Is Palo Alto&#39s architecture-overview process damaged?

Birge Clark wasn’t just the most prolific and beloved architect in Palo Alto’s history, he may have also been its most content.

“I’ve always been happy in this business,” Clark told the Weekly in 1979, when he was 86. “It’s rewarding, and I can see effects of my work. And there aren’t too many hardships. You know, they say a doctor buries his mistakes, and a lawyer’s mistakes go to prison. All an architect has to do to avoid his mistakes is drive around the block.”

A pioneer of the Spanish Colonial style, Clark — who left as his legacy 98 Palo Alto residences as well as iconic buildings such as the U.S. Post Office, the former University Art building at 261 Hamilton Ave., and the sprawling Lucie Stern Community Center — remains as popular as ever today. Architects take tours of his work; the City of Palo Alto is trying to purchase the post office building from the U.S. Postal Service; and the City Council flirted earlier this year with the prospect of naming the Main Library, which was designed by Edward Durell Stone, the Birge Clark Library. (It ultimately settled on Rinconada Library.)

“If you live in Palo Alto, it’s pretty hard for you to go through a day without passing a Birge Clark structure,” Councilman Larry Klein said in April. “He helped create a very significant part of the community with which we relate day in and day out.”

But if Clark’s reputation remains intact, his profession has seen better days. Palo Alto, a city that relishes its role as the center of innovation and creator of “disruptive” technologies, finds itself in the midst of an escalating battle over architecture — a tussle that pits some of today’s most prolific architects against a growing coalition of residents who are enraged about modernist new buildings and intent on changing the way proposed developments get reviewed. In one corner are proponents of modernity, economic growth and what they see as inevitable urbanization. In the other are land-use watchdogs, neighborhood leaders and residents bent on preserving what they refer to as the city’s “quality of life.”

In meeting after meeting over the past two years, residents have lashed out at architects with the scorn traditionally reserved for developers, accusing them of blighting the city with modernist monstrosities. Council watchdogs and slow-growth “residentialists” slammed the designs of such recent developments as the affordable-housing complex at 801 Alma St.; the Arbor Real townhouses on El Camino Real; and Alma Village, where the flagship grocery store appears to turn its broad, beige back on the public.

Architects today face more public scrutiny than Clark could have dreamed of. Citizen appeals of decisions made by staff and the city’s Architectural Review Board, once a rarity in Palo Alto, have become commonplace. (The council’s June 23 meeting, its final before the July break, featured two appeal hearings.) Scorn about new developments has become a routine part of Palo Alto’s civic conversation, a recurring topic in public comments at civic meetings, letters to the City Council and anonymous postings on PaloAltoOnline.com’s forum, Town Square.

In December, dozens of residents attended a City Council meeting to protest the city’s approval of a modernist, 50-foot-tall, four-story building at 240 Hamilton Ave., across the street from City Hall. Things got tense, with some residents blaming architects for usurping the city’s review process and pushing through ghastly modernist boxes that are incompatible with the historical structures around them. Appellant Douglas Smith, an art historian whose architectural taste tilts toward the traditional, argued that architects “seem to have gained control of the review process … so they know how to push their abstract designs through the gauntlet, particularly in the commercial and public domain.”

Elaine Meyer, president of the University South Neighborhood Association, took things a step further. She accused the city’s Architectural Review Board, which critiques proposals and issues recommendations on them, of cozying up to applicants for personal reasons.

“It’s likely that some of the architects on the ARB hope to be employed by the large developers and architects who come before it, so they better not say anything too negative about the project or they’ll be blackballed and they won’t be able to work in this town,” Meyer said.

On the other side of the debate stood Ken Hayes, the project architect whose name has become synonymous with new modernist buildings in Palo Alto. After hearing from dozens of critics and a handful of supporters at the December meeting, Hayes appealed to the council to “not enthrone historic styles in the future.”

“Diversity of architectural styles gives our city life and defines who we were as a community,” Hayes said. (See “City has history of architectural diversity.”)

“Palo Alto is recognized worldwide for its entrepreneurial environment, for innovation, for technology, for its leadership on environmental concerns and sustainability. Our architecture should be part of the forward thinking and not be stuck in the past. Let’s write the book to lead the way in the future.”

