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By Elena Kadvany

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About this blog: I am a perpetually hungry twenty-something journalist, born and raised in Menlo Park and currently working at the Palo Alto Weekly as education and youth staff writer. I graduated from USC with a major in Spanish and a minor in jo...  (More)

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French Laundry alums' restaurant moves closer to approval

Uploaded: Jun 1, 2017
UPDATE: The Palo Alto City Council approved Protégé's plans on Monday, June 12, in a 6-3 vote after two councilmembers, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou, asked to pull the item from the council's consent calendar. Holman, Kou and Tom DuBois cast the dissenting votes. Read more about the discussion here.

Protégé Restaurant, the project from a former sommelier and sous chef from the renowned French Laundry in Yountville, has missed its original hoped-for opening in late 2016 (and then early this year), but this week it secured unanimous approvals from the City of Palo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission and Architectural Review Board.

This was a significant step forward for the restaurateurs and building owner, who at Thursday's Architectural Review Board meeting described their frustration with the 18-month-long process that’s been dogged by delays and confusion. It’s been so frustrating, owner Mark Conroe said, that he is "very, very close to losing this tenant."

They plan to open the restaurant on the ground floor of 260 California Ave., a 26,000-square-feet, three-story building with office space on the second and third floors.


The future home of Protégé Restaurant in Palo Alto. Photo by Veronica Weber.

The approvals were a step backward, however, for Jeff Levinsky, a Palo Alto resident and land-use watchdog who requested this week's hearings. Levinsky said at Thursday's meeting that he was concerned about inconsistencies in square footage in different versions of the project plans, raising questions about whether the building exceeds the density limit for its zone and if it is meeting its parking requirements in a neighborhood already heavily impacted by parking and development. (For more detail about these issues, read this Palo Alto Weekly story: High-end restaurant sparks debate over outdoor seating.)

"The goal is not to delay the project," Levinsky said. "The goal is to make sure the laws are followed."

Conroe disagreed, responding that "we are code compliant in all respects."

Conroe said he convinced the two French Laundry alums, master sommelier Dennis Kelly and chef Anthony Secviar, to open a restaurant in Palo Alto after four years of searching for the right tenant for 260 California Ave. He and Secviar characterized the approval process as now slowed by Levinsky's concerns, which Conroe called a "private audit."

Secviar described himself and his partner, Kelly, as "local residents with a vision and a desire to open a small business in Palo Alto."

"It is our dream to have a world-class restaurant here in the heart of Silicon Valley, to train employees in the culinary arts, to employ people and to serve our community," he told ARB members. "After nearly 10 months of delays relating to permits, to say we are frustrated is but the tip of the iceberg."

He said they feel "hostage to a debate in how the city enforces laws we are following" and urged the ARB to approve the project.

Despite concerns about some details of the project, the board ultimately shared the applicants' urgency in moving it forward. Board member Peter Baltay said it was "inappropriate" for the board to revisit a floor area ratio already established when ARB approved the California Avenue building in 2012. Outdoor seating, he argued, also should not be counted toward the building's floor area ratio.

"It seems to me that's not the intent of the code," he said. "That's not what we want to be encouraging in our town. We're going to lose these wonderful spaces."

The more "legitimate issue," he and other board members agreed, was that the applicant changed the ground-floor space's original designation from retail to restaurant. This comes with an increased parking requirement, which Conroe and the restaurateurs plan to meet by building a mechanical parking lift in an existing basement garage. Staff said the lift is intended for employees who work in office space in the upper floors of the building, rather than for restaurant patrons.

California Avenue's "parking crisis" was the overall context for Levinsky's concerns, he said.

"We don't want more buildings that create parking problems by exceeding their parking allowance," he said.

The board ultimately voted 4-0, with member Kyu Kim absent, to move the project forward. This followed the Planning and Transportation Commission's 5-0 approval, with Commissioner Przemek Gardias abstaining, of a conditional use permit to allow the restaurant to sell beer, wine and liquor.

The planning commission reached its own verdict on Wednesday after a long debate about the various zoning and parking issues associated with the project. Despite some concerns about the city's zoning policies, they agreed that the project warrants approval. Commissioner Eric Rosenblum said that the new restaurant appears to comply both with the law and with the city's vision for a more vibrant California Avenue.

"We always want to consider the public interest in any project. ... Having an empty space is exactly anti-public interest," Rosenblum said.

The next and potentially final step for Protégé is the City Council. The project will be on the council's June 12 consent calendar.

The Protégé website has since been updated with the message: "Pushing (as hard as we can) for a 2017 opening."

Protégé will bring high-level culinary pedigree to Palo Alto. Secviar worked as sous chef at the three-Michelin-starred French Laundry from 2005 to 2011. Kelly was the restaurant's head sommelier for 10 years and was one of only four people to be granted a master sommelier diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2012.

