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Guest Opinion: The President Hotel: Bird in the hand or another dead canary?

Original post made on Oct 26, 2018

The President Hotel as workforce housing is, in itself, neither a solution to Palo Alto's affordable housing shortage nor, obviously, to global climate issues.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, October 26, 2018, 6:20 AM

Comments (29)

Posted by EichlerOwner
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 26, 2018 at 7:52 am

I think this is a really well-written article with a well-reasoned argument. There's no place to hide when public bodies make decisions about hot-button topics like affordable housing.


Posted by Hindsight Is 20-20
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 26, 2018 at 8:09 am

The sale of the hotel should been put 'on hold' until all of the controversial details (i.e. PA zoning ordinances, impacts on residents of the President Hotel) were clearly spelled out and studied.

Instead, the parties with vested interests proceeded prematurely resulting in PACC motions for relocation assistance + PA community uproar and concerns over increased traffic and parking gridlock.

After all of the canaries dropped dead in the mineshaft, the City of Palo Alto tried to resuscitate them with Band-Aids.



Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 26, 2018 at 8:34 am

There are countless similar examples of the city staff and certain past and present council members bending over backwards to coddle up to developers while ignoring city zoning laws and policies.


Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 26, 2018 at 9:08 am

DTN Paul is a registered user.

Mr. Brown seems to be concerned about global warming, but his argument belies that belief.

By arguing against density in Palo Alto and the Bay Area - and for shipping parts of our economy to other parts of the country - where there is less density, more sprawl and far greater environmental impact, the net effect on climate would likely be worse. We'd also be abdicating our responsibility to make our community more efficient and responsive to what the times require.

Many in Palo Alto make arguments against density - that's fine - I don't like the traffic either. But let's not pretend we're doing it for altruistic reasons. These are fundamentally selfish arguments to protect our suburban way of life.


Posted by rsmithjr
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 26, 2018 at 10:02 am

rsmithjr is a registered user.

We need additional rental housing, especially at affordable prices and for low-income individuals. How do we get this housing?

Low-income housing will have to be subsidized by either the government or non-profits.

Affordable rental housing is simply not being built to anything like the degree needed. We need builders and landlords to be attracted to the investment of building and operating housing here.

The city should be working with builders and landlords to find out what would help them to get the job done. New zoning, reconsideration of requirements and developer fees, and giving the landlords a sense of confidence that they can do business here without being bashed or subjected to endless rule changes and new fees.

The city has built too much office space without giving consideration to housing, transportation, and parking.

The answer does not lie in further regulation and expenses for landlords.


Posted by Local
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 26, 2018 at 4:21 pm

“and for shipping parts of our economy to other parts of the country - where there is less density, more sprawl and far greater environmental impact, the net effect on climate would likely be worse”

Not true at all. This is assuming the large companies do nothing to build and improve the places they go, which seems silly when you consider that the problem here is companies pushing to make SV their private entry-level workforce beehive and ruining it by pushing selfish development.

Densifying means we take resources from further and further away, increase emissions from gridlock, use resources inefficiently, lose green space, increase urban heat sinks that are bad for global warming, increase risk of unchecked life-threatening fires after earthquakes, lose options when new energy and transportation innovations come up because of urban canyons, lose light and sky and the impact on mental health that incurs, run up the value of property so high it incentivizes the eviction of longterm residents such as at President hotel or previously at BV, and most of all, we get huge emissions from the giant region-wide daily traffic jam. Most of us have already lost huge freedom seriously impacting our productivity and family lives DAILY.

Oh, and water. Densifying means we bring in more people and that strains the water infrastructure. People make the mistake of talking about additional housing development as if there is a fixed number of people and we just need to add more units for them. But adding more people adds yet more people, to take care of support services and needs, and because companies decide they can stay instead of moving where they can geow. Look at SF, or Hong Kong, where they have an ever denser urban space and the best transportation in the world with high usage, yet people still don’t all live near where they work, and they have never created affordability no matter how small they get.

I agree that the story of dealing in the city hall has yet to be told, going back quite a ways.

