Personal observations from the PTC meeting that initiated the PC for 101 Lytton (aka 355/335 Alma)
by Doug Moran

The Commission approved initiating the PC zoning even though the Commissioners said that they would not approve the project as submitted. The commissioners' directions to the applicant on how to make the project acceptable were inconsistent, often contradictory, not only between the different commissioners, but within individual commissioner's own statements. This was pointed out (by Fineberg) and acknowledged, but the Commission decided to let the developer proceed regardless. Fineberg and Keller advocated extending the hearing to a future date to allow the developer a chance to revise the proposal to incorporate their understanding of the Commission's direction, but the applicant rejected this.

With this approval, the developer's next steps is to conduct studies and develop detailed building plans, each of which is very expensive, and go through the Architectural Review Board (ARB) to produce final plans for the building _before_ coming back to the Commission for approval of the basic policy questions on which those plans are based. This is a well-known tactic of Palo Alto developers: Keep a project moving through the process without being responsive to direction from the City and then argue--successfully--that the City can't reject or amend it because they have spent too much time and money on it. I reminded the Commission of this very tactic in my comments, and Commission Chair Tuma told the applicant if they failed to suitably improve the project that the commission would reject it. I suspect that some of the commissioners might actually believe that this time they might actually do this (Einstein said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results).

The Commission _encouraged_ the developer to come back to them with revised plans for feedback before going to the ARB. However, the developer's representative made it abundantly clear during the meeting that he intends to make this a highly adversarial process by his belligerent treatment of comments from the public. For example, he told the Commission that I misrepresented the amount of pedestrian traffic at the site in my written comments, even though the numbers I used were from the traffic analysis that the developer submitted to the Commission and that were identified by page number in my comments. For example, the developer posits that the project will be attractive for software companies whose employees will want to commute from San Francisco. In my oral comments, I remarked that my experience in that type of start-up was that the train schedule outside of the rush hours was a major inconvenience for such people. Baer dismissed my experience saying that I was too old to understand people working at Facebook-type companies. (One start-up on Cal Ave had over 100 employees and I remember only 3 as using Caltrain, and they were quite memorable because their desire/need to get to the train was repeatedly disruptive in both meetings and meeting deadlines).

The list of purported "public benefits" in the Staff Report and the developer's submission are not to be taken seriously, and weren't. My written submission to the Commission (link at end) step through them and showed that they were either amenities for the building's occupants, things the developer would be expected to do, or trivialities. Some of the commissioners argued that since some of these amenities would not be officially restricted to the building's occupants, they could conceivably be used by a few members of the general public and hence constituted a public benefit. But one commissioner (Fineberg?) pointed out that a benefit for a select few members of the public was not what was meant by "public benefit"

Many of the commissioners seemed to regard the building itself as an adequate public benefit, that is, having a building that corresponded to their personal/professional architectural aesthetics as a "gateway" to greet commuters entering downtown from the Caltrain station. The developer attempted to disguise the impact of the 150-200 occupants of this building by considering only the impacts of the residents of the five one-bedroom apartments on the fifth floor. In my oral comments, I pointed out that despite this being close to transit, ABAG would still penalize Palo Alto for these jobs and that the subsequent housing would increase the burden on Palo Alto schools. My observation was dismissed by a commissioner (Garber) by saying that ABAG doesn't track individual projects (Disingenuous: ABAG tracks projects indirectly, through the calculations of total jobs in a city). Although various of the commissioners acknowledged the questionable future of Caltrain, their advocacy for this "gateway" seemed predicated on robust Caltrain service throughout the day and evening.

The developer and several of the commissioners said that this building was needed for the "next Google or Facebook (or Sun)" to be housed together rather than spread over multiple buildings, and it was acknowledged that as such companies became successful, they would move out of Palo Alto. At first, I thought that this was simply an emotional argument directed at civic pride. However, there seemed to be a more substantial underlying argument that the prestige conferred by being the original site of such companies was a positive influence for Palo Alto's overall business climate, maintaining it as a prestige address for which other companies would pay premium rents. The way that some of the commissioners responded to the few evocative phrases suggested that this might have been part of their private discussions with the developer. However, since this argument was not made publicly, there was no chance to debate its validity. My experience in start-ups was that at that size (100-200), the priority was conserving cash and the last thing you wanted to do was pay premium rents for a flashy building at a high-profile location.

My written comments to the Commission and this document can be found at .