Editorial: Grandiose proposal needs careful study

Arrillaga project will raise important questions over how to trade-off the negative impacts of a large development with the community benefits it provides

The makings for an unusual public-private-nonprofit development that would transform the city's western gateway at El Camino and University Ave. into a vibrant office and performing arts complex was unveiled with much excitement at Monday night's City Council meeting.

The concept, presented by the city staff, is the result of months of behind-the-scenes discussions with Palo Alto billionaire developer and philanthropist John Arrillaga exploring his interest in helping the city achieve a state-of-the-art performance venue close to both downtown and Stanford.

Arrillaga, one of the wealthiest people in the world due to his ownership and development of office parks throughout Silicon Valley, is best known for his extraordinary support of Stanford, his alma mater, through donating the funds for new buildings and then personally overseeing their construction. He is widely recognized as the person most responsible for funding and building the athletic facilities that have made the Stanford athletic program the top-ranked in the nation.

While Arrillaga recently funded the construction of the new Burgess Gym in Menlo Park, he has never been publicly involved in any major community project in his hometown. It is exciting that he is interested in exploring that possibility.

Only a vague outline of a proposal is currently in front of the public, but that will change as a city-funded study examines all aspects of redeveloping the area that includes the train station, MacArthur Park restaurant, the Red Cross and the transit center.

But the gist of it is that Arrillaga would be given the zoning changes and exceptions necessary to build a large, multi-story office building at the current site of MacArthur Park (the historic building would be moved to another, undetermined, location,) an underground parking garage and a separate performing arts theater.

Once completed, the office building would be donated to Stanford (the land is already owned by the university) and the theater would be donated to TheatreWorks, which would make it their permanent home.

TheatreWorks currently splits its time between the Lucie Stern theater and the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, a dual existence that they are eager to end. A theatre in the heart of Palo Alto, near Caltrain, El Camino Real and Stanford, would be dream come true for the company.

"Try to imagine that you're living in two different hotels in different cities, and you have to move every couple of months," TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley told the Weekly in a recent interview.

But to make this dream come true, the city would have to turn to its controversial "planned community" zoning exception, which allows a developer to exceed normal zoning limits in exchange for "community benefits" deemed by the City Council to be a good trade-off. In this case, the question would be just how tall a building or how much additional traffic congestion should be accepted in order to obtain a permanent home for a single non-profit organization and a beautiful redevelopment of a rather disheveled part of the downtown.

Another issue will be whether the proposed theater should be exclusively for TheatreWorks or whether the city should retain a role in its management and use, such as is the case with the Mountain View Performing Arts Center.

On Monday, the City Council gushed about the project as they voted 8-0 (Mayor Yiaway Yeh is on a Sister City visit in Japan) to spend $250,000 on design and environmental analysis of the proposal. The money would be taken from a $2.5 million fund provided by Stanford as a "public benefit" during the recent approval process of the $3.2 billion expansion of its hospitals.

Before anyone rushes to either support or oppose this proposal, as is apt to happen in Palo Alto, it would be wise for the community to await more details and the results of the study. Any time an "out-of-the-box" proposal is put forth there is need for lots of public discussion and negotiation.

For John Arrillaga, who is accustomed to working out of the public eye when negotiating his vision with Stanford, it is a courageous step to put forth a project like this to the city of Palo Alto, knowing that any proposal of this magnitude will involve lots of public input and a need to build consensus.

An opportunity to create something good for the community is in front of us as a concept. Now the hard work begins to flesh out the details, examine the impacts and mitigations, and hopefully, develop a final plan that achieves the goals of both Arrillaga and the community.

Related story:

Downtown plan could give TheatreWorks a home

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by varsity
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm

If the goal of this project really is to create a new theater in Palo Alto, why not just refurbish the existing Varsity Theater. The Varsity ideally located for Palo Alto residents; close to homes and restaurants and the "bicycle boulevard".

Sounds to me like the theater is really just a facade on a much larger development project including housing and office buildings that will pour more traffic onto an already overloaded section of El Camino Real.

Like this comment
Posted by George
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 12, 2012 at 6:49 am

Traffic creation and parking are always major considerations for Palo Alto development proposals.

Theater traffic will largely occur well after commute hours, but it is centered at a critical interchange -- the Caltrain Station, El Camino Real, Alma, and University Avenue where a rework has long been envisioned.

A high rise office building will be the challenge. Until specific uses are known, it must be assumed this building is likely to attract the most traffic during commute hours.

What about a high rise hotel? A 120-room hotel was eliminated from Stanford Shopping Center plans a few years ago. At the time, it was said hotels generate relatively little traffic and hotel-related traffic generally occurs at other than commute hours.

The El Camino Real Master Planning Study, published March 12, 2003 and updated March 16, 2007, on Page 30 mentions the Palo Alto Intermodal Transit Center (PAITC).
Web Link

The Palo Alto Intermodal Transit Center (PAITC) redesign study addresses the highest-use Caltrain station other than downtown San Francisco. The station serves almost 3000 Caltrain passengers a day and is also an active bus transfer terminal, accommodating almost 700 buses a day, from four different transit operators. It occupies an extremely confined site, bounded by downtown Palo Alto, a major arterial State Highway (El Camino Real), and the railroad tracks themselves, as well as sensitive neighboring land uses.

The PAITC conceptual plan consists of both transportation elements and community amenities. Transportation elements include expanded rail and bus passenger service capacity, an at-grade intersection of Alma Street and University Avenue, the re-design of University Avenue between Alma Street and Palm Drive, and provision of a bicycle and pedestrian undercrossing of Caltrain near Alma and Everett. Community amenities include an urban park and civic space, public art, and urban design features.

A process for project implementation and a financing strategy have been developed to identify potential sources of funding for needed infrastructure and other capital improvements, and the uses of those funds. Project costs are expected to range from $196 million to $247 million. The key steps for implementation are identified with an estimate of 10 to 15 years for planning, design, funding and construction.

Today we are in the middle of that 10 to 15 year period.

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2012 at 9:45 am

What about the proposal to shut down University Avenue and turn it into a pedestrian Mall/Destination? How does that square with all of the building that is going on in downtown, plus this new project?

Where will all of this new traffic go if University is closed down?

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2012 at 10:55 pm

I only wish the plan were to improve Lucie Stern and build a new performing arts center on the SOUTH side of town where we really need it so much more! The north has Stanford, Lucie Stern, Paly (which is building a new auditorium), and we have...NOT EVEN the new community center. Cubberley and the JCC are actually pretty small.

Like this comment
Posted by McArthur Park
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 13, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Folks, Arrillaga only gives to Stanford; the Varsity and Lucie Stern are in Palo Alto. This new theater and development will be built on Stanford land, that's very important to those who donate so generously to Stanford.

However, if Palo Alto residents want to improve the Varsity Theater or Lucy Stern perhaps they should think about donating to their favorite cause.

So sorry to see McArthur Park restaurant go; so aptly named after the '60s Beatles song about Liverpool. Sadly, another Beatles song hits the dust, The hippie era of my magical youth is fading fast!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 14, 2012 at 1:08 pm

@ neighbor:

Don't forget that Gunn/"south side" has Spangenberg Theater - which will be receiving a makeover as part of the school bond projects.

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

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

DoorDash is opening a shared delivery kitchen in Redwood City. What does that say about the future of the restaurant industry?
By Elena Kadvany | 9 comments | 2,944 views

What did you learn last week?
By Sherry Listgarten | 11 comments | 1,696 views

The holiday season
By Cheryl Bac | 2 comments | 663 views

Bond. Bond Touch.
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 653 views