Streets initiative will not impact Alma Plaza

City attorney's office says the drive to create street-width requirement will not apply to controversial development; Plaza opponents vow to fight on

A citizen initiative to create street-width requirements in Palo Alto will not apply to the controversial Alma Plaza development -- the very development that prompted the grassroots movement to widen private streets, City Attorney Gary Baum said Monday night.

The initiative, spearheaded by local watchdog Bob Moss shortly after the City Council approved Alma Plaza in January, would force developers to make private streets at least 32 feet wide unless the proposed project gets special permission from the city for narrower streets. The proposed ordinance, which the City Council is scheduled to discuss next Monday night, would also force the city to include private roads in calculations of the development's density during the approval process.

The council could either approve the streets initiative -- which netted more than 2,000 signatures and was certified by Santa Clara County last week -- or send it to the November ballot for voter approval or rejection.

On Monday, the council was charged with approving the final map for Alma Plaza -- a highly contested development that includes a grocery store, 37 houses, 14 units of affordable housing, commercial space, a park and a community room on the 3400 block of Alma Street, near East Meadow Drive. Though Monday's vote was largely a foregone conclusion (the council had already approved the tentative map for the project and was merely charged with making sure the final map is consistent with the tentative one), it stirred up new debate between opponents of the development and council members who argued that delaying the process further would essentially be a waste of time.

Council members Yoriko Kishimoto and Greg Schmid both called for delaying the final approval until after the council discussion of the private-streets initiative. After Baum emphasized that the initiative wouldn't impact Alma Plaza, Kishimoto sided with the majority and voted to approve the map.

Schmid, who voted against Alma Plaza in January, was the lone dissenter. He said the project is not consistent with the city's Comprehensive Plan, and he could not support it.

"I have to vote my conscience," Schmid said.

Councilmen Larry Klein and John Barton stressed that the project had already been approved and that the time to debate its merits has passed. Klein said the only question the council should be considering was the narrow one of whether the final map is consistent with the tentative map. Because staff concluded that it is, the council should approve it, he said.

"To vote no, it seems to me, is inconsistent with the oath we have taken," Klein said. "We have to uphold the law."

Moss, meanwhile, challenged Baum's determination and said he would keep fighting developer John McNellis' plans to include 20- and 22-foot-wide private streets in the Alma Plaza design. Baum said petitioners could have challenged the approved tentative map in a referendum. But the referendum would have had to have been submitted within 30 days of the council's approval in January -- a deadline that has long expired.

"This already passed," Baum said. "The (initiative) will have no effect on this development, whether it's passed by the electorate or the council."

Moss said the petition was a response to a series of large developments the city approved in the past four or five years. These include the Arbor Real development on El Camino Real and Alma Plaza. If the private-streets initiative doesn't widen the streets at Alma Plaza, Moss will lead a drive to amend the planned community (PC) ordinance that made the development possible, he said.

Moss also said he didn't pursue a referendum because he didn't think he could get the needed votes in time to meet the county deadline.

"Alma Plaza will not be developed with 20-foot blind streets and have the streets covered by FAR (floor area ratio)," Moss said. "If we have to go to court, or go to the ballot, by God we'll do it."


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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 21, 2009 at 11:54 am

Hate to say this, but the train has already left the station as far as Alma Plaza goes.

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Posted by Marvin
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 21, 2009 at 11:58 am

""Alma Plaza will not be developed with 20-foot blind streets and have the streets covered by FAR (floor area ratio)," Moss said. "If we have to go to court, or go to the ballot, by God we'll do it."
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

I have always wondered about the continued efforts over the last few years to stymie any progress on Alma Plaza. I have reached the conclusions that a certain group of people favor keeping Alma Plaza the way it is now.

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 21, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 21, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On "time for debate" (from the article): A series of Councils have decided _against_ debating Alma Plaza and simply moved it along despite its many problems.

First, remember the amount of money involved. The developer bought the property for a reported $2M and turned around and resold 80% of the area to housing developer Greenbriar for $20.5M (Web Link) based upon confidence that Council would override the Comprehensive Plan and other stated City policies and priorities. (Note: Greenbriar has sued to get its money back - see preceding link).

Council's first decision was at a review on 1 May 2006. The Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) had done their review on April 26 and City Staff had pulled out all the stops to provide Council with a full transcript of the Commissioners comments (Web Link) as well as the extensive comments from the public. Despite the PTC's excoriating the proposal on an incredibly wide range of issues, the comments from the Council were to praise the developer and suggest that a few minor adjustments might need to be made. I saw no evidence in their comments that the Council members had read the PTC report or the public comments.

Roughly a year later, the proposal came back to the PTC (7 March 2007) and Council (16 April 2007) for decision. Again the PTC severely criticized the proposal and again the Council ignored them and the residents who filled Council chambers. What was especially galling was that one Council member--LaDoris Cordell--criticized the public for not making their comments earlier. At the Council review the previous year there had been so many residents speaking against the proposal that they not only went far past the allocated time, but that Council took a break to do other business before resuming the comments which then went late into the night.

The proposal that Council approved was one they hadn't seen--it was given to them at the beginning of the meeting. Although several of them said that they shouldn't approve it unseen, they ignored their own advice and voted for it.

In doing so, the Council employed a common stratagem: They asked the City Attorney whether they could approve it and change various items at a later hearing. The Attorney tells them that they can, but when that later hearing occurs, the Attorney tells them that their previous decision is binding and that they can't make changes. There are one or two perfunctory protests before making further approvals. Classic Kabuki theater: A cynic could view this as the City Attorney--who is hired/fired directly by the Council--giving Council members political cover for supporting developers against the interests of the City.

Palo Alto gets so many bad projects because developers have learned to play the game. If you follow one of these projects, what you routinely see is the developer taking a long time to resubmit plans that contain only trivial revisions and that fail to address almost all of the objections from the previous review. They start with a proposal that grossly exceeds the zoning and what good urban design calls for and then make a small number of minor corrections (labeled "compromises") leaving the project still far in excess of what is warranted. They then cite these delays--self-induced "hardship"--as an excuse for Council to approve their bad project (It is not uncommon for Council members to say that they don't like the project but that they are voting for the project so that something is done).

While delays for normal projects are costly, often deadly, that is not the case for these projects. By all appearances, these delays are budgeted into the project from the very beginning and are expected to provide a large return-on-investment by getting highly profitable exceptions to the zoning and the Comprehensive Plan.

Kudos to Council member Greg Schmid for being the only one willing to stand on principle and against this practice (he wasn't elected until after the developer had effectively won the battle for Alma Plaza).

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Posted by Marvin
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 21, 2009 at 2:14 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 21, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Correction to my previous long post: Critical typo: The developer bought Alma Plaza for $6M (not the $2M).

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Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 21, 2009 at 2:37 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 21, 2009 at 3:52 pm

Wonderful discussion, most of the posts are deleted.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2009 at 11:35 am

I'm grateful to Bob Moss for organizing this citizen's initiative. I believe it should apply to the Alma Plaza development, and I'm willing to support an effort to see that it does apply. I disagree with Mayor Larry Klein, I believe Council member Greg Schmid is right in voting against this development and I thank him for his vote.

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