@rsmith,
We had many booms and busts and low-income people found ways to get housing that didn’t lock them into poverty the way proposals now do, and places like President Hotel and BV survived. It wasn’t until the developers thought they could densify that those places displaced moderate and low-income, nonsubsidized residents. The idea that density makes things affordable is just wrong. So is the idea that it’s always better for the environment. But developers love to keep those myths alive because they make money. And right now, with all the capital at the top in the world, many nice places are being ruined locally for this greed. I’m so glad to see someone talking about this issue withour being snowed by the developer-serving narrative.


Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 26, 2018 at 7:23 pm

DTN Paul is a registered user.

@loca, Denser housing is proven to be more efficient and less resource intensive per capita. You can look it up.


Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 27, 2018 at 8:43 am

The fundamental question is why the assistant director of planning and the city manager, Jonathan Lait and Jim Keene, told the proposed buyer of the President apartments that they had the legal right to turn the building into a hotel when they did not. The city manager confirmed at a council meeting the conversion was
“By right”.

Why would they say this when they knew the were at least four legal prohibitions in the municipal code that made such a conversion legally impossible?


Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 27, 2018 at 8:56 am

Casual discussions with the assistant director of planning and the city manager do not override law. The developers bought the hotel without doing their necessary legal homework and I hope they lose every dime they put into this project.

As for the assistant director of planning and the city manager, they failed Palo Alto. If someone tells you they plan to evict 75 families so they can build a luxury hotel, first you call your boss, then you call the police department.


Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 27, 2018 at 9:18 am

Here are reasons why the city manager wanted this to move forward:

1) Property tax reassessment from $8 million to $65 million
2) Hotel Tax revenue 14%, would generate another $500,000
3) Development fees for the remodeling/conversion to a hotel

Here are reasons why Lait did not say "no" or advise against the purchase:

1) He is not an attorney and should not give legal advice, and it's the responsibility of the sophisticated buyer/investor to do their own investigation
2) A government official should not be saying they would use "all legal means to prevent the purchase", or "advise against the purchase" - government officials should be neutral, and provide facts only.
3) It is ultimately up to the council to rule on a variance, change in use, etc.

My guess is that the city and the investors will reach a compromise: keep a number of units as rental units, with some of those long term rental units being BMR units, and the remaining units being hotel units. It's not what I would prefer, but what I think will be the compromise.


Posted by Local
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2018 at 12:36 pm

@Down,

“Denser housing is proven to be more efficient and less resource intensive per capita. You can look it up”

What do you mean by more efficient? More efficient at making people unhappy? Check, I found that - a proportional effect on unhappiness relative to density. Do you mean more efficient at creating heat sinks that are bad for global warming? Check, found that too. Do you mean more efficient at using energy and water? Nope, guess what studies that support that apparently were narrow and didn’t look at how high rises are actually used and at life cycle costs.

Here’s a recent mainstream study debunking the idea that “density” is necessarily more “efficient”::
Web Link
“We estimate that downtown high-rise living in Chicago, IL accounts for approximately 25% more life-cycle energy per person per year than suburban low-rise living, on average, contrary to some common beliefs.”


Here’s an article about the unquestioning promotion of density:

Web Link
Misunderstanding density: why we are building the wrong sort of cities

“high-density cities also lead to: more pedestrian casualties, urban heat island effects and waste; poorer ecosystem quality; loss of privacy and direct sunlight; and reductions in our physical and mental wellbeing.”

“When we get density wrong, cities may become much more inefficient, as neighbourhoods become dead zones and valuable resources are diverted to solve the problems. So how can cities keep the good bits of density and get rid of the bad bits? The short answer is: they can't”

And that fails to take into account dangers and lifecycle costs in earthquake country. Here’s an alarming recent article anout the seismic dangers being created by all the high-rise building in San Francisco, where denser building is creating a serious risk to property and hundreds of thousands of lives in the likely event of a major seismic event.
Web Link

I appreciate this article for busting out of your ideologically blind mantra about density, which only serves developers and definitely makes things worse for the poor (and yes, I looked THAT up, too.)


Posted by developers rule
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 27, 2018 at 1:14 pm

>why the assistant director of planning and the city manager, Jonathan Lait and Jim Keene, told the proposed buyer of the President apartments that they had the legal right to turn the building into a hotel when they did not. The city manager confirmed at a council meeting the conversion was “By right”.

As far as I'm concerned,the Manager and his pro development crew should go away. I can't wait till the end of the year when Mr.Keene finally leaves.


