Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - December 14, 2012

On Deadline: Legacies remain from 1970, the 'year of revolutions' in Palo Alto

by Jay Thorwaldson

Looking back over the most turbulent years of Palo Alto history, one year — 1970 — stands out as the year many "revolutions" came together.

Some were gentle, some were harshly confrontational, and some changed the course of events permanently, with effects that continue today.

One example is that two high-rise-building proposals rejected by voters in 1970 became the genesis of the 50-foot height limit that hangs over new developments, such as John Arrillaga's 27 University Ave. four-buildings-plus-theater proposal.

Some violent demonstrations broke out in the community and inside City Hall over such local issues as an 11 p.m. curfew for amplified music and a critical shortage of low- and moderate-income housing. Contrary to popular belief, they were not all anti-Vietnam War protests, but a general counterculture rebellion.

It was a year of discontent by one faction or another, and a case study of how things can have lasting consequences, good and bad.

In local civic affairs, two major proposals for high-rise structures triggered rebellions by residents.

In late January the Cornish & Carey real estate firm proposed a "Superblock" plan for a two-block area flanking Bryant Street north of University Avenue, in response to a city-initiated request for proposals. It was the third proposal, and the one selected by city officials. It consisted of twin 10-story buildings. Voters ultimately rejected the plan, with opposition led by Dick Rosenbaum, who later served on the City Council and as mayor.

A plan for even taller buildings was killed in June when voters rejected a 160-foot tall "hospital of the future" between Channing and Addison avenues by the Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation, which later became part of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. The hospital proposal, in addition to being an innovative "research" design, was surrounded on three sides by residential neighborhoods. It was a response to a chronic bed shortage at the Stanford Hospital and a conflict with academic needs of the School of Medicine — in spite of a major expansion of the Stanford Hospital announced in February 1970. It also reflected rivalry between academic deans and community physicians generally.

Both proposals helped sensitize residents to tall buildings, and along with other proposals contributed to the city's later adoption of a 50-foot height limit — still in force (but under challenge) today.

Low- and moderate-income housing was a major focus of community protests and disruptions of City Council meetings. The former Stanford-Midpeninsula Urban Coalition announced in early February a $1 million fund drive to finance a "housing development corporation" for the Peninsula. A local version, the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, was later created as a nonprofit corporation spin-off by Mayor Jack Wheatley and the City Council.

But pro-housing efforts failed to assuage the anger of political radicals in the Palo Alto Tenants' Union (PATU) and other organizations or movements that used confrontation and demonstrations to make their points. Protests disrupted at least two City Council meetings and created an "us versus them" feeling of mixed anger and fear in the community. I once suggested in a column that how one defines "us versus them" depends on "who you are," and listed examples.

The tension spilled over into the feelings of many high-school students and led to an odd confrontation in front of City Hall on May 18. A group of Palo Alto High School students wanted to march to City Hall and speak with some city official. But police officials, unsure of the intent of the 200 or so students, locked the front doors.

The Rev. Barry Verdi, 33, the slightly built minister from All Saints Episcopal Church and an anti-violence advocate, agreed to accompany the march along with some parents. He first tried to ask officers by way of a note why the doors were locked, then entered by a side door. Officers forcefully escorted him to the front door and ejected him in a way that he landed on his seat on the concrete. An irony was that two years earlier he had delivered the convocation for the then-new Civic Center. His hard-landing ejection led to a reform of police training and supervision.

The future of "the foothills" — actually the vast area stretching to the Skyline Ridge — also was a major point of revolution in the community. A 1960s proposal to build 1,776 houses in the lower foothills — ultimately rejected by the city — gave rise to a study and new zone that sharply reduced allowable zoning density. It led to lawsuits, the biggest of which was settled for $7.5 million five years later when the city purchased more than 500 acres of what is now the Pearson Arastradero Preserve.

The continuing battle over development in the hills led to an editorial in the Palo Alto Times suggesting that a regional park district be formed to buy land at fair-market value as an alternative to unreliable and unfair zoning or other "police power" methods of controlling growth. The editorial led two years later to the creation of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which now has acquired and permanently dedicated about 60,000 acres.

Discontent was not just local. Second-year Congressman Paul N. "Pete" McCloskey, in a personal "moderate Republican" rebellion, said in a talk that Congress was so hampered by a decrepit seniority system that it couldn't deal with critical issues of the day — many relating to affluence and poverty existing side by side, as on the Peninsula, and between rich and poor nations. Then as now?

A final revolution of 1970 was the overturning of a decades-old "Hopkins deed restriction" on downtown Palo Alto properties that prohibited sale of hard-liquor in restaurants or businesses. Chef/restaurateur Barry Amato applied for a liquor license for his restaurant, The Shutter, on the ground floor of the President Apartments (a former hotel).

The penalty for selling liquor was that the property would revert to Stanford University. The restriction dated from the Prohibition battle of "wets" versus "drys." But in an era when alcohol had penetrated the Stanford campus itself, with empty bottles lining dorm windowsills, the restriction was overturned in court.

And the restaurant influx to downtown Palo Alto commenced.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes regular blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

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