A proposal to bring a gym to a vacant building that until recently housed Anthropologie received a boost last week, when Palo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission endorsed the project despite neighbor concerns about noise and parking problems.
The gym, known as Training Space, is poised to take over the building at 999 Alma St., near Addison Avenue, in the South of Forest Avenue II neighborhood. The planning commission voted 5-1 on Wednesday, with Doria Summa dissenting and Michael Alcheck absent, to endorse a conditional use permit that would allow it to open its doors.
Though this building, like other commercial downtown sites, is legally required to have ground-floor retail, the City Council agreed in November to loosen this requirement and allow medical offices, which are slated to occupy about 5,000 square feet in the back of the building on the Addison Avenue side. The rest of the building -- a little less than 5,000 square feet -- would be occupied by the gym, a business that requires a "conditional use permit" under the city's zoning code.
Michael Dorricott, the gym's founder, seemingly got what he needed on May 9, when planning staff signed off on the conditional use permit. Shortly after the approval, however, the city received two requests for formal hearings from downtown residents -- necessitating reviews by the planning commission and the City Council.
Dorrecott appealed to the commission on Wednesday not to delay the process any further. He said he had expected starting the business to be "fairly simple" but then encountered far more roadblocks than expected.
"This process has been hurting us," Dorrecott said. "I'm not even sure a small business can survive the process, unfortunately. Our main goal is just to be able to have this happen."
In recent months, Dorrecott said he had walked the entire neighborhood and spoke to every resident in the area to find ways to address their concerns. He also noted that most users of the new gym won't need a car at all. Of the roughly 80 people who had signed up for membership as of Wednesday, 57 percent live within four blocks of 999 Alma St. and 31 percent work within four blocks.
Training Space, he said, will offer locals a chance to work out independently, without the crowds and the competition for equipment associated with larger gyms like 24-Hour Fitness and Equinox. The fact that dozens of people have signed up for a $900 annual membership before the gym had even opened testifies to the existing demand, he said.
Ella Wilshire, who lives near the gym and who described herself as a "working mom," also testified in support of the gym. She stressed the importance of allowing the gym to be open in the early-morning hours -- the only free hours that are available for people like her.
"This is not going to be a stampede toward the gym at 5 a.m. It's going to be a pretty lonely experience of very dedicated people," Wilshire said.
Not everyone shared her enthusiasm. Dena Mossar, a former Palo Alto mayor who lives in the SOFA neighborhood near the gym, raised concerns about the potential noise impacts of the new facility.
"We live near a commercial district. It is not a quiet place to live, in general. But it's still pretty quiet at 5 a.m. during the week, and certainly on weekends and holidays," Mossar said.
Mossar and her neighbor, Karen Smerstad, also co-signed a letter requesting a hearing on the gym application. Allowing a business to open at 5 a.m. in the SOFA area would effectively change the rules for commercial operations in the neighborhood.
"There are no other commercial properties in the general area that begin operation at 5 a.m. -- in fact, we believe the standard operating hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.," the letter states. "We do not believe that businesses in this area should be exempted from codified rules set in a very public process."
For others, the main concern is parking. The 1952 building predates the city's public requirements and, as such, is considered "legal noncomplying." Because the new gym is expected to bring in less traffic than Anthropologie, the use it replaced, it is not required to provide any new parking (it does have seven devoted parking spots at a nearby site, 100 Addison Ave.).
But Neilson Buchanan, a Downtown North resident who regularly surveys the parking occupancy on downtown streets, said he and his neighbors are concerned that the gym will worsen the area's parking crunch. Today, without these facilities, Buchanan said, the downtown area already has several blocks with 85 percent occupancy.
"With the gym and the medical offices, every nearby block will be saturated," he said.
He and a group of neighbors had also submitted a letter, which argued that the impact of the gym on downtown's commercial and residential streets will be "considerable."
"The City is already expending tens of millions of dollars and considerable staff time to reduce parking impacts in this area after massive outcry from residents," the appeal states. "For the city to now claim that increasing the parking problems on these streets will have no negative impact is implausible and completely contradicts its own prior and current declaration."
Commissioner Doria Summa found these arguments convincing and said she cannot make the necessary findings to approve the permit, namely, that it would "not be detrimental or injurious to property or improvements in the vicinity, and will not be detrimental to the public health, safety (or) general welfare of convenience."
Though she concurred with the majority that a neighborhood gym is a good use for the site, she argued that the city hadn't sufficiently studied the parking impacts of the new business.
"I'm worried the impacts of this will hurt everybody, including this business," Summa said.
Others, including Chair Ed Lauing and Vice Chair Susan Monk, took comfort in the fact that many users will likely walk or ride their bikes to the gym. Lauing also noted that the property is zoned for retail, which means that whatever business occupies the site will bring in some traffic.
"If not this, then what?" Lauing said. "Because it's going to be retail by zone, and by intent of council."
The council is set to consider the conditional use permit on Aug. 20, after its summer break.