On Deadline: Arrillaga project is just latest of mega-projects proposed for Palo Alto
Developer John Arrillaga's multi-faceted proposal for four towers at the west end of University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto is actually the latest mega-project that for more than a half century has stirred up concern and controversy.
In this case, expected to reach the City Council in the next few weeks, the proposal is to create four office towers, the tallest of which is about 160 feet. They would literally tower above Palo Alto's longtime 50-foot height limit.
The project would have significant community benefits, including a long-desired new theater building that would provide a base for Palo Alto's homegrown TheatreWorks company. But there's a shadow over "public benefits" under Planned Community (PC) projects, with a sad history of the city failing to enforce (or even monitor) such promised benefits in exchange for added size or change of use.
The plan — and a separate Arrillaga proposal immediately north of Palo Alto in Menlo Park for a large medical-office project on former car-dealerships — are on Stanford University land, and would be given to Stanford by Arrillaga. The gifts would be the latest of many millions of dollars he has given Stanford, from sports facilities to an alumni center and even a new stadium, not counting straight millions in gifts.
But the overriding issue raised by this project is density, including traffic and a general overload of jobs in a constricted area.
Density and traffic issues have dominated city politics since the 1950s, when an alignment of need by both Palo Alto and Stanford due to shaky revenues prompted creation of the Stanford Industrial Park (now morphed into the Stanford Research Park) and the Stanford Shopping Center.
Growth concerns were fanned by huge proposals for the former Mackay radio towers site (later AT&T towers) east of Bayshore Freeway near Embarcadero Road, for Palo Alto's El Camino Ball Park (on Stanford land) and on other sites (such as a proposal to develop a former drive-in-theater property, now Greer Park in south Palo Alto).
The proposals activated residents living near the sites, including Bob Debs, who became a fiery anti-development organizer under what later became known as the "residentialist" resistance after he was elected to the City Council in 1961.
In the late 1950s, focus shifted to traffic with the proposal to build an underpass at Oregon Avenue (then a two-lane cross-town arterial). Jean Slocum and others said it would set the stage for a later expressway that would feed growth on Stanford land and split Palo Alto.
That expressway surfaced in the early 1960s as a Santa Clara County plan for an "Oregon Expressway." After a hard-fought campaign, a modified expressway plan was narrowly approved in a citywide vote.
But the campaign unified those previously concerned about proposals near their homes. There was also intense concern about preserving city parkland — triggered explicitly by the El Camino Ball Park high-rise proposal. Former Councilwoman Enid Pearson's 1965 Park Dedication initiative followed a council refusal to dedicate parklands. And it swept Pearson and retired state Sen. Byron Sher into office.
In 1966, as a 26-year-old reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times, I was thrown into the maelstrom of Palo Alto politics. A main feature was a famous 7-to-6 split of the 13-member City Council (reduced from 15 on the way to the present nine-member council). The 7-to-6 voting pattern extended even to approval of minutes and merger of unfinished agendas, and council business slowed bitterly to a near halt.
A near fistfight between Debs and Councilman Bob Cooley, both now deceased, prompted a Times' editorial calling for an all-council or "recall" election.
But the growth issues remained. They even spread to Palo Alto's vast, mostly undeveloped, foothills region, stretching up to Skyline Boulevard. One plan would have added homes for up to 50,000 persons, essentially doubling Palo Alto's population. Utilities were even run up the winding Page Mill Road to serve the housing — the marks of pavement cutting for the water, electric, gas and sewer lines are still visible in sections of the road. City leaders rejected a plan for a 1,776-home development in the lower foothills.
Not long after I was assigned to cover Palo Alto city news, I met developer Ryland Kelley when he made a presentation to city leaders atop the then-new high-rise Palo Alto Office Center.
Facing east, with an easel-pad beside him, he swept his arm over the downtown area spread out before the modest-size audience. He outlined a vision of a row of high rises (by Palo Alto standards) down University Avenue. There would be retail (stores and restaurants) on the ground floors and offices above, he explained.
There would be an outer ring of high-rise housing, whose residents could work in the commercial buildings and support the retail.
Reaction was intense, and the vision faded into the sunset — as the concept of a "human-scale" downtown became a community theme.
A proposal for a "Webster House" high-rise retirement center, a twin to Channing House, was rejected.
In the 1970s, the density and scale of projects continued as a source of community dissension. A proposed high-rise "hospital of the future" between Channing and Homer avenues was defeated by voters in 1970. A proposal to build twin high-rise buildings along Bryant Street just north of University, by developer (and later mayor) Scott Carey was dubbed "Superblock" and became the political debut of former Councilman Dick Rosenbaum as it went down to defeat. A campaign image showed a huge "white elephant" buried below ground with its legs sticking up as the office towers.
Legacies of the density battles include the 50-foot height limit and a continuing sensitivity to traffic impacts. But even some supporters of the height limit — such as former Councilman Le Levy — may not be rigid about it. The tall towers of a new Stanford Hospital and Medical Center seem to be one such exception. But others consider the limit a sacred protection.
Council members so far have indicated cautious interest in the Arrillaga project, largely because of the benefits included in it. But those who know Palo Alto history are aware of the decades of concern about the issues it raises.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org with a copy to email@example.com. He also writes blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).