Dozens of residents facing eviction from the President Hotel Apartments in downtown Palo Alto urged the City Council on Monday night to spare the building from being converted back to its original purpose as a hotel by the new owner.
Tucker Berckman told the council that many of his neighbors at the President have been living there for decades and have made significant contributions to the community.
"The result of this eviction in all likelihood is that the residents of this building will leave Palo Alto. I don't think this is what everyone wants," Berckman said.
AJ Capital Partners, a Chicago-based hotel developer that restores historic properties in college towns, notified tenants on June 12 that it had closed escrow on the 75-unit property at 488 University Ave. and would provide relocation assistance to move everybody out of the building by Nov. 12 before it begins renovations on the historic 1929 building, which it plans to reopen as the Graduate Palo Alto hotel in 2020.
Residents said they were still reeling from the unexpected notice that many discovered slipped under their doors. They requested that the city slow down the process and make it more transparent.
Tech worker Jeffrey Jones moved into the Spanish Colonial-style complex that he has called home for the past nine years after relocating to the area from New York City.
"This is a historic building," he told the council. "It is a historic property. It is a historic downtown property. My ask of the the City Council and the city manager is simple: not rush through the process of remaking the President."
Jones told the Weekly that residents aren't out in the streets armed with pitchforks protesting the sale -- they simply want to understand what's going to happen to the building, and if there's a way to preserve the unique community that has blossomed there over the past 50 years that it has served as an apartment complex.
Tenants have heard that the hotel conversion is an allowed use. They've also heard that the six-story building exceeds current height restrictions, which may limit its use as a hotel to two stories.
"I have no doubt that the creative minds of Palo Alto can sit together and come up with a creative solution, so literally, everybody wins," he added.
City Manager James Keene said the city has not yet received a formal application from the new owners and is thus not in the position to formally respond to the proposal. Staff is currently "in the process of actually reviewing to see what factors can be in play in any kind of city response to that application," he said.
"There are a lot of factors we're carefully looking at in the city's code and in ordinances that relate to this," Keene said.
At last week's June 11 council meeting, Keene said that the renovation would include seismic upgrades, new elevators and other improvements. The property is listed as a Category 2 resource on the city's Historic Inventory. The city's Architectural Review Board and Historic Resources Board are expected to review the conversion plans later this year, Keene said adding the hotel use is allowed "by right" at the downtown location.
A few residents bristled on Monday at his assertion that the hotel use is automatically allowed. Michelle Kraus, who lives at the President Hotel, told the council that she and some of her neighbors are far from certain that the "oversized building" can function as a hotel "by right" under the current code.
"We've done our homework. We are worried. We are concerned," Kraus said.
Council members assured residents that there hadn't been any negotiations between the city and the new hotel owner, though they acknowledged that they had attended information sessions to hear about the planned conversion shortly before it was announced.
"I doubt there is a council member here who wasn't thinking sympathetically about what has happened at President Hotel," Mayor Liz Kniss told the crowd after all the speakers made their appeals. "We don't have information yet. Surprisingly, we know very little more than you do."
AJ Properties sent out a press release last week that said the company plans to renovate the building into a 100-room hotel that will include a lobby coffee shop, street-level retail and the restoration of its original rooftop garden.
Tim Franzen, president of the company's Graduate Hotels division, which will operate the Graduate Palo Alto, told the Weekly in an email on Tuesday, June 19: "We have independently confirmed through counsel that the operation of a hotel within the Hotel President is, in fact, a permitted use of that property. We have not yet made any requests to the City or any of its departments, nor do we anticipate doing so for quite some time. Our meeting with City staff was purely introductory and informational in purpose. We have a great deal of historic research and architectural and engineering work to be done before it can be determined what City approvals may be necessary and before any plans will be submitted for consideration of those approvals."
Representatives from the development firm met with residents one-on-one last week and Tuesday. Residents said they were told during the sessions that they would be receiving information about who to pay rent to in a future letter. Any other obligations and responsibilities made between residents and former owner University President Associates LLC will remain in place until November.
AJ Capital is offering each residential unit $3,000 to assist with moving-related expenses and is working with relocation expert Autotemp to provide customized services "to households that may require additional help."
Built in 1929, the property includes 70 studio apartments and five one-bedroom units of between 250 and 800 square feet on the upper five stories. About 58 units were rented at the time of the sale, according to Chris Dressel, president of University President Associates. Rents for the mostly month-to-month leases are relatively low for Palo Alto but are not included in the city's affordable housing count. They range from $1,200 to $2,400, according to a sign posted at the building. Median rent in Palo Alto stands at $2,520 for a one-bedroom apartment, according to apartmentlist.com.
Palo Alto native Dennis Backlund, who moved into a 300-square-foot studio at the President 37 years ago, is the longest remaining tenant in the building. A friend recommended the building when Backlund returned home after living in Paris for a few years.
"I knew of the President, I'd seen it my whole life," said Backlund, who worked as a historic preservation planner for city of Palo Alto before retiring several years ago. His love of historic buildings is part of why he's stayed so long at the President, which he said is the city's largest historical resource.
Backlund said he was blindsided by news of the conversion during an informal meeting held by residents at the President on Saturday. Over the years, the building changed hands a few times, but it always remained an apartment building. Once, he said an owner reportedly tried to convert the apartments into condominiums, but city regulations prevented such a conversion.
"It was just the most terrible feeling when this plan came out because I never ever dreamed that something like this could happen," said the 76-year-old. "Three months ago, I would go to bed every night and just serenely go to sleep, and look around the apartment at all my bookcases, with about 2,000 books of literature and philosophy, and feel just so much at home. It was just such a wonderful feeling, and then the announcement came, and it was just the feeling of sort of desperation and disbelief that this could actually happen," he said. "This was going to be the place where I spent the rest of my life. That is what I thought."
Backlund said the building has fostered a tight-knit, culturally-oriented community within its walls.
"A lot of the apartments advertise. People come in and don't know each other and never know each other. But the President never advertised apartments. They were rented by word of mouth, and so when people left, it was their friends who moved in, and it just kind of gradually evolved into a place where artists, musicians, writers, people like that lived here," he said. "The culture here is passed on from person to person, and so, the character of the building here has remained remarkably constant even when the people have changed ... and with the way the building is designed, with all these doors that face into inner corridors, and the common mailroom and lobby ... the building just physically encourages people to get together."