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Palo Alto takes aim at construction 'blight'

Original post made on Sep 23, 2013

The chain-link fence around the "mystery project" went up next to Gail Wooley's house on Mariposa Avenue nearly seven years ago and has remained since, bringing blight and crime to the Southgate block. On Monday, the City Council voiced support for a new law that would set time limits on delinquent construction projects such as this one.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, September 23, 2013, 11:12 PM

Comments (36)

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Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 23, 2013 at 11:18 pm

Did anyone read this and not immediately think of Mitchell Library?


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Posted by Susan
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 24, 2013 at 12:52 am

A lot of people are working hard to complete Mitchell Park Library. Just drive by and you can see it is getting close.

I am glad the City Council is looking at the issue of these long-term unfinished houses. I hope they find a way to motivate the owners to make progress on them.


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Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 24, 2013 at 1:02 am

> It's also a safety issue. Wooley said she had seen people store and sell drugs on the site. In one case, a person on a bicycle was having a beer at the site while waiting to make what appeared to be an illegal transaction, she said.

These anecdotal stories are pushed here, why? So someone had a beer on the site, in 7 years ... is that significant?

Get to the real point, the city wants to put land in play, create turnover and be able to punish people who do not or can not complete a project on time. Meaning that the only people who will be able to do this kind of work will soon be construction companies. What about the single family that wants to remodel their house on their own?

What is suggested here, and what would be the effect of the change. They have to do this for CA propositions, why not here?


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2013 at 8:11 am

It is amazing that this rule had not existed so it is about time something like this was invoked. Unfortunately, because this is only for new projects, the two library projects and 101 will not be subject to this rule and can take as long as the Palo Alto process and Caltrans warrants.


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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 24, 2013 at 9:01 am

I disagree on the opinion that only construction companies will be able to do the work. Even if a GC is hired, if the money runs out then the project stalls.

And how do you penalize an owner who is out of money?

What the city can do is establish an enforceable set of rules for site maintenance, appearance, cleanliness, etc. The city could also create a set of rules that apply to dormant projects - increased requirements on appearance, security, maintenance, etc.


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Posted by Do-We-Really-Need-More-Laws
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2013 at 9:28 am

> It's also a safety issue. Wooley said she had seen people store
> and sell drugs on the site.

Now, how would Gail Wooley know that drugs were being stored on this site? Did she go over to where these drugs were stored, and identify the materials as drugs?

> In one case, a person on a bicycle was having a beer at
> the site while waiting to make what appeared to be an
> illegal transaction, she said.

Did Gail Wooley call the police, and report these suspicious activities? If not, why not?

Wasn't Gail Wooley a long time City Council Member? Shouldn't she be expected to lead by example, even though no longer on the Council? If she didn't call the police, why not?

Something doesn't make a lot of sense here.


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Posted by GreenAcresGreen
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 24, 2013 at 10:53 am

We have one of these on Maybell next door to Juana Briones ES. Not great seeing it every day walking to school and wondering what goes on there. For one stretch there was something dead and decaying in there that repulsed you just walking by. It's finally seeing progress after 7 years.

Agreed there should be some set of steps here, fines, notices and possibly emminent domain by the city/county? If everyone wants one of these next door then by all means kill the legislation.


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Posted by Tom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 24, 2013 at 10:54 am

What about unsightly yards - weeds high, junk strewed around?? There is one on Walter Hays
that is the despajr of the neigh high height to be illegal and be a fire hazard....but this yard is a disgrace yet nothing can be done.


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Posted by Tom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 24, 2013 at 11:00 am

This previous post should have read:

What about unsightly yards - weeds high, junk strewed around?? There is one on Walter Hays
that is the despajr of the neighborhood - high weeds, lumber and junk, but acc. to city code, the weeds have to be a certain high height to be illegal and be a fire hazard....This yard is a disgrace yet nothing can be done.


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Posted by Hermia
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 24, 2013 at 11:26 am

I'm always relieved to see yards that don't conform to the Camazotz norm. Those weeds and sometimes even old cars or other objects the value of which is not obvious tell me there's someone here who has other values, other priorities, and we haven't been all crushed into a single mold. It makes me feel I'm in a free and lively country.
For the record, my lawn is mown, my bushes trimmed, and no objectionable object blights the presentation at my home. But I welcome variety, and otherness.


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Posted by batting zero
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2013 at 11:29 am

This is years late but it's good to see the Council talking about quality of life in the neighborhoods.Regulating stalled construction projects is badly needed and is a good first step. But the City has a long way to go to demonstrate that it understands or cares about the range of quality of life issues in the neighborhoods, especially with a backdrop of Maybell and parking overflow Downtown.

