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June 23, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

ARBiters of taste ARBiters of taste (June 23, 2004)

City's Architectural Review Board shapes Palo Alto's look

by Jocelyn Dong

If you've ever walked down the street and passed a building that shocked your sensibilities, you probably shook your head and asked, "What on earth were they thinking?"

When Drew Maran drives through Palo Alto and sees, in his words, "a really offensive building," he thinks something else: We should have done a better job.

Maran is one of five residents on the city's Architectural Review Board, a group of architects and building professionals who voluntarily review all of the major building plans submitted to the city for commercial, industrial and multifamily residential projects, such as condominiums.

Their decisions shape what Palo Alto looks like now and for years to come. Love or hate the new Cheesecake Factory on University Avenue? They recommended the design be approved. How about the glass-and-chrome retail/residential building at El Camino Real and El Camino Way that houses Starbucks, among other tenants? Ditto.

So who exactly who are these people?

In addition to Maran -- who chairs the board -- the City Council-appointed group includes vice-chair Judith Wasserman, Susan Eschweiler, Kenneth Kornberg and David Solnick. Maran is a builder; the rest are architects. They have the unique task of upholding the Palo Alto aesthetic -- and keeping eyesores at bay.

Beyond regulating Palo Alto's standards, however, the board indirectly wields considerable economic power.

Under this quintet's scrutiny are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investments. The board considers roughly 40 percent of the city's construction applications each year, according to a recent city auditor's report. City staff members inspect the rest, typically small projects such as signage and faŤade remodels.

By reviewing plans quickly, the board can move projects through the city's approval process in short order, which can further Palo Alto's economic vitality. But if the board dissects a plan's every last detail -- asking for revision after revision from the architects -- they can hang up a project for months if not years, costing developers precious time and even more precious dollars.

The power isn't just theoretical. For years, building professionals have complained about the board and their painstaking deliberations.

One professional, interviewed for the city audit published last fall, said the Architectural Review Board required five hearings of his project, causing his architectural and design costs to double to about $160,000.

Palo Alto developer Jim Baer tells of the time, some years ago, he planned to renovate Ramona Plaza at University Avenue, opening up the corner building with criss-crossing pedestrian alleyways. How many hearings did the Architectural Review Board require? Eighteen -- the first to approve the general plans, the other 17 for the members to critique everything from the project's materials to the line of sight.

One architect interviewed for this article even asked his name not be used, for fear board members might misconstrue his comments and delay future projects.

That's only one side of the story, however. For all the past accusations of the board being out-of-control "design police," today's board members -- all appointed or reappointed since 2002 -- seem to possess a refreshing humility, according to local building professionals.

One indicator: Late last year, in response to the city's scathing audit of the planning department, the five-member board agreed to exercise newfound self-restraint. They committed to reviewing each project a maximum of two times, then either approving it or denying it. No ifs, ands or buts.

Maran is the first to acknowledge the conundrum of upholding high design standards while also expediting development. It's difficult for the two ends to meet.

"On occasion, (we) have had difficulty maintaining the perspective of overall good or overall bad," he said. "Occasionally, we've gotten lost in the details and not stepped back to see the forest."

At a recent review of a 64-condominium development proposed for south Palo Alto, the board grilled the project managers for more than two hours on everything from landscaping to their choice of the Craftsman style of architecture.

During the dot-com boom years, the board often met for five or six hours at a time, starting at 8 a.m. Thursday mornings and going until 1 or 2 p.m.

The board is not without empathy for developers. Every single member has sat on the opposite side of the table, Maran noted. Like several other board members, he himself operates his own firm -- Drew Maran Construction/Design, a Menlo Park custom-homebuilding company that specializes in environmentally friendly construction and structures.

"There's always a tension between good design and good economics," Maran said.

Of course, it would help if the projects were well-designed. Maran estimated that only half of the proposals presented to the review board have been well thought through; the rest will need to be improved -- or denied.

With the new "two meetings and you're out" policy, the board anticipates there will be more denials, said Wasserman, who is in her second three-year term and has also served on the Palo Alto Public Art Commission.

Before, she said, the board seemed to operate under a philosophy of "if you keep the guy going long enough, you can drag him kicking and screaming into a better project," Wasserman said.

