Residents, developer spar over plan for office complex

Neighbors predict worsening traffic congestion on Page Mill, developer places faith in alternative-commute program

At a meeting that pitted the latest concepts in land-use against the grim reality of an already congested area of Palo Alto, residents and representatives of the Jay Paul Co. tangled Wednesday night over the development firm's proposal to construct a 311,000-square-foot office complex and a public-safety building along Page Mill Road and Park Boulevard.

The proposal, whose future some people consider to be on shaky ground following Palo Alto voters' November uprising against increasing development, would bring about 1,250 new workers to the heart of Palo Alto each day, according to the developer's estimate.

How those employees would get to 395 Page Mill, where AOL already has its headquarters, was the main point of contention at the community meeting Wednesday.

People who live adjacent to the 9.8-acre site where the two office buildings would be constructed grilled Jay Paul Co. Executive Vice President Ray Paul over the justification for the project and the likely consequences to traffic.

Paul asserted that the project fits into the city's vision for the California Avenue area. The section of Palo Alto contains a Caltrain station, making it prime for dense commercial development. In theory, up to 30 percent of the offices' employees might commute by mass transit, such as train or bus, or carpool, bicycle or walk, he said. The latter would be particularly likely if workers lived in the immediate area. Already numerous apartment and condo buildings are located nearby, and the city envisions even more.

"One of the problems with Palo Alto is, if you work here, you don't live here. If you live here, you don't work here," Paul said. "People are not living where they work."

Putting large office buildings near transit would be preferable to having smaller office buildings spread throughout Palo Alto, Paul said.

The latter, he said, begets traffic problems as commuters criss-cross the city.

"The benefit of locating your commercial density close to transit (is) so you can have a robust … plan" for workers to take alternative transportation, he said. "You have this wonderful rail system, but no one's going to take it if they have to walk two miles to work."

Acknowledging that hundreds of additional workers would nonetheless drive by themselves to 395 Page Mill, Paul said the added traffic would be "incremental" and acceptable.

He cited a study that predicted the speed of cars driving from 395 Page Mill to Interstate 280 would slow by 2 mph during the evening commute. That, he said, would be the greatest slowdown as a result of the Jay Paul office complex for commuters using either 280 or U.S. Highway 101.

"I'm not here to tell you our contribution to traffic will be zero. I'm telling you we're doing everything we can to mitigate it," Paul said, alluding to the transportation strategies that would give workers incentives to get out of their cars.

"We will certainly add to the traffic, but we're not the main component," Paul said. "You'd think (from the way people are talking) if this site sunk into the ground, we'd be free-flowing. It ain't so."

But Paul's citation of the city's land-use vision and his predictions for traffic appeared to fall largely on deaf ears.

"The area is basically a cul-de-sac," said Chris Donlay, who lives across the street from the site, which is roughly bounded by El Camino, Page Mill, Park and the neighborhood of Ventura. A street barrier on Park prevents drivers from going south without winding through Ventura.

"How do you envision 2,000 people leaving the site at 6 p.m. and not creating gridlock?" Donlay asked. "Traffic is already bad. Our situation already is dire."

Although the concept of building commercial space near mass transit makes some sense, Donlay acknowledged, the location is all wrong in this instance.

"It's too big for this site," he told the Weekly, noting the neighborhood's narrow streets and existing traffic dangers.

Other residents agreed, saying the roads are currently "unable to handle the traffic."

"I don't want to have to have a helicopter to get home at night," said Alissa Shook, who lives on Pepper Avenue.

Paul tried to assuage fears, citing the firm's experience with transportation-demand management (TDM) programs at two Sunnyvale office parks, where upwards of 30 percent of workers leave their cars at home.

But even that information didn't appear to sit right with residents, who found the comparison of office parks near Moffett Field to their neighborhood a bit like apples and oranges.

"TDMs work better in that environment," Donlay said. "I'm not convinced you're going to see the same pattern here."

Though most of the meeting was filled with civil assertions and disagreements, a few residents expressed suspicions of the firm's motives – and its degree of influence in the city – at neighbors' expense.

The site is currently built to the maximum allowed by zoning, so the project would require the city grant Jay Paul Co. planned-community zoning. That designation was at the heart of voters' opposition to Measure D in November, which involved a development in the Green Acres neighborhood.

As with all PC zones, approval would require the developer to provide the city a "public benefit," in exchange for exceeding land-use regulations. In Jay Paul Co.'s case, the company has already agreed it would construct a new public-safety building for the city. But one resident saw the offer more as a bribe than a gift.

