Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 2, 2010

Downtown merchants' group in disarray

Palo Alto Downtown Business & Professionals Association ousts president, vows to hold more downtown events

by Gennady Sheyner

When the Palo Alto City Council established the Downtown Business Improvement District in 2004, city officials envisioned the new assessment district as a tool to nurture existing businesses, support new ones and enhance the variety of commerce around University Avenue.

Today, the organization that oversees the district and charges the roughly 750 merchants in the district between $50 and $500 in annual assessments has no leadership and little accountability. Several downtown merchants said they haven't seen any "business improvements" in downtown in years, and one of the group's own board members told the Weekly that the group no longer represents the interests of local businesspeople.

"It's designed to be a bureaucracy, not to represent business people," said Abraham Khalil, owner of A.K. Insurance Services and board member at the Palo Alto Business and Professionals Association, which has a 2010-11 budget of $131,390. "If it doesn't represent business people, it shouldn't exist."

Khalil joined the board last year and said he has become disenchanted with how little say board members have in organization decisions. On May 21, four days after the Palo Alto City Council voted to keep the assessment district in place for another year, two members of the board's executive committee ousted the group's president and executive director, Sherry Bijan, who had led the organization since 2006. Khalil said the other nine board members had no input in the decision, which seemed to have been made behind the scenes.

The majority of board members declined to speak to the Weekly about the organization's future or its leadership change, an unusual position for a group governed by the Brown Act. (The Brown Act is a state law that ensures the openness of government-related meetings.)

They referred all questions to the board chair, Anne Senti-Willis, an attorney at the downtown firm Thoits, Love, Hershberger & McLean. She did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, save to send a brief e-mail.

Officially, at least, Bijan was asked to step down because of philosophical differences over ways to revitalize downtown. Senti-Willis and Deborah Pappas, the group's vice chair who works at Borel Bank, told Bijan the board wants to "take things in a different direction," according to a letter Bijan sent to the City Council, announcing her forced resignation.

Senti-Willis specifically told Bijan that she wanted the group to become more "events-driven," said Bijan, who was earning $66,000 a year.

Board member Jeff Selzer, general manager at Palo Alto Bicycles, said he "had no say" in the leadership change. Stacey Yates, owner of SkinSpirit and the third member of the executive committee, said she "had not been as involved in the past six months as I would've liked to be" and declined to discuss the group's future.

Her claim of non-involvement seems plausible for board members. On Feb. 24, only three out of 13 members were present at the start of the meeting and two came in later, according to the group's minutes. At more recent meetings, at least half the board was absent, the minutes indicate.

Even Palo Alto's liaisons to the business group were out of the loop when it came to Bijan's ouster. Steve Emslie, Palo Alto's deputy city manager, who heads the city's new Office of Economic Development, said he hadn't heard anything about the leadership change until it was announced publicly in late May.

Councilman Greg Scharff, the council's liaison to the business association, said he learned about it from Bijan's public announcement.

In response to inquiries, Senti-Willis directed the Weekly to a two-paragraph posting on the group's website announcing that Bijan has "stepped down." She said in the e-mail that the group plans to advertise for a new executive director on its website this week, but did not specify how long she expects the search to take place.

"We plan to complete the hiring process as soon as we can," Senti-Willis wrote.

The high level of secrecy may be considered unusual for a committee whose goals for the current year include "create visibility within the business community," according to its annual report. In fact, Santish Sandadi, owner of Hyderabad House, told the Weekly that he hasn't received a visit from anyone in the group in years. He's stopped paying his assessed dues and so have most of his neighbors, he said.

"Most of the money is used to pay the salary of a person whom I haven't seen in two years," Sandadi said.

Chris Oh, who owns Han Korean & More on University Avenue, said he hasn't seen any recent improvements around University Avenue, which in his opinion lags behind Mountain View's Castro Street.

"There's been no business improvement here," Oh said.

Both Oh and Sandadi said holding more downtown events could attract more people and aid local businesses, but other business proprietors were more skeptical. Alaina Munoz, store manager at Chico's, said events tend to kill the store's business, though she said she enjoys the city's annual Art and Wine Festival.

