Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 8, 2013

Around Town

ON EDGE ... Grace Hopper once famously remarked: "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission." The Sand Hill Property Company certainly hopes that's the case. The Redwood City-developer angered many Palo Altans last fall, when it demolished a historic building at the former Edgewood Plaza shopping center on Embarcadero Road, in violation of its agreement with the city and area residents. Sand Hill had been involved in years of negotiations with area residents about upgrading and redeveloping the dilapidated plaza a rare example of a Joseph Eichler-developed commercial center. Last fall, after the two sides finally reached an agreement, the City Council approved a zone change that would allow Sand Hill to relocate one of the existing three retail buildings, build 10 homes and a grocery store, and create a 0.2-acre park. The "planned community" zone also required the developer to preserve two "historically significant" retail structures, one of which would be rehabilitated in place while the other would be disassembled, relocated and rehabilitated. But instead of disassembling that building, the applicant surprised the city by demolishing it without bothering to get any permits or approvals. After fielding complaints from residents, the city in September issued a "stop order" on the project. Now, city planners are recommending that the city require the developer to do an additional environmental-impact report, reflecting the new scope of the project. Staff is also recommending that the city allow Sand Hill to proceed with the construction of the grocery store and the rehabilitation of the building it didn't demolish (the recommendation would put Sand Hill's plan to build housing on hold until compliance issues are resolved). Sand Hill, for its part, has agreed to completely rebuild the structure it destroyed, though this would now be done with new materials rather than ones retained from the prior building. The council will have a chance to reflect on the staff recommendations, consider requiring new "public benefits" to make up for the demolished original building and offer its own views on the matter at its meeting on Monday.

PLANNING AHEAD ... As major planning projects continue to pile up in Palo Alto, the city's top planning officials are planning to step down in the coming weeks and months. Steve Emslie, a longtime deputy city manager and a leading negotiator on behalf of the city, is retiring at the end of this month. Emslie, a land-use specialist who has 33 years of public service under his belt, including a decade in Palo Alto, recently represented the city in negotiations with Stanford University Medical Center on Stanford's colossal expansion of its hospital facilities. The former planning director has also been the city's leading man in recent negotiations with John Arrillaga over the billionaire developer's proposal to build an office complex and theater at 27 University Ave. Meanwhile, the city's current planning director, Curtis Williams, is looking ahead to his own exit in June. Williams, a soft-spoken and popular leader whose department has been at the forefront of some of the most contentious and complex issues of recent years (high-speed rail, cell antennas, street changes and every major development application, to name a few), said this week that he will retire in June after four years at the helm of the department. Williams told the Planning and Transportation Commission at the conclusion of Wednesday's meeting an announcement that led to much praise from the commission for Williams' work. Chair Eduardo Martinez called him "top notch" and said he looks forward to working with Williams "every moment I can."

LIBRARY BLUES ... The ongoing re-construction of Palo Alto's Mitchell Park Library and Community Center is dragging on. The project, which is by far the biggest and most expensive component of the $76 million library bond voters approved in 2008, continues to lag behind schedule as city inspectors and the project's construction manager find new mistakes seemingly every month. According to a new report, which the City Council is scheduled to approve next week, the project is about 81 percent done and the library is now scheduled to open in fall of 2013 (the previous estimate was spring 2013). "The number of corrections and re-inspections required is much larger than for a typical project," the reports states. Corrections are needed on mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructure, on sliding glass doors and on windows, many of which failed water testing "multiple times." It doesn't help that the project's Oklahoma-based contractor, Flintco, is undergoing its own problems. Its CEO has recently been replaced and a portion of the company has been bought by Saint Louis-based Alberici. Palo Alto staff are striking an optimistic note regarding the company's news, noting that it has created a distraction and also an opportunity for "new leadership approaches," the new report states.

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