Outstanding Professional: Jim Baer
The consummate real-estate broker, Baer has pushed the zoning envelope while advancing city policy
If you want to get something done in this town, simply "call Jim Baer."
That's what former mayor Larry Klein wrote in his Tall Tree nominating letter, suggesting Baer as the Outstanding Professional Business Person "who, through extraordinary efforts in their chosen field, has contributed significantly to the Palo Alto community."
Perhaps best known as the developer of 125 buildings in Palo Alto — about 40 of them downtown — Baer has been instrumental in moving projects through the Palo Alto process.
Baer credits Klein with helping him develop expertise in identifying projects that are both approvable and advance public policy.
After all, Baer's first job fresh out of Stanford Law School was at Blase, Valentine & Klein.
What Baer learned over time — after starting his own law firm, then his own development company, Premier Properties — was that "land use and buildings are a physical, manifested extension of public policy." And collaboration would prove to be key to furthering policy.
Baer also got an early start in community-based work, joining the board of the Palo Alto Housing Corporation at age 29. He served for 10 years.
At age 60, looking back at his career, Baer points to a couple of stand-out projects:
* 250 University Ave. (at the corner of University Avenue and Ramona Street) was the first Planned Community Zone development, where greater density was to be offset by public benefits. Here he created a Spanish-style building that fit with surrounding, older structures, connected by an alleyway system.
"It got a lot of scrutiny, a lot of conversation," but it was approved unanimously, he said.
* IDEO's headquarters at 100 Forest Ave., designed by Ken Hayes, which was built "for a specific avant-garde user."
"Both are beautiful buildings with an impact on the community," Baer said.
He also was the developer of the first LEED gold-certified commercial building in Palo Alto: Embarcadero Media's headquarters at 450 Cambridge Ave. (the home of the Palo Alto Weekly).
Sometimes Baer pushed the envelope, looking at what he could do that may break some of Palo Alto's rules but ultimately meet the city's policy goals.
That inclination came in handy when he helped further development of the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in south Palo Alto.
In her nomination letter, Shelly Hebert, who served as executive director for development of the campus, wrote: "Jim was immediately responsive and generous with his time and expertise, which he graciously donated. He advised us about the city-approvals process, what issues would be important to the community, and many complex land-use matters that needed to be evaluated before making such a major investment. ...
"Jim's depth of expertise and devotion to community life in Palo Alto is unmatched. ... He truly has a heart of gold."
For his part, Baer acknowledges, "What we're doing stretches some of the zoning requirements, but it enhances public policy. That's what my career has been about."
In 2008, Baer took his longstanding interest in environmental issues and founded Wave One, a nonprofit that assists small businesses reduce their energy use.
With close to 40 businesses signed on, Wave One is ready to go to the next step, he said, using the businesses' combined power to conduct comprehensive inventories, recruit industry experts, figure out the best sources of funding, including tax credits or rebates, and more.
Baer has definitely put his money where his mouth is, personally contributing $350,000.
Baer said he considers receiving the Tall Tree award a continuation of the blessings he's experienced working in Palo Alto all these years.
The timing is especially meaningful to him, given that nearly a year ago he had a near-fatal bike accident that has left him still recovering from a severe brain injury. He spent six weeks unconscious and about seven months in the hospital. He's still not totally back to the office — but he's working on seven Palo Alto projects right now.
He likes to joke that what he does for a living actually helped speed up his recovery.
"I've been hit on the head professionally a thousand times. What do I do for a living? Go negotiate with neighborhoods and city staff, council members and planning commissions.
"Thank you all for the little knocks on the head that contributed to my recovery."
While convalescing, Baer said he couldn't read much but found plenty of time to reflect on life. His conclusion:
"I really am in a business that does not create enemies. We are collaborative. It's like being on a small basketball team; we're doing it together. ...
"I'm blessed with having friends from my career. We really are friends in that shared work we do together."