The council ultimately agreed with this argument and approved the development by a 6-3 vote, with Larry Klein, Liz Kniss and Gail Price all making the case for diversity. Karen Holman, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid dissented, with Holman arguing that the glassy building would be incompatible with the heavily ornamental, Birge Clark-designed University Art building on the opposite corner. Holman, who has been the council’s most vocal critic of recent architecture, told Hayes that his plan for 240 Hamilton “misses the mark.”

But even if critics of the proposal lost the battle in December, they appear to be winning the war. In the most recent Services and Performance Report, an annual survey that asks residents to rank various city services, only about 40 percent of the respondents gave the city a “good” or “excellent” grade when asked about “quality of new development in Palo Alto,” a 12 percent drop from the prior fiscal year. In the category “Land Use, Planning and Zoning,” a dismal 35 percent gave Palo Alto positive grades, making this category of services the least popular in the city (below street repair and sidewalk maintenance).

And it’s not just Birge Clark enthusiasts and anti-development “residentialists” calling for reform. In April, former Planning and Transportation Commission Chairman Eduardo Martinez accepted a resolution of appreciation from the council and used his farewell address to levy a criticism against the city’s architecture-review process. It’s time, he said, to reinvent the ARB and make the board more relevant in shaping developments in their early stages.

“As architects, we’ve let the pendulum swing too far to where we’re afraid to criticize the work of other architects, so we let it go, or we make marginal comments,” Martinez said. “It’s time for us to re-examine the position we’ve taken and really become part of the process again.”

Coming from Martinez, a soft-spoken architect better known for his calm and methodical approach to criticism, the speech in some ways represented a sea change in Palo Alto’s relationship with its architects.

But architects aren’t taking the criticisms lying down.

In April, resident Jeff Levinsky addressed the Architectural Review Board to protest a proposal by developer Roxy Rapp to renovate the University Art building at 261 Hamilton Ave., an ornate, four-story structure designed by Clark. Levinsky argued that the city’s planning staff erred in how it interpreted the term “building envelope” in the city’s zoning code — a reading that allowed Rapp to add a two-story wing to the historic building. The council had adopted its zoning rule, Levinsky argued, precisely to prohibit such expansions because it was “anticipating that clever architects, and there are a lot here today, would invent some other way to enlarge the building.”

His comment drew a sharp rebuke from Lee Lippert, an architect who chairs the board. Lippert said that he was “particularly offended that a generalization is made about all architects.” He also offered a defense of his board and its role in the review process.

“I surely would not like to go for medical advice to somebody other than a medical doctor and surely would not seek out legal advice from any person other than an attorney,” Lippert said. “In this case all of the board members here are licensed professional architects, and my hope is that as licensed architects we’re sought out for our professional expertise and that in fact if this board did not have architects here then we are subject to the expertise of lay individuals. And so I would want to be very careful about members of the public making comments or generalizations about architects. So thank you.”

The debate over architecture is far from new (see “A matter of taste”), but it is taking on increasing relevance as election season approaches. Holman, who is expected to seek re-election and whose critiques of local architecture have become commonplace, told the Weekly she is now working on a colleagues memo urging the council to re-examine the role of the Architectural Review Board. She is also pushing staff to add some teeth to the design rules on El Camino Real, including a shift from “guidelines” (effectively, suggestions) to mandatory “standards.”

The November election, which will see five council seats up for grabs, could bolster this effort by tilting the balance on the council toward the slow-growth wing, with the council’s two biggest advocates of growth and modernity — Gail Price and Larry Klein — preparing to conclude their tenures. Meanwhile, members of the watchdog group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning are waiting in the wings, with two of them — Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth — seeking election on the platform of limiting zoning exceptions and protecting neighborhood “quality of life.” If Holman succeeds in winning another term, the council’s residentialist minority, which also includes Schmid and Burt, could easily become the majority after the election. Significantly, this transformation would occur just as the city is adopting its new Comprehensive Plan, which lays out Palo Alto’s official vision for development for the next three decades and which will consider key questions about the height of buildings, widths of sidewalks and the distance of buildings from the street.

