New standard mandates story poles for larger developments

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Story poles, like those erected in Los Altos Hills, above, will enable Los Altos residents to size up a project’s mass and scale during the design review process.

Los Altos residents have a new way to size up development projects.

The Los Altos City Council March 24 voted 3-2 in favor of requiring story poles for all commercial, multifamily and mixed-use projects.

Under the new standard, developers must erect story poles – posts capped with orange netting – to demonstrate their projects’ size, mass and scale during the design review process. The council moved forward with the requirement despite reservations from city staff and the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC).

“I think mosquito netting has value, but not in the context of design review,” Commissioner Jon Baer said during discussion at the Feb. 19 PTC meeting. “Until the building is framed, until it’s landscaped, until it’s done, you really don’t know what it’s going to look like. And right now, for better or worse, the best tool that we have is the 3D renderings.”

Planning Director David Kornfield said he has “some reservations about how accurate it would be and how useful it would be” for 45-foot buildings – several of which have been constructed recently along First Street.

“It’s a tool of a scale and for a kind of building that is not appropriate for, in my opinion, a downtown urban setting,” said Commissioner Phoebe Bressack. “If there is a part of our community that is upset with the development of First Street, would story poles have changed anything that went through?”

Weighing design-review processes

At the council’s March 24 meeting, Mayor Jan Pepper contended that story poles supplement 3D renderings by visually alerting residents to new projects. Pepper, along with Councilmembers Mary Prochnow and Jean Mordo, endorsed the new requirement.

“If it’s a stupid mistake, we can change our decision later,” Mordo said.

Story poles are frequently used within view corridors, particularly hillsides and coastal bluffs. Nearby, Los Altos Hills and Los Gatos require story poles. In Los Gatos, however, the town manager can waive the requirement if story poles are deemed impractical. The applicant is then required to provide three-dimensional or computer modeling to showcase the project.

This isn’t the first time Los Altos has considered story poles. Most recently, councilmembers determined that 3D renderings and context-perspective drawings were more appropriate for the city’s projects. But following developments along First Street, some councilmembers wanted to revisit city requirements.

“The story poles do something that the plans and the drawings and the computer do not do,” Mordo said. “If you see the story poles, you say, ‘Oh my God, what is going on here?’”

Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins argued that story poles in a downtown setting are impractical and potentially hazardous when installed amid existing structures and parking lots.

“What I’m hearing my colleagues talking about is really wanting to draw attention to something,” she said. “Well, you can draw attention to something by, you know, hanging something up there on a flagpole.”

After the vote, Councilwoman Megan Satterlee requested that staff bring back plans for implementing the new requirements on sites with current buildings.

Next steps

Community Development Director James Walgren said the city has enough nearby examples to establish its own policy, though he added that constructing story poles for structures higher than 30 feet becomes “very challenging.”

“It can be done, but it requires a lot of material and human resources,” he clarified in an interview with the Town Crier Thursday.

The process comes with an added cost to developers. According to a report from city staff, story poles for a commercial building can run up to $10,000.

Walgren said he anticipates completing a policy draft within a few weeks. The requirement would likely dictate that each project’s story poles are raised 10 days prior to the first public hearing and remain up throughout the public review process, generally a couple of months.

“We’ve got time to develop the requirement,” Walgren said, noting that no commercial, multifamily or mixed-use development projects are in the pipeline. “We’ll be able to do a couple projects and re-evaluate how effective it is.”

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