Edgewood Plaza, the only shopping area created by Palo Alto homebuilder Joseph Eichler, will soon welcome a new grocery store along with 10 homes and a small public park under a proposal the City Council approved Monday night.
It took months of public hearings, a series of revisions and extensive negotiations with neighborhood residents for the project to win over its critics, get through Palo Alto's planning process and reach the council. On Monday, council members signaled their support for the effort to revitalize the dilapidated and mostly vacant plaza near Embarcadero and West Bayshore roads by approving the project 8-1, with Karen Holman dissenting.
The council vote was the culmination of more than five years of planning by the developer, Sand Hill Property Company. Its initial proposal, which called for more than 30 homes, was soundly rejected by the surrounding neighborhood and had led to a lawsuit. Though council members expressed some concern about traffic and parking issues Monday, they agreed the new proposal would be a welcome change for the plaza, which Councilman Larry Klein characterized as one of the city's most unsightly areas.
The plaza was built in the late 1950s by Eichler and architect A. Qunicy Jones and has gradually fallen into disrepair. Klein, who lives about a mile from the plaza and who worked across the highway from the plaza for many years, estimated that he has driven by the site about 15,000 times in recent decades. This included weekly trips to a dry cleaning establishment that was located at the plaza. It left the plaza last year, he said.
"Over the time, I sadly witnessed the gradual decline of the shopping center until now. It's probably the biggest eyesore in town," Klein said.
The most significant change to the plaza will be a new grocery store, an amenity that has been missing since Albertsons left in 2006. The new store will be operated by The Fresh Market, a chain that specializes in organic food and currently has about 115 stores in the nation. The Palo Alto store, which could open in early 2013, would be its first west of the Mississippi.
"We've known this was always going to be a neighborhood shopping center, and a neighborhood shopping center means a grocery store," John Tze of Sand Hill Property Company told the council. "We've known that we'll need to bring a grocery store, and the grocery store is The Fresh Market."
The renovated plaza will also feature a small community park and 10 two-story homes, designed in an Eichler style, which emphasizes open spaces, natural light and glassy exteriors. One of the existing retail buildings will be relocated as part of the project.
Councilman Pat Burt, who proposed approving the project, called the plan a suitable compromise between the developer and residents.
"The community has been looking forward to this project for a long while, and I think we have something that's a very good balance of a variety of competing interests," Councilman Pat Burt said.
"We're very pleased to have this market coming in, and I think the project as a whole is going to be a real net gain for the community," he added. "I think the bulk of the surrounding neighborhood is really anxious to see it get built."
Most of the speakers who addressed the council Monday supported the project, though some called for the city to make sure it addresses anticipated traffic problems. Members of the Architectural Control Committee, the group of residents that challenged the previous proposal, came out in favor of the new one. Martin Yonke and Diane Sekimura, both of whom took part in the lawsuit against the project, said Monday night that they look forward to the plaza's redevelopment.
Others viewed the project in less rosy terms and criticized it for what they said was a shortage of parking and unsafe traffic conditions at the plaza. Some council members, including Greg Schmid and Klein, also raised questions about potential traffic issues problems that staff plans to address in the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan.
The council's approval also includes a condition calling for a left-turn-arrow traffic signal on Embarcadero at St. Francis Drive. Another condition that Burt attached to the approval was retaining an exit between Edgewood Plaza and the Shell gas station next to it.
Holman voted against the project, saying she was concerned about traffic safety at the new plaza, given its location in a busy corridor next to to Highway 101. She also questioned the adequacy of the city's environmental review, which concluded that the new development would not have a "significant" historical impact. The finding was the subject of a dispute between two different consultants.
Despite questions over the project's historical impact, the redevelopment proposal had no problem clearing the city's approval process. In recent months, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, Historic Resources Board and Architectural Review Board had all signed off on the redevelopment plan.
"It is a very important project in the city in that it revitalizes a really dead corner at one of the main entrances to town, so it's really a significant project," Architectural Review Board Chair Judith Wasserman said. "We felt it was very successful in doing what it intended to do, which was to really consider the viability of the retail component."
Wasserman said this was achieved by relocating one of the buildings, a move that allows all parking in the plaza to be contained in one place. The city's Historical Resources Board had ruled that the relocation of the building would not reduce what Chair Martin Bernstein called the "Eichler feeling" or diminish the plaza's historic significance.
"When we looked at the level of detail the report focused on, it gave us confidence that it has spirit of Eichler," Bernstein said.
Council members agreed that the plaza, despite the major changes, will continue to honor the Eichler tradition. The homebuilder will also be honored with a plaque in the plaza's park.
"It has been a tortuous and winding process on this piece of property," Vice Mayor Greg Scharff told the developer. "I like the design. I like the way you honored the Eichler architecture.
"I think you've thought carefully about this project, and it shows in the design."