Just weeks after the nonprofit Avenidas secured the city's permission to significantly expand its historic facility in downtown Palo Alto, the city's leading senior-services provider is facing a challenge from La Comida, a nonprofit that has been serving lunches to seniors in the building at 450 Bryant St. for nearly four decades.
The appeal from La Comida, which has been subleasing space from Avenidas since 1978, seeks to overturn the recent approval that Avenidas received from the city's planning department for a dramatic expansion of the city-owned building. In late October, the city's Historic Resources Board and Architectural Review Board each signed off on the project, paving the way for the approval from Planning Director Hillary Gitelman.
Now, La Comida is asking the City Council to reconsider this approval. In a letter to the city, the board of directors for La Comida is protesting the effect that the expansion would have on the dining room of the Birge Clark-designed building. Under the approved plan, the dining area would be reduced to accommodate a stairway and an elevator, and seating capacity would be drop from 120 to 90, according to Avenidas officials.
The appeal from La Comida isn't a total surprise. In late October, several patrons of La Comida urged the review board to reconsider the project. Linda Jolly told the Architectural Review Board at the Oct. 20 meeting that many users of Avenidas and La Comida are questioning the need for a larger facility and are upset about the prospect of relocating to a different facility during the construction period.
"They don't want to be moved to another building during construction," Jolly said. "These are older people with walkers who should not undergo this."
Jolly was also one of 20 users of La Comida who signed a petition that was submitted to the Historical Review Board opposing the expansion. And while the petition didn't succeed in stopping the project, opponents of the plan hope that the formal appeal will. The appeal argues that the reduction in space would keep La Comida from fulfilling its mission. The Avenidas expansion should not be allowed to go forward, the appeal argues, until there is a plan to keep the senior-nutrition program in place after the renovation.
"As we have communicated to the Avenidas Board and management on many occasions over the last two years, we don't believe La Comida can effectively serve its seniors in a space of this size," the appeal states -- an assertion with which Avenidas' executives disagree.
The appeal letter, signed by Davina Brown on behalf of the La Comida Board, claims that the nonprofit was previously told by Avenidas that some space near kitchen would be made available to accommodate a greater dining area. More recently, La Comida learned that the space would not be available for dining.
"Avenidas has been unwilling to firmly commit any auxiliary space to La Comida for use during lunch hours," the appeal states. "We understand that construction is expected to begin in 9-12 months. Thus, La Comida needs to decide now on the relocation of our program during the renovation.
"This decision is hampered by not having a clear and definite commitment from Avenidas for adequate space after the renovation. The expense of relocation of the La Comida Program is substantial, and not having a clear picture of the permanence of the move is financially and logistically impacting."
Avenidas officials strongly disputed this version of events and argued that they had made numerous offers to La Comida over the past two years in hopes of assuaging its concerns. These included expanded hours for the dining room to accommodate an extended lunch service, additional volunteers to help serve lunch and financial compensation. Avenidas has also offered to help pay for a potential remodel of the kitchen at the First United Methodist Church on Hamilton Avenue to accommodate La Comida's temporary relocation to the church.
"We want to make it work," said Kari Martell, vice president of marketing and communications at Avenidas. "It's been a good partnership. We 'get' the power of nutrition and socialization."
Amy Andonian, CEO of Avenidas, said the nonprofit feels bad about the need to reduce the dining room. But Avenidas officials also disputed the notion that it had committed more space to La Comida.
"We don't have any additional space to give them," Martell said. "We're only getting 7,100 new square feet -- devoted to new programming. They're asking for an additional 1,000 square feet."
For Avenidas, time is of the essence. After numerous delays and redesigns, the nonprofit is in danger of losing several major donations, which are contingent on deadlines. Andonian told the Weekly that the appeal places Avenidas at the risk of losing significant gifts.
"We're panicking a bit," she said.
The two nonprofits may yet resolve the dispute through mediation before it gets to the council. They are now in the process of selecting a mediator, a process that is expected to be completed by Dec. 7. If that doesn't work, the appeal would go to the City Council for consideration. Amy French, the city's chief building official, said the council would hear the appeal on Dec. 12.
Even if the council rejects the appeal, it remains to be seen how the recent rupture will affect the long-standing partnership between Avenidas and La Comida. Martell said her organization wants to make sure that "no stone is left unturned" in finding a mutually agreeable solution.
"We want La Comida to be happy in the new space," Martell said.
However, she added, if La Comida decides to leave, Avenidas will find another way to offer its clients a lunch program at the downtown center.