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August 10, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Baylands site of future 'auto mall'? Baylands site of future 'auto mall'? (August 10, 2005)

Council split over whether to study environmentally-sensitive area as future site for car dealerships

by Bill D'Agostino

By the slimmest possible margin, the Palo Alto City Council voted to study a proposal to lure auto dealerships to city-owned land adjacent to the environmentally-sensitive Baylands, with one dissenting council member promising to make it an election issue.

"I sort of think this council gives this community lots of reasons to care about this election," said Councilman Jack Morton, who is running for re-election this fall. "This would be, for me, the most incredible thing. ... It's an auto dealership sitting in front of the Emily Renzel Marsh.

"I do not see that this is winnable in this community and I want to save the staff from this. But if you want to go forward, it would be a considerably more interesting election to say, 'Where is the environmental heart of this council going?'"

Former Councilwoman Emily Renzel, after whom the nearby marsh was named due to her stalwart advocacy for the open space, also spoke against the proposal.

"I can't believe it's come to this," she said.

Vice Mayor Judy Kleinberg, who co-wrote a memo asking for the analysis, said the city could require any auto dealerships relocating to the 17-acre plot, located on East Bayshore Road, to construct environmentally friendly buildings.

The city would not sell the land, Kleinberg said, but would offer long-term leases to auto dealerships.

Council members who supported the study noted that dealerships make up a sizable percentage of the city's sales tax. Two left in recent years and others are threatening to leave due to the limitations on their current locations.

"We do feel time is extremely of the essence," Kleinberg said. Making the East Bayshore Road site a priority would "send a very strong message to auto dealers to hold off on negotiating with any of our neighboring communities."

The council previously identified the site as one of numerous spots for auto dealers. Monday night's 5-4 vote pinpointed the East Bayshore Road location as the most likely candidate for the city's attention. The council's vote requires city staff to make the analysis a top priority and return with a report by the end of the year.

Councilwomen Yorko Kishimoto, LaDoris Cordell and Hillary Freeman joined Morton in opposing the study.

To make room for the auto dealerships, the city would need to find a way to relocate its Municipal Services Center and its animal shelter, currently located on the 17 acres.

Relocating those structures will not be an easy task, Planning Director Steve Emslie told the council. Kleinberg said the city would consider partnering with other cities to build a joint facility.

With four council members already opposed to it, the proposal faces a tough road. Even council members who supported the new auto dealership study were wary.

"Maybe we can design a 13-acre auto mall that meets the requirements of the Baylands Master Plan," said Councilwoman Dena Mossar, referring to a planning document that guides development in the area, "but it really stretches my imagination. I've never seen an auto mall that looks like the Baylands."

Mayor Jim Burch, another co-author of the memo, emphasized that the vote was only to prioritize a study of the site. He also cautioned against calling the potential site an "auto mall," saying there would be only two -- or three at the most -- auto dealerships able to move there.

Burch noted that owners of auto dealers told city leaders the land -- especially since it's highly visible from U.S. Highway 101 -- was a prime location.

Councilman Vic Ojakian said there is no ideal location for the auto dealerships in Palo Alto, but said the city should be flexible because "we're running out of places" and the sales tax dealers generate is "critical."

The Municipal Services Center, which stores city vehicles and houses utility workers, already needs to be rebuilt since it is seismically unsafe. A 2001 city analysis estimated the rebuild would cost at least $30 million. That same study noted that the land was subject to tidal flooding.

Expanding the animal shelter is another long-planned city project. That project is currently being studied and is estimated to cost $2.3 million.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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