On July 18th the Palo Alto Weekly published an excellent article on the architectural review process in Palo Alto. Gennady Sheyner’s carefully researched work covered both sides of the controversial question: Is Palo Alto’s architectural review process broken?
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.
But the larger issue is about the whole development process in Palo Alto with many residents feeling that the system IS broken, that developers get preferable consideration by the ARB, the Planning and Transportation Commission, City planning staff and the council and that the very character and quality of life of Palo Alto is being irreversibly altered by overdevelopment.
The Architectural Review Board (ARB) is charged with five goals:
- Promote orderly and harmonious development of the City
- Enhance the desirability of residence or investment in the City
- Encourage the attainment of the most desirable use of land and improvements
- Enhance the desirability of living conditions upon the immediate site or in adjacent areas
- Promote visual environments which are of high aesthetic quality and variety and which, at the same time, are considerate of each other.
The ARB has no authority to modify or grant exceptions to zoning ordinances. That is the purview of the Planning and Transportation Commission (P&TC). So when members of the ARB make statements extolling the virtues of ‘higher density’ they are outside their realm. And when they do so, ignoring the obvious fact that the proposed structure grossly conflicts with the classical architecture which is iconic of Palo Alto, they fail to fulfill their mandate.
Perhaps it would be better if the process were reversed and review by the P&TC should precede that by the ARB so that the architects don’t waste their time deciding on the style, shape and color of the project before it is known if it is in conformance with the zoning ordinances. To have the ARB review first is like deciding on the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic before you know if the ship will float or sink.
Granted, there are projects which are clearly within the prescribed zoning guidelines and do not require P&TC review. But here we encounter yet another piece of the broken system: the Director’s approval. Having passed ARB review the project receives approval from the Director of Planning and is then placed directly on the Consent Calendar of the City Council to be passed by a simple majority vote without public discussion. Even when a resident has filed (and paid the fee for) an appeal against the Director’s approval, that resident will not be allowed to speak and that appeal will not be heard unless 3 members of Council vote to remove the project from the consent calendar. This does not promote a feeling of trust that the Council represents the views of the residents. Any wonder that many feel that the election in November has to bring about major changes in the Council?