Posted by Downtown PA...Who Cares Anymore?
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 27, 2018 at 3:10 pm

Why all the sympathy for displaced President tenants? They got a good deal for while it lasted and now it's time to either move on or find another place to live in PA (if so desired). Nothing lasts forever.

They're getting a relocation check which is more than what most renters get when a landlord decides to sell his property and evict tenants.

While I'm not all that keen on a fancy President Hotel either, there's not much to do in downtown PA anymore except maybe eat an overpriced lunch or dinner. The smaller specialized sores are rapidly declining in numbers or long gone.

So why deal with the traffic and trying to find a parking space? The majority of us residents have better things to do with our time. Let the tourists and business travelers have the downtown corridor as downtown has lost it allure.


Posted by Downtown PA...Who Cares Anymore
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 27, 2018 at 3:12 pm

[sores] > stores


Posted by Downtown PA...Big Deal
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 27, 2018 at 5:16 pm

We rarely go downtown as well...nothing there worth experiencing except hordes of people walking aimlessly down the streets. If I want to be just another face in the crowd, I'll go to Shoreline Amphitheater or ATT Park. At least there's something interesting or entertaining going on.


Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2018 at 5:37 pm

Posted by Local, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> [...]Here’s a recent mainstream study debunking the idea that “density” is necessarily more “efficient”:: [...]

Local, I appreciate a lot of what you are saying, but, there is confusion with respect to "density" and various terms used in the Boyko, et al., articles. As I have posted before, you can achieve high -density- with modest 3-4 story/50 ft townhouses/row-houses and/or apartments. Density, as in, as dense as the high-density neighborhoods in Manhattan.

You (following Boyko et al.) are correct that tall/high-rise/skyscraper buildings have many issues, including neighborhood impacts, initial cost, ongoing energy usage, seismic safety issues, and, as Boyko points out, lack of satisfaction of the residents. But, high density doesn't require tall buildings, it requires multi-story /3-5 story ~ <50 foot buildings. Cities in Europe have been defined by such buildings for a long time, so, we know they are feasible.

Let's take skyscrapers off the table, and, look at more modest buildings that can live under a 50-foot height cap. I you will find that, unlike skyscrapers, these 50-foot multifamily structures can be cost-effective, energy-efficient and good neighbors.


Posted by Local
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2018 at 6:53 pm

@Anon,
I don’t know where you mean in Europe, but places I am familiar with that use low-rise construction also tend to leave (require) far more space between buildings, care about garden space, sidewalk space, green urban open space, views, sunlight, etc. let’s not hndwave about “Eurooe” and cherry pick the things that, once again, serve only overdevelopment interests. Our City can’t even provide the urban greenspace already mandated in the civil code for the development we have.

This is not the world of Harry Potter where we can just expand the infrastructure by magic. If you want more 3-5 story buildings and have a vision for a different place than is here, please take it to someplace that wants it, because there are many places getting hollowed out in our nation that need and want the jobs and development money. Let’s deal with the fact that people want to live here and density has its own gravity, and help multiply the number of desirable places.

In today’s political climate, it occurred to me that someone ought to counter what the POtus is telling the country about California, but then I realized, we really don’t want to encourage more people to move here when we already have 12% of the US population or more.

There is no advantage to densifying, we are already built up for the infrastructure, and the hard problems that overbuilding have created, like the daily loss of opportunity, productivity, and quality of life for hundreds of thousands of us, are expensive to solve - even if they are posdible. Companies and developers are foisting those problems onto the public while they profit handsonely. The so-called housing “crisis” gets worse with density, not better, because the demand side isnot statis. We also have a significant public safety problem when we overbuild for the infrastructure that no one is dealing with. All across the nation, when people lose everything or die because of development that has similarly selfish underpinnings and no thought to safety, developers are long gone and no one is ever held to account for the cost to others of their greed.

The residents of the President hotel have learned the lesson that all this loud clamour for building is actually a way for development interests to have their way with the opposite effect of the one promised. I wonder how many know that if they had supported STRONGER zoning protections, they wereactually supporting moderate income housing? Or how many believed the development propoganda?


Posted by What About the PA Homeless Population?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2018 at 3:15 pm

Nobody in Palo Alto seems to care about the homeless. Most residents just look the other way, probably hoping that the downtrodden will either magically disappear or perhaps find a new place to roost.

