Sorensen project debate continues after concerns over design

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Newly installed story poles show the dimensions of a proposed three-story office building at 40 Main St. in downtown Los Altos.

After studying revised plans of the building at its regular meeting Thursday, the Los Altos Planning Commission voted to continue its review of Ted and Jerry Sorensen’s long-awaited three-story office building at 40 Main St. before giving a recommendation to the city council.

The commission voted 4-2 to grant the continuance, with Phoebe Bressack and Anita Enander dissenting and Sally Meadows absent.

Bressack said the project should not be brought back to a future meeting because she had seen essentially the same design for the building over and over, with little change to meet the city’s guidelines for conforming to the “village” feel of downtown.

Bressack and Enander agreed that they did not see the proposed design as a “gateway building,” which is what the Sorensen brothers and their architect Bill Maston called it.

The modified plans include a pedestrian paseo connecting one of the downtown parking plazas to Main Street and reduced square footage in lieu of exceptions to building requirements, Maston explained while giving a visual presentation of his plans.

The Sorensens appeared in front of the commission to propose the development in June 2017, at which time it was decided that the public benefits of a paseo and repaving the nearby Parking Plaza 10 were not sufficient to justify granting the project height, parking and rear-yard setback variances, Community Development Director Jon Biggs reminded the commission.

The design for the 38-foot-tall office building features 16,619 square feet of space and includes a tower element reaching 45 feet high.

The current square footage requires 26 parking spaces in total, according to the environmental impact report conducted for the project. The Sorensens were hoping they could forgo the environmental report and offer no on-site parking. The Planning Commission recently made parking recommendations to the city council, so the sentiment echoed among commissioners was that they would decide how parking would be handled based on the council’s response to their suggestions.

The Sorensens’ original option of modifying Parking Plaza 10 to add more parking stalls, an olive branch extended to the city to get in its good graces in exchange for more flexible building requirements, was not included in the revised plans.

Multiple residents showed up to voice their support for the project, stating that they believed it would be a solid addition to the downtown area.

Former Planning Commissioner Mike Abrams said he supported the plan and had voiced that when the project first appeared before the commission seven years ago. With the city focusing on working vitality into its Downtown Vision project, Abrams added, there was an opportunity for convergence on spaces like office buildings or even more complex developer projects.

Neighbors object

Doctors who work at 4 Main St., the building next door to the proposed office complex; residents who live on nearby View Street; and Enchanté Boutique Hotel owner Abigail Ahrens publicly stated their objections to the Sorensens’ proposal.

Psychologists like Benjamin Pratt of the Pratt Institute at 4 Main said their office buildings would become irrelevant or less attractive if a building that blocked their windows and sunlight – which especially helps trauma patients – were constructed. They, along with View Street locals, said the lack of parking in Plaza 10 and the surrounding area is already a pervasive problem.

Ahrens noted her distaste of rumored comparisons of the exceptions made for her Main Street hotel in exchange for the public benefits of tax revenue and an outdoor plaza with the Sorensen project.

She said property developers – the Sorensens included – have blamed the city year after year for inconsistencies in building requirements, “thinking someone may feel bad for them.” Commissioner Ronit Bodner disagreed, pointing out that “schizophrenic” changes in height, setback and other requirements negatively impacted the Sorensens’ project specifically, and she found that unfair.

The Sorensens reduced the building’s square footage from the 17,248 square feet proposed last year. Ted Sorensen said that while many commissioners contended that their proposal prioritized maximum space over cohesive design on Main Street, he disagreed, noting that they had scaled back their plans for a 21,000-square-foot building first submitted in 2011.

While reviewing the project, the commission discussed a required use permit, design review approval and an “exception for public benefit request” that is permitted when deemed appropriate through the city’s Urban Design Plan. Commissioners will revisit the same issues, as well as the environmental impact report, after Maston consults with the Sorensens and returns with a modified plan.

As far as a timetable for the return to the Planning Commission, Maston said he did not have a prediction, but he is working to return as soon as possible. He told commissioners that the more specifics they give, the faster he could return with sketches.

Bressack directed Maston to refer to the downtown design guidelines, which include images of suggested features and color schemes.

“We do not design it for them,” she said.

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