Comments

 +   44 people like this
Posted by member_name, a resident of Professorville,
on Jun 1, 2017 at 5:54 pm

> "The goal is not to delay the project," Levinsky said. "The goal is to make sure the laws are followed." ... California Avenue's "parking crisis" was the overall context for Levinsky's concerns, he said.

Wow. What a textbook case of our expensive, veto-ridden planning process harming our quality of life, and of the excuses used to justify it.

Forcing a great new restaurant through an 18-month process, especially one supposedly related to parking minimums in one of the most transit-accessible locations in this town, is a perfect recipe for... not getting many great new restaurants here. Or much of anything else.

Of course that's probably the goal of a "land-use watchdog". That doesn't mean we need to give them veto power over anyone, anywhere, trying to do something new.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by PAMom, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jun 1, 2017 at 8:40 pm

Palo Alto will have to figure out what kind of quality of life it wants for itself. For now there are so many issues that bring out a resounding 'no' from the residents. What is the vision for the future? Perhaps governing through temper tantrum could be replaced with governing through leadership for a change. In the meantime we'll wait while downtown and CalAve are denuded of residents strolling and mingling. Our residential streets will get clogged with parking from granny flats because we can't possibly address the need for increased housing any other way.


 +   12 people like this
Posted by StClaireGardenGuy, a resident of St. Claire Gardens,
on Jun 1, 2017 at 9:26 pm

Why do we need another fussy restaurant? We are.losing the businesses that serve the citizens of Palo Alto and ending up with skyhigh priced pretentious restaurants!
Thank goodness for Zareens! What about shops for local humans now?


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Serve and Protect, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 2, 2017 at 8:25 am

No one can blame this on "restrictive" codes - all you have to do is look around to see how anything goes with the planners if it suits them, and mostly it seems to. Is there a resident behind the building? Do a search and see if they wrote a letter against the Maybell rezoning or angry about cutting the Cal Ave trees. Then plan in something to obviously destroy their privacy or quality of life, and voila - they'll be approved.

Cal Ave is being decimated by office impacts, and this is what they pick on? I don't seem to recall the gym for day workers that displaced the longtime Village Stationers having a hard time...


 +   19 people like this
Posted by Eater, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jun 2, 2017 at 11:40 am

I wonder if StClaireGardenGuy (commenting above) even read the whole story. Secviar is quoted answering his rhetorical question "why." And this project wouldn't displace any other business, but fill a currently vacant retail space that has struggled to find tenants.

A tiny but regular contingent of PA-Online commenters (possibly the same people who post strong opinions about existing restaurants that they've never bothered to try) can be relied on to belittle, out of hand, any new restaurant prospect that doesn't strike their whim (even though the new restaurant will give everyone more, not fewer, choices). Complete with dismissive characterizations of a business that neither they nor anyone else has ever visited ("pretentious?" pretending to what, exactly??)

Despite such behavior, many other people do see the value of adding choices, in "training employees in culinary arts" that could well lead to later interesting restaurants of all kinds (that has happened elsewhere, examples appeared in this blog), and in revitalizing closed retail space. Good luck to the new enterprise!


 +   6 people like this
Posted by anon, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Jun 2, 2017 at 1:16 pm

Thank you Ms. Kadvany for your BLOG about new restaurants in the area. In general I enjoy your point of view!

As stated, I appreciate your comments and insight about local restaurants but wonder if you have gone a little way out of your expertise in your commentary about this weeks hearings regarding the new building at 260 California avenue in Palo Alto.

There are several contradictions in your post !?!

To be precise, a member of he public asked for public review of what would normally be an administrative approval of an application to serve alcohol and have outdoor seating for a restaurant.
This hearing request was based on a concern that, the restaurant might be exceeding the allowed maximum square feet for the site, and that as such it would be deficient in the (corresponding) number of parking places required.

Your article stated following:

"this week it [ "it" is the restaurant in the building at 260 California avenue] secured unanimous approvals from the City of Palo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission "


Which you contradict later in your blog with this:

" the Planning and Transportation Commission's 5-0 approval, with Commissioner Przemek Gardias abstaining, of a conditional use permit to allow the restaurant to sell beer, wine and liquor."

So in fact it was NOT a unanimous decision by the planning commission.

You go on to quote Architectural Review Board member Peter Baltay:

"Despite concerns about some details of the project, the board ultimately shared the applicants' urgency in moving it forward. Board member Peter Baltay said it was "inappropriate" for the board to revisit a floor area ratio already established when ARB approved the California Avenue building in 2012. Outdoor seating, he argued, also should not be counted toward the building's floor area ratio."