Maureen Brylkos, store manager at Restoration Hardware, said events tend to bring "a lot of lookers but not too many shoppers."

But Michael Godfrey, a salesperson at Restoration Hardware, sees a brighter side: Events bring in people who otherwise wouldn't visit University. Even when they don't buy anything, at times they leave the store with a catalogue.

Emslie said the benefits of events could depend on the activity and the type of business. Events with food vendors, for instance, could take away patrons from local restaurants. But businesses that don't sell food could benefit from the increased exposure, he said.

"In general, events are important to building a community, promoting downtown and getting people to visit businesses," Emslie said. "But it depends on how the events are made."

Bijan did not elaborate on why the board chose to shift its focus to more events, but she told the Weekly she was worried for downtown's future.

"I'm deeply concerned at the moment about the stability of the business district," Bijan said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by jerry, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 3, 2010 at 4:28 pm

I do all my shopping in Mt View. Palo Alto really has nothing to offer- from dining to big box retail.
Castro St downtown is excellent...plus you feel safe!
Palo Alto leaders, Home Owners groups ran everyone out.


Posted by JSB, a resident of Southgate
on Jul 3, 2010 at 5:30 pm

This group was pushed on the business community by former city manager Frank Benest, who wanted to get the businesses to pick up the cost of cleaning the sidewalks, putting up Christmas (I mean "holiday") decorations, employing the homeless, etc. By shifting these expenses from the city's general fund to this group (originally called the Business Improvement District or BID), he freed up more money for raises, housing allowances and 6-digit pensions. Remember, for Frank it was all about enriching public employees at the expense of taxpayers. Once the City Council approved formation of the district, the only way it could be stopped was if 51% of the property owners being assessed filed protests written on their company stationery. E-mails wouldn't be accepted. What a sham. As I recall, the Palo Alto Weekly was a big booster of the BID at the time. Now that this group is completely separate from the city, it is floundering because there was no real purpose for the district other than to reduce city government expenses. The only solution is for the city to disband the BID and start funding these services through the general fund, as was done in the past. The city government benefits greatly by the sales taxes generated by downtown businesses -- it's only fair for the city to contribute its fair share.


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 3, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Is this news? This group has been in disarray since its inception.

What did merchants ever get out of their assessment fees? 95% of those fees went for salaries and expenses. In 2007, between 100 and 300 business people (depending on whom you ask) signed a petition protesting the assessments. Web Link

Sherry Bijan claimed to have put together "a database of all downtown businesses," but that turned out to be nothing but a list.

"Destination Palo Alto" was a failure, in spite of the city's attempt to dress it up as a success? The cost of the program for one year was $240,000, while the hotel and sales tax revenue generated was $187,061. (The city's former economic development manager – recently departed from city staff – claimed this was a 78% ROI.) Web Link


Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 3, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Tomorrow is the 4th of July. Downtown Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Los Altos, and Redwood City will be "ablaze" with American flags. And downtown Palo Alto? It might as well be Tehran. There haven't been flags for many, many years. As I recall, last year there was nary a flag on Civic Center (Opps "King Plaza). How sad. U. S. Citizens and American-born citizens still do live here. And even most of them don't bother. Maybe there will be red, white, and blue chili.


Posted by Mark, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 4, 2010 at 12:08 pm

There are a couple of issues at play here. For an organization that its sole function is to represent the interest of business in the district, this Board of Directors has acted irresponsibly. A few ring leaders vote to remove the only functioning part of the organization by ousting their Director and leader, for no apparent reason other than wanting to put on more "events".
This brings us to the second point, which is if they were really dialed into the needs of the business community at large, they would know and recognize that events actually hurt local business. I close up shop during the annual art and wine festival, not to mention the debacle of the 2007 University Avenue Promenade that this same board hosted?
The bureaucracy in city hall prevents putting on events readily. The cost of doing events well is prohibitive.
As a small business owner, I appreciated the tireless efforts of Ms. Bijan over the past four years. She gave my small business a voice, and genuine representation.
The testimonials in the article of zero representation from this board of directors speak volumes about the general sentiment of businesses in the downtown. No one asked us, not even the board representatives, what direction the organization should take.