So far the City is batting zero, below even the most minimal resident expectations in terms of maintaining attractive residential neighborhoods. Guidelines under the Single-Family Individual Review process for two-story houses are not enforced, dewatering for basements is permitted with short-term and possibly long-term impacts,sign clutter is spreading with no regard for street aesthetics, no code enforcement for trash and unsightly conditions.





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Posted by MEA
a resident of Woodside
on Sep 24, 2013 at 11:56 am

Here goes City Council enacting rules for problems they already had a solution to. Fred Herman, former City Building official, never allowed demo permits until construction permits were almost granted. His belief was that otherwise you would leave neighborhoods vulnerable to just this sort of problem. Why not just resume this practice and ask the current Building Official to do the same.


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Posted by southgate resident
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 24, 2013 at 11:58 am

for those who don't believe the Southgate abandoned property isn't a blight AND a safety hazard, come over and look, and then imagine it's been like this for 7 years. Imagine passing this garbage dump every day on your way with your kids to the park. Imagine what a temptation this is to your teenage kids looking for a hideaway, and imagine its attraction to others not so innocent. I don't know if the neighbors have called the police about illegal activities around the site - I suspect they have, but also suspect the response hasn't been immediate since the reports aren't emergencies.


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Posted by Blighted
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Whatever happened to the "Pretty Police" we had in the Nineties? Steve Jobs was cited for having a yard full of fox tails and dirt. Eventually, he had to pay a $20,000 fine. That was chicken scratch for him, and he left his yard a mess for several more years, but for. Out of us, that would be one mean penalty.


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Posted by MT
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 24, 2013 at 12:44 pm

I am thinking the same as Mr.Recycle in the very first post - Mitchell Park Library...


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Posted by Newly-minted cynic
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 24, 2013 at 1:47 pm

"clamp down on delinquent residential construction projects, which the memo states "can cause periodic traffic, parking, noise and visual impacts for community residents and businesses.""

That's right, only the City Council should be allowed to cause traffic, parking, and visual impacts for community residents and businesses!


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Posted by Harker Ave Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2013 at 2:19 pm

We have such a "unfinished" house on our street. It's been an eyesore for years, and has been a squatter site, amongst other things. The owner can't/won't sell it, and the city can't/won't do anything about it. Neighbors have diminished property values as a result. I hope the law is grandfathered in for properties that are more than 5 years old without completion.


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Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 24, 2013 at 2:53 pm

> Neighbors have diminished property values as a result.

I really doubt that -where are the numbers to prove it? When you look at things in Palo Alto that should diminish values of housing you don't see much evidence that people care. Railroad tracks, or the Crescent Park Parking problem, or the increasing traffic, or increasing airplane noise. Houses that are roughly equivalvent in areas where these problems do not exist cost about the same.

Another thing is that as I writing this in the middle of Crescent Park, I head construction noise ... and that has been a constant for the last 5 years or so ... every weekday it's the same thing, and it's all over the city.


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Posted by Diminutive
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 24, 2013 at 3:43 pm

A friend and neighbor has had a blighted property on her block for five years. Due to this fact, she had a hard time selling her house. She had to sell it, a fairly new structure in excellent condition, for less than the appraised value to the first buyer to make an offer: after a year on the market!


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Posted by Katie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2013 at 3:48 pm

A house remodel on the 2000 block of Emerson has been a blight to that neighborhood. The project has had no activity for a couple of years. All neighbors see is a cyclone fence, a construction trailer and a portable toilet.
This city council is finally beginning to address some of the problems in PA. But it is too little, too late. The council members are just trying to salvage their re-election chances for next year. Hopefully Palo Altans will not be fooled by their ineptness and poor stewardship of Palo Alto.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2013 at 4:31 pm

And then of course there was the blight of Alma Plaza for years and the blight at Edgewood Plaza for years and the blight at the old gas station on Middlefield which is now a yoga studio. We have had blight for years and the city did very little to hurry up the process then.

Yes, it is good that now these embarrassing city problems are no longer called blight that the city is doing something about it. Yes it needed to be done, but it was needed many years ago too. We haven't forgotten.


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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 24, 2013 at 5:12 pm

Good point, resident. I guess when the council is responsible for the blight it is okay. Another example of our clueless, self- serving council. After all f former council member Woolley is upset, then the council must act-- otherwise they will not get her endorsement the next election cycle!!!!
And, someone should tell Karen that if the fence is up for 5 years it is considered historic.


