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Guardians of the code

Original post made on Jul 14, 2017

Odds are, you've never shopped at CC Restaurant Supply.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, July 14, 2017, 12:00 AM

Comments (38)

Posted by City Officials Not Doing Their Job
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 14, 2017 at 12:12 am

In a nutshell, Palo Alto city officials are very skilled at making excuses but woefully slow at true enforcement -- which is what they're actually paid and sworn to do. Taking nearly two years to shut down a fake store is outrageous.

I hope the Weekly digs much, much deeper into this. And congratulations to Dellenbach for her persistence.

Posted by Juan
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 14, 2017 at 7:02 am

[Post removed.]

Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 14, 2017 at 8:06 am

Thanks to the weekly and Council member Holman and Citizen Dellenbach for trying to shine some light on this very serious issue!

For years and years many of us (residents) having been making code enforcement complaints that have simply been ignored by city officials and the police.

They range from illegal work times on construction sites to illegal signs and illegal lights on the roof of 2100 El Camino Real that shine into neighbors homes and yards and illegal use of city streets by oversized vehicles and smokers near our front doors to illegal uses in residential and commercial buildings....the list goes on and on.

There simply needs to be a change at city hall, from the top down we need employees that are committed to following the rules and supporting the rights of residents.

Think about the recent "sale" for a mere pittance of a fee to Palantir of part of Lubberly for 14 days that meant children and adults alike were booted out of a public facility so a private company could have a lavish two week party!

So can we expect some change?

Is staff going to close down the illegal use at 3401 El Camino real, Innospring
( Web Link ) that was mentioned in the article??? the former occupant of the space was a legal personal service a physical therapist.

Next time I call the police because some one is working outside of the legal construction hours will they be fined?

Are there any city approved outdoor smoking locations in business districts as the smoking ordinance stipulates?

I appreciate that the crew of enforcement officers is small and that they have taken action to require compliance in some cases but the problem is huge and needs to be taken seriously by all city employees starting from the top by the city manager down to every police officer

Posted by MoreEnforcement
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 14, 2017 at 9:14 am

This article just scratches the surface. The office on Middlefield is a disgrace. The Coupa Warehouse should have been shut down a year and half ago when first reported. IF finding had started when the issue was reported, the city could have collected over $500,000 in penalties and sent a strong message that we stand behind our ordinances. Instead the business community knows they can reap huge financial benefits without much worry - the risk-reward ratio completely makes it clear that a rational business person would violate the code and take their chances on being caught at some time in the future. Pay the fines and continue on.

I hope everyone will start reporting violations and support our code enforcement team. We have illegal offices and hotels taking away valuable housing - home used as hotels and office right in the middle of neighbohoods. This is clearly not allowed. Retail is protected all over town and should be vigilantly reported. And mass crowding in office buildings should be reported as well.

Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 14, 2017 at 9:25 am

Thank you for this great investigative reporting, Gennady and Weekly. You do a great service to Palo Alto.

I and my friends have been aware of code enforcement for a long time because it's critical to everyone's quality of life. Residents need to file complaints as the eyes and ears in the community to help code enforcement who rely on us. Then we need better enforcement that doesn't allow the sort of illegal takeover of retail spaces and homes through film flam schemes like Asian Box, Coupa Cafe and many others are trying to pull the wool over everyones eyes. I bet Code Enforcement lost some more points in the next citizens survey on its handling of Coupa Cafe.

These corporations and businesses will take advantage at every turn if Code Enforcement actually sees every complaint as a court case to lose rather than an action to take when supported by reasonable evidence and common sense. It doesn't have to be the judge and jury of complaints. It's job is to investigate and enforce, based on its investigation. It's stated way of operating (judge and jury - preponderance of the evidence) goes a long way to explain why code enforcement isn't preforming well and is seen that way by residents.

It does come through sometimes though. The leaf blower thing is good. I know it was persistent at a building that was being misused, and I got an illegal sign removed once.

