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City looks to redesign 'critical' downtown site

Original post made on May 30, 2013

When billionaire developer John Arrillaga proposed last year to build a complex of high-rises and a theater near Palo Alto's downtown Caltrain station, his vision didn't exactly wow the community. Now, the city wants to give the community a chance to offer its own vision for the site around 27 University Ave.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, May 30, 2013, 9:52 AM

Comments (25)

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 30, 2013 at 10:20 am

> The report from city planners does not propose any
> particular design but seeks rather to "create a process
> which allows the public to be involved in creating a
> realistic and implementable land use and site design concept"

Shouldn't Palo Alto have a well-established, and honored, planning process, by now? We've been a city for over a hundred years—so why do we have to reinvent the wheel every time a new project comes along?

Something is very, very, wrong with this Planning Department.

Posted by Crescent Park Mom, a resident of Crescent Park
on May 30, 2013 at 10:23 am

Bravo Palo Alto Leadership!

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Downtown North
on May 30, 2013 at 10:42 am

Hear Hear! Let's hear it for our city officials and let's hear it from our citizens!

Posted by Just don't get it..., a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 30, 2013 at 10:51 am

Whatever the decision, could one of the "public benefits" please be landscaping the underpass at ECR and University Ave?? It really is a despicable welcome to Palo Alto which has otherwise nicely landscaped medians.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park
on May 30, 2013 at 10:51 am

This seems like a PR stunt to me.

Instead of asking Palo Altans whether they want development or not and what kind, they are saying to a crowd, give us your ideas. Of course like most large and busy populations the ideas submitted will likely be short, idiosyncratic to whomever is responding, and not well thought out.

What I would like to see change in Palo Alto is the development process, but that just seems out of control. For some reason without Palo Altans' input Palo Alto has been chosen to be the city that gets the development. There have been many offices and homes built here ... here in Palo Alto a very problematic city for development because we have very few main arteries to carry traffic. There is no big development in Los Altos, Menlo Park, Atherton where it would make no sense, everything is dumped willy nilly in Palo Alto.

A worse choice probably could not have been made. Embarcadero and Middlefield with their 25MPH speed limit, and the peculiar connection to El Camino and difficulty connecting to 280. University Ave. where most of the businesses are and the city center is also the main artery to move across town.

Maybe our developers know that eventually a decision to expand all of these roads is going to have to be made and huge development contracts will be needed to make it bearable to even turn around in this city.

If I had to weigh-in with no notice and just a wee bit of thought I would say stop the development in Palo Alto and start talking. Find out what the problems are for people and just listen for a while. Find out what the requirements are to make Palo Alto livable again and then write up some goals and a mission statement and try to do that over the next 20 years. Make it a living document and put this city back in the hands of its people instead of just forcing the people to adapt and seeing what happens and trying to fix it when it is unfixable. We are not lab rats. For me it would be fix the infrastructure and find the "hot spots" and just talk about them and see what people think.

We have a unique resource in the Baylands that could be great for Palo Alto.

Instead we have the NOISE POLLUTING AIRPORT out there - I go out there regularly and it is so loud I cannot even listen to audiobooks on my MP3 player without hearing damage.

We also seem stuck with the NOSE POLLUTION FROM THE SEWAGE TREATMENT PLANT. Surely there is some way to upgrade that plant so that it does not make people in the area want to vomit when the wind turns the wrong way on certain days?

Now that the Baylands environment has been a preserved a little bit and the life is returning to it, the Baylands Interpretive building is about ready to sink into the mud and has been closed down. I remember when that building was opened and how cool it was and how it made Palo Alto seem much more advanced than other cities.

It's the same with Foothill Park. How many people even go up to Foothill Park any more? Every time I go up there I see the huge inappropriate houses up there and think that it is only a matter of time before they want to sell off Foothill Park to the highest bidder.

Put a process in place to meet the needs of the people. If there are needs for income that we cannot meet and we need more revenue from businesses, don't just do it as a reason to ignore everyone, put it out there and talk about it. What kind of development do Palo Altans want? We have two very significant natural places that we are just wasting ... that seems major to me. Not only that but the Baylands is easy to get to and very accessible.

Start talking and building a concensus to close down the Palo Alto airport so that our waterfront becomes and asset instead of just a dump ... which it isn't anymore!

