News

Palo Alto grapples with retail preservation

City officials look to move ahead with new rules to keep stores from shuttering

With protecting retail now a pressing priority in Palo Alto, members of the City Council wrestled on Monday with the questions of what exactly constitutes "retail" and how exactly to preserve it.

The discussion took place during the council's consideration of its update to the Comprehensive Plan, the broad land-use document that establishes the city's goals and policies for future development. Though typically the Comprehensive Plan (commonly known in other communities as the General Plan) serves as the basis for new zoning changes, Palo Alto's update has taken so long that officials are now thinking of changing some zoning rules in advance of the update.

On Monday, in the first of two meetings on the subject, council members considered what these near-terms changes should be. Though there was no clear consensus, and no votes were taken, much of the discussion centered on retail, particularly in the city's two primary commercial districts: downtown and California Avenue. Planning Director Hillary Gitelman had identified retail preservation and the elimination of remaining parking exemptions as two areas where changes can be made in advance of the Comprehensive Plan update, which the council first agreed to undertake in 2006 and is now scheduled to be completed in early 2016.

Much of the heavy lifting on the new document will begin in January, when planning staff kicks off a series of public meetings on the complex and politically touchy subjects of growth and development. These meetings will help the city formulate a land-use vision that will be in place until 2030 and guide Palo Alto's policy on issues like parking, traffic and new development. In addition to exploring various growth scenarios, Gitelman recommended using this time to consider the city's policies on major infrastructure projects such as Santa Clara County's plan to expand expressway capacity and the possible trenching of the Caltrain tracks.

But as Monday's conversation indicated, even the low-hanging fruit of retail preservation and parking exemptions won't be all that easy to pluck. While Council members Karen Holman and Greg Scharff continued to advocate for new policies to encourage retail, Councilman Larry Klein wasn't as convinced.

"I don't see the evidence yet that there is a problem," Klein said. "Maybe there is, maybe there isn't."

Klein also sought more clarity on the word "retail." Does it include, he asked, establishments like restaurants and banks?

"What are we really talking about when we talk about retail preservation?" Klein asked.

The answer to the question of what is "retail" came from council watchdog Herb Borock, who read to the council a section of the zoning code that explicitly describes the types of establishments that fall into that category (the long list, as defined, includes food, apparel, jewelry and many other consumer items). Borock also noted that one of the problems that the city's land-use critics are concerned about isn't that the city's Comprehensive Plan is outdated but that it's not being followed by the City Council.

"It doesn't make much sense for the council that's going to be elected tomorrow to go to a lot of trouble in creating a new Comprehensive Plan if it's going to ignore it," said Borock, speaking one day before the council Election.

Holman argued that the city should zone for what it wants, which means more retail. She cited a number of businesses on California Avenue that have recently left after being priced out by high rents. In addition, several downtown restaurants have recently closed and converted to office use, which fetches higher rents (Zibibbo and Rudy's Pub are two such examples). Scharff continued to advocate for more ground-floor-retail requirements downtown and for amortization of buildings that don't have retail use, including the Wells Fargo building.

"We should figure out not just how to protect existing retail but how to expand retail downtown and have more choices," Scharff said.

One proposal that staff will be exploring is a new restriction on chain stores on California Avenue, a proposal that has become popular in recent months. A petition by area merchants to create a limit (though not a complete ban) on chain stores has gathered more than 100 signatures and has won the support of Mayor Nancy Shepherd and most of the candidates in the Tuesday council election.

While most council members talked about retail policy and reducing density in commercial areas, Councilman Greg Schmid suggested focusing the city's energy on the big issue of growth and determining how much development the city should allow.

"If seems to me we ought to deal with the base issue," Schmid said. "The base issue that is on everybody's mind in the city is growth. We should start with the guidelines for growth."

That topic will come up in January, when the council holds a special work session to consider the city's growth management program for commercial development. The broader public conversation about the Comprehensive Plan will stretch throughout spring and will consider future housing sites, new goals and policies to be included in the document and a series of planning "scenarios," some of which include trenching Caltrain and having greater expressway capacity.

