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.