Posted by The Process, a resident of Community Center
on May 30, 2013 at 10:55 am

The more complex and the longer the process, the more they are assured the public will get tired and give up. Then the moneypeople make last minute changes, the Planning Dept and the City Manager say OK and the development guys get what they want.
Last time it was Steve Emslie, John Barton, and Bern Beecham who were the cheerleaders for the transit area. They never met a development project they didn't support.
Emslie was the Asst. City Manager who passionately promoted the first Arrillaga 27 University monster project. The City Manager remains untouchable.

Posted by John Roberts, a resident of Escondido School
on May 30, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Well this ought to ensure that the consultants make a few million more and nothing useful happens for a decade with land that is now a waste. Congratulations, PA. You've done it again.

Posted by Mark, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 30, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Agree with John Roberts.

That area is going to get much worse. It's already home of many transients and drug-dealers. I dare you go there in the middle of the night now to see what happens in your backyard when you leave it unattended.

Posted by Sylvia, a resident of Midtown
on May 30, 2013 at 2:17 pm

@CrescentPark Anon: Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Why is it always when or how much development we have to learn to tolerate? Long-time residents feel besieged by schemes to maximize profits for other people.

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 30, 2013 at 3:52 pm

> Embarcadero and Middlefield with their 25MPH speed limit

The speed limit for all of Palo Alto was set back in 1948 before South Palo Alto and Barron Park were annexed.

Trying to change it seems almost impossible.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 30, 2013 at 4:59 pm

The State set the prima facie 25 mph speed limit for residential streets. (CVC 22352)

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2013 at 5:25 pm

V C Section 22352 Prima Facie Speed Limits

Web Link

(2) Twenty-five miles per hour:

(A) On any highway other than a state highway, in any business or residence district unless a different speed is determined by local authority under procedures set forth in this code.

When I said it was impossible, I should have said it was politically impossible here in Palo Alto. Several attempts have been half-heartedly proposed, but there has been a small number of very vocal opponents that have scared off the City Council from setting speeds higher than 25 mph--such as on Arastradero, Middelfield and Embarcadero.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon, a resident of Crescent Park
on May 30, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Well, defacto speeds on Embarcadero and Middlefield are greater than 25 - at least when it is not rush hour AND I am not really saying it should be changed so much as noting that we cannot keep adding people to Palo Alto and expecting that they will be able to cross town in a reasonable amount of time on main arteries that are residential streets. Kind of the same thing with Alma too, mostly people drive faster, and at any time the police if they want to can go out and ticket lots of people for revenue ... because we are all forced to drive faster on those streets.

Most people drive faster responsibly, but every once in a while there is someone who makes a mockery and has to go speed and go 50 or something.

There is just no logic in Palo Alto and less logic in pretending everything is fine and going ahead and developing for more people, houses and cars while pretending everything is fine and scales up functionally.

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 30, 2013 at 8:24 pm

> defacto speeds on Embarcadero and Middlefield are greater than 25

Yes .. the 85th percentile rule holds here in California.

> main arteries that are residential streets.

Actually, in Palo Alto--these streets have been designated as "Residential Arterials". Yes, seems like some intellectual tap dancing--but that's what the City Transportation people have done.

> There is just no logic in Palo Alto

Historically, this has been called the "Palo Alto Process".

> ticket lots of people for revenue

Can't remember exactly how much the City gets for speeding tickets. Not too much for ticketing people running red lights, tho. Historically, revenue has not be a visible driver for traffic enforcement in this town.

> not saying the speed limits should change ..

It would not be that hard to simulate flow conditions on the main streets (Charleston, Arastradero, Middlefield, Embarcadero) for various speed limits. Unfortunately, the Transportation people have been hijacked by people who seem to want to push bicycles as a main mode of transportation, rather than doing intelligent, state-of-the-art, vehicular transportation design.

I don't see why we couldn't try out raising the speed limits on Arastradero, Middlefield and Embarcadero to 35 for a while to see what the results might be.

Posted by Annette, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Can someone knowledgeable provide some answers here? I am curious about how the City can do ANY reasonable planning for that area w/o conclusive information about HSR. What's the status of that? Will there be a Palo Alto stop? Will HSR be above ground or underground? Will it be along the Caltrain path? If yes, will there be a necessary taking of any part of the Arrillaga development? If yes, who foots that bill? I find it hard to believe that anyone as smart and successful as John Arrillaga would propose a project that might be negatively impacted by HSR. Did I miss something? Have critical decisions about high speed rail been made?