After reading and talking to people, I suggest City Council should pass ordinances that support better residents and code enforcement. One is needed to ban the covering of ground floor retail windows. Asian Box and CC Restaurant Supply obscure windows to a great extent. There can be some commonsense exceptions for privacy for legitimate businesses, but there is also hiding of illegal uses going on. Most legal retail businesses want customers to see into their places - bakeries or kitchen wares. It would also help to required retail hours of operation beyond "reasonable". And to also further facilitate the levying of citations and fines.

We need that other investigator asked for by Hillary Gitleman, but nixed by the city manager. Shot ourselves in the foot on that one. We will need more enforcement when people start building more granny units and more complaints are filed when they are used for airbnb, offices, etc. And if residential buildings are built under parked and tenants park where they aren't supposed to, code enforcement will have more and more work so it better improve and have the resources it needs and the laws it needs backing it. And it needs to get more aggressive quickly with zoning code violations now.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 14, 2017 at 10:08 am

What about City workers breaking codes. The garbage trucks and the streetsweepers are regularly around before 8.00 am making noise and also before the cars have left their overnight parking spots on the street. If they arrived later they would be able to do a better job of reaching all the cans without the parked cars and a better job of sweeping the curbs rather than the middle of the street.

Posted by R. Winslow
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 14, 2017 at 10:18 am

Maybe if the 'understaffed' code enforcement officers were accompanied by a PAPD officer/specialist following a substantiated violation, questionable business operations and public eyesores would be eradicated far more expeditiously.

Those who have lived in PA since the 1970s will recall the slew of shady massage parlors that used to exist in South Palo Alto along the ECR and in College Terrace. The code enforcement officers and PAPD got rid of them in a reasonable timeframe. Perhaps the initial 'investigations' were far more interesting and enjoyable.

Posted by Resident 11
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 14, 2017 at 10:30 am

Resident 11 is a registered user.

I am so glad that the City is looking into this. We are being overrun with businesses and developers. Palo Alto is a residential community above all, and needs to provide services accordingly. Thank you to the Weekly and to the City for looking into this.

Posted by It starts at the top
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 14, 2017 at 11:08 am

Corruption of such magnitude and long standing starts at the top.
The previous City Manager brought in the current manager so little has changed.

Understaffed? He had MILLIONS to unnecessarily redecorate the city hall lobby and council chambers into the cold unpleasantness we have now. And all those pseudo-resident-friendly amenities.

The culture of letting developers and businesses get away with breaking the law starts at the top.

Posted by Charles Koch
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 14, 2017 at 11:26 am

The City Code Enforcement has got to be a stealth Republican recruitment
conspiracy. One, or maybe two run-ins if you are really civic minded, is all
it should take to transform the happiest most altruistic Liberal into a miserable
extreme government hating Libertarian, and all for what? ;-)

Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 14, 2017 at 11:42 am

Minor correction: Amy French is the Chief Planning Official, not the Chief Building Official. Those jobs are VERY different.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 14, 2017 at 11:55 am

I made an appointment over the phone to come in and they were very accommodating.

Posted by Jocelyn Dong
editor of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Jul 14, 2017 at 11:55 am

Jocelyn Dong is a registered user.

You're right, of course, Judith. Thank you for pointing that out; it's been corrected. Our apologies to Ms. French.

Posted by Jonathan Brown
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 14, 2017 at 11:58 am

As a resident of Ventura, I applaud the Weekly for shining a light on this issue and the efforts of a dedicated few to try to uphold the rights of the many. CC Restaurant Supply is, indeed, a "charade" and a "farce" and its retails hours are "lipstick on a pig." If Coupa Cafe opened a real location here with their full service and menu, foot traffic would increase. Without effective enforcement, the code is meaningless. It's not enough to have a flimsy excuse or to be violating the clear spirit of the law but not every letter. Code enforcement must be more aggressive, and City leaders need to give them whatever tools they are lacking to do so.

