Keeping what matters
New partnerships, city vision needed to keep Palo Alto's community gathering places from redevelopment
Palo Alto developer Roxy Rapp tried to save the Palo Alto Bowl.
His father, Lou, built the El Camino Real bowling alley in 1954, when it was named Fiesta Lanes, according to the Palo Alto History Project, an online chronicle. As a young man, Rapp spent many hours there, part of the time working as a waiter.
"I have a lot of feeling for the Palo Alto Bowl. My big dream was to put in a Lucky Strike — a real contemporary bowling alley. But the developer outbid me by $1 million," he said.
On Dec. 14, the Palo Alto City Council approved plans to demolish Palo Alto's last remaining bowling alley and replace it with a new 167-room hotel and 26 three-story townhouses.
The loss went down hard for area residents, who have fond memories of the place and even started a petition drive to save the business.
"Most communities in America pride themselves on having things like bowling alleys. We tear 'em down for million-dollar condos. It is sad, I think, that in this community wealth doesn't make room not only for special needs but for just normal people," former Vice Mayor Jack Morton said at the December meeting.
High land values, the demand for new housing and changing shopping habits have led to the loss of community icons in Palo Alto in recent years — places where residents have gathered for generations to play or that have served a key role in creating a sense of community.
Neighborhood grocery stores, movie theaters, bookstores, bowling alleys and even gas stations are being replaced with housing, offices and hotels.
The transformation is increasingly frustrating residents, who have expressed at public meetings a feeling that "progress" is coming at too high a price to Palo Alto's quality of life.
But finding ways to save icons of social capital is complex, according to developers, city officials and leaders of grassroots groups. The city has no authority to dictate what property owners should do with their land, although it can wield some influence.
With land values high, private-interest groups hoping to save a landmark business need considerable funds.
Meanwhile, developers often stand to gain much more profit — and the city can receive greater tax revenues — when turning over the use of land to higher-paying tenants.
It's part of the changing economic landscape.
But losing community resources doesn't have to be inevitable, local leaders say. The city could take stock of its valued icons and plan for their survival.
"We should begin a dialogue about ways to anticipate the potential loss of the kinds of things that are important to the community," Mayor Pat Burt said during a recent interview.
Former Councilmember Yoriko Kishimoto agreed.
"The best strategy is for the city to have a clear community vision and make sure it is part of the Comprehensive Plan," Kishimoto said. "It's a mistake to think that on every piece of land an owner has the right to do the maximum development."
If the city communicates its clear intentions, a developer will know when he or she buys a piece of land whether the plans reflect the values of the community, she said.
Planning ahead is vital, according to Council member Karen Holman, who is also the executive director of the Palo Alto History Museum.
"Once a building or use goes away the community loses the viability of that traditional use," she said.
Palo Alto has already seen numerous gathering spots folds. The Varsity Theatre on University Avenue turned into a Borders bookstore in the mid-1990s.
That was a "big community loss. It was a cultural center and musical venue," Holman said.
The Fine Arts Theatre on California Avenue went defunct in the 1980s and is now a store that sells running gear.
The Midtown neighborhood lost its longtime department store, Bergmann's, in 1994 and its only gas station in 2004.
Grocery stores, such as the All-American Market in Barron Park and Albertsons in Alma Plaza, have also fallen by the wayside.
The chances of any of these businesses coming back are slim to none.
"That's one reason to protect those resources," Holman said.
Palo Altans have had some success in saving community icons.
When the Winter Lodge, founded in 1956 and the only permanent outdoor ice-skating rink west of the Sierra Nevada, announced plans to close at the end of 1983, residents fought to keep it open.
Skaters formed the nonprofit Friends of the Winter Club, as the rink was then known, and tried unsuccessfully to get a new rink built at Greer Park.
The group found another city-owned parcel, west of the Palo Alto Golf Course near Geng Road, and received a lease option from the City Council. They lacked the funding to build the rink, though, according to the Palo Alto History Project, a website by resident Matt Bowling.
With the help of Morton, who would later become a council member, the group leased the lodge from owner Richard Peery. Unable to come up with $2.5 million to purchase the rink, the group convinced the council to swap the baylands parcel for the lodge. In November 1985, residents passed two measures to approve the swap, according to Bowling.
Grassroots initiative has also rescued local bookstores.
When Kepler's Books and Magazines in Menlo Park suddenly shuttered its doors in August 2005, people invested money, helped renegotiate lower rent, formed the nonprofit Friends of Kepler's and launched a membership drive to reopen and sustain the bookstore. It remains open today.
