Guest Opinion: A 'convenience center' in an inconvenient spot
I almost moved to Palo Alto before Alma Plaza became controversial, that is, in 1969, but Stanford checked my grades, compelling me to start life at Berkeley.
By and by, local laws against Cal grads were eased somewhat, loopholes found, and Michele, our three daughters and I managed to move here at last, me setting up shop in a little brown-shingled house off University Avenue.
Incredible as it may seem, developers have been trying to redevelop Alma Plaza for the last 17 years. Personally, I've been involved with Alma Plaza since 1994 when Lucky Stores asked for our help.
Lucky's told the city then that the only way a redevelopment of Alma Plaza would work was if it could build a much bigger store. Because our 1994 Planning Commission saw the property's redevelopment in the same light — the commission's internal redesign of the center actually had it anchored by a 35,000-square-foot market — Lucky's was initially encouraged, even coaxed, by the city to submit plans.
But when we submitted plans, all hell broke loose. And when the neighbors' wrath was visited upon the city, our official support evaporated. Over several years of public rejections, Lucky's slowly retreated, dropping its proposed market from 50,256 to 44,777 and finally to 37,489 square feet — each time winning converts but still facing implacable, if dwindling, opposition.
Some local neighbors, aided by the Midtown Residents Association (in an effort to save the old Co-Op Market in Midtown) demanded the city "Draw the Line" at 20,000 square feet for supermarkets. Meanwhile, Lucky's insisted a store of less than 35,000 square feet would be a financial disaster.
The project would have died then, in 1999, but Albertsons took over Lucky's. Less experienced in urban settings, Albertsons allowed itself to be talked into a gold-plated supermarket of 29,000 square feet, winning Planning Commission approval at last. But before it could get to the City Council, Albertsons was blindsided by the El Camino/Charleston traffic moratorium. During that year-long city-imposed delay, Albertsons apparently concluded Lucky's was right — that a store that small would never work. It quietly abandoned the project.
McNellis partners bought Alma Plaza nearly a year ago. The biggest difference between the 1990s and now is that the shopping center that might have been — the one we, McNellis Partners, tried our level best to get approved — is no longer possible. Even if the city were to suddenly embrace "big box" retailing, Albertsons limited any new Alma market to less than 18,000 square feet through a private deed restriction — a common practice among retailers — to protect its Mountain View store a mile away.
This restriction might have been an issue in another time and place, but since no retailers are building supermarkets in the 18,000 to 35,000-square-foot range anyway this will have no effect on Alma Plaza. Markets of today are either smaller or very much larger. Whole Foods, formerly content at 20,000 square feet, is today building a 55,000-square-foot store in Los Altos.
My opinion hasn't changed since I first saw this center in 1994: It's a convenience center in an inconvenient location. We could have made it work with a 35,000-square-foot store (at half the size of a modern supermarket). But with the larger-market opportunity gone, neither we nor any other developer can possibly risk more than a modest neighborhood-serving center.
This opinion has some experience behind it. McNellis Partners has been around 25 years, specializing in fixing up worn-out shopping centers — they're all within a two-hour drive; we don't travel much. Of the 39 projects we've completed since 1982, 29 have been shopping centers, totaling more than 3.1 million square feet of building area. Once in awhile we even win an award from a grateful city for helping with its redevelopment.
But if you prefer an independent professional opinion as to the best use for Alma Plaza, please consult the 1992 retail study entitled, "A Planning Policy Audit of Retail Areas in the City of Palo Alto". Commissioned directly by the city from Gruen Gruen Associates of San Francisco, the Bay Area's leading land-use consultants, the report stated that Alma Plaza's, "size, layout and location make it a very poor candidate for a major rehabilitation effort."
It concluded that "one possible solution ... is to tear down the existing center and create new retail space along Alma. ... The back of this 4.26-acre site could then be put into high density residential."
Ironically, having had — much to our lasting regret — a wonderful retail project killed by neighborhood opposition, this approach is exactly what we're proposing today, neighborhood retail fronting along Alma Street with medium density housing in the rear. n
John McNellis is a general partner with McNellis Partners of Palo Alto, which specializes in shopping center renovations. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.