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March 03, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Guest Opinion: Hold the line on 20,000-square-foot grocery stores Guest Opinion: Hold the line on 20,000-square-foot grocery stores (March 03, 2004)

by Jay Hammer

The 20,000-square-foot cap on grocery stores in "neighborhood-serving" zones has been in effect for quite some time. And it has worked effectively to encourage small retail, restrain local traffic and preserve the small, intimate character of neighborhoods that Palo Altans cherish.

It's precisely because of this longstanding limitation that the Midtown and Charleston centers have flourished and become thriving neighborhood business centers.

The 20,000-square-foot cap stems from the vision of walkable, friendly neighborhood business centers that have a diversity of small retail -- such as coffee shops, dry cleaners, hairstylists and family eateries.

This is the vision outlined in the City's Comprehensive Plan and the Municipal Code:

1) The Comprehensive Plan (Goal L-4, page L-18) describes neighborhood centers as "small retail centers with a primary trade area limited to the immediately surrounding area."

2) The Municipal Code (Chapter 18.41) says that neighborhood commercial centers are "intended to create and maintain neighborhood shopping areas ... of moderate size serving the immediate neighborhood.... A neighborhood-serving use [is one with a] local customer base ... to which a significant number of customers and clients travel, rather than the provider of the goods or services traveling off-site."

Andronicos and Mollie Stone are not considered "neighborhood-serving" and can therefore exceed the 20,000-square-foot cap.

Upholding that cap is essential if our city is to have any viable standards governing development. Other cities have recognized the value of maintaining this standard. For instance, the city of Northampton, Mass., requires developers who build stores larger than 20,000 square feet to pay a $5-per-square-foot mitigation fee to fund economic development activities to offset the impact of the large store on the downtown businesses.

If Palo Alto were to allow a business to exceed 20,000 square feet in a neighborhood center it might create a serious imbalance between the anchor store and the surrounding small retail. But it is the smaller stores that provide character and vitality to the center.

They also limit the number of cars that populate the neighborhood, because people don't have to drive cars to those retailers -- they can walk or bike.

For our two neighborhood centers that are prime for redevelopment, Alma Plaza (ground floor of 12,600 square feet) and Edgewood Plaza (ground floor of 14,200 square feet), there are strong reasons to maintain the cap:

1) Experience shows that 20,000-square-foot stores are economically viable. The new/refurbished Midtown Safeway in Palo Alto and the Laguna Beach Albertson's are proof that a chain grocery store can be viable and profitable at 20,000 square feet. In fact, the Safeway grocery is the highest grossing supermarket per square foot in the Bay Area.

2) A cluster of small stores would encourage more "walking." Experience has shown that as store size increases the less it contributes to a walkable community. 3) Large chain stores have an unfair advantage and tend not to be as invested in a community as locally owned stores. Part of the appeal of retail in Palo Alto is that it is on a human-scale. Two years ago, JJ&F Market, Co-op and Piazza presented petitions to the city with thousands of customer signatures asking that the 20,000-square-foot standard be upheld. Large chain stores already have enormous resources to devote to advertising, discounting other techniques to attract customers. Allowing them to super-size grants them even greater advantages.

4) The 20,000-square-foot cap helps ensure fair competition. The Web site,, points to Palo Alto as a positive example: "Groceries and other important stores are not permitted to build above a reasonable square footage.... Palo Alto, for instance, caps their groceries at 20,000 square feet. This assures that groceries ... are competitive at a size that is neighborhood friendly." If we grant an exception that will harm existing markets that are within the 20,000-square-foot cap (Piazza, JJ&F and Safeway), aren't we likely to end up with fewer choices rather than more?

For a sustainable community, the city needs local businesses that are invested in and help form a community with an identity. When residents spend a dollar at a locally owned business, the profits stay in the community. A larger chain store puts less back into the community than a cluster of small, independent retail shops.

There must be an overwhelming reason to abandon the 20,000-square-foot cap to place an overly large grocery store in the midst of a neighborhood-commercial center.

If Palo Alto were to exceed the cap, it would violate the Municipal Code and our Comprehensive Plan, undermining the walkable nature of the center, and create a serious imbalance between the grocery store and the surrounding small retail.

In doing so, it would threaten both the small retail and the very stores that have abided by the cap. Do we want to accept this impact on the city? I think not.

Jay Hammer is a 16-year resident of Midtown, a project manager at Cisco Systems and a certified personal trainer. He can be e-mailed at

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