George Falkenthal can hardly count them anymore. He has been to at least six neighborhood meetings in the last few years and is finally ready for the wrecking ball to begin work on a new Albertson's in Alma Plaza.
"I want a new store in there so bad I can taste it," he said.
Falkenthal attended a Palo Alto Planning Commission meeting more than a year ago, when plans were approved to build a 34,500-square-foot Albertson's store.
"But it didn't happen. I don't know who's dragging their feet, but it all seems rather stupid," he said.
The proposed size of the store, which started at 50,000 square feet five years ago and was reduced four different times to its current size of 29,000 square feet, has long been a sore spot for opponents of the project.
Some of the project's neighbors don't want to see the city's largest grocery story built in their backyard. "It's just too big. The size is way out of line," an Emerson Street homeowner recently stated.
But is it?
A Palo Alto developer thinks not. "Smaller supermarkets just don't make it in this city. Look at the history," said John McNellis, who is working as a consultant to Albertson's.
"Remember Co-op Market, John's Town & Country and All-American Market? They're all gone." And so is 43,000 total square feet of grocery space, he added. Each of those three stores occupied less than 20,000 square feet.
"Small supermarkets without a high-end niche just don't make it in Palo Alto," McNellis said.
It all boils down to the city's zoning standards, which have specific limitations for all commercial establishments. Every grocery store in Palo Alto is zoned for particular uses. For example, both of Palo Alto's Albertson's stores are zoned for "Planned Community" and are intended for developments that are of substantial public benefit, according to Palo Alto's Municipal Code. This "PC" designation does not have a space limitation of 20,000 square feet, unlike other grocery stores in Palo Alto.
The 20,000-square-foot cap applies to three stores in the city: Piazza's Fine Foods, Safeway, and JJ&F, which are zoned "Neighborhood Commercial."
Piazza's is 18,000 square feet. Safeway is adding 1,000 square feet and will top out at 20,000 square feet, once current construction is completed. JJ&F on College Avenue, the smallest of the group, occupies 8,000 square feet.
The 25,000-square-foot Andronico's at Stanford Shopping Center and the 23,000-square-foot Mollie Stone's on California Avenue are zoned "Community Commercial." Whole Foods Market on Emerson Street, at 20,800 square feet, is zoned "Commercial Downtown."
Given the stores' relative sizes, will a 29,000-square-foot Albertson's ultimately make the grade? Lee I. Lippert, vice chair of the city's Architectural Review Board, is optimistic.
"They (Albertson's) are making significant movement in the correct direction. They're listening to feedback and incorporating it into their plan," he said.
Last week's study session with the ARB gave Alberston's an opportunity to present its newest model. Since it was not a formal hearing, no recommendations were made. The board's decision to accept or reject the plan will come at their next session, which has not yet been scheduled. >
E-mail Daryl Savage at email@example.com