Posted by Jonathan Brown
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 14, 2017 at 12:04 pm

"The last thing Stephens wants, he said, is for the city to end up on the losing end of a court battle stemming from a lawsuit filed by an aggrieved violator."
Why? Losing a lawsuit is not the "last thing" I'd want. Degradation of our quality of life and residential communities due to fear of litigation is a much worse outcome in my mind. Palo Alto is way too litigation-averse.

I also do not understand why "the city attorney's office had determined that the existing business is grandfathered in under prior rules." Either that determination is incorrect, or the City Council needs to pass new rules that either rectify this defect or provide for a sunset/transition period so that the new rules apply to everyone.

Posted by nat
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 14, 2017 at 12:34 pm

I thought for leafblower violations, one had to call the police. This article seems to say that code enforcement should be contacted instead. Which is it?

Posted by R. Winslow
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 14, 2017 at 12:59 pm

>I thought for leafblower violations, one had to call the police. This article seems to say that code enforcement should be contacted instead. Which is it?

I'd like to see all leaf blowers banned as they only serve to kick-up allergens, dust and merely transfer the debris to someone else's front yard. In addition, they are noisy and pollutant.

Whatever happened to the old days in PA when gardeners used rakes and grass catchers? If the gardeners union/associations were to complain about cost-effectiveness, I imagine some PA residents would be willing to pay more for their gardening services if it were done 'manually'.

Rather than a gardening noise abatement policy, there should be designated 'no noise' neghborhoods in PA.

Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 14, 2017 at 1:05 pm

^ In the old days we mowed our own lawns. Or hired the kid next door.

Posted by R. Winslow
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 14, 2017 at 2:09 pm

> In the old days we mowed our own lawns. Or hired the kid next door.

Yep. It was part of one's allowance structure. When was the last time you saw a kid cutting the lawn in PA? It's no longer part of their 'family' job description.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 14, 2017 at 2:15 pm

Thank you, Palo Alto Weekly for this breathtaking article that concerns matters that are absolutely important to our community. This city has plenty of money to concentrate on these egregious code enforcement issues, which do impact our quality of life. I urge PA City officials to prioritize code enfircement; this is a crystal-clear function of City government. No excuses and no delaying.

Posted by margaret heath
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 14, 2017 at 3:24 pm

margaret heath is a registered user.

Why was CC given the permit in the first place? Did their application meet the criteria for retail space? If so, the codes need to be updated so that code enforcement is not second guessed by the city attorney in favor of commercial uses. And if not, then who is responsible for signing off on the permi?

That our city manager has refused to increase code enforcement staffing even by one person speaks volumes about who he sees as his primary constituents. Watching council meetings it doesn't tend to appear to be the residents.

Although the PC zoning is not currently being used, most of the new developments that the council now approves will require code enforcement because approval comes with the condition that a large proportion of the occupants will not drive. Goals that are either magical thinking or cynical because compliance will be impossible to prove or for our code employees to enforce.

Posted by resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 14, 2017 at 4:25 pm

I've placed orders online and picked them up at my convenience without a problem.

Posted by Gerry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 14, 2017 at 4:49 pm

Everyone should email your comments and experience with code enforcement to the City Auditor, Harriet Richardson who is doing the audit and survey mentioned here. That way you can hopefully help improve it. Here is her email address:

The city forces code enforcement complainants to use its miserable 311 online site to file complaints. It is unfriendly and doesn't give basic information as to why and how the complaint is progressing or was resolved with enough detail to understand what happened and why, and doesn't allow follow up communication. As is said - the medium is the message, and here the message is - resident, don't bother us with your complaint. Get rid of the 311 straight jacket. We deserve better.

Posted by Ignored
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 14, 2017 at 5:34 pm

Thanks PA Online! Great article.

In regards to the reference above to the resident who (thankfully) filed a complaint in May 2017 for code violations against the Asian Box corporate office (aka Gracie Jones Bake Shop): I personally called Code Enforcement in September 2016 to express my concerns about a corporate office taking over a neighborhood restaurant space. City of PA Code Enforcement James Stephens summarily dismissed my complaint and indicated Asian Box headquarters met code requirements. Clearly it did not meet code as evidenced by the code violation mentioned in the above article. How interesting that it took 8 months for PA Code Enforcement to even look into the matter after I initially contacted them.

