Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

The '70s: conflict and conciliation

Activism, major commercial growth, rising home prices, an aging population and school closures began shaping the city we know today

by Don Kazak

It was a wild night of protest with all the trimmings--mass arrests, pepper gas and riot police squads marching on Lytton Plaza--not a pretty picture of the normally serene, intellectual Palo Alto. This was not the 1960s, but the early 1970s, a decade that threatened to tear the community apart until relative calm was restored with the end of the Vietnam War.

The drama often erupted before the City Council, like the night in July 1970 when 300 to 400 people jammed into the brand-new Council Chambers to vent their outrage over arrests that had been made the previous Saturday night at Lytton Plaza.

There, a large demonstration challenging the city's new noise ordinance had resulted in mass arrests when Palo Alto police and the county Sheriff's Department tactical squads sealed off the area, preventing anyone from leaving. Many arrested vowed their innocence.

Jay Thorwaldson, then a reporter for the Palo Alto Times, said the police strategy that night was brilliant. The police had committed themselves too early in a demonstration two weeks earlier "and a whole bunch of windows were broken in five minutes."

This time, Thorwaldson said, the police bottled up the demonstrators as soon as they began to move off Lytton Plaza, the key downtown gathering spot for Venceremos, a local Marxist-Leninist group, and organizers from the Midpeninsula Free University, which offered courses taught by members of the community. More than 260 people were arrested in the sweep.

Unfortunately for the police, some of those arrested had been invited down as observers by the business community, so the police had to let all of them go.

At one point after midnight, Thorwaldson recalled, the plaza had been cleared by a pepper gas machine that left a foot-and-a-half high fog rolling over the area. Several minutes later, a saxophone player from the band that had been playing walked through the fog, his eyes tearing from the gas, playing a mournful song.

"It was almost poignantly beautiful," Thorwaldson said.

Over the course of the decade from 1970 to 1980, the events of the '60s--protests against the war in Vietnam, demonstrations, arrests and the nation's great cultural and political polarization--would fade into nostalgic newsreel clips.

Though the Vietnam war ended in 1975, protests and demonstrations on the Stanford campus continued. In fact, the largest display of civil disobedience in campus history would happen in 1977 when 294 people were arrested at the Old Union during an anti-apartheid sit-in.

But while anti-war protests marked the beginning of the decade, significant change was in the air in the 1970s.

By 1970, Palo Alto and Menlo Park were built-out cities that looked much as they do today, belying the great changes that were to come.

The population of Palo Alto began to age. Between 1970 and 1980 in Palo Alto, the number of people age 65 and over grew by 28 percent. At the same time, there was a 32 percent decline in the number of children age 5 and younger. Similar trends occurred in Menlo Park.

With stable populations, neither city added new housing, but both approved substantial numbers of commercial buildings that led, by 1979, to recognition of a new problem--a jobs-housing imbalance. While many communities in the state struggled to attract job-creating industry, Palo Alto found itself with nearly three times as many jobs as housing units.

This embarrassment of riches hardly was a blessing. Instead, most of today's traffic congestion can be traced to commercial buildup in the '70s, years that also brought regional planning efforts and mass transit to the forefront. As a result, residents put a lid on future commercial growth.

With the end of the baby boom, the aging of the population and the skyrocketing prices of homes which were effectively shutting out many families, Palo Alto's stock of children declined. As a result, schools closed, spawning great debates over what to do with surplus school properties.

An even dozen Palo Alto schools were closed in the '70s, some because of their age but most because of declining enrollment. Cubberley, Terman, Hoover, De Anza, Barron Park and Ross Road were just a few of the schools shut down during the decade.

Bitterness erupted over the decision in 1978 to close Cubberley High School, setting north Palo Altans against those in the south.

In city politics, the bitter 1960s fights were over, and so was the tenuous grip the business community had on local government. Four residentialists joined the nine-member Council by 1971, and when Sylvia Seman was appointed the next year to fill the unexpired term of Frances Dias, who had moved out of the city, the residentialists took control by a 5-4 margin.