Now, "You're much better telling him, 'Sorry.' "

Wasserman is unapologetic about inspecting proposals from every possible angle. The built environment, she said, is an important milieu. It affects how people feel about themselves and their town.

"Picky? Yes, we're picky," she said. "Architectural review is not a rubber stamp. You may not like what we say, but that's our job."

In her own mind, she divides applicants into two categories: cooperative and recalcitrant.

Even a badly conceived project presented by a cooperative developer can "get better fast," Wasserman said. But the mediocre plans of a recalcitrant applicant with an attitude will only end up in the "reject" bin.

Wasserman is not without humor about the process. She understands that people invest time, money and emotions into their designs. It just so happens she also shoots from the hip.

Sometimes, she said, it's a better to tell people straight up what's wrong with their building, rather than pussyfoot around. For example, if someone comes to the board with a building that faces the street from the rear, she'll chide them like a professor scolds a student: "Bad idea! Don't do that!"

Other times, to get people to think harder, she'll question their choices.

"Why are we building buildings that would make George Washington happy?" Wasserman said, using historic designs as an example. "People in the 18th century didn't say, 'Let's build Chartres cathedral again.' ... It doesn't compute to be very retro all the time."

On the subject of style, there is a perception that the board favors modern architecture.

"They're really hung up on modern contemporary," said one local architect. "It's a common concern of people before the board; they have blinders on when it comes to style."

To the casual observer, the perception has some merit. During the recent condominium meeting, members questioned the project managers three times about their choice of Craftsman style architecture. Why, they asked, was consideration not given to a design that better reflects the times?

"I think of Palo Alto as progressive and unique," commented board member Kornberg, founder of Kornberg Associates in Menlo Park. "I don't look at this project as particularly progressive or unique. So it's not pushing forward what I think is important on a really big project like this."

The newest board member, Solnick, said in a follow-up interview he didn't think the group advocates one style of architecture.

"We're not afraid of contemporary design -- that's true," he said. "But I don't feel anybody's pushing it down somebody's throat."

The point, he said, is more that designs should be "honest and not faux." That is, the board is looking for a well-executed architecture, rather than cheap imitations.

Kornberg agreed.

"Whatever you do, do it well," he said. "I try not to look at it from the standpoint of style." His concerns run toward whether details are authentic and the building is harmonious with its neighbors.

Solnick, who runs his own architecture firm in Palo Alto, said the review process is full of give-and-take. "It doesn't feel like we have a big gavel and what we say goes. I don't feel that way at all."

Local architect John Northway, of Stoecker & Northway Architects, has sat on both sides of the table, taking a turn on the board back in the 1980s. He said bringing in proposals over the years has sometimes felt like "Architecture 101, and having five professors critiquing your project endlessly."

But he praises the current group for helping the bloated process regain a footing that had eroded over the years.

What is critical to keeping members in line is remembering their role is to review projects, not to co-design them, he said. Their purview does not include dictating style.

"People get to decide to do stuff as long as it's not illegal or harmful. It's called freedom," Northway quipped.

Baer called the current board "effective and responsible," in part because of the personalities of the members.

"This is not a period of one personality asserting strong preferences in a way that's ... detrimental to applicants," he said, adding that the group is especially attuned to the areas of authentic design, public art, canopy, pedestrian vitality, and sustainability.

Palo Alto is unique in even having an architectural review board, Northway pointed out. Other cities use their planning commissions or staff to review projects. In those situations, the reviewers don't necessarily have architectural or building expertise. At least with Palo Alto's board, the assessment is peer to peer, a fact local architects appreciate.

Meanwhile, board members say they are enjoying their work, and each other's thoughts and comments.

"It's an important thing to do. It's a privilege and responsibility to have an effect on (the city)," Wasserman said. "I'm happy to do it and having a good time. These kinds of professional discussions are fun."

Likewise, Kornberg said he appreciates his role and its potential impact. "I'm there (on the board) for three years or six years, but the effect we have is for many decades." Board member Susan Eschweiler, a principal with DES Architects and Engineers, was unavailable for comment on this story. Senior staff writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at [email protected]

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