Already, election-year scrutiny appears to be putting pressure on the council.

Last month, the council voted 8-1 to overturn staff’s and the Architectural Review Board’s approval of Rapp’s rehabilitation and expansion proposal for the University Art building. Holman lauded Rapp’s history of restoring downtown buildings but argued that staff erred in how it interpreted the term “building envelope” (which under law cannot be increased as part of the rehabilitation of a grandfathered building such as 261 Hamilton). Staff considered the “envelope” as a three-dimensional area but not as the building’s shape — a definition that would have allowed the expansion. The council overwhelmingly rejected this logic, with Burt arguing that it “doesn’t pass muster.” Holman agreed.

“In this case, your particular project is a tipping point,” Holman told Rapp.

The only dissenter in the vote was Price, the council’s chief advocate for thinking “big” on new developments.

Price, who recently served as the executive director of local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, urged the city to take a longer view about the “broader evolution of downtown” and the importance of rehabilitating historical buildings.

“I think it’s most unfortunate that we’re at this point,” Price said.

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Is the architecture board biased?

The past few months have been trying for the architecture board, a five-member group of volunteers whose job is becoming increasingly thankless and scrutinized.

Last month, during the board’s annual hearing with the City Council, Lippert declared that he has “a giant target placed on my back that the community has placed there.”

“I wear it proud,” he added.

Many critics, like Smith, believe that the board is biased toward modernist designs. Councilman Burt said in June that while the board supposedly doesn’t stipulate styles, the city “has had cases where the ARB has spoken out against traditional or derivative styles,” a position he found puzzling.

“I don’t know of a style that is not in some way derivative,” Burt said.

He also suggested that the board is at times too eager to praise projects that are either at or beyond the limits allowed for density. Even though land-use decisions are beyond their purview, he said, board members at times effectively say, “We don’t do zoning, but we sure support it essentially.” During a May discussion on a proposal to rezone 4146 El Camino Real, for example, Lippert opined that “higher density is really important,” because the city is having a hard time finding housing sites. Vice Chair Randy Popp added at the same meeting that he thought it was “really a great idea to increase the density and take advantage of opportunity to provide housing.” Such comments, Burt said, help fuel the community’s sentiment that the board is biased toward buildings with greater mass and density.

Amid this climate of citizen unrest, the annual meeting in June between the architecture board and the City Council took on a decidedly defensive tone, with one board member after another taking pains to explain exactly what the board does and (just as importantly) what it does not do.

“We do not dictate design,” board member Clare Malone Prichard said. “Many revisions and enhancements happen over the course of our review. We hope every project is better by the time we’re done with it, but we certainly don’t make every project perfect and they don’t necessarily end up the way many of the board members would want it initially.”

Nor is the board simply a rubber-stamp body, as many critics contend. According to statistics presented at the June 9 meeting, the board had reviewed more than 245 projects over the past two years, with the typical project getting approval after an average of 2.9 hearings. Almost half of the projects reviewed required three or more hearings and only 16 percent were approved after one hearing. Board members spent a combined 2,000 hours on these reviews, an average of 17.25 per project.

While all of these projects were ultimately approved, in some cases the difference between what was first presented to the board and what was approved is stark. The design of a three-story townhouse development at 405 Curtner Ave., for instance, was significantly changed after four review hearings. The finished product has more landscaping, a richer color palette and roofs that were changed from a gabled design to inverted L-shapes that help break up the building’s mass. Similarly, the approved design of 636 Waverley, while still modernist and still controversial, is less monolithic and more colorful than what was first proposed.

There are good reasons why the architecture board’s influence on new developments has become a subject of legitimate community debate. Board members repeatedly stress, as Lippert did on June 9, that their role is limited to reviewing projects for “quality” and “character,” which means looking at each proposal and determining whether the application is consistant with 17 prescribed “findings,” or criteria. But these findings are at times so broad, vague and subjective, that critics believe they give the board enormous latitude for approving ill-conceived projects. The board may find that buildings like 636 Waverley are “compatible with the immediate environment of the site” and promote “harmonious transition in scale and character” with adjacent sites, but critics like Holman, Burt and Douglas Smith may reasonably disagree. Because words like “compatible” and “harmonious” are so hazily defined, critics see the board’s latitude as a gaping hole through which they can push any decision.

