City Council

Will 3-D Photo Simulation Prevent another 400 First Street?

People at Los Altos Downtown Development Projects Walking Tour
Los Altos Downtown Development Projects Walking Tour
Written by lalahpolitico
Mayor Megan Satterlee (umbrella) assembles the downtown projects walking tour. About 100 people participated for parts of the event.

Mayor Megan Satterlee (umbrella) assembles the downtown projects walking tour across from the first project – the condos at 100 Main. About 100 people participated for parts of the event.

About 100 citizens showed up for  Mayor Satterlee’s Los Altos Walking Tour of Downtown Development Projects on Saturday morning (9am, Saturday, September 6).  During the tour and later at the City Hall public comment session, it became clear that the crowd who showed up was mostly folks with gripes, not praise. Polite lamentations about First Street projects dominated;  the “canyon effect,” lack of sunlight in the winter, and the Safeway “wall” along First Street.

The top suggestion for future change in First Street zoning was  — the taller the buildings, the greater the setback for the second and third stories.

And please, more architectural “articulation.”  Nothing like the uninteresting sameness of the Safeway ground floor parking ever again! Break up a long wall with materials detailing,  small undulating setbacks or even varying colors of paint!

The tour stopped at the following locations:

  • 100 First Street, condos
  • 160 First Street, Safeway
  • 400 Main Street, Morris building, retail/office
  • 396 First Street, condos
  • 343 Second Street, Packard Foundation Building, office
  • 240 Third Street, office with 2 penthouse condos
  • 1 Main Street

The Mayor informed the crowd that all  of First Street lots are zoned as zero-feet setback lots.  That means owners are entitled to build to the line.  The Safeway, the 400 Main Street mixed retail office building (Morris building),  and the 100 First Street condos (Lamb building)  are all built with zero setback from the back of the sidewalk.

Ironically, the least popular building, the 400 First Street condos (old Adobe Animal Hospital site), was built with a five-foot setback.  Nonetheless, it felt the most bulky and looming to tour participants.  The reason? Perhaps because its surroundings are still all the old one-story ticky-tackies, and also because the tour participants stood  next to the building rather than across the street from the building.


The City’s Process Improvements – Website, Truer Images

1) The city has added a useful website page where folks can find a list of Commercial Projects (Planned, Approved, Under Construction) with a quick link to an image of the project. Most of the images there are still the bad old, deceptive architectural drawings.

2) But very recently the city has started requiring accurate, realistic, pedestrian views of 3-D photo simulation of the proposed design surrounded by the existing buildings. Lalahpolitico expects that going forward new projects on the city webpage will link to photosimulations, not the deceptive drawings. But for now, almost all  of the projects listed on the city page were initiated well before this new 3-D photosimulation requirement. The city cannot require the new type of renderings retroactively!

476 First Street at Cuesta – Truthiness vs. Truth


The deceptive drawing of the approved plans of the office building (pinkish building on the right)  shows the new condo at 400 First as being in the very far distance. This image is drawn with a “wide angle” perspective which makes all the buildings look smaller and further away than they really are at the corner of Cuesta. Notice how the 3-story new building looks no taller than the 2-story existing Intero building.

It is necessary to crop out the excess sky.  A pedestrian does not see that much sky while looking straight ahead walking down the street.

The drawing are alway shown with way too much sky than the human eye will see…when you are close to a big building.

The deceptive architectural drawings are alway shown with way too much BIG  sky, more than the human eye will actually see…when you are close to a big building.  So Lalah cropped the sky to match my actual pedestrian experience at the corner of Cuesta.

Lalahpolitico went to the corner to photograph what it actually looked like.  See below.  That meant a camera with a “normal” not wide-angle lens.  And merging a few shots to create a panorama to simulate human stereo vision.


The still empty site for the approved office building is at the far right behind the green fence. Notice in the center of the photo how much larger the red roofed tall condo building is… in reality.  That means the approved office building, once built, will be extending well beyond the top of this photo, not just a little as in the drawing above.

