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San Bruno says no whale mouth on carwash

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Long fish story over gas station decoration ends in defeat

“We’re gonna need a bigger vote.”
Photo courtesy of Bobak Bakhtiari

Bobak Bakhtiari, owner of the Shell gas station at 1199 El Camino Real in San Bruno, spent 20 months trying to spruce up his car wash with an enormous decorative whale’s head, only to have the city council deny his final appeal Tuesday night.

The San Bruno Planning Department previously ruled the model maw—dubbed the “whale mouth” in city records, which carwash users would have driven through when using the facilities—didn’t fit the character of the neighborhood.

Bakhtiari’s hearing on Tuesday was his last chance to appeal the decision.

The planners’ assessment of the project is a somewhat surreal read, presumably setting a record for the most uses of the phrase “whale mouth” in any official document issued by a California city:

Staff finds that the addition of a [...] whale mouth feature would be inconsistent with the San Bruno General Plan and the Navy Site and Environs Specific Plan. [...] Due to its size and location, the whale mouth would be highly visible by vehicles and pedestrians using the main thoroughfares of Sneath Lane and El Camino Real in all directions.

For example, those traveling north and south on El Camino Real would see the whale mouth while waiting for the stoplight at the intersection, as would pedestrians walking along El Camino Real to the shopping centers. Those travel east and west on Sneath Lane would see cars exiting the whale mouth.

“The whale mouth would be highly visible.”

No kidding.

Planners also found that a “the quality of materials proposed for the whale mouth is inconsistent with the high-quality, integrated pedestrian realm created at nearby developments.”

Here’s the lowdown on the would-be whale specs:

The whale mouth facade would add 249 square feet to the site. [...] The carwash exit would be lengthened by 19 feet. Materials used include EPS foam with three coats of paint, including a finish of gray/blue for the whale’s skin. [...] The foam exterior will be reinforced by an interior, three-inch thick metal frame.

Bakhtiari, who bought the Shell station three years ago, decried the decision, calling the parameters “vague” and “subjective” and asserting that the whale fit the general nautical theme of the Navy site.

“This is a whale mouth on private property, tucked way in the back,” Bakhtiari tells Curbed SF. “I felt like, it’s a gas station, who cares? I figured the Planning Commission would see it as private art, but it’s being treated like public art.”

City Manager Connie Jackson tells Curbed SF that the councilmembers felt they had no choice but to abide by the various city plans. “They were interested in trying to find a way that the project might be allowed ... but there was not much in the way we could offer in making modifications,” says Jackson.

“It would perhaps be appropriate in another location, but that wasn’t the issue in front of them,” she adds.

The council voted 4-1 to uphold the Planning Department’s decision, meaning no whale mouth. Councilmember Michael Salazar was the sole dissenting vote.

“I think the city was interpreting the guidelines a little too rigidly,” Salazar tells Curbed SF. “There was some opportunity here to do something different and still keep with the neighborhood character. But my colleagues didn’t see it that way.”

Bakhtiari says he will amend his designs and try again. In the meantime, we inscribe another legend into the annals of city planning and urban design in the Bay Area: the tale of the whale who fought City Hall, but lost.