Planning

Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee Report Nixed by PTC

Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee suggests lowering allowable height of downtown buildings
Written by lalahpolitico

At the  January 7, 2016 PTC meeting, all Planning Commissioners effusively acknowledged and thanked ad hoc Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee volunteers for the time, effort and care they put into the development of their zoning changes recommendations report. They also thanked Los Altos Councilmember Megan Satterlee for her work organizing  the 2014 Downtown tours. Those tours stimulated the formation of the ad hoc committees of residents which were charged with the task of making suggestions for zoning changes downtown, especially on First Street. The report of the Buildings Committee was presented to the PTC on Jan. 7, 2016.

Los Altos Councilmember Megan Satterlee at the 2014 Downtown tours which stimulated the formation of ad hoc committees of residents to make suggestions for zoning changes downtown

Los Altos Councilmember Megan Satterlee at the 2014 Downtown tours which stimulated the formation of ad hoc committees of residents to make suggestions for zoning changes downtown

The PTC Commissioners unanimously rejected virtually all the substantive zoning code changes, in the report, accepting mainly those recommendations about improving “process and procedures. ”  They quickly rejected the key recommendation of  lowering the height limit of First Street (CD and CD/R3)  from 45 feet to 30-35 feet.

In agreement with City staff, PTC commissioners said that change would effectively halt all redevelopment along First Street because 2-story commercial rebuilds are “not economically viable.”  The Planning Commissioners unanimously did not endorse requiring a minimum sidewalk width of 6 feet.  Ronit Bodner explained that carving extra setback  out of private property would be “a taking.”  She explained 6 foot sidewalks could happen if the City took it out of the street; Palo Alto did this for California Street, removing street parking. Requiring an additional 5 foot setback beyond the 6 foot sidewalk was also rejected for similar reasons.

Los Altos Planning Commission on Jan. 7, 2013 reviewing the report of the ad hoc Downtown Buildings Committee.

Los Altos Planning Commission on Jan. 7, 2013 reviewing the report of the ad hoc Downtown Buildings Committee.

Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee being too detailed and too prescriptive

The Los Altos Buildings Committee asked for numerous changes in “design control” language, changes that the Planning Commissioners unanimously felt were “too detailed and too prescriptive.”  Paraphrasing…

”Architects should be allowed to create, and the planning commission should be allowed to do its one-by-one job guiding developers to a more beautiful project in keeping with community values. Being too prescriptive would result in the unintended consequence of less appealing buildings.”

Ann Enander ably presented the key finding of the Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee to the PTC Jan. 7, 2016

Ann Enander ably presented the key findings of the ad hoc Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee to the PTC Jan. 7, 2016

Nixed: Some examples of the language modifications which were considered by the Planning Commissioners as “too prescriptive” and best dealt with by the Planning Commission on a project by project basis:

  • Every building 50 feet wide (75 feet wide) must be articulated architectural (eg., create the illusion it is several smaller buildings)
  • Third Floors must have an exterior setback.
  • Building materials should be “high quality” and harmonious with other structures…

All the above were deemed too detailed and prescriptive. There are lots of way to reduce “bulk.”

Oked: Reduce the height of towers, antennas, flagpoles…

Given than the Planning Commission unanimously wanted to leave the building height limits at 45, they were willing to cut the allowable height of a “tower elements” from 15 feet to 8 feet.  Planning also agreed that antennas and flagpoles should be discouraged and limited to 8 feet.

The Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee included a photo similar to this one, showing how new buildings are changing views. Shown Enchante Hotel. The PTC decided that views are not a consideration to consider when evaluating redevelopment.

The Downtown Buildings Committee included a photo similar to this one, showing how new buildings are changing views. Shown Enchante Hotel. The PTC decided that views are not a consideration when evaluating redevelopment.

Views and Shade Should NOT be a consideration Downtown

Planning unanimously rejected the Los Altos Downtown Building Committee notion that protecting pedestrian views from the streets should be a goal or consideration.

