Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 15, 2010

Editorial: Finding ways to save 'what really matters'?

Impending loss of Palo Alto's last bowling alley to condos and a hotel raises a question: What makes Palo Alto special to residents?

The Palo Alto Bowl on El Camino Real will soon become a footnote to Palo Alto's history, as it gives way to a recently approved hotel and condominiums.

That loss will be felt especially by Palo Alto-based developer Roxy Rapp, whose father, Lou Rapp, built the bowling alley 55 years ago — where Roxy worked when he was a kid.

The City Council approved the transition despite statements of personal regret by several council members. Those statements raise intriguing questions: What specific features of the community have special value to residents? Which deserve efforts to preserve them?

A key question is whether more could, or should, have been done to save the historic bowling alley. Roxy Rapp apparently quietly tried but was outbid for the property by about $1 million, he reports. Could the city have helped?

The focus in such cases is on privately owned businesses, such as the Palo Alto Bowl, that provide family-oriented recreational opportunities for the community. Traditional planning and zoning procedures provide little opportunity for city staff or residents to raise the question of broader value of existing features of the community.

There have been successes, such as the recently approved College Terrace Centre plan that includes retention of a neighborhood-serving market as part of an office development — perhaps, one hopes, the JJ&F family-owned market.

An earlier success of decades past was preserving the Winter Lodge in Midtown, once threatened with extinction. A land swap for some city-owned land near the baylands helped save that community icon.

Other cities have had successes, such as Menlo Park's proactive public/private effort to save the landmark Kepler's bookstore.

Identifying and seeking to preserve valued aspects of the community is an area that traditionally has been outside the scope of city planning and building approvals.

And, of course, could Palo Altans agree on what's most valued?

The Weekly in its Jan. 8 cover story raised the question of what community features are most valued and perhaps worth efforts to preserve in the face of new development proposals. It is disappointing to see valued community icons disappear, often "without a fight," under the traditional zoning and project-approval process.

But short of jumping in and buying properties, an impossibility that would raise an outcry in its own right, there may be other ways to preserve valued community features — creative ways to provide incentives to developers to be sensitive to such elements.

The city's planned community (PC) zone could be a more effective negotiating tool with developers, with a tighter definition of "community benefit" plus long-term monitoring and enforcement of such benefits — a continuing problem.

But a first step would be to identify what are the valued features, a process Palo Alto has not even considered.

The city's Parks & Recreation Commission, which recently expressed concern about loss of private recreational opportunities, might logically spearhead such an inventory, inviting public input in a constructive, "brainstorming" mode.

We as a community should not have to listen to how sad council members are about losing yet another community icon, such as the bowling alley, without a leadership effort to preserve it.

Editorial: Home stretch for Holiday Fund gifts

We are entering the final week of this year's annual Holiday Fund effort by the Palo Alto Weekly, with a solid showing of donors and gifts.

More than 430 donors have given more than $220,000 in gifts and grants to the annual fund, founded by the Weekly in 1993.

The donations, down a bit from the past two years, will nevertheless fund modest-size grants to community-based organizations that provide services and programs for children, youth and families. The grants will be announced in April.

Because the Weekly absorbs overhead costs, 100 percent of all donations go directly to community programs — with matching funds provided by several local foundations. There is an online donation form on the www.PaloAltoOnline.com website.

Please join us in once again giving a needed boost to our local agencies and programs benefiting children and families.

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