Klein argued against studying the trench alternative, noting that the price tag of this design would be between $500 million and $1 billion and that the city isn't likely to get this kind of funding any time soon. Pat Burt and Gail Price strongly rejected this logic, with Burt noting that some of the funding could come from a tax increase that Santa Clara County's business leaders are contemplating to fund a broad range of transportation improvements. Price also said the option should be studied.

"If we were not to do it, we'd be limiting our options and we'd not be doing the city and the community members a favor or the businesses a favor, because it is in fact our responsibility to look at these scenarios," Price said.

The Monday discussion was the latest step in a Comprehensive Plan update that has taken multiple twists in recent years. Originally intended as a modest revision of the current plan, the process morphed into a far broader overhaul in the past two years, with planning commissioners editing the plan's list of goals, policies and programs and planning staff proposing four different growth scenarios for exploration in the update process. In a September discussion, several council members rejected the list of scenarios and suggested less significant revisions to the land-use document.

Though the process of updating the Comprehensive Plan attained some momentum earlier this year, when the city hosted a series of community meetings as part of an outreach initiative called Our Palo Alto, Monday's discussion was a subdued affair. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said she found it "disappointing" that so few people are engaged in the process, as witnessed by the sparse attendance at Monday meeting.

"We're talking about no dramatic changes, but we are talking about some," Kniss said. "I just find it puzzling that there isn't a group that's here, and for far lesser reasons we'd fill the Chambers."

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2014 at 7:59 am

Perhaps not only defining "retail", they should also define "chains". Is Piazza's a chain? Is Philz a chain? Be careful when preventing chains, they are often the anchors that benefit neighboring local small businesses.

We need a full service grocery store, probably a chain is the only way we will get one.

Midtown shopping center is also suffering from retail space being used by office. Parking in midtown is also a problem.

Our family particularly misses Office Max. There is nowhere in Palo Alto that has dependable school supplies at short notice.


7 people like this
Posted by Deja Vu All Over Again
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 4, 2014 at 8:05 am

First we destroy retail and turn it into office buildings.

Then we wring our hands when people get upset.

So we claim we want to protect retail.

Then we hire some more $$$$$ consultants.

Lather, rinse repeat.


3 people like this
Posted by Mark
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2014 at 8:15 am

I am baffled at the lack of description of retail in Palo Alto, as retail has been defined by other cities in their downtowns. The problem is the lack of a procedure for tracking businesses in our downtown areas, we need a business registry whereby we define the types of businesses acceptable for said areas, any other type of business would require an approval from the planning commission. Why do we have to re-invent the wheel, just check on what other cities like Redwood City has defined in their core downtown business district.


Like this comment
Posted by enough QE
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2014 at 10:20 am

The Federal Reserve finally ended its so-called Quantitive Easing (QE)
bond buying policies designed as an emergency response to unusual economic conditions because it is deemed unnecessary, distorts markets and has negative unintended consequences. The City Council and staff should take the cue here and stop their QE for office development and developers due to massive negative consequences which have been piling up for years now, distorting, transforming and destroying the character of our City. It's been
"quantitative" and it's been "easy" for the local developers, that's for sure. A new City Council will surely end the QE.


Like this comment
Posted by Blah Blah Blah
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 4, 2014 at 11:52 am

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by I am confused
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2014 at 11:55 am

"We need a full service grocery store, probably a chain is the only way we will get one. "
Yes, we desperately need one--we need real choice instead of the dark and dingy and overcrowded midtown safeway or the various boutique stores that are in the city.
Unfortunately we will never get one--any attempt to build a decent store in PA will be met with the usual "complaints"--it's too big, it will create too much traffic, it's to noisy, it will not be fair to the other stores etc.
So my advice, shop in Mountain View or Menlo Park.
AS for retail preservation--there is little to no places in palo alto where you can do any everyday shopping. Palo Alto never wanted real stores in the city that would serve the needs of the residents. Instead we have overpriced boutique stores that serve no everyday purpose. If you want to support "mom and pop" stores, that is fine. However trying to prevent the free market from working is not the answer. I say the more chain stores in Palo Alt the better for shopping.


