Sean Charpentier, economic development coordinator for the city of East Palo Alto, sees something else entirely: brand new townhomes and stores connected by 4.5 miles of trails lined with trees and lights; state-of-the-art office buildings with views of the San Francisco Bay, and a park at Cooley Landing with an interactive, educational center for children.
This vision is part of a 25-year-long redevelopment plan for this area of East Palo Alto, known as the Ravenswood Business District/4 Corners Transit Oriented Development Specific Plan. The community-driven process that led to its creation — 23 meetings held over a year and a half in which city and community members discussed their visions for East Palo Alto's future — was recognized last month by the Northern California Chapter of the American Planning Association, which awarded the city a Grassroots Initiative Award of Merit.
The entire plan area is bounded at the west by University Avenue, the north by a rail line, the east by the Baylands and the south by Weeks Street.
A confluence of factors — a returning housing market, the exit of heavy industry companies and their contamination, and community engagement — are making this region ripe for redevelopment.
Though the area was long a toxic "dumping ground" for heavy-industry companies, their exit was the catalyst for a major change in the city, Charpentier said.
Two of the companies, Romic and Catalytica, were located on Bay Road and their presence proved a disincentive for investments, he said.
But since both companies left, Catalytica in 2000 and Romic in 2008, the city has cleaned the properties to a degree that now allows commercial development.
Charpentier estimated the 17-acre lot that used to be occupied by Romic could be developed in a few years.
With land becoming available, city officials realized a specific plan was sorely needed.
"One of the things that the city was grappling with was that they could tell that a change was coming, but the city and the community didn't have a unified vision for what was next, what was the next stage in this development, what's the next vision of this area going to look like," Charpentier said.
Over the course of nearly two dozen public meetings, the community created three alternatives for the area, he said. "We analyzed them and said, 'Well, this one is good for jobs, this one is good for revenue, this one's good for retail.' And then they merged them all into one."
The end product was the specific plan, officially approved last September.
Already, the city and community have done much of the heavy-lifting that developers normally would be responsible for, such as consulting the community about a potential development and putting together an environmental impact report (EIR), according to Councilman Ruben Abrica, who convened the committee that guided the community process.
"So we have a completed EIR, the specific plan and an economic development plan. It's better, we hope, to be able to attract some developers."
Multiple private and public projects that are part of the specific plan are already underway, including a revamping of Bay Road, a major city thoroughfare.
The city plans to improve Bay from Illinois Street to Tara Road so that it can become a walkable downtown street — a priority for community members. It will have trees, street furniture, planted bulb-outs, lights, a bike lane on each side and wider sidewalks where possible. A stretch of the road, from University Avenue to Clarke Avenue, has already been redone with these elements. Buildings with shops at the ground level and homes or offices above are envisioned.
The other public project is a quarter-mile-long rail spur that runs between Clarke and Pulgas avenues. The rail line was abandoned, acquired by the city and will be turned into a trail, the first that runs inside East Palo Alto rather than along city borders.
The two private projects include the 4 Corners Project, which will replace the East Palo Alto post office on the corner of University and Bay with 115 condominiums over 16,000 square feet of retail, and the DKB Project, which plans 55 townhomes and 50,000 square feet of flex (office or light industrial) and industrial space at Pulgas and Bay.
"In terms of the private projects, (the 4 Corners) area offers quite a few advantages," Charpentier said, speaking hopefully about drawing developers and capital. "One of them is that it has about 70 acres of vacant land within three miles of Stanford, within one mile of Facebook, one mile of the Four Seasons and University Circle office complex, and there just isn't that kind of land available along the Bay close to Stanford. It's a real advantage for this area."
Infrastructural challenges, such as exceeding the city's annual water allocation, have delayed the 4 Corners project, but Charpentier said that hopefully it will move forward and be finished in the next couple of years.
The other potential issues when it comes to infrastructure are storm drains, sanitary sewers and roadways, Charpentier said. According to a city briefing packet, infrastructural improvements in the area (not including the cost of additional water) will require a $75 million investment. Some upgrades will be made through the Bay Road project, and storm-drain projects are currently being implemented. He said the city is pursuing a program that will charge developers for a share of infrastructure costs so developers will know upfront what is expected of them
Mark Lazzarini, managing principal of DAL Properties LLC in San Jose, is heading the DKB project and said that construction will begin sometime next year.
Another major project is the Ravenswood Health Center, which is moving from portables on Bay Road to a two-story, 38,000-square-foot building across the street so that it can double the number of patients it serves, host medical residents from Stanford University and other schools, offer more services and hire more staff.
Luisa Buada, the CEO of the health center, said fundraising is running about $16.5 million short of the goal, but the group plans for the building to be up and running in April 2015.
One of the new health center's potential neighbors could be the Ravenswood City School District, which has been in talks with Cupertino-based The Sobrato Organization to sell properties on Euclid Avenue, Donohoe Street and Bay Road.
Tim Steele, senior director of development for The Sobrato Organization, said a letter of intent that "outlines some principles of exploring a deal structure" with the school district has been written.
"But we don't have a consummated deal, no," he said.
The only Sobrato development project currently moving forward in East Palo Alto is University Plaza, two buildings with a plaza in between. The larger 120,000-square-foot, four-story building will be built at the corner of University Avenue and Donohoe Street and a smaller 80,000 square-foot, three-story one at Cooley Avenue and Donohoe. Both are designated for office space and will have two levels of underground parking. Steele said his organization is currently looking for a tenant to occupy the buildings.
Just down the street from the planned health center and possible school district headquarters is an empty lot, full of dry weeds, abandoned train cars and not much else. But because of its striking views of the Bay — one of the area's main selling points for developers — the city hopes it will become a "core" employment zone with enough office buildings to help meet the specific plan's goal of a 200 percent increase in jobs. The city also plans to build trails that connect to the Bay Trail, allowing people to bike to and from work from Menlo Park, Mountain View or anywhere in between.
"Right now it's just weeds, but..." said Carlos Martinez, the city's economic-development division manager, surveying the lot on a recent afternoon. "It has great potential."