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Palo Alto nixes two-story additions to historic building

Original post made on Jun 24, 2014

Calling a developer's planned renovation of a historic downtown building "a tipping point," Palo Alto City Council members voted Monday night 8-1 against developer Roxy Rapp's proposal for controversial renovations at 261 Hamilton Ave.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, June 23, 2014, 10:42 PM

Comments (28)

Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 24, 2014 at 7:55 am

Hopefully the change from Category 3 to Category 2 will be approved with a new upgrade design that does not "push the envelope".

Posted by Olenka V
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 24, 2014 at 8:08 am

I was deeply disappointed to read of the council's decision regarding Mr. Rapp's innovative proposal. As one of the few developers in this city willing to still invest in and preserve our beautiful older buildings, we should be grateful that he tries to maintain their original glory.

It seems as though this town prefers to plow the old down in favor of those glass monstrosities. Perhaps those buildings meet the building codes, but certainly not a pleasing "aesthetics" code... in my opinion.

I worry that as we place more restrictions on developers like Mr. Rapp, one of the good guys, we will lose their investments and talents to another city. Instead, we will need to brace ourselves for a new, boxy-glass reality in this town. What a shame.

Posted by Hamiltom
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 24, 2014 at 8:45 am

Sad evening. What a loss for Palo Alto. I can see what is going to happen now. Really poor judgement council. Only one member voted correctly and the one not up for re-election had the vision and can see the amazing benefits to that area and this city. Mr Rapp has done some amazing developments in this town and to put him through last nights dance was hard to watch. The decision was a wrong one for sure. Council shame on you. You looked uninformed and it was difficult to watch your silly comments. This is a cooked project......unfortunately the council over cooked this great opportunity for that lovely building to be done right.

Posted by Observer
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 24, 2014 at 8:51 am

I wouldn't consider the Cheesecake Factory building or the Sprint building evidence of Roxy's good taste.
The words that more accurately describe these projects are oversized and ostentatious. And seriously underparked.

Posted by Cheryl Lilienstein
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 24, 2014 at 9:13 am

Thank you city council for making this decision.
I hope your action sends a message to the city boards and is an admonishment to staff to stop trying to bend, stretch, and rewrite city code.

Our city code clearly states that changing the shape of an historic building is not allowed, yet city staff, in an effort to allow this project, attempted to convince the council that it IS allowed. Sheesh.

I appreciate the structures Mr. Rapp has built: unlike the glassy harshness of many recent buildings around town, most of Mr Rapp's facades help maintain the welcoming nature and warmth of the Spanish/mediterranean influence of the early architecture of California and this region. I really am grateful for this relief, and the beauty.

But, using staff’s interpretation, a developer could conceivably fill in a basement and build another NEW floor above a protected historic building, so long as setback and daylight plane rules are followed. Clearly not allowed by the city code.

One could argue that the building will be “improved” with adding a few parking spaces, and that nobody would notice adding 6000 sf of office space behind the facade. Yet, what do the residents get out of that? The greater impact of adding 6000 sf of office space will continue to worsen parking problems downtown, add congestion, and increase the jobs-to-housing imbalance that is fueling the drive for housing density.

The bigger question is why does staff spend our tax money trying to justify projects that violate city codes? Maybe it is because--like most human beings-- they are more INTERESTED in NEW STUFF than in fixing what's wrong. Yet, it would be a great benefit if city staff was directed to spend more time solving the parking problems (say, providing real-time parking information so drivers do not have to circle neighborhoods looking for parking). That would be a worthwhile use of city resources (tax money), and I'd imagine there would be unity between the residents, the incoming workers, and the merchants around that improvement.

Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 24, 2014 at 9:29 am

He can return with a revised proposal - that's the scary part.

Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 24, 2014 at 9:42 am

> The bigger question is why does staff spend our tax money trying to
> justify projects that violate city codes?

Is this really true? How much of Staff time is paid for from City funds, and how much is paid for by fee-for-service that is a part of the project approval process?

Don't disagree with the general sentiment being expressed, but believe we should fully understand what is true, and what is not true.

Posted by TimH
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 24, 2014 at 10:30 am

Well, done, PA Council - for now. Roxy Rapp is obviously not alone but has basically treated Palo Alto as his sketch pad over the years and we've taken the good with the very bad (Cheesecake Factory, etc.) so it's well past the time to start digging in. There are far worse "developer" consortiums chipping away at Palo Alto. My mom paid money to the Rapp's for our shoes for years, so a name trust may have been built back then that is gone today. Complaining aside, I still liked their model trains.

Posted by Accountability
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 24, 2014 at 10:56 am

Is there any accountability of city staff for arriving at such an outrageous interpretation of city ordinance?