Posted by iphonegrrl, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 4, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Let's face facts - its getting scary downtown, even after the "redevelopment" of Lytton Plaza. After dark the many empty parking lots around Downtown host casual drug dealers, and just walking home from CVS you'll see young males in hoodies with their hands in their pockets, just "hanging out" in classic street dealer mode. But Palo Alto has apparently cut the crime suppression unit!

The best way to revive downtown's businesses is just to block of University from Emerson to Webster and make it a pedestrian district, where the cafes can spill into the streets. All the boutiques should encourage sidewalk shopping with outdoor tables and racks.

The Borders and the Apple store are open late - they should be encouraged to have a greater outdoor presence as well. The Stanford and Aquarius should team up to bring more movies and indoor concerts to downtown.

Also instead of the random bad music hosted by several cafes, 1 organized musical event every night during good weather should be organized by the BID, if it's to justify any continuing existence.

Stanford's Marguerite should be encouraged to have all busses, not just the Midnight Express, stop in the parking lot at Larsen, so that the Stanford kids can more easily get downtown without having to deal with the crazy train underpass and wacky intersections to get to it.

The BID should also offer a $50 a year dining card that gives a 10% discount to all downtown restaurants - $100 would also give 5% off a downtown boutiques and hotels.

The ways to revive small downtown districts are well-known now - many places have done it all over the USA and Europe. Palo Alto can look directly to Mountain View and Menlo Park for models. Why don't we have decent town planning here? Why can't University Ave be as pleasant an allee for shopping as the Stanford Mall?


Posted by cantyu, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 5, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Isn't this something Palo Alto's chamber of commerce should be handling???


Posted by Palo Alto Downtown Business & Professional Association, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 7, 2010 at 7:51 am

Palo Alto Downtown Business & Professional Association ("PAd") continues, as it has for six years, to serve downtown businesses. While conducting a search for a new Executive Director, PAd's many actively engaged board members continue to provide support for the Downtown Farm Shop, held at Lytton Plaza on Wednesday afternoons. We remain involved with security and safety issues in the downtown, working with Palo Alto city staff, the Palo Alto Police Department and the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce to continue increased police patrols in the downtown area. At the same time, we are working to increase cleanliness and safety in the downtown parking structures in conjunction with the Downtown Streets Team, continuing PAd's long history of support. We continue to work with merchants and the city in addressing concerns with city permitting and other processes as new merchants move into the downtown and others expand their current businesses.

As has always been the case, there is one spokesperson for PAd. Until a new Executive Director is hired, it is Anne Senti-Willis, board chair. Employee matters, however, remain confidential and will not be commented upon.

PAd holds its monthly board meetings on the fourth Wednesday of each month. These meetings are open to the public; anyone may attend. Agendas for each meeting are posted prior to the meeting in King Plaza. Beyond attending meetings, merchants with specific issues of concern remain welcome to contact PAd for support, by e-mail at info@paloaltodowntown.com or by phone at (650) 233-4334.


Posted by SG, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 7, 2010 at 3:04 pm

LoL! that's a good one cantyu. straight from the frying pan in to the fire.


Posted by goofy, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 7, 2010 at 8:06 pm

This group used very heavy-handed techniques to try to force
Palo Alto merchants to pay the so-called assessed fees.
They threatened non-english speaking merchants with collection.
I was distressed at their tactics.
It is no surprise to me at their failure. They did not
follow city of palo alto procedures to implement their
plans and assessments to the business community.
I, as a merchant, never paid those fees. I did not feel
they represented my best interests. Additionally, all the
money went to salaries and office space for the
administrators.
This just needs to go away. If the City of Palo Alto wants
to stimulate business it needs to do away with the excess
fees promoted by this group---and back off on the agressive
parking ticket program. Let us work with the city on road
and other improvements without disrupting on going business.