Paraphrasing the PTC… “Which views merit protection?  Trees are actually responsible for the most view blocking.  This is impractical and unfair.”

Similarly the Planning Commission rejected the notion that some downtown owners could be prescriptively  blocked from redeveloping because of the shadow their proposed building might cast. If a proposed building blocks some sun from reaching a shorter northerly neighbor, that should not be a show-stopper in these downtown zones. The vote was 4-1 to NOT require a shadow study from developers. Commissioner Phoebe Bressack —who has extensive experience in the Design Review Commission reviewing residential development plans — explained that a side effect of the “daylight plane” requirements for two story homes is the unattractive “wedding cake” building plan.   But Ken Lorrel argued that shadow studies should be required of developers downtown, even if they are not a deciding factor.

“ It’s cheap for the architect to produce — one button push on the design software — and it’s just another data point about a commercial project for us on the planning commission.” said Ken Lorrel.

An example of "lush" landscaping, at least as of January 2016 after normal levels of winter rainfall. Sign says look but don't touch.

An example of “lush” landscaping downtown Los Altos, at least lush as of January 2016 after normal levels of winter rainfall. Even dought-tolerant plants don’t necessarily look lush in the dry summer if one withholds “abundant” watering. Sign on the fence at the Hewlett Packard building says don’t come in.

Loving “Lush” Landscaping, politically incorrect?

The Planning Commissioners though the recommendation of having the city “enforce maintenance of new landscaping,” was a good idea but thought zoning mandates of size and type of tree plantings were too prescriptive and would limit the creativity of landscape architects working on new developments.

Lalahpolitico: The Commissioners commiserated about their lack of expertise in horticultural matters and wondered if the City Staff had enough expertise to judge the landscape elements of new plans.  Lalah has some green thumb chops and can assure you that City Planner David Kornfield displayed a deep understanding of current trends in appropriate species selection for residential, commercial and streetscape scenarios at the meeting. I think the City Planning Staff does not need consultants.  Lalah is somewhat concerned that Planning Commissioners seemed to demand “lush, abundant” plantings.

Commissioner Ken Lorrel disrespected our natural, wild landscape as “scrub.”

And what is wrong with scrub!?! City Staff is already showing sensitivity to drought issues. Recent City plantings on our streetscapes are changing from water-sucking annuals, to perennial succulents and drought-tolerant grasses. The streetscapes are making more use of rain permeable hardscape materials in tans and grey; not every expanse needs to be filled with water-sucking plant material. Please get with the program – we can’t plant like we live in England. Learn to love the desert.

Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee agreed the 20+ year old Downtown Design Guidelines would be repetitive, confusing and even contradictory. The guidelines were good, they should just be enforced. An image example in the report -- windows on Main and State are not supposed to be opaque as in the building shown. A no-no

Everyone agreed the 20+ year old Downtown Design Guidelines can be repetitive, confusing and even contradictory. The guidelines themselves were deemed good; they should just be enforced. An image example in the committee report — windows on Main and State are not supposed to be opaque as in the colorful building shown.  Lalahpolitico: so I suppose the new tenant/owner just did not understand the guidelines? The building looks way more inviting today than when it used to be a law office with a massive, bunkerlike masonry facade. Today it has attracted a “startup” as a tenant. Imagine that.

Documentation Improvements to Move Forward

The Downtown Design Guidelines and other City documents were flagged by the ad hoc Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee as redundant, confusing and sometimes contradictory.  The Commissioners agreed; City Staff said they could clean that up.  Staff also agreed to create a developer checklist as is common in Los Gatos to track if a project is “conforming” to zoning and guidelines.

Instead of more prescriptive language — which  the planning comissioners  rejected — more and better images will be added to documentation to show good examples. The Planning Commission was especially interested in seeing the landscaping guidance be improved with photography.

