In an unexpected move that some commented was "inappropriate" and "blindsided" the public, developer John McNellis presented last-minute changes to his plan for redeveloping Alma Plaza that earned him approval from the Palo Alto City Council Monday night.
Despite their chagrin over the developer's eleventh-hour submittal of a revised proposal, council members voted 5-4 to grant McNellis' request for rezoning the almost vacant shopping-center site. Council members John Barton, Peter Drekmeier, Judy Kleinberg, Dena Mossar and Jack Morton voted in favor of the plan.
The final "planned community," or PC, zoning for the in south Palo Alto site would allow construction of 38 homes, 25,863 square feet of retail space, 14 below-market-rate apartments and a dedicated half-acre park.
A minimum 10,000-square-foot grocery store will be a part of the retail space. McNellis' latest offer replaced his proposal for 39 homes and 24,000 square feet of retail.
"The pursuit of perfection has led us to the purgatory that we're in," Barton said of the back-and-forth community debate over what ideally could replace the 55,000 square feet of nearly empty retail space there now.
Only a Mandarin restaurant and a shoe repair/postal service business remain.
The council approved the PC zone to keep the grocery store and below-market-rate apartments in the Alma Plaza plans.
An alternate motion, made by Councilman Bern Beecham, proposed rezoning the 4.2-acre site to "neighborhood commercial," which would have ensured more ground floor retail but not necessarily a grocery store.
Drekmeier said the grocery store was "absolutely key" to have at Alma Plaza.
"The PC (Planned Community) zone is how we can mandate a grocery store," Morton added.
Morton said a small market would be appropriate for the center, to which neighbors could walk or bike.
"People who bike and walk don't buy in bulk," he said. For bulk shopping, "they go to Mountain View."
In a memo dated April 15 and handed to the council Monday night, McNellis offered to give up one of the 39 proposed single-family homes for a third, small retail building.
To approach the Planning and Transportation Commission's March recommendation for increased retail, McNellis said he would remove two below-market-rate apartments and the 1,330-square-foot community room for retail space above the grocery store.
He also asked that the grocery store be a minimum of 8,500 square feet as opposed to the 15,000 that the Planning and Transportation Commission had asked for.
"We're grasping for a compromise," McNellis said.
The council, however, voted to keep all 14 apartments and the community room and asked for a 10,000-square-foot market <0x2014> which is slightly larger than JJ&F Market in College Terrace <0x2014> instead of 8,500 square feet. With either size, 3,500 square feet of the total space will be basement storage.
Several members of the public spoke in favor of having the 14 low-income rental apartments in the project, including Doris Petersen, representing the League of Women Voters.
The mix of houses and rental apartments would "help maintain economic diversity in Palo Alto," Petersen said.
Though the slim majority of the council ultimately seized upon McNellis' offer of the third retail building, several council members said they could not reconcile the plan with the objections from the public.
"I implore Mr. McNellis to rethink his plan," Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell said. "Our residents want retail at Alma Plaza."
The late-Monday memo irked several members of the council and of the 90-person audience.
"It didn't need to get down to the ultimate last moment so that nobody had the chance to consider it," Vice Mayor Larry Klein said. "It's really inappropriate."
"We've been blindsided with this," said Sheri Furman, Midtown Residents Association chair and Friends of Alma Plaza member.
Those who supported moving forward with the rezoning expressed a desire to see redevelopment of Alma Plaza happen sooner rather than later.
Barton said he was tired of driving by the "vacant, boarded up" shopping center twice a day. But Vice Mayor Klein said he'd be willing to wait for another developer to come along with a better proposal.
"The Chamber in general wants to move forward with this," Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce President Sandra Lonnquist said.
Members of the Friends of Alma Plaza, a group of community members wearing big green stickers with the word "Retail" on them and backed by a 900-signature petition calling for "primarily retail" at the shopping center, were disappointed by the result of the council meeting.
"It stinks," Martin Stone said.
Ellie Gioumousis called McNellis' proposal the "same tired thing we have seen in every development and shopping center."
McNellis said he was "very pleased" at the outcome. With the site rezoned, he will now return to the planning commission and the Architectural Review Board for review of the layout and design of the site.
"There's still a long way to go," he said.