Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

The '80s: The Palo Alto that could say no

Political stability and land use battles were contrasts for the decade

by Don Kazak

If political and cultural turmoil characterized the 1960s and '70s on the Midpeninsula, the focus of the 1980s turned inward as residents waged often bitter battles to halt development and protect their increasingly valuable real estate. The mostly sedate years in Palo Alto saw amazing consensus on a City Council that had been rent with dissension a decade earlier, while in Menlo Park, the calm was interrupted by continuing debate over traffic and a major battle over St. Patrick's Seminary land development.

"It was a decade when Palo Alto had the best of both worlds," said Council member Mike Cobb. "The city could afford to say no to growth and also maintain funding for services. It was a comfortable time. We could hold on to the best of the past and still pay for what we needed."

"The 1960s were development and the 1970s were traffic," remembered former longtime Menlo Park City Manager Mike Bedwell. "And traffic was the hardy perennial of the 1980s, too. There was so much disagreement over proposed solutions."

Reactions from residents in Menlo Park to anything significant being proposed had, to some degree, an echo in Palo Alto, part of what came to be called the "not in my back yard" state of mind.

Almost every development offered in the 1980s received organized and very emotional opposition: Menlo Center, the DeMonet office towers in East Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Central condominium project, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation expansion and the St. Patrick's Seminary retirement housing proposal. The last three went to public votes.

An extension of Sand Hill Road was proposed, debated, approved, sued and withdrawn. Westin wanted to build a big hotel on Sand Hill Road, but withdrew the plan in the face of questions about traffic impact. Stanford wanted to build 1,200 housing units on Sand Hill Road, a proposal that was approved, withdrawn and now is proposed again. The Sand Hill Road extension suffered the same fate.

"Indeed, there was resistance to those projects," remembers Andy Doty, Stanford University's longtime director of community relations. "There was a reluctance to change, but Palo Alto hasn't been eager to change for a long time."

Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton had to deal with a mid-1980s trend that set neighbor against neighbor in the battle to restrict "big houses"--oversize two-story new homes of maximum square footage, designed to capitalize on the skyrocketing property values of the period, but which dwarfed their sedate, charming, one-story neighbors.

Ken Schreiber, Palo Alto's planning director, remembers precisely when big houses became an issue. The former Crescent Park School site in the city was developed in the mid-1980s with homes that towered over their neighbors. "It led to a realization that the housing market had changed," Schreiber said, "that people will pay far more than the average price for a new house. That changed the psychology of home sales."

The phenomenon led to the pressure for ever bigger homes and additions, with the counter-pressure of residents upset with the new houses looming over their more modest homes. Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton all modified their building regulations to severely limit the size of new homes.

The people who fought against big houses and who attempted to block one or more large commercial projects did so largely to protect their quality of life. In a now famous survey taken several years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle named Palo Alto the most desirable place to live in the Bay Area, a finding that many area residents would enthusiastically support.

Others say that while the area excels in many ways there are drawbacks, particularly the lack of affordable housing. But any plan to add multifamily housing, especially if it was targeted for lower-income people, churned up powerful opposition. In Menlo Park, the issue has spilled into the 1990s, where strong opposition continues against proposals for new, higher-density housing.

The decade also saw East Palo Alto come on the stage as its own entity, after a bitterly fought incorporation election in 1983. But the city spent the rest of the decade hurting financially and politically, isolated from its neighbors by a freeway and from the other city governments by a chasm of fear and suspicion.

The 1980s was a decade where natural phenomena often created the headlines and changed the lives of local residents. A devastating fire destroyed homes in the Los Altos Hills and Palo Alto foothills in 1985, followed by seven years of drought which proved that water is hardly an infinite resource.

And the decade closed with a bang, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a rolling 7.1 temblor that slightly damaged buildings in some Peninsula cities but hit Stanford hard, where it will cost more than $100 million to repair some of the university's older sandstone buildings.

And, as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto had all mounted, or were ready to mount, major efforts to revise their general plans, which guide future traffic and development. The art of redefining local realities, it seems, will continue.