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park
on May 30, 2013 at 9:48 pm

> HSR - What's the status of that?

I just heard on the news yesterday that the price has more than doubled, and nothing has even been done yet - but they are hiring lots of high-paid executive to suck up taxpayer money.

> I find it hard to believe that anyone as smart and successful as John Arrillaga would propose a project that might be negatively impacted by HSR.

I don't see why .... if changes need to be made it's just more money ... likely to go to the company that knows the most about it and has the most experience.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park
on May 30, 2013 at 9:51 pm

By the way, here is a link to a website which opposing California's High Speed Rail.

It is named AgainstCaliforniaHSR dot COM

Web Link

Posted by c'est vrai, a resident of Midtown
on May 30, 2013 at 11:05 pm

Re: We also seem stuck with the NOSE POLLUTION FROM THE SEWAGE TREATMENT PLANT.Surely there is some way to upgrade that plant so that it does not make people in the area want to vomit when the wind turns the wrong way on certain days?"

Are you implying that Palo Altans poop stinks? Simply not possible. Even our compost smells fresh.

Posted by The Process, a resident of Community Center
on May 30, 2013 at 11:19 pm

> I find it hard to believe that anyone as smart and successful as John Arrillaga would propose a project that might be negatively impacted by HSR.
The project is Stanford's, Arrillaga is doing what they want. Anyway his reputation with those who have been interviewed about him, is that he is determined to have his way, ruthless.
So what if the office workers have to listen to the trains, why does he care. Anyway HSR is far in the future, maybe never. Even if it is built they'll make plenty on it for years.

Posted by Chuck, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2013 at 10:56 am

Hopefully, HSR is NEVER

Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 31, 2013 at 5:56 pm

If Arrilaga builds the buildings on Stanford-owned land (and the site is Stanford-owned) and then GIVES the buildings to Stanford as planned, does Mr. A. get a big charitable donation tax break? My opinion? You betcha. THEN HSR comes along and causes a big downgrade in the land value and like the other property owners, the project gets a government buy out via eminent domain and consequently devaluation of property. Would he or Stanford get the $$$$? Who would be 'ahead'? I don't know or understand. But I do know that Mr. "A' is a NOT a billionaire by just playing board games like Monopoly!! This man is very smart. EXCEPT that he thought he could 'pull one' on the residents of Palo Alto.

Posted by We are here, we are here, we are HERE!!, a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 3, 2013 at 11:32 am

@Crescent Park Anon,
" write up some goals and a mission statement and try to do that over the next 20 years."

We have that, it's called the City's Comprehensive Plan, and if it were used as anything more than toilet paper in respect to zoning, we wouldn't be having the traffic problems we are having now.

The fallacy of ABAG is assuming that matching housing numbers with jobs within a city's borders solves congestion, where packing too many people for the infrastructure CREATES emissions and congestion, and of course makes it so the richest eventually go live in the surrounding communities that are just bedroom communities with large homes, with no attempt to satisfy ABAG and no jobs for the state (except domestic workers, who don't live there).

Posted by We are here, we are here, we are HERE!!, a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 3, 2013 at 11:40 am

Arastradero is a school commute corridor traveled by many hundreds of school children on foot and bike every school day. It was the subject of a "traffic calming" project to SLOW traffic because of that, but which just pushed traffic into the neighborhood and onto other safe routes to school. It is not an appropriate place to raise the speed limit. Regardless, it wouldn't matter because much of the day, the traffic is stop-and-go anyway. And the City wants to add a dense development right at the worst place.

Posted by We are here, we are here, we are HERE!!, a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 3, 2013 at 11:41 am

Moved from the related thread:

I wish all of you on the North side of town crying out about traffic and density would extend your concern to those of us in the South who are being forced to take the dense housing in the middle of our residential neighborhoods, without any protections from this "Palo Alto Process". Most of the dense housing in Palo Alto is either going in around downtown -- which let's face it, is DOWNTOWN -- or in south palo alto, including in residential areas.

