Completed in 1989, this mixed-use project evokes the past with its historically-responsive architecture while still being current with timeless placemaking features and quality public spaces. This project revitalized the heart of downtown Palo Alto by bridging the architecture of the nationally-listed Ramona Street Historic District to the main street of the city. With significant improvements to pedestrian access and downtown architectural character, this project stands the test of time.
Enhancing Connectivity & Providing Public Spaces
In the late 1980’s, the Stanford Shopping Center was bustling with activity partially at the expense of nearby downtown Palo Alto. This project, at the heart of downtown, helped change that by enhancing the connectivity of the immediate area, contributing to a more walkable downtown. The plazas located at the intersection of the paseos and along Ramona Street provide peaceful places for congregation away from the busy streets, while simultaneously attracting visitors to explore. Created from an underutilized service alley, the paseos added a new pedestrian axis while providing visual connection from University Avenue to Palo Alto’s City Hall on Hamilton Avenue.
Gateway to Historic District
The design of this 41,500-sf building draws upon the surrounding 1920’s Spanish Colonial Revival architecture to connect the adjacent historical district with the prominent University Avenue corner. The building establishes a strong urban presence by designing a landmark corner tower at this important downtown intersection. To transition the four-story corner to the surrounding buildings, the massing steps down to two-stories near the project’s boundaries on University and Ramona. On Ramona, this transition establishes a massing connection to the adjacent two-story portion of the historic building. This architectural gesture links the project to the historic building visually — creating a seamless connection between old and new.
Being sensitive to the human scale, the building setbacks and large open spaces on the ground level draw pedestrians into the project. The intersecting paseos link to the rectilinear street grid pattern of the larger community, enhancing the connectivity of the neighborhood. In effect, the project acts as a gateway to the adjacent historic district.
A Tipping Point
Over the last 20-plus-years, the plazas, promenades, and unifying Spanish Colonial character helped drive the lateral expansion of retail beyond University Avenue, contributing to the growth of the now-bustling commercial district. Influenced by the project’s circular plaza, adjacent buildings were improved or redeveloped to engage with the enhanced public space over the years. Specifically, an adjacent restaurant added a large outdoor patio while a neighboring new development was designed with a setback porch to interact with the paseo.
The project was a tipping point in creating walkable, community-centric developments in the San Francisco Bay Area. Defying the twenty-plus years since it was completed, the project is commonly referenced in communities across California, from Berkeley to San Diego, as a classic example of a building that maintains and enhances the positive design characteristics of the community.
“It’s exciting to see a development work in concert with city goals. It’s a friendly, warm, very humane building. It has visual interest that transcends its architecture.”
– Shirley Wilson, City of Palo Alto’s Urban Design Committee and Architectural Review Board, San Jose Mercury 1990
“[This landmark downtown project] contributed to the improvement of a sense of place.”
– City of Palo Alto, Downtown Urban Design Guidelines, 1993
“Jim Baer made a showpiece of the [landmark downtown project] at University and Ramona, a Spanish-style structure in harmony with the Ramona Street historic district. It was the first project allowed to break the 50-foot downtown height limit, a tradeoff for the upgrading of a public alleyway at the rear of the building.
Officials pleased by [this landmark downtown project] cited its quality and elegant touches as prominent steps toward transforming the downtown.”
-Published in Palo Alto, A Centennial History, 1993
“Courtyards and pedestrian alleys/pass-throughs interior to city blocks provide an important dedicated space for pedestrian refuge and activity. Several well-executed examples are located in Downtown including the [this landmark downtown project.] ”
– Alta Planning + Design, 2011 in the City of Palo Alto’s Bycicle + Pedestrain Transportation Plan