It's unfortunate that the Asian Box CEO says "all he has to sell is Coke and Sprite" to be legal (as stated in the article above). Clearly this is not what the neighborhood wants or needs, and why there are codes against "general business office use" in Midtown. This appears to be a very 'in your face' aggressive stance with both the city and neighbors. And saying this Asian Box corporate headquarters space is now a "community-type center where seniors are using our computers and printers and also ordering baked goods" is ludicrous when we have the Mitchell Park Library with resources for these purposes just a few blocks away in Midtown (both banks of computers and Ada's Cafe). It's all just a smokescreen for a corporate office that shouldn't be in the Midtown Plaza. Most disappointing is that the City of PA allows this when it clearly does not meet the spirit of the code and does not serve the neighborhood the way retail space does. The City of PA just opened the door for any corporate office that sells a few sodas as a "front" to take over retail space in Midtown.

Posted by Ray
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 14, 2017 at 5:56 pm

A well-done article. One comment. The article asks the question, just what is it that citizens of Palo Alto are unhappy about when it comes to lack of code enforcement, this or that or something else? Clearly, it is all of those things mentioned in the article. It seems clear that codes are not well constructed and difficult to enforce; business and developers are only to happy to circumvent the intent of the codes for their own purposes. I wish there were a code to disallow a neighborhood residence to be in a state of rehabilitation for (so far) thirteen years. I also wish that code enforcers would insist on strict adherence to requirements. At the time, we went through some inconvenience when the electrical inspector would not sign off on a permit as she held the contractor's feet to the fire. Still, I am glad she did the right thing. For a long time, the camel's nose under the tent of intrusive parking in neighborhoods with little help from the City is being felt all over the city as the camel works its way further and further into the fabric of the city. As issues arise in other areas, I hope that residents continue to point them out and continue to rate the City on a scale somewhere less than good until concerted effort (effort in CONCERT, not in silos) is made to improve the ratings and that must be done by the City. Residents will respond appropriately.

Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 14, 2017 at 6:06 pm

If you talk to the City Manager or the Mayor about code enforcement, they will tell you they depend largely on voluntary compliance for code enforcement.

The problem with voluntary compliance is, it is not really voluntary. What the City Manager and the Mayor call voluntary compliance actually depends on social pressure to achieve compliance. Voluntary compliance depends on people needing to be, or at least wanting to be, good neighbors.

Today, many of Palo Alto's residential and commercial properties are owned, managed, and maintained, by non-resident landlords and employees who can be ambivalent or even contemptuous of Palo Alto's residents and culture.
Weekdays Palo Alto's resident population is outnumbered by non-residents 2-to-1. Non-residents just do not feel the same social pressure to comply with local codes as residents.

Bottom line, the quaint days of voluntary compliance are over and the loss is yet another example of the collateral damage visited on residents by over-development. Development isn't just overwhelming Palo Alto's infrastructure, it is overwhelming and destroying Palo Alto's culture.

Posted by Ventura OG
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 14, 2017 at 6:23 pm

Ventura OG is a registered user.

This is in my neighborhood and I get the "it's a matter of 'spirit of the law' versus 'letter of the law.'" I'm just amused that Palo Alto puts this much effort into going after CCRS while at the same time turning a blind eye to an illegal car repair business that has been running out of a residence less than a quarter mile away for many (well over 10) years.

Posted by PAmom
a resident of Mayfield
on Jul 15, 2017 at 2:06 pm

We live near 2555 Park BLVD development and the generator vibrated our house for a week leaving us sleepless with young children. It took the city that long to get them to shut it off. It was a nightmare. When we talked to the police so many times they were like "we can right a ticket but they're developers" As if, they run the town. Developers are the new gangsters.I'm just saying.