"PC zoning is buying zoning," the resident said, echoing a rallying cry of Measure D foes. "What is your plan if the city decides it doesn't want a public-safety building? Will you not build here at all if you can't buy a PC zone?"

"I object to the pejorative characterization," Paul said. "If we thought this project had no merit without us 'buying off' the city, we wouldn't have proposed it."

Wednesday's session was the second outreach meeting hosted by Jay Paul Co. Topics also included underground toxics, architecture, pedestrian and bicyclist safety and the 44,500-square-foot police building.

A traffic analysis for 395 Page Mill has been completed by a consultant but is undergoing review by city staff. It is expected to be released to the public early next year.


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Posted by Judy
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 5, 2013 at 9:02 am

I'm confused: isn't the city in the process of beautifying CA Ave and reducing the number of lanes from four to two? How can anyone justify building a huge office complex that will inevitably signficantly increase traffic at the same time?

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 5, 2013 at 9:52 am

> He cited a study that predicted the speed of cars driving from 395 Page Mill > to Interstate 280 would slow by 2 mph during the evening commute.

In addition to the decrease in vehicle speed on Page Mill, and Oregon,on and El Camino Real, we also need any traffic analysis to include the end-to-end transit time, the increase in queue lenghts at traffic lights along the way, the new LOs (delay time) for each of the traffic lights on the road segments that would carry the most of this traffic.

Moreover, any meaningful analysis should also include the traffic for all of the projects that are currently in-the-pipe for the California Avenue area.

Vehicle speed is not as important as end-to-end travel time for most of us.

Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Dec 5, 2013 at 10:48 am

If the city would pay for its own public safety building, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Like this comment
Posted by And safety
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2013 at 10:52 am

And reduced safety. Current aggressive drivers are a menace. Accident rates matter.

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Posted by Frugal
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 5, 2013 at 11:10 am

Hello Menlo Park Council. Are you listening?

Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 5, 2013 at 11:12 am

Perhaps Paul meant that traffic on Page Mill will slow TO 2 mph. When it comes to traffic and parking, the City's vision has essentially been myopic. Palo Alto is not Europe and Californians are clearly not giving up their cars. In theory PTODs are great, but our planners need to deal with reality and not pretend that a lovely theory will work. If I were Mr. Paul I would be hopping mad at City Council and the Planning Dept. b/c it is the cumulative impact of their failure to consider cumulative impact that has created this conundrum. I hope the City has the good sense to ask Ms. Susan Fienberg to be part of the problem-solving team because she "gets" what apparently eludes others.

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Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 5, 2013 at 12:11 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

I object to the pejorative characterization," Paul said. "If we thought this project had no merit without us 'buying off' the city, we wouldn't have proposed it."

Well: I'M CALLING YOU A LIAR! You ARE bribing the City Council; No Zoning exemption NO PS ( or should I call it BS ) building. The good all purpose carrot and stick method of bribery.

Money has talked, despite the resident's NO VOTE on more dense building built by dense developers..

My interest is in keeping P. A. comfortable for the residents, especially LONG TERM RESIDENTS that I have known in the past...
I'll talk about another type of building by payola to the government.
There was the perfect building site in Jefferson County, CO. It was zoned as open space. A developer basically bribed the Zoning Department and the County Commissioners to allow buildings on this former zoned open space area.
After the houses were built, the buyers found their basement walls collapsing and demanded the developer fix the problems with their NEW houses...Well, it seems that the Commissioners and the Zoning Department did not read the Engineers Report that made the site unsuitable for building: THE LAND WAS MOSTLY BENTONITE ( AKA kitty litter ) soil. Add water and the soil EXPANDS, destroying basements and foundations.
The Developer had to buy back those houses in the area.

YOUR City Council is supposed to keep the RESIDENTS happy, not make special deals and line their pockets with bribes ( and not just money, but ANY conflict of interest issues pay-offs ).

Mr. Paul, How about building 1500 parking spaces for you new workers and creating a real benefit to the area's existing traffic problems, instead of the ( already broken ) promises of traffic mitigation.
Using " buzzwords " does not alter the facts observed by many.
You do not like what residents are saying? BUILD SOMEWHERE ELSE...

Like this comment
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Dec 5, 2013 at 12:24 pm

High number of people don't work or reside within in any city, town or village. Forget the police, teachers or any public employee. How many busineeses grew in Palo Alto, kept adding more workers vs homes.

How many people live in Palo Alto, drive to work, adding to the commute.

