Developers and city disagree; downtown Palo Alto lot ‘in flux’ for a year

The lot across the street from the Palo Alto Transit Center and University Avenue Caltrain station is considered by many a prime candidate for large-scale development, but the city keeps turning down plans. It currently houses the remnants of a Shell gas station. (Photo: Roseann Cima/ Peninsula Press)

An empty lot usually doesn’t stay vacant for long in downtown Palo Alto. But the proposal to develop the lot on the corner of Lytton and Alma has been volleyed between municipal agencies for almost a year.

This is less surprising when you learn that developers Jim Baer and brothers Boyd and Lund Smith want to build a five-story glass building, with an 84-foot tower: not quite consonant with existing building regulations and zoning laws.

The site, 355 Alma, is just at the cusp between a commercial and a residential district, and most of the surrounding buildings are either one or two stories tall. The developers, who call themselves the Lytton Gateway LLC, are petitioning to rezone the site as a planned community, and asking for a concessions to get around city regulations.

Concessions are for projects that are technically in violation of city code, but that will significantly benefit the public through these violations. The developers stand to profit considerably by developing 355 Alma as a large building. But, at every turn, the council has suggested more benefits that the developers might provide to justify these concessions.

When developers first investigated developing the site a year ago, they wanted to build within zoning regulations. Their initial idea was for a two-story residential complex.

“Our project sponsor had every idea of building that building. That was their intention,” said the developers’ architect Ted Korth, of Korth-Sunseri Hagey Architects.

When they met with city planning staff, the Smiths were told that building a mere residence on the plot, which has been unused for years now, was inappropriate. The last business to occupy the site was a Shell gas station, the remnants of which still stand.

“It was made clear that a two-story residence would not be a proper building, scale, nor use of that site. So we went and pursued a larger project iteratively until we reached current design,” Korth explained. Just a block away from the bustling University Avenue, and directly across the street from the CalTrain station, the site is a prime candidate for development on a larger scale.

Lytton Gateway’s first official proposal to the Planning and Transportation Commission after meeting with city staff, was for a five-story, mixed-purpose, “gateway,” building complete with a tower element on the corner.

Since then, the developers and the city have been running in circles, trying to find the balance between a public benefit and a public nuisance. The project proposal has been to the Planning and Transportation Commission three times and the Architectural Review Board twice.

At the last meeting at which 355 Alma was discussed, the Planning and Transportation Commission sent the developers back to the drawing board. They return to the table tonight.

Public benefits ‘in flux’

Lund Smith said the project was in a “state of flux.” “We’re in the process of redesigning, so I can’t say exactly what the project is at this point.”

According to Palo Alto city planner Jason Nortz, the project has undergone many changes, most of them the results of recommendations from the Commission.

Despite ultimately deferring its decision, the commission had intended for the hearing on Jan. 26 to be the last. The design included a wider sidewalk and a canopy of trees along Alma.

“These are good features; these are all features you want at the site. There are buildings across the street that are worse for the area,” Judith Wasserman, vice chair of the Architectural Review Board, told the Planning and Transportation Commission. She said that even though the review board’s primary attention was to the urban planning aspects of the project, not the aesthetics, they did suggest redesigning the tower.

“We were pushing for something a little bit more special, with a little more flare and more individuality,” Wasserman said, though she admitted that the corner was “handled very well,” to facilitate foot traffic.

The building proposed was mixed-use, with ground-floor retail, a few floors of office space, 14 residential units and a roof-top patio. The developers planned on offering five of the 14 residential units at below market rate, and indicated that if it would help move the project forward, they’d be willing to increase that number to seven. The design also offered two docking stations at which to charge electric cars.

The Palo Alto Housing Corporation, an organization dedicated to promoting affordable housing in Palo Alto, voiced its support for the below-market-rate residential units. Those units are reserved for households with income below 80 percent of the county median. The idea is to foster more socioeconomic diversity in a relatively homogenous region. According to the 2012 Silicon Valley Index, a yearly survey of the government, economy, and society of the region, the shrinking middle class is a serious threat to the community.

“You might look at the statistics about economic growth and think that the Silicon Valley is a place that people come to and achieve their dreams, but for the most part people coming into Silicon Valley are already an elite set,” said Russell Hancock, CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, the organization that publishes the annual report.

The development’s proximity to public transit and its electric car docks have attracted the support of environmentalist individuals and groups. “You’re replacing a gas station with electrical chargers,” said Irwin Dawid, a representative of the Sierra Club. “It’s so classic.”

Many of these features were added at the commission’s request, but Commissioner Daniel Gardner suggested that even without them the project was inherently consonant with the council’s protocol to encourage the use of public transportation.

“The public benefit here is the larger density, height and housing. We’re right next to the transit center, we’re right next to the train station, where else would it occur?”

An ‘astounding’ lack of consensus

“I think we all need to think on a bigger scale about what these public benefits could be,” Commissioner Edward Martinez said at the meeting.

The benefits Martinez suggested included offering 10 percent of the office space free-of-charge to a non-profit organization and increasing the amount of parking. Commissioner Greg Tanaka was particularly concerned that the finished project would further congest Palo Alto’s already heavily trafficked downtown, though the development team told him that more parking was not necessarily the answer,

“One of the goals of the project is to be transit-oriented development,” the developers’ landscaping consultant, Bret Wolinski testified. “If you’re trying to get people to walk or take public transit to the site, the most effective way to do that is to not provide free parking.”

In a letter to the commission, the Sierra Club pointed out that Redwood City has developed its downtown in a similar style, with great success. And the Palo Alto developers have won the support of all of the site’s immediate neighbors, including the one-story Indian restaurant one door down on Lytton.

Although he also voted to defer the decision, Gardner expressed his frustration with the length of the process, “I find it somewhat astounding that we keep trying to find other things to add onto this. We have a project that has done everything we’ve asked of it, and still no consensus.”

If the commission does move the project forward tonight, it will go to the Palo Alto City Council sometime in March, and, with its approval, construction can begin in April. Boyd Smith reminded the council that this is the latest they can break ground and expect to adhere to the city’s seasonal construction regulations for the year. They will have to pump water out of the ground to construct the underground private parking structure, a practice that is only allowed between April and October.

“We have done our best to be responsive to the feedback that we’ve received,” Smith said. “That we’re getting a new layer of stuff to respond to is a challenge.”

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