City to weigh appeal of Hamilton Avenue building | September 13, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 13, 2013

City to weigh appeal of Hamilton Avenue building

Palo Alto City Council hits the brakes on approved project, sets public hearing to consider residents' concerns

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto residents concerned about the modernist design of a proposed development on downtown's Hamilton Avenue — and the parking problems it could exacerbate — will get a chance to make their case in November, when the city holds a public hearing to discuss their appeal of the project.

The four-story development at 240 Hamilton Ave. earned the approval of the city's Architectural Review Board in July, completing what would normally be the final step in the city's commission-review process. That, however, changed when downtown resident Douglas Smith appealed the approval, arguing that the glassy, rectangular building by Hayes Group Architects would be incompatible with the surrounding buildings, many of which are more traditional in style and feature red-tile roofs, decorative columns, stucco walls and arcades. Other residents argued that the city gave the developer too many parking exemptions and urged the City Council on Monday not to make the area's much-discussed parking shortage even worse.

The council didn't take a stance on the project, but it gave the residents at least a partial victory when it opted not to uphold the architectural board's approval. Instead, it removed the appeal of 240 Hamilton from its "consent calendar," a list of items typically approved with no discussion. Mayor Greg Scharff, who proposed taking the item off consent, said the council will hear the residents' appeal in November.

While the council didn't talk about the development at all, residents had plenty to say. During the public-comments period of the council's meeting, Smith noted that the city's Comprehensive Plan and Municipal Code both encourage new developments to be compatible with the surrounding area and argued that city staff is misusing these documents.

"The guiding documents are not being followed as intended," Smith told the council. "I see this as an opportunity for the City Council to step in and make some permanent changes for the better. I think it's entirely possible."

Smith — who favors traditional architecture, like Spanish Colonial, to glass-heavy modern designs — also put together an online survey that offers residents a chance to vote on the types of buildings they prefer. Hundreds of people participated. That survey, he said showed 79.5 percent of the respondents agreeing with his contention that the new design for 240 Hamilton is not compatible with its surrounding area. He also said nearly 75 percent of the survey responders agreed that "new buildings should be in the older style, the historic style."

"I wanted to find out if am I a crank, or if the people support me," Smith said. "If I'm a crank, then Palo Alto is full of cranks."

Other speakers, including Faith Bell of Bell's Books, also encouraged the council to demand more parking spaces from the developer, Sal Giovanotto. Bell made a pitch for requiring underground parking for new buildings.

"Developers tell you it's too expensive to put in multiple floors (of underground parking)," Bell said. "But it's only too expensive for them. If they don't put it in, it's too expensive for all the rest of us."

The building would be 50 feet tall and would stand across the street from City Hall, next to Reposado Restaurant. It would include 9,915 square feet of office space, 3,473 square feet of residential space and 2,337 square feet of ground-floor retail.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 9, 2013 at 10:10 pm

What the City needs to do is promote and require good architecture, not approve bad or ordinary buildings in special areas such as Downtown Palo Alto which has a special character and ambiance and historic resources. Besides dealing with the parking issue, new developments should not overwhelm and completely transform the streetscapes and destroy the qualities of the Downtown. This does not require doing Spanish Colonial Revival buildings.The sameness of Santa Barbara for example is not what we have or want to strive for in Palo Alto. The building at 428-432 University which has the Lululemon on the ground floor is an example of good architecture at an acceptable scale, texture,color, design, as is the Palantir Bldg at 100 Hamilton on Alma. These are the kind of projects which should receive review by the City from strictly a design standpoint, realizing that the parking issue also has to be reformed and be part of the approval process. Spanish style should certainly not be considered a prerequisite or need to be a starting point. The Spanish style office project on Lytton at the Gate House site looks like a spec-office building, is the wrong scale, a poor color, and overwhelms the plaza and ended up a mishmash. The City needs to understand what good architecture is, and require it in a creative process, not a quick get-rich developer bonanza. When you factor in the underparking, the City is essentially doing everything wrong and our City is being degraded and its qualities and livability destroyed.

