A man's home is his water tower?
Publication Date: Wednesday Nov 8, 1995

DOWNTOWN NORTH: A man's home is his water tower?

Tom Taylor would like to turn the Tower Well into a six-story home

Tom Taylor is quickly making a name for himself by converting homely industrial properties into comfortable homes.

Despite skepticism from city planners and others, in the last five years he's converted two small lots in industrial neighborhoods into creative residences. One of them is his family's home and was recently featured in Sunset magazine.

But that's elementary compared to what he's proposing to do now.

Taylor wants to buy the historic, dilapidated Tower Well--a 78-foot-high cylinder of reinforced concrete on the corner of Alma Street and Hawthorne Avenue--and convert it into a six-story home.

Coming from almost anyone else it would probably dismissed as a half-cocked scheme, but Taylor's reputation adds clout, and he has done his homework.

The city owns the water tower and has been trying to decide what to do with the property for more than seven years.

Constructed in 1910 and abandoned by the water utility in 1987, the 155,000-gallon tower played a key role in establishing Palo Alto's lucrative city-owned utility system and providing citizens with a reliable source of water.

The tower was to be torn down in 1988, but the city had second thoughts because of its historical significance. In 1989 there was a proposal to tear it down and replace it with a single-room-occupancy hotel, but that ran into neighborhood opposition.

In 1993, the city put out a request for proposals and received three: a child care center, a low-income housing complex and a small office and apartment complex. They were all rejected because they would have resulted in substantial modifications to the water tower, which history buffs complained would compromise its historical value.

Taylor has designed his proposal to be sensitive to all concerns.

Turning the tower into a single-family home rather than some public use would eliminate the need to comply with handicapped accessibility standards.

"Almost anything other than residential would require handicap access," Taylor said, including the impracticality of adding an elevator to the structure.

And in order to provide some public benefit and recognition of its historical importance, he proposes to add a public plaza along the Alma Street side with benches, a place for public art and information on the role of the water tower in the development of the city.

Taylor, who works in marketing for Hewlett-Packard and is not an architect, would live in the tower with his wife, Katy, and three kids, ages 10, 6 and 3. The only addition he proposes is a detached garage with a rental unit above it.

The city appraised the 8,400-square-foot property in 1993 at $360,000, minus $150,000 for the removal cost of the tower. Taylor proposes to purchase the property for $222,200, a figure he arrived at by subtracting the land value of the 1,500-square-foot public plaza ($62,800) and the cost to structurally retain the tower ($75,000), which would need seismic retrofitting.

The city's Historic Resources Board had mixed reactions to the proposal, but the Public Art Commission was very favorable, Taylor said.

HRB Chair Monty Anderson is one who believes Taylor's proposal could be a viable option.

"Tom's been behind a couple pretty innovative projects in Palo Alto and to turn it into public use it would be much more restrictive," said Anderson, a local architect. "I think the key to whatever does get developed on the site is low-intensity . . . in order to minimize impacts to the tower itself."

Although the City Council has not classified the tower as a historic structure, the HRB is encouraging it to do so. That would place stricter limitations on the modifications that could be made to it.

"We're just asking Council to recognize it as a historic structure and whatever project gets developed tell what the significance is," Anderson said.

Janet Freeland, a financial analyst in the city's real estate division who is handling Taylor's proposal, said the idea is scheduled to be heard by the City Council in January.

Because there are a number of questions surrounding the sale or lease of city-owned property, she said she did not know if the Council could just accept Taylor's proposal or would have to make a request for proposals.

"It's certainly an idea that I haven't heard anyone else propose," she said.

--Peter Gauvin 

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