices.

The current zoning allows 17,000 square feet of offices, while the project has 49,000 square feet of offices, plus several thousand square feet of retail.

Larry Klein pointed out that the additional 32,000 square feet of offices at the current value of $1,000 per square foot would yield an addtional $32,000,000. If we generously assume a cost of $500 per square fooot, then the developer would get an additional $16,000,000 profit.

Shepherd thinks that's not enough money, while the Council Members who voted for the project would take how much money for their favorite charities from the developer's additional $16,000,000 in exchange for their votes? How about $250,000 for a parking study and a few more dollars for affordable housing. And don't forget free rent for that needy organization the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce.

Why do the voters continue to elect Council Members who do this?

Posted by Madam President, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 14, 2012 at 1:27 pm

oh, the selfishness of PA property oweners...

Posted by JT, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 14, 2012 at 4:09 pm

I saw the report in the Post this morning that said the chamber and the BID might get space in the building. I wondered how that happened. It didn't come up at any of the earlier hearings. It was just slipped in by council. I think the idea needs to be fully vetted by the community, and not just done on the sly. I can't imagine a chamber office being the best use of that ground floor location. Seems like council is trading favors with the chamber.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 14, 2012 at 5:31 pm

"In other words, why do the voters continue to elect Council Members who do this?"

Because those members buy tons of campaign visibility with the developers' campaign contributions. If you want the council to vote your way you got to outbid the competition.

Posted by Cynthia Suri, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 15, 2012 at 9:26 am

Another ugly generic glass building!

Kudos to Michael King for making the new Lytton building more reflective of the structures that feel more "Palo Alto."

Please put some thought into these structures and not just award to the highest bidder!!

Posted by Deal Maker, a resident of another community
on Mar 15, 2012 at 12:11 pm

It was Councilman Greg Scharff who initiated the offer to the Chamber of Commerce to let them have the "non profit" ground floor location, according to yesterday's Post.
Can't hurt a couple of power hungry deal makers (Scharff and Burt) to do valuable favors to the Chamber.
After all, the Chamber Board has FOUR Stanford reps from different parts of Stanford, several real estate, banks, and mortgage lenders, and even a rep from Larry Klein's law firm (Thoits).
Cool deal, Burt and Scharff! The only people who get the short end of it are residents.

Posted by YIMBY, a resident of University South
on Mar 19, 2012 at 7:23 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

Palo Alto - its leaders and residents, need to determine how they want to deal with the automobile - the Lytton Gateway developer had an elaborate transportation demand management proposal, but council and many neighbors couldn't look past what they expected to be inordinate parking demand on their neighborhoods.

Parking has become the tail that wags the dog - our downtown is being shaped by how many cars leaders think a development can park, rather than other factors - like what are developments for?

Take any project in this city and the question posed is, "do you have enough parking places"?

There are intelligent ways to deal with parking - but most of them involve charging for it - which this city is loath to do.

In Friday's (March 16) NYT was a great article describing the innovative parking strategy implemented in SF that involves placing sensors in the on-street parking spaces that allow motorists with the smart phone ap to know of an opening. Our city council has asked why we aren't doing those types of things....Web Link
Of course, the title of the article, "A Meter So Expensive, It Creates Parking Spots" explains why PA is unable to utilize this type of technology - we got rid of meters years ago and there is no willingness to bring them back!

Posted by OMV Resident, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm

@YIMBY - Right on! Great to see some truly progressive thinking on this message board. There ARE plenty of intelligent ways to manage parking in our cities, and to keep it in its place so it doesn't become the sole determinant of what we build and don't build. Cities such as Palo Alto and Mountain View with such desirable locations in proximity to one of the world's premiere universities, can do better than to bicker about the amount of parking in developments, fail to price this scarce resource, and then wonder why our cities are so dominated by automobiles. Let's look more holistically at the situation and make this important project happen!

Posted by Deal Maker, a resident of another community
on Mar 20, 2012 at 4:52 pm

That's right, OMV, lets talk about theoretical solutions and let these major money makers at the public expense keep on doing it.
"Important project" indeed. Important for whom?
Your values are showing.

Posted by OMV Resident, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 22, 2012 at 11:43 pm

@Deal Maker - Yes, my values are indeed showing. I believe in wise use of our land resources and putting growth in sensible places, such as near rail stations and where it's already been developed, rather than sprawling out into green lands.

What 'theoretical solutions' am I referring to? Cities from Redwood City (two entire cities to the north) to almost any other mature, progressive city in the United States allow pricing of parking as a way of managing demand and keeping it in its place. Price it, manage it, and it won't take over your city. It's as proven as apple pie and sliced bread.

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