This notion of broad leeway is backed by a 2012 Santa Monica survey of various cities and their design-review practices. The study, which included Palo Alto, determined that the city’s 17 findings are “extremely broad, allowing staff and ARB the flexibility to arrive at more than one interpretation of how to best address any particular design challenge.” And Palo Alto’s design guidelines are “written to allow design flexibility and choice, rather than being heavily prescriptive.”

Overall, the Santa Monica study found that Palo Alto’s “broad evaluation criteria and wide scope for design review make for a process that is based significantly on the discretionary decisions of the ARB and staff.”

“While staff believes that this results in a high quality of design, it is acknowledged that the process works best for applicants who have prior development experience in Palo Alto and thus an established understanding of City’s design expectations,” the study states. “That said, one staff member expressed the opinion that ARB members are responsible and realistic about what they can and should expect from applicants.”

The study also noted that the “friction between applicants and design review bodies in Palo Alto is minimal.” In 2011, out of more than 400 applications, only a handful had been appealed by applicants, with none proceeding to litigation. The survey concluded that compared to other cities, the evaluation of projects in Palo Alto “relies heavily on broad and subjective criteria, including findings and, to some extent, suggestive guidelines.”

It it thus hardly surprising that the architecture board is under fire. If the public is angry about the quality of the new buildings and if these buildings are based largely on subjective “findings” and discretionary reviews, criticism toward the architecture board would seem to be a logical response to anger over projects, protests from board members notwithstanding.

At the same time, the board said theirs is not a “control board” that enforces particular architecture styles. Unlike their counterparts in Santa Barbara, board members don’t explicitly endorse particular styles, focusing instead on things like building materials, colors and decorative details, they said.

Former board member John Northway said the board’s ability to change the project is in many ways hampered by what’s proposed.

“When I was on there, it was said that the ARB can take a really bad building and probably lift it up to mediocre, or take a mediocre building and maybe improve it a little bit,” Northway said.

Northway joined the board in 1976, four years after its birth, and was part of an effort to create the first design standards for El Camino Real. Like today, many in the community felt at the time that new developments warranted a more thorough review process.

“It was the general feeling that quality of the buildings being designed and executed would benefit from having an architectural-review element,” Northway said.

The board’s role hasn’t changed much since then. In June, board member Robert Gooyer emphasized the point that the board’s responsibility is not to design projects.

“We can only critique what’s presented to us,” Gooyer said.

Furthermore, the board doesn’t have the authority to deal with issues like density and parking, which commonly inflame community passions but which fall under the purview of the Planning and Transportation Commission and the City Council (even though this hasn’t stopped the public from complaining to the architecture board about inadequate parking in a given development).

“Oftentimes, the ARB is the only public hearing for a project, so whatever the community is feeling or thinking about the project may not have anything to do with quality or character issues; it might have to do with zoning,” Lippert said.

It also perhaps doesn’t help the board’s cause that, at the end of the day, they almost never say “No” to a project. In November 2011, former board Chair Judith Wasserman addressed the council on the topic of 195 Page Mill, a 47,000-square foot mixed-use development proposed by developer Harold Hohbach. The board denied the project, but this exception seemed to only prove the rule (Hohbach ultimately appealed the denial to the council, where members referred to it as a “fortress” before approving it after requiring some design changes).

“We denied one project since I’ve been on the board,” Wasserman said. “It’s been 11 years.”

That’s still the case today.

“It’s really pretty hard to get three ‘No’ votes on the ARB,” said veteran board member Alexander Lew, who at times has supplied one of these votes. “I think you have to have a pretty horrible project to get three ‘No’ votes.”

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These days, it’s hard to ‘think big’

Palo Alto was born in a world of bold gestures and big dreams, including architectural ones. When Leland Stanford planned out his new university in the early 1890s, a key feature in his vision was the Stanford Memorial Arch, which would be 100 feet tall, 85 feet wide and 36 feet deep. A 1903 issue of the Palo Alto Live Oak points out that it was the largest arch in America and the second largest in the world, “the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, its only rival, having 25 feet greater height.”