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Posted by resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Don't forget the Park Ave land/construction across from AOL)near the CA Ave area.
That project seems to be in limbo


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Posted by Katie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 25, 2013 at 6:37 am

Here's another blight. It's the now vacant lot at the corner of Santa Rita and Waverley. The owner lied to the neighbors saying he was going to build a new house on the lot. He tore down a gracious 1920's Spanish house....then changed his mind about building a new house and has decided to sell the lot. He duped the city and got permission to tear down the house, knowing full well he wasn't going to build a new house. In the meantime, the neighbors are stuck with a cyclone fence and blue tarps surrounding the vacant lot. Can anything be done about that situation? It could be years before the property is sold, architectural plans developed for the property, building permits approved and then of course, the 2-3 year construction of the new house. He owner should be fined.


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Posted by Susan
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 25, 2013 at 8:06 am

It seems to me that a lot of you are sounding like the self righteous, privileged people that Palo Alto is often accused of being. Have a little compassion. I don't know anyone in their right mind that would buy expensive Palo Alto property just to tear down a structure and leave the lot surrounded by a fence, or get halfway through a project and stop. Perhaps these people are in a bind, can't afford to proceed right now, and unbeknownst to you are doing everything they can to change that. Maybe they lost their job and can't afford building right now. Maybe some other tragedy struck their life. Let's show a little compassion for those that may not be in your same stable place right now. Fining these people is not going to help the situation. If you're concerned about the look, about your property values, about people hanging out, do something about it - contact the owner and see if maybe you could help pull the weeds, call the police if you think there is drug activity going on, or if people are illegally hanging out on the site, but don't penalize people for what you don't know.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 25, 2013 at 8:22 am

Susan

As commendable as the sentiments in your post are, the compassion and understanding work both ways. If a property owner is in the dire straits you suggest and is aware of the blight they are bringing to the neighborhood, why don't they reach out to the neighbors and apologize and possibly explain to the neighbors. It takes very little effort to write a note, photocopy it and put it in the neighbors mailboxes to explain why the work is not progressing.

I expect the neighbors would be a lot more understanding if they had some idea of what the reason for the extended break in work was for.


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Posted by Susan
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 25, 2013 at 8:38 am

Dear Resident of Another Neighborhood,

Have you ever been in this type of situation? Reaching out is often the last thing on your mind, or the last thing you are capable of doing. I'll give you a personal example - I was diagnosed with cancer 2 years ago, I did chemo, surgery, and was hospitalized4 times during that period. I had to leave my job, so no paycheck. I did not have the capability or the mental stamina to deal with anything buy getting through the day to day. My yard did go to seed. I had huge weeds, the lawn died, the bushes became overgrown. Instead of complaining my neighbors came to me, and said, "How can we help?" None of them knew about my situation before they asked. However, they got together a work crew, and in one weekend had the yard looking better. Not only was it good for the neighborhood, but it was good for me, really lifted my spirits. This is the Palo Alto I know, and the residents that I encourage all of you to be.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 25, 2013 at 8:47 am

Susan, I agree that Palo Altans are basically good people.

I am sorry for the medical situation you found yourself to be in and it sounds as if you have wonderful neighbors. It also sounds as if the neighbors knew you and were able to contact you.

Many of the projects being done are new owners or developers. That is why I said it works both ways. As you said, it would have been hard for you to reach out to your neighbors, but I feel sure that at the first time one neighbor reached out to you and heard the situation it was passed on from one neighbor to another. It doesn't take a lot for someone being asked "is there anything I can do" for someone to reply with, "please let my neighbors know that I am sorry about the mess" and this someone to be the one to pass the word around.

As I said it works both ways. Being a good neighbor is the first step in having good neighbors, regardless of which way it starts.

I have several neighbors that I speak with regularly. I have been the one to take lemonade and cookies to a family moving in on a hot day, seeing something odd and doing something about it, and other neighborly things. But it is nice to have that reciprocated.


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Posted by Susan
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 25, 2013 at 9:02 am

Resident of Another Neighborhood,

Yes, being a good neighbor is important, but you missed my point, that sometimes it's "impossible" to ask or explain when you find yourself in trouble. I actually didn't know my neighbors before all of this happened to me. I was lucky I had good neighbors. But what about the person who's lost their job just as they were starting this project, or got caught in the recent financial crisis? Though new to the neighborhood, they obviously chose the area for a reason. Perhaps they would be good neighbors if given the chance, but just can't do it right now. It can be embarrassing to admit what's happening, especially if it affects your self esteem like losing a job. And again, when you are in crisis, physically taking care of a property might be the last thing on your mind, and/or the last thing you are capable of whether it's financial, emotional, or otherwise. How is fining these people, that are obviously having some sort of difficulty, going to help the situation?