In fact the main concern that caused the hearings this week was that:

That the building had not been built to the "floor area ratio" established by and approved by the Architectural review board and other city officials.

Additionally; the current LAW in the municipal code requires that outdoor seating that is permanently covered is required to be counted in the square footage of a restaurant.

So unless one feels the the law should be applied inconsistently to folks; one would have to say that the member of the public who requested the hearing was only asking for the same requirement of law to be applied consistently to all across the board.

In fact the "member of the public" was not the cause of the 10-18 month delay in approval as his request for a hearing was made as recently in mid April!

In fact the member of the public that asked for the hearing is quoted in article as saying:

" that he was concerned about inconsistencies in square footage in different versions of the project plans, raising questions about whether the building exceeds the density limit for its zone and if it is meeting its parking requirements in a neighborhood already heavily impacted by parking and development."

In fact after the hearing was requested staff agreed that the plans they had approved were not legal as they were under parked.

The California business district is uniformly understood to be deficient in parking spots for all the employees owners and clients of businesses
This was a responsible action brought by a concerned "member of the public" that resulted in a better outcome for all!


 +   18 people like this
Posted by TFL Alum, a resident of another community,
on Jun 2, 2017 at 1:23 pm

While this restaurant may not be intended for the typical Palo Altan, I can assure you that these two gentlemen will put together a world class restaurant every Palo Altan could take pride in. They are consummate professionals and you are lucky to have them.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by TFL Alum, a resident of another community,
on Jun 2, 2017 at 1:23 pm

While this restaurant may not be intended for the typical Palo Altan, I can assure you that these two gentlemen will put together a world class restaurant every Palo Altan could take pride in. They are consummate professionals and you are lucky to have them.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by anon, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Jun 2, 2017 at 2:03 pm

TFL alum.....
don't disagree!you may be correct...but the future merits of restaurants are not being questioned in my comments!


 +   17 people like this
Posted by Mo, a resident of Woodside: other,
on Jun 2, 2017 at 9:52 pm

Palo Alto public servants need to get off their soap boxes and find ways to help the community. As a former owner of a Palo Alto restaurant, I share the pain of these new owners. Why bother dealing with a city that is so business unfriendly and with a board that acts slower than a tortoise. They should be ashamed of their "service." Who are they serving but their own egos?


 +   31 people like this
Posted by A Palo Altan for Sensible Zoning, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Jun 3, 2017 at 12:53 am

The city spent $7,000,000 to revitalize Cal Ave three years ago and this ground floor storefront has been a vacant eye sore ever since. Why are we sending the message that Palo Alto is closed for business?

Narrow-minded policy mongers should not be empowered to discourage small business from serving this community.


 +   22 people like this
Posted by concerns about a building that is already there?, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jun 4, 2017 at 12:53 pm

Since this building already exists, I don't understand why Levinsky can question"inconsistencies in square footage in different versions of the project plans, raising questions about whether the building exceeds the density limit for its zone". Its already approved and built... Just a delay tactic which the City shouldn't allow.


 +   11 people like this
Posted by NIMBYism alive and well, a resident of Community Center,
on Jun 5, 2017 at 2:20 pm

Depressing to read it takes so long to get anything done in this city. A great example of what's going on nationwide with over regulation, absurd occupational licensing requirements (some states require a license to braid hair!) and other business choking government bureaucracy. Only Trump can save us!!


 +   6 people like this
Posted by neighbor, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Jun 5, 2017 at 11:11 pm

oh goody! Another expensive restaurant for the money changers, VCs, and the expense account leeches.
I don't doubt that they will patronize it, after all, what's the use of having excess money if you cant flaunt it?

"Commissioner Eric Rosenblum said that the new restaurant appears to comply with the law."
That may be Palantir"s definition, to "appear" to comply with the law.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Baba O'Reilly, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jun 6, 2017 at 2:28 pm

Unfortunately this discussion is being redirected to issues unrelated to the objection - parking.

The decision was made to narrow CA Ave and allow dining on the street. This forces cars into neighborhoods, adjacent streets and private parking. This is the issue. Why not debate this issue?

There were laws in force when the owner sought the proposed tenant, the very nature of their business carrying specific parking requirements. Understanding these laws is his business. Now he blames others for his failure? This is an obfuscation of facts.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Need Change in the process, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jun 6, 2017 at 2:57 pm

You would think the city would learn from past experiences. Remember the gourmet hot dog place on California. That had to jump through the palo alto hoops to get approved. The process delayed their opening. They finally opened and then closed soon after. Is it any wonder that people do not wantbto open a business in palo alto? Councilmembers love to talk about local businesses-- and that is what it is all talk- the owner has to deal with the endless process in which a single disgruntled resident can delay a project for months


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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