News

Palo Alto tries to locate missing 'public benefits'

Watch-dog complaint prompts city to re-examine amenities that developers failed to provide

Spurred by a group of land-use watchdogs, Palo Alto planners are trying to resurrect some of the "public benefits" that local developers were required to maintain but that seem to have vanished over the years.

The often-disputed benefits are engrained in the city's process for granting planned community (PC) zoning applications. PC-zoned projects enable developers to build at a higher density that the zoning code normally allows in exchange for "public benefits," which include such amenities as public parks, benches, plazas and community rooms. Palo Alto has about 80 PC-zoned projects, including the recently approved Alma Plaza and College Terrace Centre developments.

Developers behind Edgewood Plaza on Channing Avenue have also applied for a PC zone to redevelop the plaza.

But some land-use watchdogs, including Barron Park resident Winter Dellenbach, have argued that developers often don't keep their part of the bargain. Last year, Dellenback filed a complaint with the city planners highlighting three PC-zoned projects that seem to be out of compliance with their approved applications. This includes a development at 200 Sheridan Ave., near Café Riace, which features what was supposed to be a public plaza.

The plaza is best known as the site of the fountain sculpture "The Body of Urban Myth," which features a nude female hoisting a washing machine over her head. While the sculpture is technically "public art," the plaza around it has largely been taken over by Café Riace tables and furnishings. For critics like Dellenbach, the plaza is now public in name only.

"It doesn't make any sense to make art a public benefit if the public can't access it because there are 40 tables surrounding it," Dellenbach said.

The complaints by Dellenbach and fellow PC-zone critics Mark Nadim and Tom Jordan appear to be getting the attention of city staff. Palo Alto's Advanced Planning Manager Steven Turner discussed the complaint about 200 Sheridan with Café Riace owner Giuseppe Carrubba, who Turner said made an attempt to create an open area leading to the fountain.

The restaurant also relocated some it its furnishings to make more space for the public. Turner wrote in an e-mail to Dellenbach that the restaurant owner also agreed to move tables and chairs in the plaza to "previously approved locations" within the next few days. He said staff is also talking to the property owner, Harold Hobach, about possibly lowering the hedges near the plaza to make it more visible to the public.

Dellenbach had also complained about two downtown projects, at 901 Alma St. and on High Street, near the restaurant St. Michael's Alley. In both cases, developers were required to provide public plazas, which Dellenbach said turned out much smaller than expected (she has dubbed the one near 901 Alma a "mini-micro plaza"). In the case of 901 Alma, the PC ordinance also called for the sidewalk near the plaza to be colored. The yellow paint on the sidewalk has since washed off.

Planning Director Curtis Williams said the city has been talking to property owners at all three properties about PC-zone compliance issues. Williams said the city's approval included a provision allowing St. Michael's Alley to use some of the plaza space, though the restaurant has gradually spilled out to take over most of the plaza. He said the city is awaiting a response from the restaurant addressing the city's concerns.

City planners are also working with the Public Works Department and property owners at 901 Alma St. to identify the best way to comply with the conditions of the PC ordinance, Williams said.

Though some critics have called for the city to take a tougher stance and fine developers who don't comply, Williams said doing so could prove to be counter-productive.

"When you fine people, often they end up going into hibernation mode and stop cooperating," Williams said. "There's a point at which we might have to do that, but we're not at that point yet.

"If they continue to make progress, we'll work with them to resolve these issues."

Gennady Sheyner

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Stanford trails?
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2010 at 4:31 pm

When is Stanford going to build the bike path along Page Mill Expressway to the Arastradero Preserve? They promised it 10 years ago and nothing happened. A promise is a promise, right?


Like this comment
Posted by VoxPop
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 15, 2010 at 5:25 pm

How about confiscating some of the out-of-bounds furniture to compel compliance? Or at least holding it as bond until the appropriate changes are made?


Like this comment
Posted by Howard
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 15, 2010 at 7:21 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] In the case of Cafe Riace, the outdoor eating area is one of the nicest retaurant environments around. A far better resource than if it was a "public plaza".


Like this comment
Posted by hn
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 15, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Developers make millions and take advantage of our weak planning enforcement daily........


Like this comment
Posted by Maria
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 15, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Some years ago when the owner of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park got a permit to replace the fence along Los Robles Ave., he was required by the city to provide "plantings and irrigation". Anyone notice any plantings or irrigation there?


Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 16, 2010 at 5:53 am

"When is Stanford going to build the bike path along Page Mill Expressway to the Arastradero Preserve? They promised it 10 years ago and nothing happened. A promise is a promise, right?"

