A proposal by developer John Arrillaga to build a massive office complex and a theater at 27 University Ave. has added another wrinkle. His plan calls for relocating the historic Hostess House, which currently houses the MacArthur Park restaurant, to another site, with the nearby El Camino Park as one of the candidates.
The looming uncertainty over the Hostess House — designed by Julia Morgan, who also designed Hearst Castle — is threatening to hold up El Camino Park's reopening, a fact that doesn't sit well with the city's Parks and Recreation Commission. On Tuesday night, April 23, the commission voted 5-1, with Stacey Ashlund dissenting and Pat Markevitch absent, to endorse a memo that recommends keeping the Hostess House away from the park. The memo argues that moving the building into the small park would effectively leave the park without open space for unstructured play and require a relocation of the park's soccer field to the north.
For the same reason, the commission is recommending not including a dog park, despite direction from the City Council that this amenity is badly needed in north Palo Alto and should be explored for El Camino. The commission had previously recommended placing the park in a eucalyptus grove that is separated from the rest of the park by Alma Street/Palo Alto Avenue. That option proved unfeasible because of environmental laws (the dogs would be too close to the steelhead trout in the San Francisquito Creek). So a redesign shifted the dog area to the park's mainland. But doing so, the memo states, "compromises the one true open space in the original design."
The commission's memo also recommends a possible location for the Julia Morgan building, which once stood in Menlo Park and functioned as a reunion point for World War I soldiers and their families. Palo Alto's soon-to-be renovated golf course in the Baylands should be considered as the top option, the memo states.
"The historic building would have very high visibility as the only structure in the open space of the new Baylands course," the memo states. "The building would enhance and be compatible with the beauty of the new golf course design and replace the eyesore clubhouse/restaurant building currently on the site."
The memo also offers a contingency plan should the council decide to move the Hostess House to El Camino Park: scrapping the dog park and reducing the size of the soccer field to create more space around it. And in case the council doesn't pursue that option either, Commission Chair Ed Lauing proposed an even more radical step: removing the softball field, which was heavily used before the park closed for renovation.
Lauing, who presented the memo to the commission, said that the fundamental message that should be conveyed to the council is that the Julia Morgan building has become the "driver of the design of the entire El Camino Park."
"All these problems can be solved by putting the Julia Morgan building somewhere else instead of in front of El Camino Park," Lauing said.
He added that the building should not "hold hostage" the reopening of El Camino Park.
The Parks and Recreation Commission isn't the only local board that has come out against a potential relocation of the Hostess House. Last year, the Historic Review Board blasted Arrillaga's proposal to move the building, citing the importance of the location to the building's historical status. The commission's criticism is based largely on a lack of space at El Camino Park, not the building.
"Something's got to go," Lauing said Tuesday. "There's just too much stuff jammed in there."
His colleagues agreed, though Commissioner Keith Reckdahl balked at recommending the closure of the softball field, even as a contingency measure.
The dilemma over the new location for the Hostess House is unlikely to be solved any time soon. The council's hearing on the Arrillaga proposal was rescheduled several times in March and once again in April. There is currently no set date for a public hearing on 27 University Ave., Councilman Greg Schmid said this week.
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