With golden shovels dug into the earth, members of the East Palo Alto City Council and developer John A. Sobrato broke ground on a long sought-after office development that city leaders hope will open the door to technology jobs for residents.
The Sobrato Organization will begin construction on a four-story, 209,000-square-foot office building at 2100 University Ave. at the corner of University and Donohoe Street, which the developer hopes to lease to a single tech or social-media company, said Tim Steele, senior vice president of real estate development.
The design and focus of a single company for the entire space is a far cry from its previous two iterations, where ground-floor retail was envisioned with office spaces on top. The new development will have only about 1,500 square feet of retail space, and most will be located at the edge of the parking garage. But Steele said the changes reflect market demand.
"We feel it's the right time," he said, noting that the development has been entitled since 2003.
Chase Lyman, vice president of leasing and acquisition for Sobrato, said a parking structure that will be connected to the building by a two-level bridge will be constructed on an adjacent parcel.
The building will look quite different from its earlier design, which was planned by another developer. That concept was more in keeping with the University Circle development on the west side of U.S. Highway 101 in the city's former Whiskey Gulch area. University Circle is dominated by law firms and the Four Seasons Hotel.
With its brick facade and 10-foot glass panels, the new structure will have a sleek tech feel, Lyman said.
"It's almost like the South of Market area (in San Francisco). A lot of tech companies want that industrial-looking space," he said.
A 4,000-square-foot atrium skylight in the middle of the building will bring in natural light, and the building will feature a connecting, open staircase to facilitate conversation along all of its floors. A 6,000-square-foot roof deck 80 feet above ground will afford sweeping views of the bay and mountains.
Lyman said that a shuttle would run to and from Caltrain so that a tenant can attract talent from up and down the Peninsula. He didn't know how many workers might occupy the building, but based on the average for modern-day tech companies with open-floor plans, there could be as many as five to six employees per 1,000 square feet, he said. That translates to about 1,045 to 1,254 employees.
East Palo Alto Mayor Lisa Gauthier said she grew up in East Palo Alto and has watched the corner change from small retail to a vacant lot.
"East Palo Alto is a community on the move. ... In one and a half years this building will be done. It's going to change the city. It will be the gateway to East Palo Alto," she said.
Councilman Ruben Abrica said he has been involved with the city since its incorporation. He watched as the previous economic boom pass by the city, but now the Bay Area is in another boom, and the city is poised to take advantage, he said.
"I think this will put us on a map in a different way," Abrica added.
Councilman Larry Moody said the city had a promissory note to its citizens and it was making good on that promise with a potential for many of its educated young people to find jobs.
"I'm so excited that those residents with college degrees, with tech degrees, will have a chance to find work here. ... We are going to use this project as the first of many dominoes," he said. "This is a great starter for us and it will open the door for others to come, and for East Palo Alto to be connected to the region."
Resident Stephen DeBerry, who lives up the street and drives by the empty lot many times, said the
development is "an important catalyst for the community."
"I think there's more to come," he said.
But DeBerry is also aware that change might radically alter the demographics of East Palo Alto. Residents are cautious about gentrification that would push them out, he said, so the city and developers' visions must be balanced.
"We need to build equity for folks here. The building is a piece of it. It needs to be intentionally inclusionary," he said.
Abrica said the city will receive $1.2 million to help the small-business community, and the council will need to decide how that money can best be spent to that end. In addition, the development will generate $600,000 in additional taxes every year.
The building is expected to be completed in 2016.