Posted by another res, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 9, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Completely agree with resident, and Faith Bell (underground parking!), and thanks to Mr. Smith for the appeal.

Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2013 at 5:54 am

Douglas Smith, just like the residents who worked so hard to put
the Maybell rezoning to referendum, deserves tremendous credit
for filing an appeal of 240 Hamilton, drawing attention to the
proposed project for this high visibility corner, and the emptiness, biases and preferential treatment of the City's review process which has caused so much damage to our City. Thank you Douglas Smith and
those residents who supported this appeal which the Council felt
they could not ignore in a business as usual posture.

Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 10, 2013 at 6:15 am

There were interesting public comments advanced at last night's Council Meeting about impact from downtown office's with uber glass features. First, the glare at various time of day as the sun sweep across the sky. Second, the visual impact of large, open glass walls facing the sidewalks. It made me think about a spot on one downtown sidewalk where my dog Ralph and I feel the reflected solar heat..kinda nice in the winter. Some ground-floor office tenants block off their windows with frosted glass and shades..diminishing any architectural feature with rather stark flat spaces. One other prominent tenant displays their rabbit warren work spaces to the pedestrians who walk by. They even write on the glass takes a mirror to read what they are working on.

Posted by Mary Carlstead, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 10, 2013 at 9:52 am

Thank you, Douglas Smith and others for your hard work in stopping this project and bringing to light the failures of the ARB and Planning Commission to say nothing of the Council itself for allowing gross architecture to mar our city. (What are the qualifications to even be on those boards?) Each time I drive down Alma, I have to reach for the TUMS. I have never eaten in the Cheesecake Factory. Don't want to even look at it. And there are fairly nice buildings but with vertical steel stripes along the outer walls - like the one that has ruined the Spanish-type feel of University Circle. It's been nicknamed 'prison architecture". There's a sad example at the corner of El Camino and Page Mill next to a really lovely building. And yes, the Mitchell Park Library. Maybe if it is painted soft colors and get rid of the 'blue'. When City Hall was built in the 60's, it was nicknamed the "wedding cake", and someone suggested a concrete bride and groom on the top!! I'll sign my name because I have lived here over 48 years. I remember Palo Alto as it was and shudder to see what it has become and further deteriorating in style. RESIDENTS MUST speak out and fight back. It's OUR city.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 10, 2013 at 9:53 am

"The City needs to understand what good architecture is..."

The city understands. Our developers have educated it thoroughly. Glass boxes are good architecture--they are cheap to build and require minimal talent to design.

Posted by ken AGAIN, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 10, 2013 at 10:50 am

Getting this pulled was a good first step. I suspect the developers are now lobbying City staff and Council Members against any real changes especially with respect to parking exceptions.

As Neilson Buchanan pointed out last night, in the past decade the City has approved over 40 buildings downtown that seriously lack the parking needed to support the uses they house. With approximately 3.7 million square feet of mostly office commercial uses there is less than 6,000 public and private parking spaces, less than 2,000 for employees, most of that requiring employees to pay. Sounds like a lot but at the established ratio of 1:250 parking to square feet of building there should be 15,000 spaces, 40% of what is needed using the standard once set by the City.

The next step is for the Council to adopt a moratorium on further construction including projects that have been approved but not yet built - unless they provide either the spaces or the funds to build solutions, currently calculated at approximately $60,000 per space.

Once that is done the City can stop digging the deficit hole deeper, they can amend the codes to eliminate the multi-million dollar exceptions (read subsidies) granted to developers and property owners who neither deserve or need these gifts of public resources.

Governor Brown recently eliminated the Redevelopment laws that gave Cities the right to, in effect, subsidize development to achieve economic goals. Palo Alto never had redevelopment, but they have adopted their own form of subsidies instead. Yes they got development but the cost in other community values has been very high, very high indeed.

Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 10, 2013 at 11:48 am

Totally agree with Ms. Bell and Mr. Smith.

What in the world is the city thinking of -- TWO parking spaces -- for this given all our parking problems??

And how about preserving some of our architectural heritage?

Posted by Debbie Nichols, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2013 at 12:05 pm

A big thank you to Doug Smith and Faith Bell. Thank goodness we have concerned citizens like Smith and Bell, willing to take the time and effort to try and save our once beautiful town. We the citizens of Palo Alto all need to step up to the plate and serve notice to the current city council, the ARB, and city staff that we are totally unhappy with the direction they are taking this town. Incompetence and special interests are a deadly combination. Unfortunately that is what we are dealing with. I encourage everyone to take the time to write our city council and voice your concerns.

Posted by Wants to use downtown, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm

I want to come downtown for an appointment and still have time to meet a friend for lunch and a little shopping, without having to pay a parking fine if I forget to move my car. I know that developers don't want to spend their money to provide for parking, but residents needs should should mean more than just a chance to speak at a Council meeting.

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 10, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Developers should definitely provide parking for new buildings for the workers/ tenants. That will go a long way to solve the parking problem in nearby neighborhoods. Not sure what is the accepted ration of parking spots/ workers, but I assure it is out there.
However, parking for shoppers/ visitors to downtown needs to be provided by the city-- that is why we have street parking, parking lots and garages with time limits.

Posted by Nora Charles, a resident of Stanford
on Sep 10, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Hats off to Douglas Smith for getting involved, and challenging this project, and to Faith Bell for questioning parking. Why is it often citizens are left to do this, and not the City Council or Planning Commission?

Posted by invalid results, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2013 at 6:43 pm

"Smith, who favors traditional architecture, like Spanish Colonial, to glass-heavy modern designs, also put together an online survey that offers residents a chance to vote on the types of buildings they prefer. That survey, he said showed 79.5 percent of the respondents agreeing with his contention that the new design for 240 Hamilton is not compatible with its surrounding area. He also said nearly 75 percent of the survey responders agreed that "new buildings should be in the older style, the historic style." "

79.5% and 75% of who?? Was this a random survey? I think not. the survey was mentioned in a thread started on this forum:
Web Link
People at that time pointed out the flaws with the survey, so they do not need repeating.
I am sure that Mr Smith informed the people that think like him about the survey in order to skew the results.
I hope that the Council and the Weekly understand that this is not a valid survey in any way, shape or form.

Posted by Social Butterfly, a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 11, 2013 at 3:54 am

Maybe our city should become better friends with East Palo Alto and build a HUGE parking structure where the Littleman's grocery store area was a one time...( Bay Road and University Ave.). That way people can be shuttled to downtown every 15 minutes to shop and eat. That idea should be on the adjenda. It could work. And also end to the blight in EPA also. Win win situation!!!

Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on Sep 11, 2013 at 11:49 am

The idea of not building parking to get people into their cars has been a total failure due to the face that Palo Alto doesn't control any sort of transit planning. We don't spend the money, we made plans but then get bogged down in studies, meetings and the fear of creating more traffic.

Folks the traffic just gets worse, the parking gets bad and we keep approving ugly buildings

Posted by Well, well, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Just look at who is on the City Council: some of the members have investments in some of the new building developments in Palo Alto. We will see how they vote. This development is clearly out of sync with the rest of the area, so if it ends up being endorsed by the council, we will know either some members had financial interests in it, or some members were bribed by someone who does.

How else do you explain Maybell, the JCC, the Mitchell Park Library, 801 Alma, etc.?

Posted by Well, well, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Anyone read Diana Diamond's weekly column in the Daily News? She said it quite well

Posted by Don't forget Alma, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Don't forget the ugliness of the Alma Plaza development, which also lacked adequate parking for the shoppers. We need an architectural review board that actually reviews the architecture, and stops rubber stamping these ridiculous designs!