The archway was completed in 1899, though it took another two years for sculptor Rupert Schmid to decorate its frieze with carvings of allegorical figures. Built of sandstone and masonry, the “perfectly proportioned structure” featured a room and stairway wells that provided access to this room, according to the Live Oak.

“From this elevation the view is magnificent, including the wide reach of San Francisco Bay with the hazy hills beyond, the far-spreading valley with its towns and villas, and the majestic background of the forest-clad Santa Cruz mountains,” the newspaper reported.

The arch didn’t last long. The 1906 earthquake cracked its frieze and toppled its stone cap, prompting Stanford to dismantle it as a safety precaution. This did little, however, to dampen the ambitions in either Palo Alto and Stanford, lifelong frenemies who don’t always see eye to eye but who share the dream of being the very best at everything.

Today’s City Council boasts about the city’s carbon-neutral electricity portfolio, its cutting-edge electric-vehicles ordinance, its visionary dark-fiber ring and a bicycle master plan that aims to transform the city into one of America’s most bike-friendly cities. The city is now rebuilding its two largest libraries; overhauling its “second downtown,” California Avenue; and pursuing a dramatic renovation of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course that promises a “Wow!” factor. It is also designing a new bike bridge that will span U.S. Highway 101, a structure that city officials expect to be a visual marvel, or as Vice Mayor Liz Kniss put it in June 2013, a “landmark bridge for Palo Alto.”

“I think of us as a rather elegant city,” Kniss said during the discussion of the design contest. “We should have that kind of a bridge.”

Yet when it comes to new developments, the pendulum in City Hall is swinging in the opposite direction, toward tighter regulation, less leeway and fewer exemptions (See “The terms of the debate”). Lippert observed at the June discussion that the city, while at the cutting-edge of technology and innovation, “does not have an icon, a symbol of the city, a piece of architecture that stands out that defines our community.”

But efforts to encourage architects to “think big” are a tough sell in a community where the architectural debate is a proxy for the larger conversation over growth and what they call the creeping “Manhattanization” of this suburban city.

Kevin Murray, a College Terrace resident, made the case last week when he lashed out at a meeting of the Planning and Transportation Commission against the changes Palo Alto has seen in the past 15 years. He accused the council of colluding with developers and said he plans to run a slate of candidates in November to “stop this nonsense.”

“We’re at capacity. We’re maxed out. I don’t even recognize my own home town anymore,” said Murray, who has lived in Palo Alto since the 1960s.

Architects aren’t deaf to these concerns.

“The economy in this area is thankfully thriving and it brings with it great opportunity but also brings challenges to our infrastructure,” said Heather Young, a former chair of the Architectural Review Board who is a partner at Fergus Garber Young Architects. “We’re feeling lots of growing pains.”

Holman, however, cites recent architectural choices as contributing to that pain.

“We’re changing from an eclectic community,” Holman said. “We’re really reformulating the look of the town from traditional and eclectic buildings into modern-design only. We’re losing that eclectic and diverse architectural aspect.”

Holman believes it’s time for Palo Alto to adopt a “design vision” for the entire city — not to require a particular style but to make sure new buildings fit into their context. One way to accomplish this could be to take the “suggestive guidelines” about compatibility and turn them into rules, she said.

She also said she hopes to change the way the city uses “design enhancement exceptions,” which under current practice commonly lead to taller buildings, smaller setbacks and more mass. Burt echoed this criticism in June, when he observed that new buildings almost invariably get developed to the maximum density as is allowed. In some cases, they go beyond the city’s threshold, thanks to state laws that grant automatic density bonuses for provision of affordable housing. In today’s built environment, Burt said, “Maximum is the new minimum.”

But will architects be able to design exceptional projects without design exceptions? Holman told the Weekly that they would still have plenty of creative leeway, but they would have to pay more attention to the context in which the building will stand and comply with the city’s greater vision for its built environment. And that would produce better results, she said.

