Bicyclists rarely get excited about new car dealerships, but the one currently proposed for the former site of Ming's Restaurant would come with a rare and valuable amenity: a new bike path to the Baylands.
The application from Swickard Auto Group, which the City Council is set to review on Dec. 5, feels in some ways like déjà vu. The city had reviewed a Mercedes-Benz dealership proposal for the same site in 2016 and recommended a host of changes, including significant downsizing. The property owner instead sold the site and the council soon found itself debating another dealership application under the new owner, this time for Mercedes and Audi. After some debate and community opposition from residents who complained that the new dealership was too massive, the council in 2019 approved the proposal from Holman Auto Group.
The project, however, was never built. Instead, the property was sold yet again and last year Swickard submitted another application, which differs from the prior two in significant ways. At 31,195 square feet, it's about half the size of the original Mercedes proposal and significantly smaller than the one from Mercedes/Audi, which would have been about 54,000 square feet.
The buildings would be limited to one- and two-story sections, lower than the prior proposals, and the cars would be parked on outdoor surface lots and not indoors, like in the prior proposals.
"We're approximately half the size and, what we really believe, half the impact of the earlier applications," Eric Iversen, director of real estate and facilities at Swickard, told the Planning and Transportation Commission during its Oct. 26 review.
But for city officials and local bicyclists, the biggest draw is the bike path, which was also a feature of a prior dealership proposal. It would be 10 feet wide run and it would run along Embarcadero and East Bayshore roads, creating easy access to the Baylands preserve. Art Liberman, vice chair of the Palo Alto Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said at a recent hearing on the project that the trail would also help close the gap at the Palo Alto section of the regional trail network known as the Bay Trail.
"Cyclists riding in Palo Alto on the multiuse path along East Bayshore who want to continue on the Bay Trail now must detour to Faber Place and then cross Embarcadero in mid-block," Liberman said at the Oct. 26 hearing in front of the planning commission. "This, I can tell you, is a risky proposition."
Both the commission and the Architectural Review Board have already signed off on the project, with each panel signaling strong support for the new bike path. The path, they noted, offers an alternative for Swickard to comply with the city's policy of requiring transportation demand management programs that reduce car traffic by 15%. The auto dealership, because of its very nature, will never be able to meet that policy, said Sylvia Star-Lack, the city's transportation manager.
"The bike path is a fantastic option for this applicant to put forward in lieu of meeting a policy," she said at the commission's Oct. 26 review. "This bike path is not here just because we want to have a bike path. It's here also to provide a way for this applicant to get a little closer to meeting the TDM policy that unfortunately, because it's an auto-oriented dealership, they will not be able to meet."
Commission Chair Ed Lauing, who will join the council next year, called the path "absolutely essential."
"It really fixes a bigger problem that we have there, of people just walking on the street to get to the Baylands," Lauing said. "I think it's going to be a great improvement."
The project involves demolishing the 1968 building that once housed Ming's, the city's largest Chinese restaurant. It will also involve removing 11 trees, one of which is considered "protected" under the city's recently updated regulations. Swickard also plans to plant 20 new trees to offset the loss.
In a letter to the city, Iversen posited that the dealership will "further the desirability of investment by replacing a dilapidated restaurant building with a modern, environmentally sensitive automobile dealership."
"This will provide further consistency with the surrounding uses as it will continue the row of automobile dealerships to the east of the site while raising the bar for environmentally sensitive design," the letter states. "By developing such a facility, Swickard Auto Group hopes to further stimulate the area for future investment and redevelopment."