Posted by iphonegrrrl, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 7, 2010 at 10:07 pm

"PAd's many actively engaged board members continue to provide support for the Downtown Farm Shop, held at Lytton Plaza on Wednesday afternoons. e remain involved with security and safety issues in the downtown, working with Palo Alto city staff, the Palo Alto Police Department and the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce to continue increased police patrols in the downtown area."

That's so comic. Today I got an email from the FarmShop, explaining how it was closing up due to lack of sales, and drop-offs would happen at Town & Country.

PAd's apparently "supported" the FarmShop right out of business. If the locavore craze isn't huge in Palo Alto, I don't know where it is - and yet this group can't even keep a farm stand open!

Meanwhile its efforts at security have resulted in a bold robbery on Hamilton while the owners were actually in the house! That's how safe downtown Palo Alto is now, thanks to the PAd. Good grief.


Posted by Richard Mamelok, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 8, 2010 at 12:35 pm

The one event that was great was when University avenue was closed to traffic a few years ago. Walking down Univ Ave is no longer than walking around the Stanford Shopping Center and the garages offer good parking. Special events are good for the one time vendors (eg the arts fair) but must detract from the regular retail businesses. I've been in many medium size cities (mainly in Europe) where the main shopping district is closed to traffic. There is plenty of good traffic and the cafes are much more pleasant without a lot of cars going by.


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2010 at 5:34 pm

> "The one event that was great was when University avenue was closed to traffic a few years ago."

The 2007 "Promenade," spearheaded by then-Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto and the Palo Alto Downtown Association, was a disaster. University was closed at 8 am (with no signs or warnings) – for an event that started at 4 pm.

Traffic was bottlenecked on Middlefield, Alma, El Camino and side streets. No one knew what was happening.
Web Link

From the PA Daily News (7/24): " traffic jammed up Alma and High streets, University and Hamilton avenues and other roadways. Numerous business managers, including those at Palo Alto Bicycles and the Peninsula Creamery, said they'd heard little to nothing about the event beforehand and expressed concern about the drop in business."

I got this email from a business owner, whose store I couldn't get to that day: "No I had no idea what they were doing, and its safe to say, it diverted whatever business that could have come our way, elsewhere . . . the event was apparently planned for the evening, so closing University for the duration of our business hours was nothing short of MORONIC!!! but then again, there is little they do that surprises me . . . ."

Cost to the city was $8,000 for police and public works.


Posted by I liked it, a resident of Community Center
on Jul 8, 2010 at 6:05 pm

The people who attended the Promenade thought it was a fine event. All the defects you mention could be remedied with better PR and traffic preparation. That would be the city staff and the police's responsibility.
I think it is worth another try, with better, more professional preparation.


Posted by iphonegrrrl, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 8, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Let me be clear. I'm not suggesting a one-time event. I'm arguing for a permanent pedestrian district on University Ave. There's so much parking just a block away at nearly every cross street that it won't be a hardship.

New York City has already benefited from closing part of Midtown and making it a pedestrian-only street cafe district. Why can't Palo Alto do this for University? In fact, why doesn't Palo Alto just Copenhagenize itself completely?

Move the bicycle lanes to the center of the streets (so bicyclists are no longer swiped by texting drivers who turn right on red without looking), put the roundabouts back to slow traffic, and offer a tax break to everyone who doesn't own a car at all?

These simple initiatives would immediately catapult Palo Alto to the forefront of green American cities and garner much positive attention, not to mention the tangible and proven quality-of-life benefits?


Posted by whipped, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 8, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Let the truth be known, so long as the handful of property owners have a chokehold on what can and can't happen in this City ,and so long as the city leaders stroke the very landlords, all your suggestions, great as they may be are just white noise.
We are not blessed with Bloomberg type visionary leaders.


Posted by Sean Kelly, a resident of Community Center
on Jul 12, 2010 at 9:54 am

I worked with Sherry Bijan recently to put banners along University and other downtown streets helping to promote TheatreWorks and its New Works Festival and found her to be a wonderful partner. I think its sad that the city has let her go, she was a delight and very helpful in our efforts to promote TheatreWorks 41 years here in Palo Alto.


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