For decades, Alma Plaza in Palo Alto has served as a graveyard for grocers' dreams.
The reputation has stuck even after the plaza at 3445 Alma Street was redeveloped and rebranded as "Alma Village." Years after Lucky's and Albertson's shut their doors and left town, the plaza welcomed its latest tenant, Miki's Farm Fresh Market, which stayed open for less than six months before it closed its doors in April and its owner filed for bankruptcy.
Now, the City Council is trying its best to keep the latest entrant into the plaza from suffering a similarly ignominious fate, even if it means ruffling some feathers in the neighborhood. That's what happened Monday night, when the council voted 6-3 to approve a large, illuminated "Grocery Outlet" sign despite an appeal from neighborhood leaders.
At 104 square feet, the sign for the discount grocer would be more than 30 times what is normally allowed for signs in the area. In this case, however, the council agreed that typical rules don't apply. With so many grocers failing on the site for reasons ranging from poor visibility to insufficient parking, council members agreed to bow down to the grocer's request for a "cabinet" sign that some in the neighborhood called excessive and unsightly.
The city's Architectural Review Board and planning staff had already approved the sign, but the council was asked to take it up after an appeal from a group of residents led by Midtown's Sheri Furman and Annette Glanckopf. Both argued that while they support the new grocer, they oppose the installation of what would be the largest sign on the Alma corridor. They urged the council to reduce the size, despite an assertion from a Grocery Outlet executive that the store would pull out if it doesn't have its way.
"The sign exceeds all the sign-ordinance limits," Furman told the council Monday. "We are protesting that excess."
The council ultimately voted 6-3, with Karen Holman, Greg Schmid and Gail Price dissenting, to uphold the architectural board's approval. Though no one was thrilled about the proposed sign, few dared to call Grocery Outlet's bluff and risk being once again without a supermarket at Alma Village.
The city had previously approved an even larger "banner sign" for the development, though Miki's went out of business before that sign could be installed. Though the newly approved 26-foot-tall sign would be slightly smaller than its approved predecessor, it would be brighter. Its letters would be illuminated and it would reach 10 feet over the store's roofline.
Tom DuBois, one of the appellants, argued that allowing such a sign would put Palo Alto on a slippery slope.
"Small signs work when everyone has them," DuBois said. "Once we have large signs, it will kick off an arms race. If I owned a store and saw a large sign, I'd definitely want one too."
Holman agreed with the residents that the sign is excessive and argued that the business could survive with good marketing, even without the giant sign. Others were more cautious, largely because of the city's recent experiences with the site. Councilman Pat Burt, who was on the planning commission when Alma Plaza was going through its long quest for approval about 15 years ago, said the question for him is, "How do we make something that is moderately successful at this site?"
"I don't want to see another failure at this site," Burt said. "I don't think this whole Planned Community development at this site is the best design, but it's built. We've got to get past that."
Burt challenged Marc Drasen, Grocery Outlet's vice president for real estate, to consider a compromise with the neighbors, but this suggestion went nowhere. Drasen told the council that after thoroughly studying the issue, "we feel this is the minimum sign schematic that would be beneficial for success for our store."
Most on the council agreed with Burt and approved the large sign despite major reservations. Councilman Marc Berman noted that the site was "cursed" (though he quickly downgraded his assessment to "challenging") in explaining his willingness to go along with the staff recommendation. Councilman Larry Klein noted that cars typically drive fast up and down Alma Street, which has few traffic lights, and the larger sign is thus justified. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who made the motion to approve the sign, said she doesn't want to risk losing a supermarket but noted that she is supporting the sign "reluctantly."
"I don't know why Grocery Outlet feels so strongly about the sign, but it's quite clear to me that they do and it's also quite clear that Mr. McNellis (the plaza's developer) has scoured the countryside for a grocery store that's willing to go here."
For developer John McNellis, the Monday night showdown was the latest skirmish over a development that has stirred intense neighborhood controversy for well over a decade. Often criticized for its massing and inadequate setbacks, the development has become a local poster child for "planned community" projects gone haywire, density run amok and insufficient public benefits. McNellis told the council on Monday that the debate over the sign is "a situation that, for better or worse, we the city have put ourselves into."
"There is a requirement that I put a market in this location," McNellis said. "In this case, the market will not proceed without signage."
He also noted that he had reached out to grocers "from A to Z" and found no other takers for the site.
"This is our only market," McNellis said.