Planning

Los Altos Planning Study Session — Jeff Morris says 3 story, no way

Jeff Morris and the architect explain the changes in the plan - more plaza
Written by lalahpolitico

Jeff Morris and the architect explain the changes in the plan - more plaza

Downtown First and Main Project Again

 

Last night July 5 was the first meeting of the newly constituted Planning and Traffic Commission (PTC), formerly the Los Altos Planning Commission.  The main agenda item was a public study session with the developer, Jeff Morris, to see the current state of the plan for the Morris Project at 1st and Main. The current plan is 2-story, meets the 31,000 square feet minimum exactly, is 100% compliant with zoning code,  is “fully parked” and asks for no developer incentives. Six of the seven PTC commissioners were present, with Malika  Junaid absent. After all the PTC and public discussion, Morris politely but flatly rejected the notion that he could do a redesign of the plan as a three-story in exchange for inclusion of public amentities like a large plaza on Main Street and a second floor of underground parking.

the design is 100% code compliant…Morris rejected doing a 3-story redesign with more amenities

 

Contentious Minutes?

 

However the first item — and last act of the PTC with Jon Baer as chair — was to review the staff’s draft minutes of the final Planning Commission meeting of June 21. At that June 21 meeting the commission rejected the Packard-Carpenter ordinances that would roll back downtown zoning. Baer made extensive “word smithing” changes.  He apologized for the time taken (about 5 minutes). Then when the motion came to a vote to accept the minutes as amended, the vote was 3 for, and 3 abstaining.  Baer called that as carrying, but City Planning Manager David Kornfield said it was actually “non-action.” Mr. Kornfield suggested that the minutes could be “adopted in form.”  That motion was made and passed 6 to 0.

 

David Kornfield said [ a 3 to 3 vote ] was actually “non-action.” Mr. Kornfield suggested that the minutes could be “adopted in form.”

PTC Jim Chiang, Michael McTighe, Jerry Moison, Jon Baer, Phoebe Bressack, Ronit Bodner

 New Chair and Vice-Chair – Bressack/Moison

 

Jon Baer called for nominations. Ronit Bodner nominated Jerry Moison as chair. Moison declined and nominated Phoebe Bressack.  Ronit seconded the nomination saying,  “ Change is good.  Pheobe is an architect.”  Jon Baer explained that Bressack was very experienced, having been on previous planning commissions for over 10 years.  Passed 5 to 0, with Bressack abstaining.

Jon Baer explained that Bressack was very experienced, having been on previous planning commissions for over 10 years

Phoebe Bressack, the new chair, called for nominations for vice chair. Jon Baer nominated Jerry Moison as vice-chair. Jerry Chang seconded it. Passed 6 to 0.

 

The Morris Project plaza area facing First Street was opened up as shown

Some Key Design Changes to the
(Still) Two-Story Plan for First and Main

 

  1. The private courtyard in the center of the building was made wider at First Street, where three public benches were added.
  2. The new design retains only one tower element – one at the corner, and the design added arches (to repeat the new Safeway design) instead of having a second tower.
  3. To address the frequent complaint that the prior plan was not inviting enough as seen from Foothill going north — the sidewalk was widened from 4 to 10 feet, more glass (windows) were added to the Main Street side, the wall shrouding the underground parking ramp was lowered from almost 10 feet to 7 ½ feet,  stone signage saying “Los Altos” similar to the other stone signs around town was incorporated.  The City streetscape elements of ornate black bullocks and ornate black light-poles will be repeated in the project.

Commissioner Jim Chiang would like to see a balcony over the parking ramp in the view from Foothil

 

Some of What the Architect and Jeff Morris Did Not Want to Change

 

They said they disagreed with the contention that an open space plaza with seating on Main Street looking towards the gas station and the traffic on Foothill was useful. They presented photos of the actual intersection. They suggested the noise and the view there were too unpleasant for anyone to linger in such a plaza.  They explained that the wall by the parking ramp should not be lower than 7 ½ feet in order to discourage anyone from jumping over it into harm’s way.

the noise and the view at Main and Foothill were too unpleasant for anyone to linger in a plaza there

 

Meeting Discussion

 

Some commissioners and public speakers reiterated the call for at least some plaza space facing on Main Street, and for still more ‘presence’ and ‘Wow’ on Main Street. Commissioners Chiang and McTighe emphasized the desirability of adding bike parking and perhaps public art.  Chiang argued for adding a balcony on the second floor facing Foothill Expressway for office workers to use for lunch and breaks. Commissioner Ronit Bodner said, “…a public amenity of three benches is not going to satisfy anyone.”

 Commissioner Ronit Bodner said, “A public amenity of three benches is not going to satisfy anyone.”

