Council rejects appeal of modernist building | December 13, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 13, 2013

Council rejects appeal of modernist building

Resident had decried Palo Alto building as not fitting in with character of downtown

by Eric Van Susteren

The City Council on Monday shot down an appeal of a modernist development at 240 Hamilton Ave. in Palo Alto that appellant Douglas Smith said was incompatible with the historic buildings surrounding it.

The 15,000-square-foot building, which will stand at the corner of Hamilton and Ramona Street, will replace an existing 7,000-square-foot building, the former home of Radio Shack. The new four-story, mixed-use building will contain retail space on the ground floor, offices on the second and third floors and residential space on the fourth floor.

Smith, a Palo Alto resident, appealed the July Architectural Review Board approval of the project's design, saying that its modernist architecture clashed with the historic buildings in the Hamilton Avenue area, which he called "the most densely historic spot in any commercial area in Palo Alto."

The council voted 6-3 — with Karen Holman, Greg Schmid and Pat Burt dissenting — to deny the appeal, saying during a discussion that stretched well beyond midnight that the building's design was compatible with the surrounding area.

Smith said the building is inconsistent with the city's municipal code and its Comprehensive Plan, the "land-use bible" that guides development in the city.

The municipal code states the board should approve a development only if it is compatible with the immediate environment and — if the area is considered to have a unifying design or historical character — the design is compatible with that character.

Dozens of members of the public spoke for and against the development. Most of the comments were directed at the limited parking the developer would provide and the traffic and parking woes it might cause in the already traffic-plagued area surrounding the building.

But legally, the council's decision had to be based on the issue of the appeal, which was the building's architectural design, not on the consequences to parking and traffic.

Councilwoman Liz Kniss said she thought the modernist design mixed well with the traditional designs of the surrounding buildings, saying it fits the city's diverse character. Councilwoman Gail Price agreed and called the building "very well designed" and said it "provides an anchor to the corner."

Councilman Burt called the appeal "misguided and inappropriate" and lauded the compatibility of other buildings around town designed by architect Ken Hayes but voted for the appeal nonetheless.

He said the debate shouldn't be over the merits or appropriateness of modernist buildings in historic districts, but over whether the design characteristics of this development fit with its neighboring buildings. He said the "massive" building was out of scale with its neighbors and that the materials used were inappropriate for making it compatible.

Councilwoman Holman voted to support the appeal because she said the building's design doesn't fit with surrounding buildings, contrasting the solid glass walls of the 240 Hamilton Ave. building with the historic Cardinal Hotel on the opposite corner, which is punctuated by windows.

"I'm a fan of many of your buildings, Ken," she said, addressing Hayes. "I think this one misses the mark."

Smith told the Weekly that the decision was "profoundly disappointing" because it set a precedent for allowing "glass and concrete boxes" that he said are incompatible with their surroundings.

He called the vote an ominous sign that upholds the status quo of how the city's planning department and Architectural Review Board operate. The board is allowed input in building design far too late in the process, he said, and it has to struggle to tinker with it near the end rather than guide it from the beginning. He said he felt the council missed an opportunity to revise the process to allow for more involvement from residents he says are being ignored.

Smith said the conversation Monday night was sidetracked by the issue of architectural diversity, which dissenting council members Burt and Holman also criticized. The issue, they said, was not architectural diversity but the interpretation of statutes in the Comprehensive Plan and Municipal Code that deal with compatibility.

Smith called on the council to clarify the statutes so that they're less ambiguous and subject to less interpretation. That way, developers can't ignore them as easily, he said.

Some residents, like Robert Peterson, a former colleague of esteemed Palo Alto architect Birge Clark, came out in full support of Hayes and the board.

"We need a group of people who are educated, experienced and creative and can make a judgment of what can work in our community," he said.

Residents Andrew Wong, Martin Bernstein and Todd Simon said the building fit into the city's portfolio and championed the idea of diverse architecture in Palo Alto.

Resident Paula Shaviv told the council it should not try to mimic historic architecture but embrace change.

"It makes no more sense to require (the building) to be built in a period frozen in time than it would to make me appear before you in a hoop skirt," she said.

Online Editor Eric Van Susteren can be reached at


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