12 September, 2012

City looks to downsize massive Page Mill Road proposal

Palo Alto City Council concerned about proposed commercial buildings; excited about prospect of new police headquarters

An expansive plan to build two office buildings, an apartment complex and a highly coveted public-safety building near California Avenue earned a mixed reception from Palo Alto officials Monday night, with several members of the City Council arguing that the proposed buildings are too tall and too massive even for this rapidly changing neighborhood.

The council has long considered the area around California Avenue as the city's prime location for dense new developments, particularly ones that include housing. The preliminary proposal by Jay Paul Company includes as its centerpiece two buildings containing about 311,000 square feet of office space at 395 Page Mill Road, a site on which AOL has its Silicon Valley headquarters. Jay Paul also proposed buying three city-owned parking lots nearby, on Sherman Avenue, and converting them into a new parking garage, a public park and a 116-unit apartment building.

But the most lucrative and intriguing facet of the proposal from the council's perspective is Jay Paul's offer to help the city build a police- and fire-department headquarters at 3045 Park Blvd., across the street from 395 Page Mill. Under the concept the council discussed Monday, the police building would be part of a larger, four-level parking structure. Jay Paul would spend about $26.7 million on building the shell of the police building while the city would contribute about $20.1 million to finish the project.

The council didn't take any votes Monday night, but in wide-ranging discussion, members expressed a mix of emotions -- excitement over the prospect of finally having a safe and sufficient police building, amazement at the proposed density of the office buildings, and frustration over the fact that this proposal has surfaced just months before the council is set to consider a broader vision for the California Avenue area. 

While the meeting touched on everything from the office buildings' proposed heights and setbacks from the street to their impact on parking, the council largely avoided the topic of the city-owned Sherman Avenue sites. Councilman Pat Burt proposed separating this component from the commercial development, and most of his colleagues (with the exception of Greg Schmid and Gail Price) agreed. 

He called it "putting the cart before the horse" because the city is still finalizing its concept plan for the California Avenue area. In addition, the council recently rejected the notion of building housing on city-owned parking lots when it discussed the city's recently completed Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out the city's vision for housing development.

Council members also voiced skepticism about the zoning exceptions Jay Paul is requesting as part of his "planned community" (PC) proposal -- a zoning designation that allows applicants to exceed the city's zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated public benefits. Though council members agreed the police building would be a critical benefit, they argued that the zoning exemptions sought are too much. 

If approved, the commercial buildings at 395 Page Mill would have density that is roughly triple what the zoning normally allows. They would also be 71 feet tall, roughly double what's allowed in the zone and far transcending the city's 50-foot height limit.

Burt stressed the need to find a balance between the developer's and the community's needs and argued that the city should carefully consider the appropriate density for the new office buildings.

"Basically, if you're trying to fit a size-13 foot in a size-9 shoe, you really can't wiggle and try to make it fit," Burt said. "It's basically just too much for a given site."

Ray Paul, representing Jay Paul Company, said the proposal considered the city's plans for intensifying California Avenue when it submitted its proposal. Jay Paul bought the property, which was formerly owned by Agilent, in 2006.

"What struck us, when you look at aerial map, you can see it's mostly parking," Paul told the council. "We think it's not the best use for that parcel."

Despite concerns about the height and density of the proposed buildings, members were generally enthusiastic about the prospect of finally building public-safety headquarters. The city's police department is currently housed inside City Hall in a space found to be unsafe and inadequate by various experts and citizens commissions, including the recent Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission. The public-safety building in Jay Paul's proposal would be 44,420 square feet, roughly two times bigger than the existing police headquarters.

Several council members, including Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Larry Klein, lauded the police building component and cited it as an important reason to proceed briskly with the application.

"I don't want to see us dither on this proposal," Klein said. "I think we need to decide fairly soon whether we're going forward or not."

He also rejected the notion that the city should wait until it finalizes a California Avenue "concept plan" before it rules on the Jay Paul development.

"It might be nice to have a concept plan in place but that's classic Palo Alto -- let's study this thing until it doesn't have any life to it," Klein said. "Sometimes proposals come along in ways we haven't anticipated."

Scharff voiced a similar sentiment and noted that Jay Paul will need to perform an "environmental impact report" for the project before it proceeds. The detailed analysis would indicate, among other things, whether the new developments would create major traffic problems for the neighborhood. Scharff said he would have no problem approving the tall, dense office buildings if the data in report were to indicate the neighborhood wouldn't be significantly affected by the proposed development.

"I think it's a great idea, in concept," Scharff said. "I think it will anchor a strong commercial presence there that will add a lot of vibrancy on California Avenue."

Prior to the council's discussion of the Jay Paul proposal, several area residents spoke to the council, criticizing the plan for being too ambitious and dismissive of neighborhood concerns. Marilyn Mayo, who lives nearby on Oxford Street, said recent plans to allow intense development around California Avenue makes her feel like she's living in a Zynga game such as Farmville or Cityville, with people buying and trading properties. She asked the council to be mindful of the people who live in the neighborhoods.

"Somehow the residents just keep getting forgotten in all of this," Mayo said. "And we're bearing the brunt."

In addition to the Jay Paul proposal, the city is also considering a zoning application that would convert four residentially zoned parcels on the Page Mill block into a commercial zone that would accommodate a commercial development. The city's Planning and Transportation Commission discussed the zone-change request last month and was generally sympathetic, though it required the applicant, Stoecker and Northway Architects, to reach out to the neighborhood before returning to the commission.

Fred Balin, a College Terrace resident who has consistently called for more transparency in the planning process, urged the council not to rush into approving the proposal from Jay Paul. He asked the council to proceed with its land-use documents and to allow adequate time for neighborhood outreach before signing off on the application.

"Zone for what you want, not for what's presented to you ad hoc," Balin said.

The council flirted with the idea of scheduling a second "prescreening" meeting with Jay Paul. But the majority, led by Klein, ultimately rejected this plan and advocated going through the regular application process, under which the revised application will proceed to the Planning and Transportation Commission before returning to the council.

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