PTC listens to public speakers

Public speakers were mainly folks who have participated in the several “Community Conversations Gateways to Downtown” seminars sponsored by Los Altos Forward.  Collectively they have made scores of interesting small suggestions. But the key big contention that they repeat – design three stories —  is articulated most clearly by Bill Maston, the local architect who has directed the “Gateways to Downtown” seminar/charette series.

 But the key big contention that public commenters repeat – design three stories —  is articulated most clearly by architect Bill Maston

Mr. Maston said that it is a big, missed opportunity not to have a second floor of underground parking in the project. [A second level  of parking at the First and Main project would permit the parking plaza behind Peet’s Coffee and Skip’s Pizza to be converted to a charming parklette.]  That second floor of underground parking could have been procured in exchange for a developer incentive of having the City allow a third floor of office space. The third floor of office space also would create enough developer incentive to permit some plaza space facing Main Street, creating a more inviting gateway to downtown. Furthermore, Mr. Maston interprets the Morris-City development agreement document as – more or less – requiring these public benefit amenities on what is city owned property.

3 stories gives enough developer incentive to permit some public plaza space facing Main Street, creating a more inviting gateway to downtown on what is city owned property

 

PTC Chair Bressack’s  Summation

 

There are two points of view…“Should it be completely rethought … as a three story and whatever its impact are,  allow that to open up more options for a public space.”

OR

Bressack: “The other [point of view] is that the developer has totally built a ‘to code’ building and [it’s] fully parked. And I would point out  – I don’t want to put anybody on the spot as to what city council has or has not said off the record –  but if the direction the developer has gotten in any way from city council who make the policy, as opposed to we who don’t, then it’s his prerogative, his right, to follow that, because he can go through all of us, get us all as happy as clams, and then go in front of city council and [inaudible]. It’s just a waste of whole lot of time and effort.  Our goal is to make it as easy for them [the developer team] to get approval of as many of us as they can, so they can go to the city council confident that they have our support, and that then city council can support it as well.

 

Other memorable Bressack quotes include: “There are members of city council who really don’t like modern buildings … A wow factor is hard to do with a Tuscan tower… A flat-roof without solar panels is a missed opportunity.”

 

Morris Project architect explains the First Street architectural features - one less tower

Why did Jeff Morris go with a Fully Compliant Building?

 

Bressack: “I don’t want you [Jeff Morris] to be whipsawed.  Your planning commission has changed.  Now you have to deal with a whole new deck.”… “You made a choice to go for a fully compliant building. The building does everything you were supposed to do without any of the implied or now stated goals, of providing the city public space because it was our land … Why?”

 …whipsawed…planning commission has changed…a whole new deck

Jeff Morris responded, “Let me give you a little background, I’ve probably had 40 or 50 meetings with staff. I’m on my third architect. I’ve tried to please everybody.  We’ve looked at two levels of underground parking at various points over two years, with different members of staff, umm, Bill’s [Maston’s] comment about thinking outside of the box and going to three stories.  I went before the City Council, I think it was in May 2011 asking for input on three stories, thinking I was going to get it.  And I was told to go back through the process, basically the answer was no.  If I submitted a three story project now … and I don’t think I’m going to get it approved.  So then my direction with the [Donner Partners? and the DS?] is we’re going to go 100% code compliant, everything in the development agreement, everything in the zoning. I’m not asking for anything.  I don’t want any incentive.  Because it’s too complicated. The process has had gone on so long now. I’m not getting consistent direction. I just want to go 100% code compliant.  [inaudible…See how it goes?]

 Because it’s too complicated. The process has had gone on so long now. I’m not getting consistent direction. I just want to go 100% code compliant.

Bressack: “We just got the answer…Thank you for being direct.” [Morris said absolutely NO to 3-story redesign]

 

Morris Project site map good enough? Members of the Public were asking for 3-D renderings..

Bressack Floats a Possible Compromise for Upcoming
Public-Noticed PTC Meeting on the First and Main Project

 

“It seems to me that in order to accomplish all these goals [all the extensive public amenities and gateway aesthetics the 170 public speakers over some months have been asking for], you will have to look at the three story building.  [which you don’t want to do ]  If there were some smaller tradeoffs you wanted to comeback with?  Say a menu of them … For example, ‘I would provide a place for bicycles to park if I can provide 3 less parking space.’”

“If we [the PTC] can’t accomplish the major goal, a major goal which is to have a huge public plaza as a huge amenity … on the ground level.  Lets’ see what we can get based on reciprocation.”

“Alright. I’m not comfortable telling you to do that [redesign as a 3-story plan]. You’ve already been there. Been there, done that. “

 

LALAHPOLITICO EDITORIAL COMMENT:

 

Although we agree with the Morris Project fault-finders that an extra second floor of underground parking sure would have been nice – at this point in the proceedings we want to ask whether the law means anything at all in Los Altos.  Jeff Morris is submitting a fully law-compliant building plan.  If the City doesn’t approve it, can’t he/shouldn’t he/wouldn’t he want to sue? I know I would want to.  But according to some, the contract allows the city to bail out, leaving Morris will all the planning bills.  Certainly the City will get a reputation up and down the peninsula as a time-wasting, sharp-dealing bad actor and treacherous partner. Developers beware!