In October when California Avenue's only remaining bookstore, Know Knew Books, also threatened to close, fans of the business also donated money and helped the store form a subscription membership to keep it open.
Meanwhile, some community icons have been saved by private investors. David Woodley Packard purchased the closed Stanford Theatre on University Avenue in 1987 and turned it into a premier venue for classic films.
Even developers have stepped forward to preserve community places.
When San Francisco developer James Ellis decided to renovate Town & Country Village, his love for old things and familiarity with the community played a part in the decision to keep the center intact rather than add housing, he said.
Ellis's father and sister, who are partners in the family business, Ellis Partners LLC, attended Stanford University. He spent time at Town & Country, located at Embarcadero Road and El Camino Real, as a youth during family visits in Palo Alto, he said.
His firm surveyed shopping-center customers to discover what they wanted out of the center make-over.
"As a small developer, we're not interested in taking on projects that the community is adverse to. Life is too short," he said.
He admitted he hit some public relations bumps early on. In re-doing the center, founded in 1953, some businesses closed, including the popular Cookbook Restaurant.
"When we started out on this project there was a huge amount of distrust. It always takes time to gain credibility and support in a community. ... We probably made some mistakes in how we handled things. There were some hard decisions that had to be made to change the center's makeup," he said.
Ellis is pleased with the results. He said he gets a "huge amount of satisfaction in making a community environment people can gather in. ... The community and city are generally charmed with the Town & Country Village motif. It existed so long it was a community landmark."
When a well-loved business closes, people often ask why the city officials didn't do more to rescue it.
Their response: A developer has the right to build on a property as he or she sees fit, within the scope of how the land is legally zoned. The city can't tell the land owner what kind of business must be located on the property.
It can, however, use zoning to convey the community's vision for the category of use of the land, city leaders said.
In discussing the Palo Alto Bowl at the Dec. 14 council meeting, then-Councilman Burt raised the possibility of considering recreational "overlays" for other properties in Palo Alto. Such zoning overlays would offer developers an incentive, such as allowing extra square footage to be built, if they use the land for recreational purposes.
The city might also offer other perks, such as transferable development rights, to help keep community resources intact, officials said.
The city already uses transferable-development rights to aid historic resources, according to Holman, a former planning commissioner.
The property owner can build a larger structure in exchange for saving the historic resource or can sell off development rights to which they are otherwise entitled. Currently, that policy is limited to the downtown area, she said.
Incentives recently aided developers of the planned College Terrace Centre to gain approval for their project, which includes the 61-year-old JJ&F Food Store.
The center's deal allows for dense development — 40,000 square feet of office space, 5,800 square feet of retail and eight units of affordable housing — in exchange for a 30-year lease for the market, a neighborhood mainstay.
But some residents said the cost is too high. Ironically, saving a community institution may decrease quality of life in other ways. Such deals may impact neighborhoods with parking, traffic and other woes for decades to come, residents have said.
It raises the question of what preserving a community icon is ultimately worth. While there are residents who breathed a collective sigh of relief when the JJ&F plans were approved, others said the city gave away too much.
"JJ&F is an excellent neighborhood-serving grocery store that is like a close relative to many residents. Like the home you love, no dollar value can be assigned. ... The PR campaign to 'save JJ&F' was a means to manipulate the public and decision makers to give away zoning rights and produce negative impacts down the road. This is a classic tactic but undesirable approach to provide or maintain public benefits," College Terrace community leader Fred Balin said.
Developers don't necessarily favor zoning as a vehicle for encouraging preservation.
It's inappropriate and unfair, said Charles "Chop" Keenan. Often when there is not consensus on what is desired, zoning is used rather than coming up with money to buy the land, he said.
"With Winter Lodge, the city put their money where their mouth is. With Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District or Peninsula Open Space Trust, when they want to save something, they buy it. You don't try to zone it out of existence. Where you don't have consensus, you spend money," he said.
Roger Smith, founder of Friends of the Palo Alto Parks, said he thinks the future of community resources will depend on "friends" groups and citizen leadership.
His group has funded and partnered with the city to create recreational spaces in parks such as a playground at Heritage Park and the recent revitalization of Lytton Plaza.
The group is raising $1 million to build Magical Bridge Park, a fully accessible playground for people with disabilities within Mitchell Park. The city will contribute 18,000 square feet for the park, he said.
"A public-private partnership focuses on the people who use (a facility). It is not developed in a vacuum. We are able to do things that would take the city five to 10 years and we can do it for half the cost," Smith said.
In that sense, if there is pessimism about the city's ability to retain community resources, residents such as Smith are optimistic new ones can be created.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.