Our infrastructure hasn't really kept up with the huge gain in jobs, growth of businesses and the amount of cars we own.

Palo Alto with its prestige as place to draw talent, wealth, capital, ideas and throwing them together. No wonder why developers want to build here.

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Posted by LG
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 5, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Wait a minute -- Palo Altans don't live where they work??!! That's exactly why we do continue to live here, despite the transformation and decline of this once lovely leafy quiet suburb into a traffic-congested city. We walk to work, recreation and amenities. The city council is destroying the quality of life here, slowly but surely by engaging in contract zoning. It's been going on for years.

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Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2013 at 12:44 pm

"A traffic analysis for 395 Page Mill has been completed by a consultant but is undergoing review by city staff. It is expected to be released to the public early next year."

It takes months to sanitize the data to show how the project will reduce traffic?

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow School
on Dec 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm

> High number of people don't work or reside within in
> any city, town or village.

CA State law requires that before a municipality can impose impact fees, it must have a Nexis study done--which determines the number of number of people who live and work in that town. Palo Alto's last Nexis study revealed that fewer than 20% of those living here actually work here (if memory serves).

BTW--the Transportation Element web-page documenting that portion of the City's Comprehensive Plan has a Land Use study (ca. 1989):

Web Link

It might be interesting to ask City Council Members why its been over twenty years since this sort of study has been conducted?

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 5, 2013 at 2:05 pm

> nd reduced safety. Current aggressive drivers are a menace.
> Accident rates matter.

Yes, I should have added accident rates in my list for a meaningful traffic study.

BTW, using traffic accident data obtained from the CA.CHP for the years 1995-2009, it would seem that there has been a slow decline in traffic accidents over that interval of time--up to 25% on some streets/roads. (Time to load the accident data for 2010-2012 to see if the decline has continued, or if there is an increase in accidents that parallels the numerous complaints about "gridlock" on this thread, as well as the other topic on traffic data presented to the Council recently.

Like this comment
Posted by george
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 5, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Quoting Mr. Paul. "In theory, up to 30 percent of the offices' employees might commute by mass transit, such as train or bus, or carpool, bicycle or walk," he said. Notice the words "theory" and "might" which I translate to "hope".

Again quoting Mr. Paul. "The latter would be particularly likely if workers lived in the immediate area." "Likely"? or hope again. The nearby residences are occupied. So how can new workers get housing "in the immediate area"?

Another quote. "Already numerous apartment and condo buildings are located nearby, and the city envisions even more." As I noted above the nearby apartments are already occupied. And the City does a poor job of envisioning anything these days. Vision is one thing; hard evidence is another.

A great deal of wishful thinking and unreal evaluations of the traffic patterns in the area.

Like this comment
Posted by Disguisted with City Hall
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 5, 2013 at 2:27 pm

The office building is so monsterous and hideous, the developer is trying to hide the structures (in the drawing) behind four story high trees!!!!!!!
With the new Planning Department director issuing a report at last weeks city council meeting saying that traffic has decreased in Palo Alto over the last several years, we are doomed. She is clueless and needs to be immediately relieved of her new position.

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Posted by Concerned
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Does Mr. Paul live in Palo Alto? I imagine not. The reality is that the young people who work in these offices can't afford to live in Palo Alto so his reasoning is faulty on that basis. In cold weather, rainy weather even really hot weather everyone gets in their cars. This is reality. When HP opened their new building it dramatically affected traffic so Mr. Paul is dead wrong. City Council: put this to a vote and see what happens again! Smaller buildings are a must in a small town.

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Posted by jardins
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2013 at 4:55 pm

IF Mr. Paul's theory is correct, that 30% of 1,250 employees would use public transit, that still leaves 875 people driving to and from his building each day. That will mean a huge increase in traffic congestion on Oregon Expressway.

I'd like to see each and all of the city council stand and witness the rush "hour" both morning and evening in that area. And the city manager should accompany them, too--plus his ARB and Planning Dept. folks.

The experience might possibly be a wake-up call for them.

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 5, 2013 at 5:36 pm

A high majority of older people in PA worked at Ford Aerospace - now Loral, and Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale which at one time was the biggest employer in the area. These people are moving out - the houses being bought by Google families that have young children. PA represents the housing in close proximity though not within the city boundary lines.
The people with young families are not biking around to get to work - they are dropping off their children at school or day care.
That is what I am seeing in my neighborhood. Also transplants from China who want their children to go to school here.
I do not see a lot of mass transit people buying the houses here - they are working for major companies in close proximity or technology start-ups. They are still using their cars to get the children where they need to be.
Make sure you have adequate parking and do not assume that people on bicycles will be your labor pool.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2013 at 6:11 pm

If the council approves a PC for this, I wonder if the ensuing referendum could be not only to overturn the PC, but include some kind of reverse-PC, that rezones it for a 25-foot height limit, 0.25 FAR etc.

