Miki Werness, whose Alma Village market shuttered in April 2013 after less than six months of operation, may soon get another chance in Palo Alto's College Terrace.
The developers behind College Terrace Centre on Monday proposed having Werness, former operator of Miki's Farm Fresh Market, take charge of the vacant grocery store formerly occupied by JJ&F Market. As part of the City Council's approval for the block-long development at 2180 El Camino Real, the grocery store must be signed before the rest of the building can be constructed. The development also includes eight below-market-rate units and nearly 40,000 square feet of office space, which would be occupied by review website Yelp.
Though the council approved the development in early 2010, the project has been in flux since then because of financial challenges and disagreements between the developer and the council about who the new grocer should be.
In August, the development team headed by Patrick Smailey proposed having his son James Smailey take charge of the new market despite the fact that he has no experience in the grocery business. The council unanimously rejected that plan, arguing that Smailey is unlikely to match the level of service provided by the Garcia family, which operated JJ&F for more than half a century before departing in 2010.
The next proposal fared little better. On Dec. 1, the council shot down a proposal in which James Smailey would lease the store but defer the day-to-day operations to Uriel Chavez, whose family runs small markets throughout Northern California, including La Hacienda, Arteagas and Mi Pueblo. After a long discussion at that meeting, council members agreed that the market lease should be between the property owner and the grocer, without a middle man.
The proposal unveiled Monday night would place Werness in charge of the new market. Brian Spiers, who is part of the development team, said the team has decided to assign James Smailey's lease to Werness. On Dec. 1, the council had learned that the College Terrace Centre team had been negotiating with Werness in prior months and had considered a joint venture.
Councilman Greg Scharff said on Dec. 1 that he had spoken to Werness earlier that day and was told that the sticking point in the negotiations was that the developers "were not allowing him to be the operator." But after the Smailey-Chavez proposal fizzled last week under accusations of nepotism, that now appears to be changing.
Spiers on Monday night called Werness a "great choice," citing his "great track record" and noting that he had already evaluated the site with his team when he considered a joint venture with James Smailey.
"He knows the project so well," Spiers said, adding that he will be returning to the council on Dec. 15 with supporting documents and a business plan.
"We'll be definitely meeting the standard for existing market at this site, if not exceeding it considerably, with the vision Miki will provide," he said.
Though Werness' venture in Alma Village ended in bankruptcy, many in the community blamed the failure at least in part to the development's design, specifically the fact that the grocery store's entrance faced the interior parking lot rather than Alma. Many have criticized the development for effectively "turning its back" to the public, a factor that some said contributed to Miki's struggles.
The Alma supermarket has since been taken over by the discount chain, Grocery Outlet.
Before opening Miki's, Werness had spent about two decades at the popular Berkeley grocery store, Berkeley Bowl. His experience in the grocery business also includes management of the former Brentwood Market at Charleston Shopping Center, which is now occupied by Piazza. When contacted Monday, Werness declined to discuss his involvement in the new development. He is expected to present his vision for the project at the council's Dec. 15 meeting.
The proposal by Spiers to put Werness in charge of the former JJ&F market is the latest twist in a tortuous saga that has frustrated council members and residents alike.
On Monday night, several College Terrace residents complained about the developer's "pre-emptive strike," referring to a tendency of applicants to release information immediately before council meetings without giving residents and city staff a chance to fully vet the proposals.
Fred Balin urged the council to make sure that any future proposal have an experienced grocer assume a "controlling interest" in the project.
Doria Summa asked the council not to rush to judgment, saying, "We need more time to get it right."
They have not proposed anything viable so far, and what we need to have is a truly accomplished grocer with the right experience, resources and commitment to provide the required public benefit," Summa said.
In approving a "planned-community" zone for the project in 2010, the council permitted the developer to exceed the density limits allowed by the area's zoning designation. In exchange, the developer agreed to provide numerous "public benefits," the most critical of which was the preservation of JJ&F. The council's approval specified that if the grocery tenant in the development is a party other than the Garcia family, the proposal "shall be subject to the prior approval of the City of Palo Alto."
The approval also specifies that such approval "shall not be withheld unless the city reasonably finds that such proposed grocery tenant is not likely to be comparable in quality of products and service as JJ&F as it existed and operated on December 7, 2009."