In the end, the idea of selling a small, seven-acre land-locked city-owned parcel in the foothills above Arastradero Preserve may have merit. The parcel is almost completely surrounded by private land, is inaccessible to the public and would presumably be required to permanently remain undeveloped as a condition of the sale. It could bring the city some welcome revenue without any obvious negative impacts.
But, alas, it's not that simple.
For one, there has been no policy discussion, at least in open session where the law requires it must occur, about whether or why the city should even consider selling this parcel. Yet for unexplained reasons, city staff is already negotiating the terms and price of a sale in private meetings with the potential buyer, long-time Palo Altan and Stanford benefactor John Arrillaga, who owns the large foothills estate adjacent to the parcel under discussion.
Since the matter has only been discussed by the City Council in closed session, there is no way to determine how the idea of this land being sold even arose, or who authorized negotiations without first having a public discussion on the concept of or reasons for selling this property, located past the rear emergency access gate at the far end of the large meadow in Foothills Park.
But more troublesome is that these closed-door negotiations with Arrillaga are taking place at the same time the city staff is also negotiating with him over his ambitious proposal to build a huge office and theater complex next to the train station in downtown Palo Alto.
The office-theater complex, on which the city planning staff has been quietly working with Arrillaga for months, would require unprecedented zoning exceptions through the controversial planned community (PC) zoning process, in which a developer may exceed the normal zoning limits in exchange for providing important public benefits.
First disclosed in March, a refined plan calling for four office towers all in excess of the city's height limit was released last week and will be discussed Monday by the City Council.
Introducing the sale of the small foothills parcel into this process, whether coincidental in timing or somehow related to the office project, should have raised all kinds of red flags for both the council and staff. In the absence of any information, what is the public to think when one of the community's most wealthy and influential citizens is negotiating two different land deals with the city simultaneously?
It's possible that Arrillaga thought the office-theater project negotiations were a good time to achieve the purchase of the foothills parcel as a further buffer between his property and city open space. Or perhaps the idea wasn't his at all, and the city staff proposed it, getting needed revenue for a parcel that is almost as valuable to the city under private ownership as long as no development is permitted.
Or perhaps there is some other explanation as to why this is coming up now, at a critical time in the process of refining Arrillaga's office-theater project.
Whatever the explanation, there is a danger to both Arrillaga and the city to the lack of transparency. As we know from many previous PC projects, great public controversy is guaranteed when the city prepares to grant additional development rights in exchange for difficult-to-quantify public benefits. And the city has historically operated from a position of weakness in these negotiations because it lacks the economic expertise to properly evaluate and value the developer's profit from an up-zoning of property.
The proposed Arrillaga office complex, with some 260,000 square feet, is at once both exciting for its possibilities and overwhelming for its complexity and impacts on traffic flow and congestion. It also could be the largest act of philanthropy in the history of Palo Alto, since Arrillaga reportedly will donate the finished buildings to Stanford University and the theater shell to TheatreWorks, putting the issue of "profit" in a completely different context.
The stakes and debate will be quite intense as this ambitious proposal moves forward, and as often happens with PC projects, the city staff that negotiated the proposal can become advocates for it and lose its ability to provide the essential neutral advice to decision-makers and the community.
Transparency always helps to mitigate and counterbalance the danger of staff bias, which is why we're disappointed in the handling of the possible sale of the small foothills parcel.
There may be a bird in the hand for Palo Alto from John Arrillaga. Or it may be a fantasy overreach. Let's not jeopardize a good analysis, discussion and outcome by a lack of full disclosure.