The City has loaned Palo Alto Housing Corporation over $5 million to help partially finance the purchase of an old orchard with 4 ranch houses across from Juana Briones Park. They plan to sell part of the parcel with the 4 homes to a for-profit developer who will tear down the 4 perfectly good homes and put up in their place 15 tall skinny 3-story houses like at Alma Plaza, completely out of character with the neighborhood, and benefitting in sale price because of that neighborhood. The developer will only make things work out for PAHC if he gets everything rezoned to maximize his profits. PAHC will then put a 60-unit development there -- which they admit they decided would be for seniors not because they had any analysis that it would best meet the needs, but because it would be the easiest to get their way politically. (Their failure to analyze the needs left them with 20 of 24 BMR units at Moldaw vacant for 3 years.)

The development would sit on a parcel right between two overly congested school transit corridors. You think you have traffic problems downtown? Try Arastradero and Maybell during the school year. Maybell has traffic signs that are mowed completely over replaced more than once a month, yet is the only other designated bicycle boulevard besides Bryant. Even though over a thousand children on foot and bike travel to and from school every school day, the bikes weren't studied in the City's traffic report, even though school commute corridors are supposed to be accorded a heightened level of scrutiny. There is no way to route traffic from the 15 dense houses and 60-unit-development anywhere except the existing overcrowded school commute corridors (to Terman, Gunn, and Juana Briones) of Arastradero and Maybell.

Neighbors with kids, dealing with cancer, dealing with job crises -- have to drop everything to battle this project or face even worse problems than we already have.

That location is the WORST place to put a dense development. Those of you in the North have no idea, because no one is trying to do away with the zoning in the middle of Professorville or Old Palo Alto. You even get to combine lots and tear down houses. Even though, if you came over here and drove up Georgia to Donald to Willmar, you'd see why any old 2,000 sq ft home here goes for over $2 million, we are never accorded the same respect of the zoning rules. Here, even though we already have 3 large affordable housing units in a relatively small neighborhood, we're told the need is so great, and the City is under so much pressure to put in these units, we have to do our share.

Honestly, putting in senior/affordable housing is like kryptonite against anyone who wants to enforce zoning in this community -- I don't know why Arrillaga hasn't proposed it already. He could have gotten away with anything if he had. There are other properties on this side of town where the developers have stopped even pretending they won't get their rezoning, and just proceed as if everything has been rezoned. The City included the Maybell property in its Housing Element as if it had been rezoned, but when neighbors protested, put off the vote on the Housing Element until after their fait accomplit of rezoning Maybell so they could claim it didn't affect their decision (even though they didn't take the Maybell rezoning out of the draft of the Housing Element).

I think putting some housing at 27 University is a great idea. It's a far better place than right in the middle of an R-1 residential area with no nearby services at all. It's right on the rail and bus lines, walkable to PAMF, Avenidas, Stanford, any amenity you could think of. If you're worried about traffic, in THAT location, it would be possible to ask residents to take a no car pledge. They wouldn't need cars there, and thus would not add to traffic.

27 University is a far better place than the middle of a residential neighborhood, especially since it would be possible to create the housing without cars. It's all well an good to complain about ABAG, but it won't help our neighborhood now. If you think housing density is drowning Palo Alto, try walking in our shoes over here!

As for Hostess House, we'd be thrilled to take it on that orchard instead, it could be made into a community orchard, a counterpart to Gamble Garden house only for trees and on this side of town. But the City will never go for it unless other housing units are found. At least at 27 University, the housing could truly be made in a way that created no new traffic.

From what we've seen with this proposal at Maybell, if Arrillaga were to propose to put, say, 75 units of affordable housing for seniors at 27 University - especially if it were a visionary green no car proposal (since it's right on the rail and bus lines, and right downtown - perhaps the complex might have a few shared vehicles), it would put a teflon coating on his project as far as City Council is concerned. With a performing arts center - which we really could use, 400 seats at Lucie Stern is not large enough - and affordable housing for seniors, green no less, there are no concerns, real or imagined, that will take precedence. The project would go forward.

Posted by Overbuilding all over, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 5, 2013 at 8:58 pm

Before you get too carried away blaming another part of town for what the City Planners and the Council approves, take a look at this informal count of housing built since the Comprehensive Plan was adopted. The North was the target first, now it's the South. No one has been spared.
Web Link

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