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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, February 21, 2003

Referendum planned for 800 High St. Referendum planned for 800 High St. (February 21, 2003)

Issue could lead into November City Council election

by Don Kazak

A group of residents and small business owners are mounting an all-out effort to overturn the recent decision by the Palo Alto City Council to approve a housing development project at 800 High St.

The project was approved by a 6-3 City Council vote Feb. 3, reflecting divisions on the council, too. And with four seats up in the Nov. 4 City Council election, the attempted referendum could play into that race.

The 800 High St. project, by developers Doug Ross and Kurt Peterson, would construct a 96,000-square-foot building on the block of High Street between Homer and Channing avenues. The building would have 61 housing units, 1,900 square feet of retail space, and two levels of underground parking, including 57 public parking spaces.

Its critics believe the project is too big, while its defenders say it will add badly needed housing and public parking to the area.

Larry Hassett, the owner of Palo Alto Hardware, located just across an alley from the project site, is helping lead the referendum effort. He believes the development will hurt the neighborhood and its small businesses, and contends a half-dozen adjacent small-business owners agree with him, including those of Watercourse Way and several small auto repair shops.

"It changes the dynamic of the area completely," Hassett said.

Hassett was also co-chairman of the SOFA II Working Group (SOFA referring to South of Forest Avenue), a group that met to discuss future planning goals for the area.

"The scale and mass are against what the community wanted" during the SOFA II planning process, he said.

The small businesses in the neighborhood need street parking, Hassett said, not public parking in an underground garage that people may be reluctant to use. And the area, especially with the bustling Whole Foods Market, has a short supply of street parking.

"It puts the squeeze on all of us, particularly in parking," Hassett said.

He and others also think the project's size could set a precedent for development issues in other parts of the city still awaiting decision, including the Alma Plaza shopping center and the redevelopment of the Hyatt Rickey's and Elk's Lodge properties.

"The neighbors are really concerned about increased traffic and the size of the building," said Janet Dafoe, a board member of the University South Neighborhood Association, which includes the South of Forest Avenue residential area. "It doesn't fit in with the neighborhood."

Developer Doug Ross notes the project has been modified several times to respond to neighborhood concerns, adds housing in a transit corridor -- which is a key city goal -- and does, in fact, bring parking to an area where street parking for businesses is at a premium.

He noted that the extremely popular hardware store owned by Hassett has only five off-street parking places. "I find it ironic that the people who have put (parking) pressure on the area are complaining," he said.

To qualify the issue for a city vote, Hassett and the people seeking the referendum have to obtain 2,194 signatures -- or 6 percent -- of registered Palo Alto voters by 5:30 p.m. March 20, said City Clerk Donna Rogers.

Signatures cannot be gathered until the petition effort goes through a few procedural steps, including publishing an advertisement of a "notice of intent" to circulate petitions in a local newspaper adjudicated to carry legal ads.

That basically means the group must collect 2,194 signatures in less than a month.

No problem, said Hassett. "There is an army of people ready to go," he said.

"People from neighborhoods from all over the city are willing to help," Dafoe said, because of the precedent the 800 High St. project will set.

But is 800 High St. a compelling enough issue to catch the attention of people who live in other parts of the city? Former mayor and City Councilman Gary Fazzino is skeptical.

"It may be too localized for a citywide referendum, although it's easy to qualify these things for the ballot," he said.

Four council seats are up in the Nov. 4th election -- those of Mayor Dena Mossar, Vice Mayor Bern Beecham and councilwomen Judy Kleinberg and Nancy Lytle. Lytle, along with Councilwomen Hillary Freeman and Yoriko Kishimoto, voted against the 800 High St. project.

But Fazzino said he didn't know if the issue was big enough to become a driving issue in the Nov. 4 City Council election.

"In places like Barron Park or Greenmeadow, I don't know if people will feel strongly about this, unless the proponents make a case that it effects them, too."

Don Kazak can be e-mailed at [email protected]


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