Not everyone agrees that new guidelines are necessary — or helpful for promoting great architecture. Lippert and Malone Prichard both stressed that the city shouldn’t regulate style and emphasized the importance of preserving the city’s “eclectic” feel. Malone Prichard said there is a “wide range of styles used, and we embrace it.”

“I don’t think control is something that is desirable in this city,” Malone Prichard said, referring to a system used in places like Santa Barbara, which mandate specific styles.

Young told the Weekly that she, too, does not think firmer guidelines are necessary. The city currently has a mix of standards and guidelines. Having a list of “musts” and a list of “shoulds” is a good combination, she said. Many of the projects that now attract heavy criticism were proposed by applicants who followed all the rules and regulations before winning approval.

Last year, Young’s firm won the city’s approval for a 74,000-square-foot mixed-use project at 3159 El Camino Real, which includes the existing Equinox Gym, a restaurant, 48 small apartments, office space and an underground parking lot. She asked for and received two “design enhancement exemptions,” one that allowed the height to be 55 feet (5 feet greater than the city’s height limit) and another that would allow the buildings to be setback farther from street.

The irony of the setback exemption is that it aimed to achieve exactly what the city now hopes to encourage — wider sidewalks. The exemption was required because the city’s zoning code requires buildings on El Camino to be close to the street (what’s known as the “build-to” line).

Even so, exceptions such as the ones she requested continue to face heavy public scrutiny, which makes it increasingly difficult to build good projects, she said.

“It is harder because everyone was trying to do the right thing before,” Young said. “Now, the professional and public scrutiny is even higher and it actually is making it more difficult for the city to achieve anything.”

Both Northway, whose firm is designing the mixed-use project approved last month at 441 Page Mill Road, and Young believe the city’s height limit is often too restrictive and can hamper beautiful architecture. Practically speaking, Northway said, buildings that are 35- and 50-feet tall “don’t work architecturally” because of new requirements for seismic safety and sustainability (the 35-foot height applies to El Camino, where buildings often abut single-family neighborhoods). Lifting the heights to 38 or 54 feet would “make the buildings work better” without changing the number of stories or the general appearance of the building, he said.

“But when you talk about these things, all you hear about is how you’re ‘giving architects a big break,'” Northway said.

From Northway’s perspective, it’s not the architecture board that needs to be reinvented but the city’s planning practices. Specifically, the city should do more long-range planning to accommodate growth.

“It’s not the ARB’s fault that the buildings are built right up to the sidewalk; it’s the zoning ordinance,” Northway said. “That was part of the Comprehensive Plan policies that were voted on by the entire City Council. I understand people’s frustrations with some of the new buildings, but I don’t think you can blame it on the ARB. The ARB doesn’t design the buildings.”

What’s really needed, he said, is a plan that defines the city’s problems and figures out a way of dealing with growth. He cited as an example the recent citizen committee that considered the future of Cubberley Community Center in south Palo Alto and proposed a plan for the sprawling center that accommodates a wide range of uses, including a new high school, playing fields and various community services.

“That’s the kind of creative long-range planning that needs to be looked at for the whole city and it’s not happening,” Northway said. “It’s done project by project.”

Northway concurred that today — following last November’s defeat of Measure D, a housing development accused of being too dense — is a “very difficult time to do anything that doesn’t absolutely obey all the laws.”

The problem for architects is that many laws contradict each other. State law, for instance, encourages more density in housing projects that accommodate low-income residents. Local officials are simultaneously pushing for less density, citing popular discontent about recent developments. Building a good project is still possible, he said, though it takes an enormous amount of will and resources to get it done.

“Buildings are really the result of who the owner is,” Northway said. “If the owner is dedicated to doing a good-to-great building and is willing to spend the time and the money, you can still do them.”

Public frustration about new architecture, he noted, is far from new. The Birge Clark buildings were once considered radical, he said, and many people hated the Eiffel Tower and wanted to dismantle it after the 1889 World’s Fair. Given that Palo Alto is the “technological hub of the world” and that “people here are constantly pushing the envelope,” it’s not surprising that there is pushback.

“We’ll get buildings that maybe get people a little uncomfortable because they like tradition, but give it time,” Northway said. “Architecture is an art form, and it reflects what goes on in the era in which it was created.”

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