Architectural Review Panel Rejected

Although Planning Commissioners were interested in hiring landscaping architects for staff or consultation or recruiting one to volunteer for the Planning Commission, [Seats are open this February 2016] they were not interested in putting commercial projects through review by an a panel of architects.  Ken Lorrel says he is familiar with the use of such panels in Palo Alto.  He said the residents there are still nonetheless  often “unpleasantly surprised” by what a group of architects will vet.  Architects may know good design, but not community values. “Our local planning commission represents our local values,” he argued.

Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee reviewed this building. This condo complex was built thanks to the 2010 zoning changes raising the height limit. Some residents seem to have an "overreaction" to it. Lalahpolitico: yes, the design could be better; change the paint color eventually. The pedestrian experience will be better when the city undergrounds those telephone poles. Bottom lin e- I'd take six more of these rather than what is along south First Street now.

This condo complex was built thanks to the 2010 zoning changes raising the height limit. Some residents seem to have an “overreaction” to it. Lalahpolitico: yes, the design could be better; Improve it by changing  the paint color eventually perhaps. The pedestrian experience will be better when the city undergrounds those telephone poles. Bottom line- I’d take six more of these rather than what is along south First Street now.

PTC: Stay the Course Towards More Vibrancy

Commissioners praised Councilmember Megan Satterlee for initiating and managing the ad hoc Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee, a committee which is comprised solely of residents and has no downtown stakeholders.  However, commissioners felt the resulting recommendations are a layperson’s “overreaction to those few of the projects which could have been better.”  Commissioners agreed the strategy of the 2010 zoning changes to encourage redevelopment of First Street (eg. 45 foot heigh limit)  should be allowed to proceed.  It was putting more “feet on the street,” making downtown more economically sustainable. They explained that changes to the south section of First Street have only begun. The City will be undergrounding utilities, thereby improving the sidewalks and pedestrian experience in the next year.

Los Altos resident opinion about downtown is "split down the middle" according to Ronit Bodner's interpreration of City survey results.

Los Altos resident opinion about downtown is “split down the middle” according to Ronit Bodner’s interpreration of City survey results.

Commissioners seemed to all agree that the City Council should wait to gauge resident reactions after the south section gets improved and then reassess resident opinions.

Ronit Bodner described public opinion about downtown as “schizoid, split-down-the-middle.”

Referring to the two most recent City surveys about satisfaction about downtown,  “About half the people want ‘the village’ to stay pretty much exactly the way it is now [sic or go back!], the other half say they want to see more  “vibrancy.”

LalahpoliticoNext time a survey is done don’t just ask people how often they visit downtown, ask them how much they spend downtown, in a month a year or whatever Godbe Research suggests.  And just let time pass; the demographic with high “nostalgia” will be dwindling.

Given the split of public opinion about downtown satisfaction, Commissioners thought a “Visioning” among residents about Downtown would never reach any consensus.  Lalahpolitico:  Yes, probably. And not just because there are 2 sides; there are more like 10 agendas to try to satisfy! And I agree with the PTC that the downtown property owners have substantial rights and their agenda is crucial.  Their opinion about their property should have much more weight than my opinion about their property.

Current and former mayors support Los Altos Measure A

City Council has the last work on zoning changes and development. Top row is current Council.

Next  Steps – City Council Has the Last Word

The Planning Commission will send a Memo to the City Council collecting their  thumbs up/ thumbs down votes and assessments on each of the 30 plus recommendations. The ad hoc building committee had a meeting on Jan. 12 to review the remarks of the Planning Commission. They may modify one or more of their recommendations, or just stick with them and take them before City Council for a hearing there.  City Council may be more sympathetic to the idea of HALTING all development downtown by reducing First Street height limit to 30-35 feet than the Planning Commissioners. It it not uncommon for PTC and Council to have somewhat divergent opinions. Councilmembers are the deciders.

NEXT MEETING: On January 26, 2016, 6 pm.  City Council will receive a report from the Los Altos Downtown Buildings Committee and provide feedback. Location: Orchard Room, Los Altos Main Library.

