Spot the Differences

When I was a kid I used to read Highlights magazine. I don’t believe that my family actually had a subscription, but whenever Mom took me to the doctor or the dentist, it was one of the magazines in the waiting room. Because it was aimed squarely at a young audience, and because even then I was a voracious reader, I found a lot to like between its covers. Goofus and Gallant likely taught me much about good behavior, and the Aloysius stories were always good reads. But in addition to the writing, I enjoyed spending time with the games and puzzles. In particular, I loved the “What’s Wrong?” drawing in which I had to locate and identify the strange objects that had been substituted for the expected ones, and the “Hidden Pictures” puzzle in which I had to find small pictures that had been hidden within a larger one.

As I grew older I graduated to more mature magazines (“Ranger Rick” and “Boy’s Life,” for a while) and puzzles. These days I’m more into crosswords and the Jumble, but I still have a fondness for spot the differences puzzles. In these you are presented with two seemingly identical drawings that actually have a number of subtle differences; your challenge is to find those differences.

I presume that those “spot the differences” puzzles helped hone my observational skills and helped heighten my awareness of my everyday surroundings. As I walk Redwood City I find myself constantly comparing what I am seeing with what I remember from previous walks. Big changes are easy to spot, of course, but when you walk as often as I do the changes tend to be small; I particularly relish finding those small changes. Even when I miss them, though, over time small changes often compound and eventually become big, so I don’t often miss out for long.

When I first saw the preliminary plans for some of the large buildings that are under construction today, I was struck by the renderings which showed how those buildings would look (or, more accurately, should look) once completed. A project’s renderings are created to help those deciding the fate of that project to envision how it will ultimately fit in to the city. While many just show the building itself, some—the ones that are of particular interest to me—show how the building should look within its future surroundings. For instance, the building at 815 Hamilton, which is being constructed on the parking lot directly behind the Fox Theatre, will clearly affect how the theater appears from a few key angles. As well, the project underway at 601 Marshall will result in an eight-story building that, because it sits kitty-corner from Redwood City’s historic courthouse, will have some impact how that classic building appears to people standing in Courthouse Square.

Given the degree to which our downtown historic resources contribute to the inviting character of our downtown, the city has rules designed to protect those resources. As part of the approval process our Historic Resources Advisory Committee reviews proposed projects with a particular eye toward how the project might impact any historic resources. Renderings showing how the built project would look “in situ” are especially helpful during that review. From their renderings 815 Hamilton and 601 Marshall seemingly won’t have a very large impact on their adjacent historic resources, but in studying those renderings I couldn’t help but wonder: just how accurate are they, anyway? And when the actual building is built, will it look anything like the rendering supplied by the architect?

Given those questions, after these projects were approved I made a mental note to visit them once they were fully fleshed out so I could compare the actual project with the renderings. Thus I’ve been carefully watching both 815 Hamilton and 601 Marshall, waiting for them to become reach the point where their exterior form was clearly visible. Although both projects are not much more than steel skeletons, they have reached such a state that one can now see exactly how the final buildings will affect our skyline, and how each building will (or will not) loom over its next-door neighbors. Once they are complete I will likely revisit this exercise, but as of last week both buildings were far enough along for me to obtain answers to my questions.

Let me begin with 601 Marshall. That building, which sits at the corner of Middlefield and Marshall (across from the Bank of America) has “topped out”: it isn’t going to get any higher than what you see today. Although not quite a “spot the differences” puzzle, what follows is inspired from that: a two-part image of the historic courthouse, with the rendering on top and a recent photograph of the actual building taken from (as best I can determine) the position from which the rendering was made. 601 Marshall sits behind and just to the right of the courthouse in both of these images:

601 Marshall has yet to receive its exterior skin. When it is finished, though, it should do a much better job of blending in with both the courthouse and the right-hand pavilion: 601 Marshall will be clad with stone panels that will mimic the stuff used for the Courthouse Square pavilions, and will employ detailing that has been inspired by the courthouse itself. As you can already see, though, the rendering appears to have been pretty accurate. From a vantage point directly in front of the Fox Theatre this new office building isn’t going to take much away from our view of the historic courthouse.