Actually Stanford has been trying to build the path... But was sued for trying to do so by a green group which held things up. San Mateo is not helping either.
Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Stanford trails?
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 16, 2010 at 9:43 am

Stanford is just stalling. The Page Mill bike path has nothing to do with San Mateo County.


Like this comment
Posted by Amused
a resident of another community
on Sep 16, 2010 at 11:18 am

I know so many people that are moving OUT of Palo Alto, residents, tired of all the complaining. This is a good example.

How many people will go out of their way to use the Cafe Riace area as a park, when they have Peers Park so close by, plus the other little park, right around the corner? It's ridiculous.

Let the restaurant use that area for tables and chairs that will be USED. Riace is a great restaurant. We've been there several times -we sat outside, unlike downtown Mountain View, where when one wants to sit outside, they are forced to dine in parking stalls with cars on Castro Street zooming by. For the over 40 crowd, where's the charm in that?

Who are these constant complainers? Can Palo Altans be any more business UNfriendly? The staff and the council jump at the whim of a few people - the last person I know moved to San Mateo, where,his family says it's "more normal".


Like this comment
Posted by Seth
a resident of another community
on Sep 16, 2010 at 11:32 am

"The plaza is best known as the site of the fountain sculpture "The Body of Urban Myth," which features a nude female hoisting a washing machine over her head. While the sculpture is technically "public art," the plaza around it has largely been taken over by Café Riace tables and furnishings."

The builder screwed up when they installed this sculpture years ago. When the concrete pad was poured for it, it was mistakenly done rotated 90 degrees from the original design. Although the artist complained, the City of Palo Alto decided to leave it as is. No wonder the City wants to forget about this fiasco "public plaza". It's been broken since before it officially opened.


Like this comment
Posted by Where is the parking
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 16, 2010 at 11:32 am

What happened to the parking that was given to the developer of 800 High street?
That's why many of us voted for that oversized place. Does the parking exist?


Like this comment
Posted by Where is the parking
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 16, 2010 at 11:35 am

Café Riace may be a nice restaurant but my table was embarrassed to be seated around HUGE statues of nude men.
This isn't Italy, it's California. Very questionable taste by the designers and developer.


Like this comment
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 16, 2010 at 11:51 am

If you drive down page mill, you'll see the beginning of the Stanford path on the south side starting just past Junipero Serra. It's paved and lined up past Deer Creek. Not opened yet.

Always find is ironic that the Committee for GREEN Foothills pushed and pushed for Stanford to pave over the foothills to make a bike path.


Like this comment
Posted by Albert
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 16, 2010 at 12:26 pm

There don't seem to be very many cities that have this sort of zoning (PC). It might be worthwhile to consider terminating it from the zoning codes. It's clear that the City has not been able to insure compliance of those applying for zoning variances under PC. Moreover, the value of the "public benefit" offered by the various projects has always been dubious at the least, and beyond any meaningful way of valuing at the extreme.

PC may be of great value to developers, but what is its value to the public?


Like this comment
Posted by Brian Schmidt
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I am the Santa Clara County Advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills.

1. The Committee has never advocated for paved trails in Stanford Foothills. We would have preferred a rural-standard, unpaved trail on Stanford lands where Stanford had actually promised to build. This, incidentally, would have saved millions of dollars paid by students and donated by alumni like myself, compared to the paved trail's expense.

2. The Page Mill area trail, while not our preferred alignment, was not one that we opposed or litigated against. After we brought suit against the attempt to widen a sidewalk on Alpine Road instead of doing the other promised trail on the north side, Stanford on its own decided to stop construction of the Page Mill trail and blamed Committee for Green Foothills' lawsuit against the other trail for Stanford's own decision.

3. Our lawsuit was filed in June 2006 and concluded earlier this year, so it wasn't done 10 years ago. Instead it was Stanford (and to be fair, Santa Clara County) that delayed for years after the 2000 approval to plan the trail mitigation, a mitigation that was supposed to come into effect at roughly the same time as Stanford reaped the benefit of 5 million square feet of development rights.


Like this comment
Posted by Commitee that serves no purpose
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 16, 2010 at 1:20 pm

What Brian Schmidt conveniently forgets is that the Foothills are the private property of Stanford. I am sure the Mr Schmidt believes, because he founded an organization with the word "foothill" in it, that means that he can dictate what can and cannot be done with the foothills. The bottom line is that "Committee for Green Foothills" under the past leadership of Denice Dade and the current Leader, Brian Schmidt have fostered an atmosphere of animosity towards Stanford, by having a policy of being against anything Stanford has proposed.


Like this comment
Posted by bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 16, 2010 at 4:19 pm

The City (whomever has the responsibility for planning) must have a mechanism in place to follow up on the public benefits of a development. If this is done for say 25% of the areas quarterly, in one year all would be reviewed.