Jeff Morris is submitting a fully law-compliant building plan.  If the City doesn’t approve it, can’t he/shouldn’t he/wouldn’t he want to sue? I know I would. Even though the contract said Morris bore all the risk.

 

Downtown Los Altos property owners are a clubby, stable group just like any other commercial district of property owners tends to be.  What with proposition 13, the economics of low property taxes lets the owners remain long-time neighbors. They amicably share the parking plazas and many other city assets.  Although it’s quite stable, there are newcomers like Pasarelle who have eased themselves into the group dynamics. Then there is a newcomer like Jeff Morris, who arrived suddenly, and  – probably unbeknownst to him at the time – under clouded circumstances.

 a newcomer like Jeff Morris, who arrived suddenly, and  – probably unbeknownst to him at the time – under clouded circumstances

The downtown property owner who sold the First and Main parcel (Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc.) to the city some years ago did so with the understanding it would eventually be used for parking, although that was not a condition of sale.  In addition, there is quite a bit of ill-feeling in the ‘club’ about how the RFP for development of the First and Main city property was handled, mishandled, or manipulated … depending on your point of view. It’s too bad the suspected RFP malfeasance met no real outcry by the club at the time of the alleged perpetration. Unfortunately, only recently has Kim Cranston, a key downtown property owner, finally acted on his view of the facts surrounding the RFP process and sued the city about the RFP process.  Lalahpolitico wishes it had been sooner.

there is quite a bit of ill-feeling in the ‘club’ about how the RFP for development of the First and Main city property was handled, mishandled, or manipulated … depending on your point of view

 

LATC story dated Dec. 2011. Morris Three-story design - "Been there, done that." Actually 2 buildings - a 3-story and a 1-story

Lalahpolitico lives about a mile from downtown and has no financial interest or even sentimental friend-of-a-friend interest there. We have always preferred edgy, modern design, but any of the three latest designs I saw from the Morris team looked OK.  The May 2011 three story, very traditional plan was fine. Ditto for the two versions of the vaguely contemporary  two-story incarnations. It sure would be nice to have a three-story building blocking all the traffic noises from Foothill.  And the second floor of underground parking would let one of the parking plazas be converted to a parklette very soon. But the two-story plan as it is now will block a lot of sound and also looks pretty good, and looks way, way, way better than the rest of Main and State.

any of the last three designs look way, way better than the rest of Main and State

So we’ll take that better than half-a-loaf, thank you.  I’m tired of being hungry for some competent architecture on State and Main.  And as City says, the Morris Project current design plan “fits in well,” aka, is not so beautiful and not so different as to make all the out-of-date existing buildings look bad by comparison.  This approach permits an orderly, gradual refresh of the “look” of downtown — whatever the “look” is. Mr. Morris deserves to be treated fairly.  It’s not his fault if the City – notice I said if – bungled the original RFP.  [We also wish the Sorensens should have treated more fairly with their 40 Main project].

 Mr. Morris deserves to be treated fairly.  It’s not his fault if the City … bungled the original RFP

Game theory:  The Morris Dilemma – please whom?

If  Mr. Morris pencils in a few ‘reciprocations’  into his plan as suggested by Bressack – some bike parking, a balcony over the parking ramp, in exchange for reducing the parking spaces and increasing retail/office square footage – he might get unconditional PTC approval at upcoming regular PTC meeting.  If he offers the PTC nothing at all, they may recommend denial to City Council.  But Morris can go to Council with that denial and get it overturned – after all this is the Council that is promoting zoning changes for downtown core such that new buildings have only 2- stories and NO developer incentives. The Morris project plan as it stands now — fully compliant with no incentives —  is the ‘poster child’ for that kind of zoning and development policy.  If I were Morris I would change nothing. At the City Council appeal of the PTC recommendation, let Packard and Carpenter ask for the bike parking which would make the plan not “to code” by losing three spaces.”  As Bressack said, Council makes the policy. Only them.

this is the Council that is promoting zoning changes for downtown the core such that new buildings have only 2- stories and NO developer incentives … the Morris project plan… is the ‘poster child’ for that

Last word: Vote for New Blood City Council Candidates

If you, dear citizen, don’t like any of this, be sure to pay attention to November city council elections. Vote for candidates who will share the making of policy with their commissioners rather than micro-manage.

 

 

 

About the author

lalahpolitico

Norma Schroder is an economics & market researcher by trade and ardent independent journalist, photographer and videographer by avocation. Enthralled by the growth of the tech industry over the decades, she only became fascinated with business of local politics only in the past couple of years.