Lalahpolitico: For perspective, just remember how bad North First Street looked before 2010 zoning. And how ragged South First Street still looks..

bear market

Global economics has become volatile. Will local real estate investment economics be affected?

Economy Tanking? Sufficient to Halt  Downtown Development?

The stock market seems to be headed to bear market territory.  Slowing exports to China may affect certain large employers near us.  Our local business confidence may weaken.  I wonder if our downtown Los Altos real estate developers – Barton, MacDonald and Kelly Snyder (Pasarelle) are still so bullish on Los Altos now… a week after they spoke at this Jan. 7, 2016 meeting.  Lalahpolitico’s point:  It might not be necessary to lower the height limit to 30-35 to get to NO NEW development. Economics will run its course.

ADDENDUM: PUBLIC SPEAKERS REMARKS

You can navigate to the City’s video of this Jan. 7,2016  PTC meeting from this City page.  Use the tab for the Planning and Transportation Commission. Select the Video link.

Yes, the usual Suspects, but they are the experts, the risk takers

Proprietress Abby Ahrens greets open house attendees

Proprietress Abby Ahrens greets open house attendees

Abby Ahrens, born and bred Los Altan, architect, developer and now hotelier of the Enchante Hotel, 1 Main Street criticized the composition of the ad hoc Los Altos Downtown Buildings committee. Complete omission of stakeholders and experts  – developers, real estate professionals, architects, merchants etc. – produced a document of resident opinion.  They were “not charged with developing standards.”

“How can these ten 2015 meetings among  these 11 inexperienced residents overturn the 3 years of meetings of 3 committees of stakeholders and experts that culminated in the 2010 zoning changes?

She went on to say “views” preservation have never been a consideration in any downtown since 1800 in New York City  and such a notion is unacceptable.  However, more landscaping as recommended by the ad hoc committee- yes, sure, great.

Bill Mateson, Architect. Changing to a 30 or 35 height limit will directly impact the economics of downtown and the viability of downtown. Architects can easily give you Building Shadow Studies. It’s just an extra click in the software.

Gary Hedden, Resident and Environmental Commissioner, speaking as an individual. Yes I’m for less bulk in downtown.  I’d like to make it a more walkable place. But I have a desire to see more housing in downtown,especially for seniors.  What would be the impacts of more mid-density housing?  … More feet on the street.

“Yes, Downtown has lots of charm, but there are vacant stores on Main Street. Vacant stores are not charming,”  said Hedden

John Barton,  15 year resident with 4 children.   He made investments downtown after the 2010 zoning changes.  He  believes the resident reaction to the new development is not about height, but about bad design. The Downtown needs more vibrancy.  With a height limit lower than the current 45 feet…

“I would not have invested the property I now own. Changing the height will punish me for investing in Los Altos,” said Barton.

Emerick MacDonald, is Barton’s investing parter. He has lived downtown on View Street since 2010.  “I’d love to see more development downtown.  There is an influx of a new demographic group… we need to encourage development…the 23% of residents in surveys who indicate that want NO NEW development are not realistic…two stories across all of downtown is not realistic.  I think this height reduction proposal is an overreaction to a couple of poor building projects.”

Kelley Snyder, director of Passarelle Investments, expressed concern about reducing the height limit from 45 to 30-35 feet. She though the consequences would be quite dire for downtown vitality. In her opinion, for each of the new buildings, some people like them, others did not. So do not change the height limits now; let visioning happen.  Let discussion about parking and the Civic Center happen. With a 45 foot height, you will be able to get some beautiful buildings.

Mr. Cook, grew up in Los Altos and “owns a building in the village, maybe “downtown” is not right word for it..”

He thinks building width, not height is the problem. Economically if you have to lower height, then you also have to maximize the lot coverage…You get just pillboxes. You can fix than somewhat with architectural “articulation”

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

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