Push to rename Lytton Plaza debated and delayed
Attempt to name downtown plaza after Thoits family faces setbacks after procedural error
An effort by downtown business leaders to rename the newly renovated Lytton Plaza at University Avenue and Emerson Street after the Thoits family hit an unexpected obstacle two weeks ago, when Palo Alto officials learned that they haven't been following the proper procedure for renaming a public place.
The proposal to change Lytton Plaza to Thoits Plaza has been pushed by a group of downtown developers and business leaders, including developer Chop Keenan, hotelier Barbara Gross and former Mayor Leland Levy — all of whom belong to Friends of Lytton Plaza, an organization that partnered with the city on the recent $750,000 renovation of the prominent plaza.
City officials such as Councilman Sid Espinosa and Parks and Recreation Commissioner Sunny Dykwel (who is also in the Friends group) have also endorsed the proposal to name the proposal after the Thoits family, who have owned and operated downtown businesses since 1893.
But at a Dec. 15 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission, commissioners were shocked to learn that they don't have the power to consider renaming requests unless the City Council specifically directs them to do so. The commission and staff from the Community Services Department were preparing to recommend renaming the plaza when watchdog Herb Borock pointed out that they're not following the protocol.
The city's policy on renaming facilities specifies the "City Council shall initiate the renaming process by referral of the public or staff request to the commission or committee whose sphere of influence is most closely associated with the facility in question."
In the case of Lytton Plaza, several groups — the Palo Alto Historical Association, the Friends of Lytton Plaza and city staff — all endorsed renaming of the plaza without waiting for the City Council to initiate the process.
Both Borock and conservationist Emily Renzel said the item should have never been on the commission's agenda and that members' discussion of the topic also violated city rules.
"That's one of the problems of failing to follow the correct process is that there's a temptation to say that — since a mistake was made and this has come before the commission and before the Historical Association — the City Council should also violate the process and staff should continue to violate the process by bringing the record of this meeting to the council," Borock said.
It was the second time in recent months that Borock prevented downtown leaders and Palo Alto officials from making changes to Lytton Plaza in violation of city rules. In August, Borock forced the city to delay its scheduled groundbreaking for the new plaza because the city failed to grant residents a 30-day waiting period to appeal the park-improvement project. The council had to call a special meeting to ensure the renovation could start on time and be completed before the end of the holiday season.
The renovated Lytton Plaza — featuring new landscaping, new street furniture, fresh paving and a fountain — was officially unveiled on Dec. 18.
On Dec. 15, Keenan, Gross and Levy catalogued the many local accomplishments of the Thoits family. Keenan said the Thoits family is virtually synonymous with the economic prosperity of downtown Palo Alto.
"When I think about commerce in Palo Alto and I think about downtown and civic engagement, the Thoits family jumps off the page for the city and the downtown in particular," said Keenan, who filed the formal request to rename the plaza.
Duncan Matteson, who co-founded Mid-Peninsula Bank with Warren Thoits, called his former business partner Palo Alto's "finest gentleman." Levy noted that by renaming Lytton Plaza the city would not only honor a great family but also help stave off confusion from visitors (Lytton Plaza, both he and Keenan pointed out, is not on Lytton Avenue). Dykwel called the family members "pioneers."
The rest of the commission was generally sympathetic to the proposal, but members decided to hold off on making any recommendations until directed by the council.
Both Borock and Renzel asked the commission to carefully consider whether or not to change the plaza's name. Under the city's criteria, the person for whom a place is renamed must have made a significant contribution to the "protection of natural or cultural resources" in Palo Alto; substantial contributions to "the betterment of a specific facility or park," or substantial contributions to "recreational opportunities" in Palo Alto.
Renzel argued that the Thoits family, for all its contributions, doesn't meet these criteria. Borock said that Bart Lytton — a banker who opened Lytton Savings and Loan and who built the plaza — may still have a stronger claim to the plaza's name.
"Bart Lytton had a vision to have public spaces like this one in a downtown area," Borock said, "We're also celebrating the fact that all historic events are associated with Lytton Plaza."
Espinosa, the council's liaison to the commission, said he expects the council to initiate the renaming process in the coming weeks.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.