If the developers knew this would be done and there would be penalties for non-compliance, in two years the problem would be solved. The operative word is penalties which should be a part of any contract between the developers and the City.


Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 16, 2010 at 7:26 pm

The Campus for Jewish Life was granted a PC and allowed to build 12' above Palo Alto's 50' height limit. in return they were supposed to provide a jitney bus to help their senior citizens get around. I have yet to see that bus, where is it?

If you ask the JCC they will tell you that VTA bus line 88 goes down Fabian way passed their facilities. Yes, but that was negotiated between Palo Alto and the VTA. It was not supposed to replace their jitney bus

In other words they were granted a PC allowed to build 12 feet above Palo Alto's 50' height limit and have yet to give back anything to Palo Alto for this very generous code exception.


Like this comment
Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2010 at 9:33 am

"Posted by hn, a resident of the Adobe-Meadows neighborhood, on Sep 15, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Developers make millions and take advantage of our weak planning enforcement daily........"

Is this a joke??? Most of the better developers have LEFT Palo Alto because you CAN'T make money here.


Like this comment
Posted by Brian Schmidt
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2010 at 10:18 am

I'll just clarify one point: Stanford received approximately 5 million square feet in new development rights when its permit was approved in 2000. The Environmental Impact Report acknowledged that this development would impact recreational resources of both the surrounding community and the Stanford community, and for both reasons, called for mitigation consisting of two trails on Stanford land. Stanford agreed to this provision, but in our opinion, later reneged on the deal while still getting all the development.

I guess I should also mention that I didn't found the Committee for Green Foothills, I'm not its leader, and that we don't oppose every Stanford action. Their conservation work in the Foothills and at Jasper Ridge is world-class, and as I had just previously mentioned, we didn't oppose the trail along Page Mill Road. We also didn't oppose the 2000 application for 5 million feet of development.


Like this comment
Posted by Commitee that serves no purpose
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 17, 2010 at 10:41 am

Love Brian Schmidt's revisionist history of the events surrounding Committee for Green foothill's attempts to take over Stanford land.

Brian states:
"Stanford agreed to this provision, but in our opinion, later reneged on the deal while still getting all the development."

Brian clearly ignores the article that was posted earlier.
Here is the link again:
Web Link

Note in the article that it clearly states:
"The ruling rejects claims in a lawsuit filed by the Midpeninsula-based Committee for Green Foothills that Stanford and Santa Clara County missed a crucial deadline in starting work on two trails on the south and north boundaries of Stanford lands. "

So first Brian claims that Stanford is reneging on the deal, when a court clearly ruled that they are not. Then his group files a lawsuit against Stanford--Stanford waits until the lawsuit is settled> So Brian's group prevented Stanford from beginning work on the trails, but Brian's groups actions lead to the delay.

As I said Committee for Green Foothills serves no useful purpose in this region.


Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 17, 2010 at 11:49 am

"It's clear that the City has not been able to insure compliance of those applying for zoning variances under PC. Moreover, the value of the "public benefit" offered by the various projects has always been dubious at the least, and beyond any meaningful way of valuing at the extreme."

Actually, the city got its promised public benefit from the PC office building at Lytton and Waverley, which was a sculpture depicting the history of the automobile. It's those cute little gold "car" caricatures embedded in that arch over its door. Very educational, unless you know what a car actually looks like. I bet the developer is still laughing about it.


Like this comment
Posted by Committe for Green Toe Nails
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Sep 17, 2010 at 4:29 pm

“Commitee that serves no purpose” says, “Committee for Green Foothills serves no useful purpose in this region”.

“Brian Schmidt” says, “We also didn't oppose the 2000 application for 5 million feet of development.”

If Josef Stalin worked for Stanford's real estate development organization, he would call the Committee for Green Foothills "useful idiots".


Like this comment
Posted by Brian Schmidt
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2010 at 1:00 pm

"The ruling rejects claims in a lawsuit filed by the Midpeninsula-based Committee for Green Foothills that Stanford and Santa Clara County missed a crucial deadline in starting work on two trails on the south and north boundaries of Stanford lands."

In other words, the ruling in the Stanford lawsuit solely concerned which of two potential deadlines applied to filing the lawsuit. The appellate court agreed with us, but it was reversed. We never had the chance to have our argument on the merits - that this was an entirely new decision that needed environmental review - considered by the courts.

Don't believe me? The decision is publicly available to read on the California Courts website, and the citation is 48 Cal 4th 32.


Like this comment
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 24, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Planning Department Staff obviously have their hands full processing current applications and projects. I think the City should hire a full time zoning compliance officer to enforce these and other regulations as they are obviously very important to the community.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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