The President Hotel situation is a trivial self-serving matter compared to the larger scheme of things. The housing debate currently being beaten to death in PA primarily involves the displaced with reasonable financial resources to live elsewhere (but most prefer not to) and has become a 'boo-hoo me' topic.

Not buying it. The PACC and PA residents can argue development vs preservation till kingdom come as it has become little more than a battle of self-serving interests.

Just keep in minds that homelessness can happen to anyone...even you. And in many/certain instances, it has nothing to do with being mentally-ill or a substance abuser. Sometimes it's purely economic and through no particular fault of the individual.

Remember that...and now back to your discussion.



Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2018 at 5:15 pm

Posted by What About the PA Homeless Population?, a resident of Adobe-Meadow

>> Nobody in Palo Alto seems to care about the homeless.

"Seems." Hard to question "seems", but, have you done a survey? How do you know this? I've talked to quite a few people who seem to care, they just don't think it is easy for an individual to respond to the problem.

>> Most residents just look the other way, probably hoping that the downtrodden will either magically disappear or perhaps find a new place to roost.

Probably true. It is tough for busy individuals to do something about a systemic problem.

>> Just keep in minds that homelessness can happen to anyone...even you.

Very true. Lost job. Age discrimination. Cumulative financial reverses. Mental illness. Not wealthy enough to survive gentrification. Lots of reasons.

>> And in many/certain instances, it has nothing to do with being mentally-ill or a substance abuser. Sometimes it's purely economic and through no particular fault of the individual.

Sometimes it is mental illness, though. Mental illness is much more prevalent than most people like to admit in public. About half of all people suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives, about a quarter will suffer some level of mental illness (e.g. depression) in any given year. Obviously, most people recover, on their own, or, with treatment. But, about 6 percent develop serious, long-term mental illness. Web Link One in 16 or 17 or so. One in every kindergarten class. It is not a small problem.

FWIW, I'm not willing to write homeless people off when/just because they are mentally ill. People don't want to be mentally ill, and, they can't just decide to stop being mentally ill through willpower. https://www.nami.org


Posted by Hsien
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 28, 2018 at 5:52 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by Kenny
a resident of University South
on Oct 29, 2018 at 8:30 am

"Why all the sympathy for displaced President tenants? They got a good deal for while it lasted and now it's time to either move on or find another place to live in PA (if so desired). Nothing lasts forever."

How Shallow Alto. Better to build more affordable housing downtown, a President Hotel only twice as tall with twice as many units.


Posted by Kenny
a resident of University South
on Oct 29, 2018 at 8:38 am

"Nobody in Palo Alto seems to care about the homeless."

Unless they work here, why would homeless come to an area where both food and housing are particularly expensive? It's not like PA is going to be more affordable than downtown San Jose.


Posted by Local
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 29, 2018 at 9:12 am

Companies and developers are foisting those problems onto the public while they profit handsomely. The so-called housing “crisis” gets worse with density, not better, because the demand side is not static.

The residents of the President hotel have learned the lesson that all this loud clamour for building is actually a way for development interests to have their way with the opposite effect of the one promised. I wonder how many know that if they had supported STRONGER zoning protections, they woould have been supporting moderate income housing? Or how many believed the development propoganda?

(Clarification from my post above, my device and I apologize for the previous typos.)


Posted by Keeping It In Perspective
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 29, 2018 at 9:13 am

> Unless they work here, why would homeless come to an area where both food and housing are particularly expensive? It's not like PA is going to be more affordable than downtown San Jose.

Go to downtown SJ (near the SC County courthouse at St. James Park Park) and perhaps you'll see why. There are many homeless sleeping in the park and in abandoned store doorways on 2nd Street...a very depressing sight. A $1.00 VTA bus/light rail pass can easily get one to PA or MV for a sense of added personal safety plus easier access to certain amenities.

There are two types of homeless here in the midpeninsula...those with or without an RV. While many residents complain of their presence, the homeless are just trying to stay alive while surviving on the minimal of food/shelter/clothing.

Always best to count one's blessings. Life is tough but some have it tougher than others. As a previous poster noted, the President Hotel issue is being overblown to some extent. At least those folks received some remuneration for their inconveniences.