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Posted by PA TBOT
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 5, 2013 at 9:47 pm

People do not live and work in the same places over the lives anymore. This idea that people will choose to live next to their workplaces if they just build enough is just madness. For one, couples often don't work in the same places. People often will live in cheaper places to get into the housing market and move up when they can afford it. We cannot build Palo Alto to affordability unless we make it so unpleasant, the people whose money pays for the desirable schools and services move away. And then it's a downward spiral we won't be able to stop.

The fact is that dense housing in this town will be dense, expensive housing that adds disproportionate burdens to our schools and services, and will not decrease traffic or emissions, it's only increasing them.

Stop this madness now. We need to take a hiatus from the overdevelopment and take serious stock of how to deal with the effects of everything in the pipeline first.

And we need a slate of candidates for CC that will put the residents and quality of life in Palo Alto first -- and hire City staff who do, too.

Resident - contact info at paloaltoville dot com. Maybell neighbors have learned a lot about how to fight City Hall, and we can accomplish much if we work together. It's time to take back our town from this City Council and the developers. Take Back Our Town Palo Alto and Take Back Our Town Menlo Park.... Hmmmm... PA TBOT and MA TBOT... could be a good t-shirt and bumper sticker campaign.... graphic artists anyone?

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Posted by PA TBOT
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 5, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Oops -- forgot to start by mentioning that more office space means more jobs and more housing we will be required to build.

We don't need it, we're up to our gills. We need more retail, we need more open space, we need our infrastructure upgraded. We do not need more office space.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 6, 2013 at 12:15 pm

If there are more jobs it does not translate that we are required to build more housing. Bad Assumption. That is why they are building near the train station.
We have had a glut of buildings for lease on West and East Bayshore, and upper Page Mill. That tells you that many companies do not want to establish a work place here. There are For Lease signs all over the place. Drive around the commercial areas - check it out. We are at this point arguing about a high rise but that still leaves open the amount of space that is available. Someone should ask who is going to lease space in the high rise - are there a group of people who are signed up for this?

Someone should analysis why we have so many for lease signs out - asking too much? Sitting on ugly buildings waiting for the good fairy to come along? We are hyping a situation which is just spin - there are too many for lease signs all over that suggest the city is not managing the commercial space well. The buildings exist and are available - so what is the problem with them?

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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 6, 2013 at 3:43 pm

"That is why they are building near the train station."

Building offices near the train station just intensifies traffic congestion near the train station. All those commuters from the East Bay or the San Joaquin Valley do not just park their cars at the, say, San Mateo Caltrain station and ride the train the last few miles to their jobs in Palo Alto, wishful wishing notwithstanding. They want to, and do, drive right to their workplace. Or as near to it as they can park.

Like this comment
Posted by Rainer
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 6, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Rainer is a registered user.

Yes "Resident", this is the way to go, generally rezone height and setbacks. This may require another ballot measure since the City Council is tone deaf to those “bullying” voters!

We have to move the baseline in zoning to setbacks and heights which agree with our preferences, so that even with after the machinations of ABAG and State density bonuses come to play, Web Link, the traffic and density is within our tolerance.

Use variances instead of PC zoning. Most of the "benefits" I have seen are benefits for the developer and not for the citizens of Palo Alto. One of the more bizarre things I read was the claim that "New Urbanism" [ Web Link ] was compatible with (maybe even called for?) narrow sidewalks.

This is architectural poppycock. New Urbanism shouts for walkability, which is not the case on 5 feet of side walk next to busy Alma! Any City Planner which represents this to the Council that is either incompetent or bought?

I also notice that many problems which should be researched and resolved by the planning staff, or at least would be resolved by city planning staffs I have known, are contracted out at great cost. What are they doing all day?

Maybe there are hidden benefits for individual cases city council and staff, including the revolving door? While we cannot prevent this for Congress, we should be able to put a damper on the revolving door between the Planning Department and Architects and Developers in Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Rainer ingeborg eejit
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 7, 2013 at 7:23 am

I thought the council said that this issue was dead, so why is it still being discussed?
Anyway, regarding alma plaza not many people walk by there to begin with, so 5 feet is not an issue. A better example would be one involving downtown or California avenue, where many people actually do walk.

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