The office building will look noticeably taller than the two story Intero building, not about the same height as alleged in the original drawing.

476 First Street at Hawthorne – Truthiness vs. Truth

Drawing of 476 First Street approved office building as see heading south on San Antonio Road

Drawing of 476 First Street approved office building as seen heading south on San Antonio Road. Lots of irrelevant sky makes buildings seem smaller.

The above drawing purports to imagine the view when one is heading south on San Antonio Road. The vantage point for this view is standing in the median strip at Hawthorne and the Republic Bank. As usual there is way too much BIG sky in this drawing,  intended to make the project look “lite.”



This drawing of the 476 First Street office building plan does not even show the existing Intero Office building at Cuesta in First. The perspective is so “wide-angle” Intero has disappeared beyond the horizon!

Lalahpolitico’s first step is to crop out all the excess sky in the drawing to get more of a true pedestrian’s view of the scene. I’m not staring at the sky when I walk down the street.


In this panorama photo shot with “normal” human vision-like perspective, the Intero Building can be clearly seen down by the red traffic lights. I stood in the median strip by the Republic Bank.   When built, the approved new office building will be taller than the frame of this photo. Not a medium-sized mass set well back from the pilates studio as drawn! CLICK FOR LARGER. SLOW LOAD


I used a normal lens (around 35 mm) and can easily see the existing 2-story Intero building in the distance down by the red traffic lights.  Clearly the artist doing the drawing is using a wide-angle perspective which is making everything smaller and further away, especially those things that are further away. This is deceptive.


476 First Street seen from across First Street at Intero – The New Requirements


New 3-d Photosimulation Signage at 467 First Street site

New 3-d Photosimulation Signage at empty 467 First Street site. This  sign is in 3 locations around the site. Tile roofed building is the 397 First Street condos


Fortunately, the city recently upped its planning documents requirements.  It now requires project images that place an accurate 3-d model of the building (with proposed exterior treatments) on a realistic, pedestrian level,  panorama photo of the building site, set among its existing neighbors.  3-D photo simulation is a great improvement!

But there’s more good news.  The city also requires that  BIG PHOTO SIGNS of one of these 3-D photo simulations be posted at several points around the site.  Presumably, in the future, this signage will be required BEFORE a commercial project marches through the Planning & Transportation Commission approval process.  Here’s what on the fence at 476 First Street.  (It’s not what is on the city’s web site page though.  As of Sept. 6, it was still showing the deceptive photos. Doesn’t matter as this project is approved all the way through city council. A done deal. )


Close up of the 476 First Street 3d Photosim sign

Close up of the 476 First Street 3d Photosim sign. CLICK PHOTO FOR LARGER.


Miss the Walking Tour? Email and Read up!

If you missed the Los Altos Downtown Projects Walking Tour, you can still send email comments to the collective Los Altos City Council.  The council urges you to become familiar with its key planning documents.  Some of them are in line for an update.


For those unable to attend the Walking Tour in person who wish to provide comments to the City Council, you may do so by emailing, completing an online feedback form or writing a letter which can be mailed to the City Clerk’s Office at 1 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos CA 94022.

Conclusion – Make the Developer help update City Website

I assume the city staff is working to gradually update the city website’s  Private Development Projects page, so that the links for future projects go to the 3-d photosimulations, not deceptive drawings.  Right now those photosims for each project are being delivered by the developer inside a huge 100M .pdf file – which is the project planning application packet. I believe this is printed out on a high resolution, very large format paper printer, so it needs to be a huge file.  (36 inches or even 60 inches wide.) Planners and architects traditionally look at really, really big pieces of paper. Remember rolls of blueprints?

Unfortunately, it took me almost 5 minutes to download the 99M .pdf packet for 897 N. San Antonio. Please have each developer’s architect extract  the 3d-photosims from the planning packet and resize them for the City web site and the general public.  I wouldn’t want staff time to be consumed by that chore. Or citizen time. Or my time.








About the author


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 became fascinated with the business of local politics only in the past several years.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment