Adding density to any suburban downtown is often met with skepticism and unease. It is the architect’s responsibility to incorporate the community’s vision into the design while meeting the project’s economic needs.
With 400 Main in downtown Los Altos, local residents and neighbors voiced concerns about the project’s fit with the town’s small-scale character. Through public workshops, hearings, and comments, DES invited opinions from a diverse group of stakeholders. The communities’ aspirations centered around establishing a downtown gateway, integrating with the village character, and benefiting from a public space.
The community desired a strong gateway building that acts as a public landmark, signifying the entrance to the downtown and encouraging the public to visit.
To provide this desired sense of arrival, the design team located a prominent tower element — that rises one-story above the building’s roofline — on the corner of First and Main Street, creating a visual entryway to downtown Los Altos. Attracting visitors towards the building, the beveled corner is set back from the street to create a small entrance plaza. This invites the public towards the project’s new restaurant, pharmacy and public spaces.
Downtown Los Altos has a charming village character that the local residents cherish. This character is largely created by older, smaller buildings, so embedding a newer, Class A structure within this suburban fabric presented challenges. Amplifying this, high ceilings needed to be incorporated to make the retail viable.
To emulate the feeling of smaller-scale city blocks, the mass of the building is broken down into smaller, articulated facades. Repeating colors and materials reinforce the impression of classic, differentiated storefronts. At 30 feet tall, the building stands taller than neighboring structures on Main Street yet feels well integrated with its separated forms.
Another strategy to tie-in with the predominantly one-story downtown area was to emphasize the pedestrian experience. To make the retail spaces visually prominent, column-to-column frameless windows focus attention on the ground-floor stores and provide interest to passerbys. Complementing this, accent materials on the first floor’s facade, like the natural stone cladding on the tower elements, reiterates the emphasis on the human scale.
With a prime downtown site, the community and city planners expressed their desire to incorporate a significant plaza as part of the project. Appreciating the importance of public space, DES worked diligently with the client to incorporate a central plaza along First Street. Initially, many stakeholders expressed an interest in locating the plaza at the corner of First and Main. However, through many collaborative discussions, the community gained confidence in the team’s central-plaza approach.
At the center of the building, the facade is setback 30 feet from the street to create the large, sweeping plaza. This concave area creates an environment that is both welcoming, yet sheltered from the street. To further provide a buffer between the street and the public space, a ten-foot-long fountain defines the edge of the plaza. Directly connected to the plaza, a covered breezeway creates additional visibility for the retail spaces by providing an additional two sides of storefront space.
Currently, the building shell is finishing construction but initial feedback from the community is overwhelmingly positive, and on top of that, nearly the entire building has been pre-leased.
The designers utilized the communities input to build a common foundation from which to work. From there, the collaborative process between the diverse stakeholders enriched the design — helping to create a community place that signifies the entrance to downtown, complements the existing downtown fabric, and provides a quality public space. Ultimately, the project’s architecture created an economically-viable development that feels uniquely appropriate for the City of Los Altos.
Dawn Jedkins, Designer
About the Author:
Dawn is a creative architectural designers with more than 10 years experience at DES on the design team. She has a broad spectrum of in-depth project experience, including life sciences, commercial, retail, mixed-use developer, corporate office, healthcare, educational, residential, and campus master planning. She specializes in navigating the entitlement process for large-scale projects.