Posted by taxpayer
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 24, 2014 at 11:00 am

No surprise to see Price voting to allow the developer to have special favors. So glad she will not be on the council much longer. I was a little surprised to see that Shepherd didn't support the developer. My assumption is that she is concerned that giving away more to the developers and unions is going to cost her the election (now that candidates have emerged that are not toeing the union/developer point of view). But I expect she will be back to voting union/developer if she is re-elected. We need to get Shepherd off the council!

Posted by blatt
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 24, 2014 at 11:46 am

guess what--the train has left the station! Palo Alto is no longer the sleepy little town of yesteryear--progress is good for everyone and entrepreneurs who are willing to invest should be applauded--not scolded. My mom also bought Rapp's shoes so kudos to Roxy for managing his money wisely and hanging around to give back by investing in our future.

Posted by Lividdavid
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 24, 2014 at 11:55 am

He made a good proposal. Too bad the city turned it down.

Posted by Observer
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 24, 2014 at 11:56 am

People don't seem to know that Gail Price works as Executive Director at American Institute of Architects Santa Clara Valley
and she praises anything that involves architects or development. Even Arrillaga's 27 University.
Who knows, maybe she is planning to go through the revolving door and work directly for developers just like former Planning commissioner Dan Garber and former Planning Director Steve Emslie.

Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 24, 2014 at 12:23 pm

The City should have tied the Bryant street encroachment exception granted to Rapp for his new building at Bryant/University contingent on Rapp doing a complete exterior remodel of Cheesecake Factory which is an unmitigated disaster for the University Avenue streetscape. Holman called 261 Hamilton a "tipping point". The tipping point should have been The Cheesecake Factory approved by staff and the ARB more than ten years ago and the City wouldn't be in the mess it is today. While Rapp has done some good projects
278 Bryant Street is not one of them. It's out of scale, out of character, too dark, out of place on University Avenue. At the same time it overwhelms
the otherwise interesting Joseph Bank building and creates a huge monolith.

Now with a fresh start on 261 Hamilton Rapp should himself tie his proposal to a complete exterior remodel of Cheesecake Factory. We need a complete new direction in Palo Alto, new thinking,a refocus on long-term values.

Posted by Oh We'll
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 24, 2014 at 12:53 pm

City staff is directed by City management who is directed by City Council to push developers projects along without being encumbered by ordinances and city policy. What makes this story funny is that council members scold city staff for council's own failings. [Portion removed.]

Posted by What's in a name?
a resident of another community
on Jun 24, 2014 at 1:01 pm

How can you criticize Rapp's project at the corner of University and Bryant (278 University) when it is the home of Keen Footware that is located in a place with a city manager named Keene where the former residential Palo Alto Hotel is now the Hotel Keen?

Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 24, 2014 at 1:28 pm

"Is there any accountability of city staff for arriving at such an outrageous interpretation of city ordinance?"

Only their total astonishment that the council didn't meekly acquiesce as it usually does. Mouths are gaping even as I write.

Posted by JA3
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 24, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Shouldn't a project like this provide parking on-site which fully satisfies the needs of the building?

Is a trade of basement space -- where perhaps few, if any, individuals work -- for office space -- which, presumably, individuals, not storage, will occupy -- logical, if the project does not provide new, on-site parking able to site the new office users?

Isn't parking -- or the lack thereof -- an oft-heard concern elsewhere with projects downtown? If so, why is not the City -- perhaps teamed up with all downtown property owners -- doing something about it?

Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 24, 2014 at 2:45 pm

"why is not the City -- perhaps teamed up with all downtown property owners -- doing something about it?"

Doing something about it costs money--our money. For many years city hall allowed developers to construct underparked office buildings as a matter of policy. It saved our cherished developers uncounted millions of dollars. The commuters who came up short parked in the neighborhoods. In essence, city hall policy sacrificed the neighborhoods near downtown to subsidize already-wealthy developers.

Those neighborhoods are now revolting. There is only one solution: spend city money (our money) to build the parking spaces that our developers should have been required to provide using their own money.

It's an old story: Privatize the gains, socialize the costs.

Posted by Gail
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 24, 2014 at 3:10 pm

[Portion removed.]

The city council appears to be running scared at the moment. They are afraid they won't get re elected, so are backing off from sucking up to developers. Those up for re election will soon be run out of office. [Portion removed.]

Posted by Throw out the Bums
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 24, 2014 at 3:18 pm

I was born and raised in Palo Alto. And I've been lucky enough to make money.
I fully intend to take out large newspaper ads, close to the fall election, to remind the voters about how incompetent this current city council has been. It is imperative that those city council members, up for election, don't get re elected.
I intend to throw money at ensuring that these city council members, who have thumbed their noses at the wishes of their constituents, don't get re elected.
Palo Alto is at a critical junction. The city is on a disaster trajectory.