Posted by Imogene
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 15, 2017 at 3:19 pm

Four blocks down on El Camino (3877 ECR) sits an abandoned Compadres. It's been closed since 2008. How can something like that be beneficial to the neighborhood?

Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 15, 2017 at 4:52 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Not mentioned in this article is the many fences that do not comply with the Palo Alto code, which requires that fences within 5 feet of the sidewalk be four feet high, and near intersections no more than 3 feet, and if more than 5 feet from the sidewalk, can be as much as 6 feet. See below for the detailed fence ordinance. Some fences built prior to when the code was enacted are grandfathered. A quick search did not show when it was enacted. The fence code is documented below was reprinted in 2002 so it was in effect by then at the latest.

There are lots of six foot fences next to the sidewalk or within 18 inches built within the last 15 years. I'm sure some have legitimate variances, but I have not been able to ever get an answer as to whether a particular nonconforming fence has a variance or is grandfathered in. Others that I have reported are clearly new, based on the lack of weathering.

Web Link

I first complained about a nearby fence in Dec. 2013. In February 2014, it was finally lowered after many emails to code enforcement and the city council. At that point, I complained about 3 other nearby fences. Those did not get lowered until March 2016, after much follow up and copying of emails to the city council. There is still one up near a corner, which had been used to hide two sheds that were totally out of compliance, and quite dangerous with electricity supplied with an extension cord. The sheds have been removed, but the debris remains, ready to be rebuilt behind the fence that hid the sheds. Fences hiding nonconforming uses behind the fence, are one of the reasons for forbidding them.

Please note: I am not against ADU's. I would have supported an ADU on that property if it met Palo Alto codes. I would have been ok with minor variances. I cannot support sheds that are a fire hazard.

Although code enforcement did eventually get 3 fences reduced, I complained about several others. What I haven't ever been able to find out is if these fences are legitimate, either because they are grandfathered or they were given variances. I do believe I deserve an explanation if these nonconforming uses are in fact legitimate. For the moment, I've given up complaining as it is very time consuming. I urge others to register complaints on Palo Alto 311 which while clumsy, does establish a record that encourages resolution.

Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 15, 2017 at 4:53 pm

Marie is a registered user.

oops - should be Not mentioned .... are the many fences

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2017 at 5:02 pm

Thank you James Stephens! It's noticeably better since you got here.

Posted by It starts at the top
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 15, 2017 at 5:26 pm

"Gitelman made a pitch to add another code-enforcement position. That proposal, however, was vetoed by City Manager James Keene during the budget process."

The culture of corruption is ingrained in the staff and the City Manager shamelessly reinforces it.
If you expect the Auditor to point out the corruption of the Manager, (their offices are next to one another in City Hall) you are dreaming. Her job is 50% PR for the City and 25% covering up for the self serving staff.
Recall how she reported the last Citizens Survey? You would have thought it was a glowing report. Far from it.

Posted by Tammy
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 15, 2017 at 8:29 pm

I went there by appointment and got all the rentals I needed for my daughter's graduation party at a great price. I also got some used items for my house. Not sure why so much fuss over a company that does business and serves the public, even if it is by appointment or in the morning hours.

Posted by Glass houses
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 15, 2017 at 11:45 pm

I hope all who are so indignant about businesses violating code are ready to have the same scrutiny applied to their homes. Are you gardeners using gas powered blowers, are the sidewalks in front of your house clear of trees & shrubbery intruding, do you park your cars with wheels on the sidewalk, do you put out & retrieve your greenwaste bins at proper times?

Posted by Old PA
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 16, 2017 at 2:04 am

Castilleja School has been out of compliance for 17 years.

Posted by AllYouCanEat
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 17, 2017 at 9:25 am

[Post removed.]

Posted by Non code enforcement
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 28, 2017 at 1:39 pm

In summary, the head of code enforcement needs to be fired for not meaningfully enforcing the code and creating an office that perpetuates code violations. It seems the only way to get codes enforced is to get a city council member involved.

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