I recently had coffee with David Solnick, Chair of the Palo Alto Architectural Review Board (ARB), at Caffe Del Dogge on University Avenue in Palo Alto. I wanted to know how Palo Alto might get a new urbanist development like The Waters or a retrofit co-housing community like N Street. These both represent very innovative approaches to housing that result in very vibrant communities and great neighborhood lives for kids.“For big projects, a lot of the really important decisions are made before our review,” Solnick said. Still, they do push for features that promote community wherever they can.
For example, on the Arbor Real project, one of the three adjacent developments in South Palo Alto at the old Rickey’s Hyatt and Elks Club sites, decisions had already been made regarding mixed use. “So, while I might have wanted to include some retail,” Solnick commented, “the City Council had already approved the zoning without any retail.” However, the ARB did successfully advocate for a community house with a pool.
The key to approving innovative new uses of land lies with the City Council in its rezoning approval process. The developer buying the property often gets what it wants in this process unless there is a strong visionary leadership from someone in the City Council. Currently, of the nine Palo Alto City Council members, only one, architect John Barton, has professional training in these issues. The five-member ARB, on the other hand, is composed entirely of architects.
Personally, Solnick is very sympathetic to the Playborhood ideal of kids playing in the neighborhood. “I play catch with my son right on the street right in front of my house [in the Downtown North neighborhood], and people go by looking at us amazed, like they’re cheering us on!”