Four major construction projects in East Palo Alto could transform the cityscape in the next couple of years, with two of them pushing skyward in the mode of nearby cities Mountain View and Redwood City.
Towers reaching eight stories tall have been proposed as office buildings, which would add thousands of high-tech workers — and traffic — to the city. In addition, a primary school for 500 or more students and a youth performance and arts center are planned that would offer amenities for residents.
The projects, proposed last year but none of them yet approved, could mark a significant transition for the 34-year-old city, a reality that was not lost on City Council members during an April 4 meeting.
"We as a city council ... have a major stake in understanding the impacts of that project," Councilman Carlos Romero said of the largest proposal, which would build 1.4 million square feet of offices and bring as many as 6,000 jobs.
In January, the council approved hiring a planning firm for California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review of the four projects. On April 4, the council unanimously voted to approve a contract for engineering-plan review services on the projects. On April 18, the council discussed hiring a community development director to manage the four projects and directed the city manager to return with a recommendation.
While the city is proceeding with planning reviews, it is still operating under a June 2016 building moratorium, which it instituted after the city ran out of water. Only one of the four projects, the youth arts center, has vested water rights and could potentially proceed. A fifth development, 120 units of affordable housing at 965 Weeks St. on city-owned land, is also on hold because of the water shortage.
City officials are hopeful that they can successfully bargain with the cities of Mountain View and Palo Alto for some of their unused shares of Hetch Hetchy water through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. East Palo Alto also has two other groundwater sources it is hoping to tap into, though neither source is considered reliable.
Here's a look at the projects that could usher in real change to East Palo Alto, not only to its skyline but also its evolution into a business hub, bringing with it greater traffic and increased housing demands.
(Take a closer look at the four planned projects with this map.)
Sobrato Phase II (University Plaza)
In recent years, development in East Palo Alto has focused on the south side of University Avenue and east of U.S. Highway 101: The Ravenswood 101 retail shopping center and Ikea replaced the closed Ravenswood High School and apartment complexes.
Most recently, two four-story office buildings at 2100 University Ave. were completed on the southwest corner of University and an agreement signed with Amazon to lease the 200,000 square feet, which could add 1,300 high-tech employees. Amazon and developer The Sobrato Organization will fund a jobs center for residents in and agreement that allows the company to avoid the city's 30-percent local hiring ordinance.
Now, The Sobrato Organization is looking to build on the north side of University Avenue and East Bayshore Road: A 233,840-square-foot, eight-story office structure and a 279,995-square foot, five-story garage have been proposed on 2.46 acres. The brick-industrial design would match the Amazon building, and the offices are expected to generate 650 new jobs, according to city documents.
The project would replace a vacant lot, the former Drew Medical Center and adjacent buildings. It would wrap around the back of the Chevron gas station (the only parcel that owners would not sell to developers) and would abut the Ravenswood Elementary School District property to the north. The office building would overlook a neighborhood of single-story residences, the YMCA and senior center and the Bell Street Park.
2020 Bay Road
The other three developments are located closer to the San Francisco Bay. One of them, 2020 Bay Road, represents more development than the city has ever seen completed since its inception in 1983, according to an April 18 city staff report.
Proposed by a group of investors listed as Three Cities Research, Inc., according to the project data index, the development would add 1.4 million square feet of office space in five, eight-story office towers and a nine-story parking structure to a site better known for its hazardous materials. The parking structure includes two levels of underground parking and a 2.1-acre rooftop garden that could include a basketball or bocce ball court, according to the developer's application. The development would also include ground-floor retail and a plaza.
The 2.58-acre site is situated on the former Romic chemical plant location in an area between Bay Road, Tara Street and the Bay Trail. The area has been under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversight, which has been accelerating a remediation program there.
The proposed business park would add an estimate 4,500 to 5,600 jobs in technology, biotechnology, research and development and health care, according to the developer's proposal.
The project would have to resolve multiple issues, including receiving a zoning variance. As proposed, it would exceed the 1.2 million square feet of office space identified in the city's Ravenswood/Four Corners Transit-Oriented Development Specific Plan, an area that East Palo Alto has designated as its business hub.
The site could also face some building limitations due to its proximity to the bay and hazardous materials that are still in areas underground.
A traffic study is in the works; the draft Environmental Impact Report is expected in December.
The Primary School
A new, private pre- and primary school funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, is planned on a 3.5-acre campus located at 1500 Weeks St. between Weeks and Runnymede streets. The school would offer free tuition to 511 East Palo Alto and Belle Haven (Menlo Park) students and health services and other services.
The main, three-level, 79,660-square-foot building would include classrooms, health services, administration and community programs. A 10,800-square-foot gymnasium and exterior recreation center would be accessible to the community. The project would include more than 42,000 square feet of play yards and recreation areas. The project would have 82 parking spaces, including 56 for the gym. The school has a signed water-reimbursement agreement with the city and is looking for an independent water service, according to documents filed with the planning department.
Because it is located near 1990 Bay Road, a designated State Water Resources Control Board contaminated cleanup site (formerly Rhone-Poulenc and contaminated with arsenic, herbicides and pesticides), and is part of the South of Weeks Street Subarea of the Bay Road site, the school parcel is subject to environmental review.
East Palo Alto Youth Arts and Music Center
Conceived in 2010 by East Palo Alto Youth Arts and Music Center LLC., a 25,000-square-foot theater and performing arts center for youth at 1950 Bay Road at Pulgas Avenue would bring educational and entertainment programs to East Palo Alto in two buildings.
The 35-foot-tall main building would have a community café, studios for visual arts and classrooms and a performance theater; a second structure, a 35-foot-tall single-story theater, would also have an adjacent exterior amphitheater. The site would have a 62-space parking lot, courtyards and walkways.
The site is the only one of the four proposed developments with a vested right to water. A previous entitled project for a 50,000-square-foot industrial space was sold to the music and art center. The city has not yet approved a water budget for the site, but staff anticipates the art center's use won't exceed the maximum water demand for the previous project, according to a staff report.
The 3-acre site has soil and underground water contamination from the Rhone-Poulenc facility and will be subject to remediation. The site will require an environmental review.
NOTE: A previous version of this story misstated that The Sobrato Organization is developing the 2020 Bay Road site.