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Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 28, 2012

Palo Altans addressed quality of life in 2012

From the Mayor's Challenge to car camping, residents organized to create a stronger sense of place

by Sue Dremann

Residents organized around a host of issues and raised questions to city leaders about the kind of Palo Alto they want this year. Many of those concerns revolved around issues in their own back yards, including such evergreens as spillover parking and retaining neighborhood shopping centers.

But topics also included inclusiveness. Residents argued on both sides about banning car camping and whether the city's only mobile-home park should be closed. And initiatives such as the Mayor's Challenge and a neighborhood-grants program also sought to bring the community closer.

Answers to those challenges have not come easily.

Vehicle dwelling became a hot topic more than two years ago, particularly in the College Terrace and Ventura neighborhoods. Palo Alto city staff crafted an ordinance to ban the practice, but vehicle dwellers and supporters pleaded with city leaders to find an alternative to a ban, and they formed an alliance to study options.

On Nov. 20, the City Council's Policy and Services Committee voted 3-1 to recommend the council approve a six-month pilot program to engage churches, businesses, not-for-profit institutions and Stanford-based organizations in hosting up to three vehicles with dwellers on their lots. The program would be modeled on the Homeless Car Camping Program in Eugene, Ore. Registered vehicle dwellers use parking spots at designated churches and businesses. The city would explore using city-owned parking lots as possible hosting sites for vehicle dwellers, an option council members previously rejected.

"I think the city needs to get some skin in the game," said former Councilman John Barton. "If you want to ask the churches and the nonprofits and the businesses to step up, why isn't the city stepping up? I think the city needs to show the way on how to help those who need temporary help."

Buena Vista Mobile Home Park

Whether the city can retain 400 low-income residents was a question some people raised after learning that the 86-year-old Buena Vista Mobile Home Park could close next year.

Property owners the Jisser family decided it's time to sell the roughly 4.5-acre site, and San Mateo developer Prometheus wants to get a zoning change to build 180 high-end apartments for tech workers. The changeover would eliminate 117 low-income housing units from the city's roster, with no replacements.

Mobile-home owners will receive compensation for their dwellings and relocation expenses if they cannot be moved, but advocates say Buena Vista residents would be forced out of Palo Alto altogether and that isn't acceptable.

But closing the mobile-home park suits some nearby Barron Park residents just fine. They say Buena Vista is an eyesore and they want it razed. Other neighborhood residents said that not saving the mobile-home park or finding alternative housing within the city, would run counter to the city's comprehensive plan and say much about the commitment or lack thereof toward inclusiveness and diversity.

Parking

Neighborhoods surrounding downtown Palo Alto continued to wrestle with spillover parking from businesses and their employees this year.

On July 17, Professorville neighborhood residents lost their bid for a parking-permit program after the City Council voted to reject a staff proposal. Council members said they would seek more permanent solutions to the dilemma. The parking-permit program did not include the Downtown North neighborhood, which is also clogged with parked cars.

In November, the council agreed to initiate two major studies: One would look at downtown's capacity for new development and another focuses on garages and potentially building new parking facilities. The council also directed staff to consider zoning revisions to reduce parking problems resulting from new development, adding bike-parking stations and shorter-term solutions such as loading zones around residential areas.

In December, the council put a one-year moratorium on a zoning exemption that lowered the parking requirements for new downtown developments. But they were split on whether the moratorium should apply to two projects currently going through the planning process, which are located at 135 Hamilton Ave. and 636 Waverley St.

Council members will revisit that discussion in the coming year. But residents living in Professorville, University South and Downtown North said their neighborhoods are already at or near saturation.

"Downtown is going to fill up like a bathtub full of water and there won't be anywhere to put the new cars," said Downtown North resident Sally Ann Rudd.

Retail development

Good news arrived this year for two neighborhood retail-development projects, which have been hanging fire for years.

After seven years, Alma Plaza has been rebuilt. Miki's Farm Fresh Market opened in October, offering organic and specialty foods at lower prices than most other specialty markets and a larger space than its predecessor, Albertson's.

After two contentious years and 15 hearings, the project was approved to include 37 homes, 15 below-market-rate apartments, a small park and a community room.

The redevelopment of Edgewood Plaza Shopping Center also hit a few snags, including a lawsuit in 2008 to give residents a say in what went on the property, as specified in the land tract's covenants. Developer Sand Hill Property Company settled the case in 2009 and agreed to retain the historic Eichler retail structures, find a grocery store and reduce the number of homes to be built to 10. East Coast grocer The Fresh Market signed a contract in February of this year and will inhabit the renovated space previously occupied by Albertson's.

Renovation began in September. That meant the end of the popular food-truck gatherings, Edgewood Eats, which were organized by Crescent Park resident Susie Hwang as a way to keep the site from becoming completely derelict and to rally the community around the plaza.

Residents were excited when the project finally got under way, but feelings soon soured after one of two Eichlers was dismantled and hauled away. Residents who originally had filed suit to keep the structures cried foul. The building was to be dismantled and moved, then reconstructed. But developer John Tze said most of the building's structure was too rotten to save.

Building community

Two initiatives designed to improve a sense of community took root in 2012. Mayor Yiaway Yeh introduced the Mayor's Challenge, a series of community gatherings around events. The first athletic event on March 25 was a table-tennis (ping-pong) challenge, followed in June by "A Day in the Park," which featured bocce ball, yoga and youth tennis at Mitchell and Rinconada parks.

The last in the series, a bicycle challenge, took place in October, along with the Bike Palo Alto event.

"Overall, the Mayor's Challenge saw over 1,000 people from around the Palo Alto community, including participants and volunteers take part," Yeh said.

In September, he introduced a neighborhood-grants proposal to strengthen a sense of connectedness. City leaders endorsed the program, which would fund block parties, neighborhood-watch programs and other projects. The council directed staff to design a program in the coming months.

"A game of ping pong is great for one day's worth of getting together and trying something out, but it's not enough to really recommit, rekindle or re-spark a lot of that sense of neighborliness," Yeh said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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