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."