Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 6, 2013

Residents, developer spar over plan for office complex

Neighbors predict worsening traffic congestion, developer places faith in alternative-commute program

by Jocelyn Dong

At a meeting that pitted the latest concepts in land-use against the grim reality of an already congested area of Palo Alto, residents and representatives of the Jay Paul Co. tangled Wednesday night over the development firm's proposal to construct an office complex and a public-safety building along Page Mill Road and Park Boulevard.

The proposal, whose future some people consider to be on shaky ground following Palo Alto voters' November uprising against increasing development, would bring about 1,250 new workers to the heart of Palo Alto each day, according to the developer's estimate.

How those employees would get to 395 Page Mill, where AOL already has its headquarters, was the main point of contention at the community meeting Wednesday.

People who live adjacent to the 9.8-acre site where the two, four-story office buildings would be constructed grilled Jay Paul Co. Executive Vice President Ray Paul over the justification for the project and the likely consequences to traffic.

Paul asserted that the 311,000-square-foot office project fits into the city's vision for the California Avenue area. The section of Palo Alto contains a Caltrain station, making it prime for dense commercial development. In theory, up to 30 percent of the offices' employees might commute by mass transit, such as train or bus, or carpool, bicycle or walk, he said. The latter would be particularly likely if workers lived in the immediate area. Already numerous apartment and condo buildings are located nearby, and the city envisions even more.

"One of the problems with Palo Alto is, if you work here, you don't live here. If you live here, you don't work here," Paul said. "People are not living where they work."

Putting large office buildings near mass transit would be preferable to having smaller office buildings spread throughout Palo Alto, Paul said.

The latter, he said, begets traffic problems as commuters criss-cross the city.

"The benefit of locating your commercial density close to transit (is) so you can have a robust ... plan" for workers to take alternative transportation, he said. "You have this wonderful rail system, but no one's going to take it if they have to walk two miles to work."

Acknowledging that hundreds of additional workers would nonetheless drive by themselves to 395 Page Mill, Paul said the added traffic would be "incremental" and acceptable.

He cited a study that predicted the speed of cars driving from 395 Page Mill to Interstate 280 would slow by 2 mph during the evening commute. That, he said, would be the greatest slowdown as a result of the Jay Paul office complex for commuters using either 280 or U.S. Highway 101.

"I'm not here to tell you our contribution to traffic will be zero. I'm telling you we're doing everything we can to mitigate it," Paul said, alluding to the transportation strategies that would give workers incentives to get out of their cars.

"We will certainly add to the traffic, but we're not the main component," Paul said. "You'd think (from the way people are talking) if this site sunk into the ground, we'd be free-flowing. It ain't so."

But Paul's citation of the city's land-use vision and his predictions for traffic appeared to fall largely on deaf ears.

"The area is basically a cul-de-sac," said Chris Donlay, who lives across the street from the site, which is roughly bounded by El Camino, Page Mill, Park and the neighborhood of Ventura. A street barrier on Park prevents drivers from going south without winding through Ventura.

"How do you envision 2,000 people leaving the site at 6 p.m. and not creating gridlock?" Donlay asked. "Traffic is already bad. Our situation already is dire."

Although the concept of building commercial space near mass transit makes some sense, Donlay acknowledged, the location is all wrong in this instance.

"It's too big for this site," he told the Weekly, noting the neighborhood's narrow streets and existing traffic dangers.

Other residents agreed, saying the roads are currently "unable to handle the traffic."

"I don't want to have to have a helicopter to get home at night," said one woman who lives on Pepper Avenue.

Paul tried to assuage fears, citing the firm's experience with transportation-demand management (TDM) programs at two Sunnyvale office parks, where upwards of 30 percent of workers leave their cars at home.

But even that information didn't appear to sit right with residents, who found the comparison of office parks near Moffett Field to their neighborhood a bit like apples and oranges.

"TDMs work better in that environment," Donlay said. "I'm not convinced you're going to see the same pattern here."

Though most of the meeting was filled with civil assertions and disagreements, a few residents expressed suspicions of the firm's motives — and its degree of influence in the city — at neighbors' expense.

The site is currently built to the maximum allowed by zoning, so the project would require the city to grant Jay Paul Co. planned-community zoning. That designation was at the heart of voters' opposition to Measure D in November, which involved a development in the Green Acres neighborhood.

As with all PC zones, approval would require the developer to provide the city a "public benefit," in exchange for exceeding land-use regulations. In Jay Paul Co.'s case, the company has already agreed it would construct a new public-safety building for the city. But one resident saw the offer more as a bribe than a gift.

"PC zoning is buying zoning," the resident said, echoing a rallying cry of Measure D foes. "What is your plan if the city decides it doesn't want a public-safety building? Will you not build here at all if you can't buy a PC zone?"

"I object to the pejorative characterization," Paul said. "If we thought this project had no merit without us 'buying off' the city, we wouldn't have proposed it."

Wednesday's session was the second outreach meeting hosted by Jay Paul Co. Topics also included underground toxics, architecture, pedestrian and bicyclist safety and the 44,500-square-foot police building.

A traffic analysis for 395 Page Mill has been completed by a consultant but is undergoing review by city staff. It is expected to be released to the public early next year.

Editor Jocelyn Dong can be reached at jdong@paweekly.com.

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