Beginning in 1972, the residentialist majority on the Council instigated sweeping changes in city government, including rezoning the foothills from one house per acre to one house per 10 acres, rezoning portions of the baylands to reduce further commercial development there and establishing a 50-foot building height limit to head off any more office towers.

Bike lanes were painted on the streets. The city launched its curbside recycling program. Traffic barriers were set up in College Terrace to reduce through traffic in that neighborhood. And the city expressed a wholesale interest in, and financial support for, a variety of social programs from senior services to child care.

But the decade still had its share of conflict over issues, including the most divisive and most remembered--Superblock.

Superblock, as it was called by its critics and the media, was a proposal in 1970 by Scott Carey, chairman of the real estate firm Cornish & Carey, to develop 240,000 square feet of commercial space in two 11-story office towers north of University Avenue, closing off Bryant Street and stretching from Florence to Ramona streets. The project would have taken up the better part of two city blocks.

The Council voted to approve the plan, but a segment of the voters was riled up, including a young Lockheed engineer, Dick Rosenbaum.

"Out of the blue, I decided to oppose it," he said. "I took out a full-page ad, complete with inflammatory rhetoric."

As a result, the Council put the issue on the ballot, where it was thoroughly defeated by a 60 percent vote. It was the only issue on the January 1971 ballot, but more than 50 percent of the voters turned out to defeat it, Rosenbaum remembers. The issue also led to his election to the Council, which helped lead to all the changes that would follow. Rosenbaum would find himself back on the City Council 20 years later.

In 1975, voters had a change of heart and elected establishment-oriented Carey to the Council, where he served with distinction. He was chosen mayor several years later and is credited by some Council members with ending the political feuding by the even-handed tone he set at meetings.

In an interview in 1992, Carey said he still thought Superblock would have been a good thing, particularly the park that was included in the design. "Palo Alto would have been better off with it," he said. "The open space was very dramatic."

Another controversial downtown project, a new hospital proposed by the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, also was defeated by voters in June 1971. It also sparked a spirited residentialist versus establishment battle, but the result was much closer than the vote on Superblock, even though the hospital was defeated.

Rosenbaum said those two votes gave residents in the north part of the city some confidence that the downtown area wouldn't sprout any more high-rise buildings.

At ground level, Palo Altans often had to contend with demonstrators who used the streets to show off their concern about the Vietnam war. The Saturday night Lytton Plaza dances and demonstrations were affectionately referred to at the time by demonstrators as "the Saturday night riots." When he was a Council member, Alan Henderson recalled having members of the Venceremos group over to his house on Saturday mornings to help head off any Saturday night destruction, which sometimes included a rash of window-breaking at downtown buildings as demonstrations broke up.

But the protests began to lose steam in 1972, particularly after Henderson and others gave those demonstrators an opportunity to express their feelings before the Council and at other gatherings.

Changes in the Police Department also reduced confrontation. The new police chief, Jim Zurcher, would attend anti-war rallies wearing a lapel button that said "Superpig" and chat with the demonstrators. Zurcher, who was hired in 1971, turned around a department more used to the older law-and-order style.

"We were there to mediate disputes, not merely to ticket and arrest," Zurcher said. "There were a good number of older lieutenants and sergeants who weren't pleased. I tried to redirect some (to other jobs), and others retired."

Two young hires in the early 1970s were Chris Durkin, who would later succeed Zurcher as chief, and Bruce Cumming, who would become police chief in Menlo Park.

But Zurcher's methods didn't always win acclaim. In early 1972, members of the Venceremos group broke one of their members out of the women's penal colony at Chino, killing a guard in the process. The San Bernardino sheriff's deputies came roaring into Palo Alto and surrounded the Venceremos house. A shootout seemed inevitable.

"The plan was to surround the house and crash the door," Zurcher said. "And I said, 'Why don't we surround the house and call them up?'" Which is what happened, and arrests were made without anyone getting hurt. "It brought me some trouble from other police," he added.