2 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 4, 2014 at 4:49 pm

This is why I voted for the no-growth/slow growth slate of candidates! I hope Holman, Dubois, Weiss, Filseth, and Kou are the next 5 new members of the council.


2 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Nov 4, 2014 at 5:35 pm

@Palo Alto Native

You do realize that in the world of supply and demand (i.e. the real world) "no-growth/slow growth" just pushes existing retail rents higher?


Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 4, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Robert - not if we pass legislation the earmarks retail space at below market rates! As noted by earlier posts, the best solution is a moratorium on all NEW office space development combined with allowing existing commercial property owners the right to tear down and upgrade within the 50 foot limit height and no exceptions for so-called public benefits! Also - a freeze on any dense housing development (condos and apartments). Develop areas that need the income: the East Bay, San Jose, East Palo Alto, Sacramento, Madera, Stockton, Richmond, Oakland --- and far beyond the state of California!


1 person likes this
Posted by PAmoderate
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 4, 2014 at 8:43 pm

"not if we pass legislation the earmarks retail space at below market rates! "

You have got to be kidding me. Rent control is working wonders with supply. Just ask San Francisco.

"Develop areas that need the income: the East Bay, San Jose, East Palo Alto, Sacramento, Madera, Stockton, Richmond, Oakland --- and far beyond the state of California!"

I guess you're not very green, are you? You just advocated for sprawl. Two cars for every garage, eh?


4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2014 at 7:09 am

Klein said "I don't see the evidence yet that there is a problem". The
Cheesecake Factory back in 2003 replaced retail with another restaurant
at a time the City was trying to promote retail Downtown, and with staff
and ARB blessing put it's massive out of scale corporate logo, i.e. its
mall design prototype design, smack on University Avenue. So there were
problems with what happened here on multiple levels - use, design, scale,
regulatory process. Instead of trying to reform the process the City
doubled down on its mistakes the last ten years- use,design,scale,regulatory
process.









2 people like this
Posted by citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2014 at 2:50 pm

Deja vu has it right.

We are in a pickle because of all the overdevelopment -- many, many approved exceptions to zoning that have increased the price of properties where developers knew they could get zoning exceptions and the race to build up began.

In the world of supply and demand, in a global economy, in a desirable place, we either get high prices and a nice place to live, or high prices and a highly dense place to live (just ask Manhattan). Which we do is a choice. In fact, allowing all the exceptions made properties that much more valuable to developers, and accelerated the cost of land far above what it was with existing zoning, also accelerating the pushing out of existing residents. Additionally, new construction means far higher average rents -- the development has accelerated price increases, not eased them. There is no such thing as building your way to affordability in a built out place unless you ruin it and everyone leaves because of it.

At least some residents have realized it's a slippery slope; you make all these exceptions, and pretty soon the town is populated by people who want to turn the rest of the town into a highly densified place, too.

We went through this once before, it's too bad we didn't stop it before they put that giant monstrosity near the corner of El Camino and Arastradero. What were they thinking given how heavy the traffic is there already.


1 person likes this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2014 at 3:22 pm

@citizen

Basically you're saying that nobody is going to want to live here anymore once it get too dense/crowded?


4 people like this
Posted by Deja Vu All Over Again
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 5, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Robert, perhaps citizen is saying that we may live here, but we won't shop here because of gridlock and that we're tired of funding consultants to tell us how to save the retail the city has already destroyed.

For example, I avoid Town & Country whenever possible and my sales tax dollars go to the Trader Joe's in Menlo Park and I don't need high blood pressure pills to counter the agita I get at the fact that it's taken more than 9 -- NINE -- years for our Transportation guru to PREPARE to issue an RFP on syncchronizing the traffic lights on Embarcadero.

Maybe the Palo Alto Weekly can do a follow-up article to its August 29th "Change is imminent" article on how the traffic lights are going to be fixed real soon now?


Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Yes, the issue with Town & Country has far too many people there shopping, but I suppose those people don't count?


1 person likes this
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2014 at 4:17 pm

@ PA Moderate:

I am not kidding you. We should set aside a certain number of retail space that first - is not a chain store, and second, provides a certain service. For example, a certain number of bookstores, flower stores, stationary stores, dry cleaning stores, barber shops, art stores, music stores, pet stores. The Palo Alto I use to love and used during the 60s-80s before the dot.com boom. These are customer support services that give life and character to a California avenue and use to exist on University Ave, too.

Yes - develop areas other than Palo Alto within the dot.com industries. We are maxed out with population density. I do not want anyone else moving to Palo Alto. Think Los Altos Hills, Woodside, and Portola Valley - they have done a good job on breaking the drive to over develop with populations and business office space. I do not want any more traffic and pollution in Palo Alto by bringing in new employees to Palo Alto. There are other areas to develop. In fact, air population will drop by reducing the commute so people can live and work in their own towns way out in San Jose, Morgan Hill, and the East Bay - where they commute from in the first place. Two cars in every port would be great! As long as they are electric cars and our federal state governments would increase the incentive (rebate) to buy more electric cars! Either Tesla needs to come up with a fourth more affordable model and or I will really enjoy the day when another competitor develops a near Tesla range/speed/recharge time formula and mass produces at a 13-20K model. Let the environmental revolution, begin!


Like this comment
Posted by Likely To Be Censored
a resident of University South
on Nov 5, 2014 at 6:29 pm

"With protecting retail now a pressing priority in Palo Alto, members of the City Council wrestled on Monday with the questions of what exactly constitutes "retail" and how exactly to preserve it."

It is too late. With few exceptions, retail in Palo Alto is already toast. Given the election results, the residents of our fair city have only themselves to blame for that one. Restricting development has made rents skyrocket even more than would have otherwise been the case. Allowing non-retail businesses on the ground floor in downtown is another big mistake.

The not-in-my-backyard contingent has won. They won't have development in their backyards. They also won't have much in the way of retail left in Palo Alto.

Oh well, c'est la vie. ;-)


Like this comment
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2014 at 6:37 pm

"I am not kidding you. We should set aside a certain number of retail space that first - is not a chain store, and second, provides a certain service. For example, a certain number of bookstores, flower stores, stationary stores, dry cleaning stores, barber shops, art stores, music stores, pet stores. The Palo Alto I use to love and used during the 60s-80s before the dot.com boom."

Who is this " we"? Are you saying the city should dictate to private property owners who they may rent to? Or should the city bynthe properties and then rent them out? There are plenty of dry cleaners in town and plenty of hair salons/barber shops in town as well. Bookstores, stationary stores and art and music store are probably non- viable options.
Times change, people change, places change-- trying to turn the clock back 30 years will not happen.

Anyway, there really never was any everyday retail in Palo Alto-- not sure why the council is so concerned now.


Like this comment
Posted by Likely To Be Censored
a resident of University South
on Nov 5, 2014 at 6:43 pm

Palo Alto Native, Los Altos Hills, Woodside and Portola Valley are rural areas. Their culture, sense of community and lifestyle are completely different from ours. Comparing Palo Alto to those places is like comparing apples to oranges. The reason they restricted growth long ago is that they did not want to become like us. Or are you proposing a large minimum lot size, as is the case in Portola Valley? Would two acres be about right? Solutions that work up in the hills often don't make sense along the El Camino corridor.


2 people like this
Posted by member
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2014 at 11:14 pm

there is a place for chain stores that already exist. they have been established on University ave and also at Stanford mall. Why turn California Ave into a similar position. We need local family owned businesses to keep the identity of our community.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

He said – she said – who is lying? Justice Brett Kavanaugh or PA resident Christine Ford
By Diana Diamond | 69 comments | 4,885 views

Preparing for kindergarten
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 766 views

Let's Talk Internships
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 0 comments | 643 views

 

Race is tonight!

​On Friday, September 21, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run, or—for the first time—half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More