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 25, 2013 at 9:24 am

Susan

I agree, fining may not be the right solution for many cases such as you are describing.

But, you miss the point that many of these projects are being built by developers.

The last few total remodels in my neighborhood were done by a developer who bought an old fixer upper, demolished it and rebuilt a brand new home that went onto the market at a huge profit. In my opinion and experience, these are the biggest causes of blight, not a private individual whose circumstances have changed.

It is sad that your neighbors did not know you before you had your health issues. I feel sure that if you were my neighbor I would have reached out to you as a friendly neighbor long before you were sick. Even now a home has changed hands and the new owners are still awaiting some small work to be done before they move in. I have already introduced myself to them. Not sure how long it will be before the painting job is done, but they have had the opportunity to let me know that there will be some work being done.

I have said my piece.


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Posted by remodeler
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 25, 2013 at 10:38 am

The status, owner of the site, contractor etc. of a construction project can be found on the City website, you just need the address:

Web Link

@Katie - the lot at the corner of Waverley and Santa Rita has a valid permit for the construction of a one-story home and has a contractor's sign out front. The house has only been gone for a short time and the site is clean. I don't think that lot qualifies as "blight".

There is a lot you can do to be a good neighbor when remodeling or building, keeping a clean job site is one of the easiest and least expensive ways. Most projects - even those on hold for financial reason - can still maintain a construction site free of debris and weeds. Takes just a little time and a few garbage bags.


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Posted by trampled
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 25, 2013 at 12:43 pm

In our neighborhood we had both a major remodel and a spec-builder teardown new construction. The whole process was stacked
against the neigbors and the neighborhood. Our City government does not serve the residents or protect neighborhood values. It serves
builders/developers.


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Posted by senior longtime resident
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 25, 2013 at 2:12 pm

"The whole process was stacked

against the neigbors and the neighborhood. Our City government does not serve the residents or protect neighborhood values. It serves

builders/developers."

This statement is entirely true. And surely we in the Maybell neighborhood know this first hand. The City Council had made a decision about PC rezoing before they heard from residents in our neighborhood. This was evident from the start knowing that the City Council lent PAHC millions of dollars. One of the members law firm was involved in selling the property to the PAHC, but didn't recuse himself from the vote. But finally there is a mechanism to let our tone deaf City Council know how Palo Altans view them. Residents from all over P.A. signed our petitions to put the referendum on the ballot. Our website, voteagainstmeasured.com will give you information on how you can help. And please come out and VOTE AGAINST MEASURE D. You vote will help us send a strong message!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 26, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Posted by Hermia, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Sep 24, 2013 at 11:26 am

I'm always relieved to see yards that don't conform to the Camazotz norm. Those weeds and sometimes even old cars or other objects the value of which is not obvious tell me there's someone here who has other values, other priorities, and we haven't been all crushed into a single mold. It makes me feel I'm in a free and lively country.

For the record, my lawn is mown, my bushes trimmed, and no objectionable object blights the presentation at my home. But I welcome variety, and otherness.
------------
Very thoughtfully put. I value "otherness," too, Hermia.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 26, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Hermia and Nora,

I don't get the reference to 'Camazotz'. I assumed it had to do with high-quality landscaping, but I googled it and came up with a Mayan death god. Can you clue me in?

Thanks.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by JoAnn
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 29, 2013 at 2:06 am

One very wet winter in the 90's I had a yard full of tall weeds that I found quite beautiful. Besides, I had an electric lawn mower, and the plants needed to dry out before I could cut them. Well, "weeds" being illegal in perfect Palo Alto, either the city or county came after me. I tried cutting them and burned out the motor on my lawn mower. Whenever I tried to complain to anyone, they would point to the other agency: "not us, try the county," "not us, it's Palo Alto." Finally in disgust I hired someone to clear the yard.

Then one day the lawn nazis appeared. They rode in on a truck dressed in white hazmat suits with respirator masks. Got off the truck and looked around for a minute. A few took a feeble whack at the odd blade of grass that had escaped the slaughter. Then they piled back in the truck and left. Heh. The show was almost worth the whole mess.


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