Palo Alto to get community's input on downtown site | June 7, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 7, 2013

Palo Alto to get community's input on downtown site

City plans outreach meetings, stakeholder group to help set vision for 27 University Ave.

by Gennady Sheyner

After crashing into a wall of community opposition last year, Palo Alto officials on Monday formally hit the restart button on their planned transformation of a prominent downtown site commonly known as 27 University Ave.

Now, adopting a process that will likely last more than a year, the city's strategy is to come up with a community vision for the 4.3-acre site bounded by El Camino Park, Urban Lane, El Camino Real and Alma Street. The area's future became a hot-button issue last year when developer John Arrillaga proposed relocating the historic Hostess House, currently the home of MacArthur Park restaurant, and building a dense office complex and a performing-arts theater.

While city planners praised Arrillaga's proposal as a great opportunity to make long-awaited improvements to traffic circulation around the prominent but labyrinthine transit hub, residents blasted it for being far too big and criticized the process for its lack of transparency.

On Monday night, the City Council signaled that it received the message when it voted after a long discussion to proceed with "focused community input," which will include between six and eight public meetings and a new stakeholder group — an abridged version of the process that the city used a decade ago to develop a community vision for the South of Forest Avenue (SOFA) neighborhood. After squabbling over the details, council voted 5-3, with Larry Klein recusing and Pat Burt, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid dissenting, to launch the process.

Though the vote was not unanimous, all council members agreed that planning for 27 University needs to be significantly slowed down. Those dissenting argued for an even more intense process with more meetings. With its vote, the council committed to holding more meetings than the two to three that staff had recommended in a report last week. All on the council agreed the staff number was insufficient.

City Manager James Keene acknowledged in his introductory comments that the project "got off on the wrong foot" last year, when staff proposed bringing the office-and-theater development to the public for a vote. The initial proposal called for four office buildings ranging from 118 to 162 feet in height. A revised proposal then called for buildings between 99 feet and 114 feet tall, still far beyond the city's legal height limit of 50 feet. Under Arrillaga's proposal, the office buildings would be donated to Stanford University while the new theater would become the home of TheatreWorks, a nonprofit company that currently splits its time between Lucie Stern Community Center and the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

In December, after hearing criticism from dozens of members of the public, the council directed staff to take a step back and consider other alternatives for the small but centrally located site. Rather than return with design options, staff proposed a community-engagement process that would arrive at a "master plan" for the site, said Aaron Aknin, assistant planning director.

"We thought this was an important enough site to really think through the different options to really give the council options for community input and master planning," Aknin said. "We need to make sure that vision directs development. We really need to better connect the Stanford area to the downtown area. Even if nothing was to be built on this land, we need to improve the transit station so that it facilitates increased ridership in the future."

The proposal has generated a swell of community interest, as evidenced by more than 50 people who attended the Monday hearing on the new process. Some urged the council to proceed in a transparent fashion. Others praised Arrillaga's proposal and its significance for TheatreWorks, a nationally recognized company. Among the latter was Robert Kelley, the company's artistic director. A performing-arts theater between downtown Palo Alto and Stanford University would create a "cultural bridge between Stanford and the city."

"We believe the arts offer a tremendous public benefit to the proposal and a theater is one art form that combines all the others," Kelley said.

Others were more skeptical. Elaine Meyer, president of the University South Neighborhood Association, urged the council to make new development at the site comply with the city's 50-foot height limit and to ensure that the project would not create traffic or parking problems.

"Proposals should follow rather than ignore public opinion," Meyer said. "The public is sick of monster giveaways and is not going to support them."

Conservationist Emily Renzel, a former councilwoman, called the proposed outreach process "another ploy to wear the public out and avoid proper comprehensive planning for the city.

"All of this backroom dealing has created an atmosphere where the public has to wonder if anything we say will make a difference," Renzel said. "How much 'meeting of the minds' has already taken place with respect to Palo Alto's real estate and parkland?"

Council members indicated on Monday that they would be all too willing to take a few steps back and start working on a new vision for the busy area, a subject that experts have been exploring for decades. A "dream team" of architects and urban designers from the city and Stanford worked in the 1990s on a redesign of the heavily used transit area, though their dream ended up languishing because of lack of funding. The idea of improving transportation options also re-emerged in Palo Alto's negotiations with the Stanford University Medical Center over Stanford's expansion of its hospital facilities. The city's agreement with Stanford provides funds for designing and improving circulation around the intermodal center.

But it was Arrillaga's dramatic proposal that kicked the conversation into high gear and turned it into a community debate over everything from building heights, public benefits and the rising prominence of dense office proposals in downtown Palo Alto. Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who supported the staff recommendation (though with more meetings), said it gives the city a chance to look at the site "with our eyes wide open" and make sure the community's values are reflected in the site's future.

"This particular project is going to get developed sometime, maybe not this time, but if we develop the plan, we will end up with a much better project than if we allow others to just try to do an application," Shepherd said.

She called the Monday discussion "the beginning of the restart process."

Schmid and Holman agreed that the process needs to be restarted, though they supported an even broader and more in-depth approach. Schmid suggested that the council's Policy and Services Commission come up with guiding principles for redesigning the site before the public meetings kick off. He also proposed that the council, before launching the redesign process, hold a joint meeting with the Planning and Transportation Commission to discuss "planned community" zones, a common mechanism in which developers exceed zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated "public benefits."

"One of the things that an intelligent, smart community wants is to make sure that when they start a process, they know the rules of the game," Schmid said. "They don't want to engage in a process for 6 or 12 months and come back and say, 'Oh, we didn't tell you. Here are the principles, guidelines and context that you should've had before you started this process.'"

