Commissioner questions story-pole policy

389 First St.
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Story poles loom above 385, 387 and 389 First St. in Los Altos, site of Steve Johnson’s proposed mixed-use complex. Johnson is among the developers who have recently requested an exemption to the city’s story-pole policy.

Recent meetings have exposed ongoing divisions among the Los Altos City Council, city staff and the Planning Commission, and conflict – this time surrounding the use of story poles for construction projects – reared its head again last week in a debate between a commissioner and the council liaison.

Planning Commissioner Mehruss Ahi and Councilwoman Anita Enander, who serves as liaison to the commission, have opposing views on the city’s story-pole policy, adopted in 2015 at the recommendation of the Downtown Buildings Committee, which Enander served on. Enander stands behind the policy, which requires that poles covered in mesh mark the height, mass and profile of a proposed building project. Ahi, on the other hand, said as recently as January that with the development of visual technology, he is “surprised the policy still exists.”

At the April 4 Planning Commission meeting, Ahi volunteered to form a subcommittee to revisit the story-pole policy. He said he had researched the original policy and a revised iteration from 2017 and failed to find proof that any city resident had explicitly requested provisions written into the city code.

Enander, who had been sitting silently toward the back of the Hillview Community Center Social Hall – the commission’s temporary home while the civic center undergoes renovation – stood at the podium designated for public comment and countered that the policy was in fact drafted and implemented based on feedback from residents. Largely prompted by the tall, bulky buildings that were popping up along First Street at the time, the Downtown Buildings Committee recommended the story-pole policy as well as lower building heights to “prevent the public from any more surprises,” she said.

After a few minutes of back-and-forth, Community Development Director Jon Biggs reminded the city representatives that a “debate was not scheduled on the agenda.” Commission Chairman Alexander Samek interrupted the awkward silence that followed with the smack of his gavel on the temporary dais of a fold-up table, adjourning the meeting.

Enander later told the Town Crier she believes Ahi is correct in asserting that no “formal, statistically based sample survey of the community about story poles” has been conducted between 2014 and 2019. However, elected leaders have stood by them.

“Three city councils beginning in 2015 ... have all concluded that story poles better inform the community about major new developments than other methods available,” she said.

Evaluating policy’s reach

On their regularly scheduled agenda, Planning Commissioners reviewed the design for Steve Johnson’s proposed mixed-use complex at 389 First St., which encompasses 385, 387 and 389 First St. Johnson and his architect, Jeff Potts, were among the many developers who recently requested an exemption to the story-pole policy due to the height of the poles, the mesh that surrounds them and the poles’ proximity to buildings and the sidewalk surrounding the project.

The city council denied Potts’ colleague Jeff Warmoth’s request for a story-pole exemption in January, which Warmoth sought on the grounds that the story poles presented a serious public safety concern. Councilwoman Jan Pepper rejected the request because of the possible negative precedent approving it could set.

At the council’s March 26 meeting, Potts noted that a week after his crew installed the story poles, one of the steel rods bent in half, with the mesh acting as a wind sail. Responding to developers’ safety complaints, the council approved the option of using pennant flags as an alternative to mesh.

Although the commissioners agreed that Potts’ design for his project, dubbed the “First Street Village,” had improved significantly since he first introduced it, there were still too many questions to address before recommending approval. The commission unanimously directed city staff to work with Potts, Warmoth and Johnson to improve project elements such as the elevator and stair tower and to determine the best type of gate to install to secure the complex’s garage.

The project is scheduled to return to the commission at its May 2 meeting.

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