The largest and boldest commercial development proposal in the history of Palo Alto, located at one of the worst traffic pinch-points in the city, would have been viewed by most as a non-starter under almost any circumstances.
Yet with almost palpable excitement, the Palo Alto city staff and consultants Monday night presented the concept as if placing four office buildings over 100 feet tall, including one at 161 feet, and adding some 260,000 square feet of office space was a no-brainer.
The dichotomy stems from the unusual applicant, or "patron" as the city staff report describes him, and the generosity encompassed in his plan.
Long-time Palo Alto resident John Arrillaga, who became a billionaire through his ownership and development of office parks in Silicon Valley, is not your typical developer.
He is best known locally for his extraordinary support of Stanford University, his alma mater, through donating 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, including the infamous reconstruction of Stanford Stadium.
He has a strong vision for good design, construction and landscaping and has a low tolerance for bureaucracy and obstacles to getting things done.
When working in support of Stanford, Arrillaga is used to working out of the public view and getting his way. Today's Stanford campus has been forever shaped by his philanthropy and determination to achieve his personal goals for building design and landscaping even when not fully shared by the school's powers that be. Such is the influence of cherished major donors.
Arrillaga's concept for what is being called 27 University Ave. is both intriguing and concerning, in part because the philanthropic aspects are so unusual and in part because the size of the office buildings are completely out of scale for this city.
Apart from the pure size of the project, a unique aspect is that Arrillaga is planning on donating the completed office buildings to Stanford, which already owns the land. The concept is that Stanford would then have a permanent revenue stream from the top-of-the-line tenants in the buildings.
The donation aspect raises a number of questions, including whether the city would handle the proposal any differently if the university itself were the developer. And should the fact that Arrillaga is not making any profit on the development matter to City Council members in considering the merits of the project?
Unlike so many so-called public benefits that have been accepted in exchange for granting increased development rights, the ones this proposal offers are real. Arrillaga proposes to completely re-do the transit center and roadways, create an attractive and functional pedestrian and bike connection between downtown and the Stanford Shopping Center, build the shell for a professional theater complex and create a vibrant hub of retail and pedestrian activity in an area that doesn't reflect the character of today's downtown.
But the public process is off to a rocky start.
The public was inexcusably given just four days to absorb a long staff report prior to Monday's meeting, a breach of the policy goal of providing at least 10 days' notice before meetings on major and complex projects.
Seemingly mesmerized by the enormity of the proposal and the opportunity to work as a partner with the developer in creating the project, the city staff has done the public and the City Council a disservice in prematurely giving up its role as impartial professional adviser. The staff report reads more like a sales pitch than a careful articulation of the challenging policy issues posed by the proposal and the very significant traffic problems that come with a development of this size.
As we await critical traffic studies, the council should resist staff's attempts to rush this project forward and should not try to meet the timetable for a March public vote. Taking this project to the voters prematurely and without the full impacts clearly identified will ensure its defeat.