Holman and Burt, who were both involved in creating the SOFA plan, stressed the need for a stakeholder group (including the landowner, which in this case is Stanford University) to hold its own discussions as part of the process. Holman had suggested a council-appointed group, though her colleagues elected to let staff determine the composition of the group and then bring the recommendation back to the council.

Councilwoman Gail Price initially joined Schmid and Holman in supporting the broader, longer process, though she ultimately voted with the majority after Shepherd agreed to the compromise that increased the number of public meetings.

"I feel as if we got a message loud and clear, and individuals and community members want to have more engagement and meaningful engagement," Price said.

Councilwoman Liz Kniss agreed.

"The public in Palo Alto is more than glad to share their position, which I think is positive. It's part of our process," Kniss said. "We're beginning the process tonight."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by homeless, a resident of another community
on Jun 3, 2013 at 11:15 pm


Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 3, 2013 at 11:40 pm

This site should be considered for BMR Senior housing. Curtis Williams previously said they had difficulty identifying sites for housing as a replacement for the Maybell site being proposed for dense senior housing & market rate homes. Well I can't think of a better site then 27 University Ave. Oh and throw in enough parking garages for 1500 cars - that's the amount of parking that is lacking in downtown.

Posted by Rational, a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 4, 2013 at 1:26 am

Please put the Caltrain tracks in a trench as part of this! University and Lytton both take an overpass above tracks, perhaps even Homer. There should be a parking structure on top of the tracks ... for Caltrain and future HSR (yes I have hope). The transit Center could be part of that structure too. This will solve parking, traffic and train noise problems! It will make more space (currently surface parking) available for either a third track or retail for the station. The Arrillaga business park (other side of tracks) will be more connected to downtown.

But I think it's just too bold for America.

Posted by henry, a resident of Monroe Park
on Jun 4, 2013 at 1:57 pm

cannot believe in peoples lies. your country cannot function without lies. what were all those people in lytton plaza. hundreds. no reporting. paloaltoonlie is a disgrace to honest journalism. tell amy goodman abourt paloalto racist hatred opf the poor online.

Posted by dan , a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 4, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Money apparently can buy anything if enough "important" people want the project. Arrillaga's proposal (27 University) for a huge development which is way beyond the scope of the City's Comprehensive Plan is outrageous. And a bribe is offered for a theater shell building which would cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to complete.

City staff worked behind the scenes for almost a year with no community input to develop this plan. Who authorized spending our money for a rich man's project? Unconscionable.

Council members Schmid and Holman seem to be the only ones who recognize the need for more time and thought on this proposal. The rest apparently see dollar signs and leaving a legacy to justify their positions. Respect for the community is a must.

Posted by Julia, a resident of University South
on Jun 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm

How could the proposal even have been considered by staff and some others. . .???

The building being built on Lytton and Alma is so out of keeping with our community - it's size and proximity to the sidewalk is stunningly awful. And the proposal for 27 Univ. was far, far worse.

And I also wonder why TheatreWorks would want a building right next to the noise and vibration of trains?

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2013 at 9:06 pm

In 1967, people got fed up with the overdevelopment and recalled nearly the entire City Council.

South Palo Altans: Do you realize the new Housing Element targets South Palo Alto for dense development? The vote for the Housing Element is June 17.

At least this is downtown, and no one is trying to put those things in your neighborhood, like they are over here on the south side of town!

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 4, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Aren't most of the buildings in downtown in close proximity to the sidewalk?

Posted by getting weirder, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 4, 2013 at 9:24 pm

I just posted the following on the thread about our esteemed Council proposing to throw out term limits (maybe we should throw them out first?).

It's related to the "process" for 27 University.

RE Council throwing out term limits

Can this get any weirder?

so power hungry and it would not be so bad if they were at least capable.

Who allowed 27 University to get so out of hand? Council.

Post reported that 27 University will undergo a process where Council will "appoint" the stakeholders involved in the public planning for this site?

The "appointed" public will now have a voice, gee thanks

PA Weekly,

Please investigate what "APPOINTED" Stakeholders means?

Would an "appointed" stakeholder be Theaterworks? or the former (appointed) planning commissioner/ turned architect of 27 University, also on the board of Theaterworks?

Posted by Here we go again, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jun 5, 2013 at 12:10 am

Last year the City Manager appointed people to the Rail Corridor Study committee they were almost all housing and development advocates. Even the liaison from the PTC and ARB were an outspoken housing-development advocates (Wasserman and Lippert). And manipulative pro-housing consultants ran the charade.
Only after loud complaints from the public did the Manager appoint a couple of residents.
Corrupt staff activity doesn't get enough sunlight.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 5, 2013 at 3:54 pm

"The "appointed" public will now have a voice, gee thanks"

They only THINK they'll have a voice. Sure, they get to strut and fret their hour on the stage, but their real role is to be a front for whatever "vision" city hall wants to push through in their name.

Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I also was unhappy with both the consultants and members of the Rail Corridor Study. Only meaningful public input at council meetings made this a useful study.

The members should be appointed by the council. The consultants should be experienced with small liveable cities and not with pre-conceived notions that 10 story buildings and paid parking are good while free parking lots are bad (and yes, that was clearly the opinion of one of the rail corridor study consultants).

Finally, there should be alternative plans developed as requested by the council originally, which can be voted on. And why is there no consideration of the dream plan created in the 90's? Given the effort put into it, shouldn't it be one of the alternatives? What about that plan is so bad that the administration ignored it?

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