Setting a precedent for future projects, the Mountain View City Council approved a new hotel and office development in East Whisman, with a request that staff do more to protect the city’s heritage trees long before it comes to a vote.
The council unanimously approved the six-story hotel and two-story office building, located at 500 and 550 Ellis St., at a meeting Tuesday, Nov. 14.
The project touts novel design features, like a 7,350 square foot paseo that will have public amenities, as well as a four-story, fully-automated garage that is mostly concealed from the street. Though commended for its innovative design and community benefits, the project has not been without controversy.
When the plan was presented to the Environmental Planning Commission last month, commissioners pushed back on the proposal, expressing discontent about the removal of 15 heritage trees from the site. They also found the $750 in-lieu fee, for each unreplaced tree, inadequate.
The commissioners ultimately backed the project in a 4-1 vote. But they also asked that the developer, Loren Brown for Portola Land Company, redesign parts of the project to preserve more of the redwood groves.
Responding to the commission’s feedback, as well as to community concerns, the developer presented a modified plan to the City Council that found room to protect seven additional redwood trees. This means that eight heritage trees in total, including five redwoods, will be removed from the site, instead of the originally proposed 15.
“We're doing all that we can to preserve the maximum number of heritage trees, and specifically redwood trees,” said Thom Jess, owner of Arris Studio Architects, who presented the plan at the council meeting.
The office building, located at the south end of the project site, was originally designed to meet the street wall standards of the East Whisman Precise Plan. It now has been set back an additional 11 feet from the proposed sidewalk to preserve three additional redwood trees, said Senior Planner Ellen Yau.
The paseo also underwent significant changes to protect four more redwood trees. This includes larger planter boxes and the replacement of concrete hardscape with spaced decking to reduce impacts to tree roots and provide better water filtration. It also will improve the overall condition of the trees, which currently are confined in asphalt, Jess said.
Other parts of the project will protect existing redwoods, along Ellis Street and National Avenue, by having six- to eight-foot-wide sidewalks meander around the trees. But in some cases, sidewalk widths might be reduced for tree preservation, although Jess did not anticipate substantial cutbacks.
With the removal of 17 trees from the site, which includes eight heritage and nine non-heritage trees, the project requires 25 replacement trees. However, it only will provide 20 replacement trees because of space constraints and circulation needs. An in-lieu fee will be paid for the five unreplaced trees, according to the council report, which did not specify the amount.
Speakers at the meeting pressed the council to prioritize the environment and protect the city’s trees.
“Sending a strong message to developers that you and the community have an interest in saving as many of these trees as they can, is important,” said Mountain View resident Bruce England, who also acknowledged that the council could not do much to set more tighter requirements because the project is already compliant.
But with the public’s message, the council members acknowledged a need to be more proactive with developers early in the review process to let them know that protecting trees is a city priority.
“I'm a little troubled that this question around trees comes up all the time, and always at the last meeting when there's not much that can be done. What are applicants told?" said Mayor Alison Hicks, who directed her question to city staff.
Amber Blizinski, assistant community development director, assured the council that they were doing more to walk sites with developers at the beginning of projects to look at trees and to determine the best way to preserve them.
“I think in the future, you will see less tree removals, based on that work we are pushing right now with all of our development projects,” she said.
Hicks encouraged staff to frontload the city’s expectations about tree preservation.
“I've been on council for five years, and this seems to come up with every project,” she said. “So, it's really something that we have to move on. And I thank the community for coming out and making these comments because it's brave to do. You're kind of bucking the system,” she added.
The developer expects construction to begin late next year, with an estimated completion date in 2026, according to Jess.