Moving to the top of the courthouse steps, we come to our next rendering-and-photo pair, which shows what the Fox Theatre will look like with 815 Hamilton rising up behind (the rendering is based on a photo taken when the Crossing 900 (“Box”) buildings were still under construction, thus the two tower cranes):

In the above photograph, 815 Hamilton does not yet have its sloped roof as shown in the rendering, so it will be a bit taller, but otherwise the building is about as high as it is going to go. Thankfully it seems that reality is going to be a bit better than the architect’s imaginings: the building doesn’t loom over the Fox Theatre quite as much as the rendering shows. And note that my photo was taken from the top of the courthouse steps: from down in the square 815 Hamilton will show even less.

The front of the Fox Theater is its best side, making the above comparison the most important. However, the architect included renderings from a few other angles so I took photographs to match. I won’t include all of them here, but the rendering of the building’s front from Middlefield Road, just down from Theatre Way, is worthy of comparison:

I was particularly interested in the above comparisons due to the fact that the two buildings under construction are visually impacting (if only a little) some nearby historic resources. But in-situ renderings are also useful even when historic resources are not involved. In particular, when a building generates some controversy, as 1409 El Camino Real has done because of its size, its renderings are similarly useful. Since the architect provided them, I thought that it would be interesting to do a similar comparison, this time comparing the rendering with what is there today (since this building has yet to break ground).

Here is a rendering of the recently approved 1409 El Camino Real housing project along with a photo from a similar viewpoint showing what the site looks like right now:

While I was at it, and because they really need to be viewed together, I zoomed out so that I could compare 1409 El Camino and its northern neighbor, 1305 El Camino, with what you see today. As you can see in the photograph, 1305 El Camino is well underway whereas 1409 El Camino has yet to break ground:

It’s hard to tell from the angle, but 1305 El Camino (the building on the left), at about 200 feet wide, is narrower than 1409 El Camino will be: according to the plans that building will extend for 275 feet along El Camino. Compare their heights, though, and things get more interesting. 1305 El Camino will be a seven story building that will reach roughly 90 feet into the air, whereas 1409 El Camino will be an eight story building…that will reach roughly 90 feet into the air. Yes, they’ll both appear to be about the same height, but if you stand on the street and count the stories, you’ll note the discrepancy. It seems that the ceiling heights in 1409 El Camino will be somewhat lower than those in the neighboring apartment project. But I suspect that few will spot that particular difference…

Other dissimilarities include the number of apartments: 1305 El Camino is slated to have 137 market-rate units, whereas 1409 El Camino will have a whopping 350 units, 35 of which will be reserved for qualifying low-income tenants. And the parking configurations are different. 1305 has one underground parking level, with the bulk of the ground floor also being used for parking (the ground floor level will also contain the building’s lobby, fitness center, and leasing office, all of which front onto El Camino Real). 1409 El Camino, on the other hand, plans to have all parking on three underground levels. Its ground floor level will consist of a number of apartments, the leasing office, lobby, and an “activity room,” along with some retail space fronting onto El Camino Real.

Thanks to the architect’s renderings included with many of the project plans on the Redwood City Development Projects website, we all can watch for differences between what was proposed and what is actually built. This allows all of us to ensure that what we get is reasonably close to what was promised during project approval. Some projects are smaller or are located in less critical areas and thus aren’t as important to monitor, but for those that are in key downtown locations or are on highly visible Redwood City corridors such as El Camino or Woodside Road, I for one plan to keep the renderings close at hand, so that I can play “spot the differences.”


As a reminder, Redwood City Restaurant Week starts on Thursday, April 20, and runs through Wednesday, April 26. This year some thirteen Redwood City restaurants ranging from Go Fish Poke Bar to The Striped Pig to LV Mar will be “cooking up a special multi-course, prix-fixe dinner menu just for this event.” For more information, see the Redwood City Restaurant Week website.

3 thoughts on “Spot the Differences

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