Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 21, 2010

News Digest

Palo Alto may break 50-foot barrier for buildings

Palo Alto, a city with a history of opposing high-rise developments and promoting the small, eclectic neighborhoods, is now reconsidering its 50-foot height limit for new buildings.

The City Council voted on Wednesday night to direct staff to take a fresh look at the limit — a restriction long viewed as sacrosanct by neighborhood leaders and other opponents of bulky new developments. The council specified that staff should only consider easing the 40-year-old restriction in neighborhoods that are next to fixed-rail (i.e., Caltrain) stations.

The goal is to encourage new mixed-use projects near major transit corridors — a strategy that city officials, regional planners and state legislators are increasingly promoting in hopes of reducing traffic and creating sustainable neighborhoods. Councilman Greg Scharff, who made the proposal to reconsider the 50-foot height limit, said reconsidering the "sacred cow" restriction would give the city some much needed flexibility in addressing Palo Alto's housing needs.

Height limit has been a hot topic around the city since at least the early 1970s, when Palo Alto voters rejected a proposed 11-story office tower north of University Avenue and a downtown hospital proposed by the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. The city's current Comprehensive Plan, which was adopted in 1998, states that the limit has been "respected in all new developments since it was adopted in the 1970s, only a few exceptions have been granted for architectural enhancements or seismic safety retrofits to non-complying buildings."

New developments that exceed this limit, including the Taube Koret Campus of Jewish Life (62 feet), the proposed expansion of the Stanford Hospital (135 feet) and the proposed expansions of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital (85 feet), have also been deeply scrutinized by planning commissioners, council members and the public at large.

Palo Alto cleaver attacker was tortured in China

Chunren Chen, the restaurant worker who allegedly hacked a fellow employee with a meat cleaver during an argument at a Palo Alto restaurant last year, had been tortured and "re-educated" in China decades ago, according to court documents.

The reported torturing and re-education was chronicled by Judge Douglas Southard in notes from a hearing May 8 in Superior Court in Palo Alto. The notes covered a discussion of Chen's medical records between the judge, Chen's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Jeff Dunn, and Deputy District Attorney James Demertzis.

Chen, 64, admits he attacked co-worker Zezhong Yang at the Jade Palace restaurant on May 27, 2009. Records show he had a previous arrest for a "similar" assault with a deadly weapon in Alameda County in 1997.

He is charged with attempted murder and aggravated mayhem for the attack on Yang, a chef, after he struck him several times with a meat cleaver in the restaurant's kitchen.

A psychotherapist who examined him in December 2009 concluded that Chen likely has post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit hyperactive disorder and anxiety disorders, according to the notes.

Chen will appear in Santa Clara County Superior Court in Palo Alto for a preliminary hearing on June 25.

Court issues injunction against pesticide use

A federal injunction affecting eight Bay Area counties will temporarily halt the use of 75 pesticides in and adjacent to endangered and threatened wildlife species habitat, according to a report released Tuesday.

U.S. District Court Judge Joseph C. Spero signed the injunction, an agreement between the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on May 17.

The injunction prevents use of the chemicals while the EPA formally evaluates the pesticides' potentially harmful effects on Bay Area endangered species over the next five years. The affected counties are Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma.

The injunction, which was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, was sought by the Center for Biological Diversity and stems from a lawsuit in 2007 against the EPA for violating the Endangered Species Act.

The injunction prohibits the pesticides in areas such as near the Palo Alto Baylands, where the California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse live, and at Stanford University in areas adjacent to habitat of the California tiger salamander and San Francisco garter snake.

The chemicals include strychnine, Warfarin (which is used to kill rats) and pyrethrins, a commonly used product to kill aphids and other plant pests, fleas and ticks. Many are highly toxic to fish, birds and beneficial insects.

The 2006 Center for Biological Diversity report can be found at www.biologicaldiversity.org/publications/papers/bayareapesticidesreport.pdf.

— Sue Dremann

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