Posted by Observer
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 24, 2014 at 4:08 pm

An eerily similar experience with Roxy Rapp in Menlo Park at 64 Willow Road where his plans were to rehabilitate a building and add 6000 sq.ft. of office. But the neighbors were furious because he demolished the building.

(Menlo Park)"city staff admit that Rapp included a number of changes on his application for a building permit after the planning commission approval -- including plans to tear down structural beams and columns, and to rework much of the existing foundation."

Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 24, 2014 at 5:48 pm

@Observer: Gail has not worked in that position for over a year, should it matter.

Posted by citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 24, 2014 at 6:22 pm

@Throw Out,
Will you underwrite an effort to start an initiative to change our City elections code so that when there are ballot measures, the ballot questions and analysis are done by an impartial committee the way they are in San Francisco, rather than by the City's own attorney (who is usually advocating for the City)?

One reason this is important is not just for impartiality in the actual elections, but because the City will be more likely to listen to the citizens when they do referend or put forth initiatives so that we don't even have to take them to election. Also, when the City wants to put something on the ballot, it can't write its own ballot question and impartial analysis.

It's an important democratic balance, so the City can't stack elections when citizens referend. San Francisco had a nearly identical measure on their ballot last election to Measure D, but because because of their impartial ballot process, even in a more liberal city with far more advertising by officials, the NO side won by around 70%, even more of a landslide than in Palo Alto.

We need some funds to have an elections firm review the initiative, copy costs (which can be significant), but much of it could be done on citizen energy as Measure D, since PASZ recognizes the need for this change. (Probably $3,000-$5,000 would do it, start to finish.) We already have a network of people interested in collecting signatures (volunteer).

Whether it is possible to get the question on this ballot or not, engaging in this effort during this election puts the spotlight back on the unethical and biased behavior of the existing Councilmembers during the Measure D debate. Why did they force the thing to a showdown rather than working with residents far short of an initiative? Some of the same people responsible for the affordable Terman Apartments because of a working group back then were asking for a working group again to resolve things. [Portion removed.]

If you can help, please contact PASZ, they've discussed the need for this.

Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 24, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Posted by former resident
a resident of another community
on Jun 25, 2014 at 3:51 pm

I didn't realize it was Rapp who did the Cheesecake Factory. Silly me, I'd just supposed it was a chain that mandated a certain style of building, although trying to pin down the style of that place would be difficult indeed. That's not to say that it's not attractive, something like a movie set made of parts from various other movie sets, but it is (was, anyway) totally out of place in downtown Palo Alto in size and "architecture". It's "Hollywood-ish", pretentious, and was out of scale and spirit with the rest of the street at the time it was built. I left 6 years ago so God only knows what University Ave. looks like now. I shudder to think, given that they approved places like The Cheesecake Factory. And now I read that the former Zibbibo's (sp?) is being taken over by a business that does not sound like something that is going to bring many visitors and foot traffic downtown. So what were they thinking? It seems like decision-making is all over the place, each ad hoc, without much continuity in any respect. I guess she/he with the most money gets his/her way, and that's that. It's been sad to see what's become of Palo Alto, and more than just physically. It's a different kind of place for different kind of people than when I moved there in 1970 and I greatly preferred that time, before success totally swallowed most of what was special and good about Palo Alto.

Posted by midtown resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 25, 2014 at 4:14 pm

This is not about Rapp. He may or may not be pure of heart and have good motives. This is about respecting the zoning laws and not giving exceptions because in the past, many developers have shafted the citizens of palo alto with the help of the city council by promising "public benefits" that either did not materialize (JCC) or were shams (Alma Plaza). Since we cannot trust the city council (some of whom have ties to developers) to keep developers honest, no more zoning exceptions.

Posted by Palo Alto Naive
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 26, 2014 at 5:26 pm

One thumbs up for those city council members who voted against the expansion of this facility. Any time we can prevent more commercial space, that is a good thing. No more commercial developments. Sadly, I see the former Keystone (aka Edge) has been bulldozed for MORE office space; along with my sacred JJandF. Of course, I am happy for the Garcia's enjoying lots more off time; I just miss that family/college terrace JJ&F hang-out since 1960 (although I believe they first opened their doors in 1948).

If we can return to traffic levels of 1980s, I am in. This is a place to live, not expand business space. I can't stop those who already live here and work here. However, I do support pushing the continued success of Silicon Valley as far out from Palo Alto as possible. Less is more. Quality of life over quantity, any day. I embrace the Portola Valley, Woodside, LAH and Atherton models - ours should be a place to live primarily, not work and live. For those that already work and live in Palo Alto, great for them, too. If others like a more urban environment, I applaud them, too. There is San Francisco to the North and San Jose to the South.

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