On Deadline: Roots of concern about tall buildings go back four decades | December 7, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - December 7, 2012

On Deadline: Roots of concern about tall buildings go back four decades

by Jay Thorwaldson

The roots of Palo Alto's concern about tall buildings like the recently submitted 200,000-square-foot office plan and adjacent community theater are at least four decades deep.

They go back to one of the oddest years in Palo Alto civic history: 1970, when, as they say, strange things were happening. One outcome of that odd even year was a virtually sacrosanct 50-foot height limit for new buildings and a legacy called loosely "the Palo Alto Process."

"Process" in this usage describes a convoluted, slow, frustrating to most of those involved (proponents or opponents) way of considering new projects.

Developer John Arrillaga has been quoted as telling city staff that he wanted to avoid such a convoluted manner of doing business when he first approached the city with his concept. The project would be built where MacArthur Park restaurant is now, near the "multimodal" transit center also known as the CalTrain station. The historic Julia Morgan-designed building housing the restaurant would be relocated to a lightly used corner of El Camino Park, while a major theater complex to house Palo Alto's home-grown but nationally recognized theater company, TheatreWorks, would face El Camino Real.

Arrillaga's wish — shared by virtually every developer that has ever done business with the city — seems to have worked, for a time, as staff members and individual City Council members met with him for briefings.

Yet now that the proposal has finally become public, the many months of unannounced meetings (some call them secretive) have become part of the negative reaction voiced at Monday night's council meeting, as well as in comments about the Weekly's coverage.

As a longtime observer (as both a journalist and citizen) I would say such concerns were entirely predictable. Some people like to know about major proposals when they are first made, not months later and in bits and pieces. So a bit of civic suspicion and anger must now be addressed in addition to the project itself.

During the months of quiet discussions the project was scaled back by something like 32,000 square feet, according to consultants hired by the city. Building heights were lowered from an initial 10 stories to two seven-story and two six-story buildings, still more than double the 50-foot limit.

Also of concern is private meetings with council members, and whether there was a violation of the state Ralph M. Brown Act open-meeting law that forbids "serial meetings" with a majority of a governing body.

None of us know what occurred at the meetings, and must go on faith (or not) about what was said.

City Attorney Molly Stump rightfully states that such meetings are not in themselves illegal, with two conditions: (1) a majority of council members must refrain from discussing among themselves any conclusions from the meetings, and (2) that those with whom they meet do not share anything about how other members of the governing body feel about the project at hand.

The responsibility lies with the elected official, not a developer, to avoid hearing about how others feel, Stump said of the "hub-and-spoke" type meeting. So if the person starts to talk about how others feel the council member must instantly stop them, or clap their hands over their ears and loudly go "lalalalalala."

Few question the right of city staff to meet informally with developers, although a "transparency" advocate might wish for documentation, virtually absent in this process, the Weekly discovered.

Besides, the fairly weak Brown Act would only require a "do-over" of any council action resulting from a misdemeanor violation. In this case, since the project hasn't even been formally proposed there's nothing to do over.

The council also asked staff to hold community meetings, so there will be plenty of "do-over" discussions moving forward. Maybe "do-over and over and over" talks. ...

My question is why no council member — not one — felt the need to insist that the public be informed that a huge project was being considered and occupying substantial staff time for many months. With due respect to Mr. Arrillaga's positive intentions to benefit landowner Stanford University and the theater-going public, to whom do elected public officials owe their first allegiance?

The council Monday night rejected a staff-recommended advisory vote in June in favor of a "master plan" with at least two other alternative plans for the site and an environmental impact report (EIR). The EIR could easily take a year, City Manager James Keene estimated. He noted that often such things take longer.

And during the entire matter two issues will dominate: (1) the traffic impact (especially in light of a separate Arrillaga development proposed for former car-sales lots nearby in Menlo Park); (2) the 50-foot height limit versus a square of four buildings more than double that.

Traffic has been an issue in Palo Alto since about forever, especially during the fast-growth 1950s and 1960s.

But the height limit takes us right back to 1970. The City Council at the time was about as divided as today's U.S. Congress. Demonstrations were occurring against the Vietnam War and local issues such as a curfew on amplified sound, inadequate low-income housing.

Two projects in particular sired the height limit.

The first was a proposal by the former Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation (later morphed into the Palo Alto Medical Foundation) to build a high-rise "Hospital of the Future" on a two-block site south of Channing Avenue, opposite the former Palo Alto Medical Clinic building. The hospital was defeated by voters in June.

The second project was two tall office buildings at the site of Avenidas, the senior center at 450 Bryant St., north of University Avenue. That "Superblock" plan also was defeated by voters. And it marked the community debut of later council member and former Mayor Dick Rosenbaum.

Rosenbaum, in a kind of time loop, spoke Monday night of his serious concerns about the Arrillaga project — along with former Mayor Dena Mossar and some three dozen residents.

It seems this project, also, can't escape the Palo Alto Process.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes regular blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).


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