Posted by menlo mom
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 29, 2018 at 12:04 pm

Outside of the climate change comments (that seemed a bit out of left field), I thought the article was thought provoking and interesting. As someone from another community who has followed this story throughout, I have a question. Maybe it's been answered in another article that I've missed.

So, if we follow the what-if scenario in which the developer was advised ahead of time that converting the property into a boutique hotel would not be allowed...then what? So AJ moves on to another property. And the President's Hotel? I'm assuming that AJ didn't just approach the owner out of the blue and it was for sale. Who is the current owner supposed to sell to? Is he not allowed to sell unless the new owner agrees to keep it as low-income housing? And, I would assume that this would not actually be possible because the moment the sale goes through, then the new property tax would kick in, in which case, one would assume, the new owner would have to raise the rent and therefore price out the current occupants.

So, the current owner can sell to someone who will make no changes, keep as existing housing, and the current residents would be displaced. Or sell to someone to keep as housing, upgrade it, and current residents would be displaced. Or sell to someone to convert it to anything else, and current residents would be displaced. So, as much as I 100% agree that the last thing this area needs is another boutique hotel, and the entire thing was mishandled by the town, I wish those that are so vocal against it would give their suggestion of a different path for the current owner that would result in keeping the tenants there.


Posted by Time to Get Real
a resident of University South
on Oct 29, 2018 at 2:37 pm

Are the displaced residents of the President Hotel merely being used as PR pawns in this ongoing development vs non-development debate?

While I can understand the duress of being forced to find a new dwelling, at least the PACC procured them some extra cash which many renters don't receive upon being forced to move by a landlord.

Since the residents of the President Hotel are not individual condo owners, their time there is done. Game over.

As far as further office/commercial development in Palo Alto is concerned, that decision rests with the PACC. But don't expect to be housing all the new workers who will be filling these PA office buildings. That's asking a bit too much.


Posted by JimBaer
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 29, 2018 at 5:32 pm

JimBaer is a registered user.

I was a co-owner of the President Apartments in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, Our sales value for the building was then well below $15Million - closer to $12Million. The building never suffered other than day long vacancies. I am sorry for the loss of small rental housing units that have best suited individuals or couples, and not families,


Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 29, 2018 at 10:31 pm

"Affordable housing close to transit, shopping, employment centers and essential services": It's been a decades-long mantra of political campaigners and a bedrock principle chiseled into past and present Comprehensive Plans. And, The President Hotel has been the epitome of the benefits it offers."

This Presidential affair shows how hollow that mantra of "Affordable housing close to transit, shopping, employment centers and essential services" is and has been. It's fine for propaganda for the gullible public, but our movers and shakers know the truth. As @Time to Get Real put it with crunchy precision, "don't expect to be housing all the new workers who will be filling these PA office buildings. That's asking a bit too much."


Posted by Kenny
a resident of University South
on Oct 30, 2018 at 8:31 am

"Go to downtown SJ (near the SC County courthouse at St. James Park Park) and perhaps you'll see why. There are many homeless sleeping in the park and in abandoned store doorways on 2nd Street...a very depressing sight. A $1.00 VTA bus/light rail pass can easily get one to PA or MV for a sense of added personal safety plus easier access to certain amenities."

There are many homeless all over downtown San Jose. They go there because the cost of food and other necessities is lower than in many other places. There are also social services available, more so than in many other places.

Being homeless would be pretty depressing anywhere. While it might be marginally more tolerable in an upscale area than in a ghetto, people in upscale areas are going to have little patience for a bunch of transients in their environs. Many of the homeless, but by no means all, are mentally disturbed or drug users. Such individuals bring nothing but crime and violence, and are unwelcome in any area.

"There are two types of homeless here in the midpeninsula...those with or without an RV. While many residents complain of their presence, the homeless are just trying to stay alive while surviving on the minimal of food/shelter/clothing."

I don't count people in RVs as homeless, they just live in homes on wheels. Palo Alto deliberately created a housing shortage to inflate property values, so some folks created their own housing supply. I have met a number of these people, and they are a lot nicer and better mannered than many of their counterparts in fixed housing. They are quite different from the winos that used to camp out in the Hamilton Post Office or the crazy people sleeping in doorways.


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