The Cable Co-op in Palo Alto decided in May to not sell the system serving 27,000 local households but instead to seek a financial partner to help address its debt problems. The company has a $36.5 million debt, largely incurred from purchasing the cable system from Pacific Bell in 1991. The Cable Co-op continued to explore financial alternatives through the rest of the year.
The East Palo Alto City Council voted March 4 to appeal a court ruling on its parcel tax that threatens to financially cripple the city. A group of property owners filed suit against the city in 1994 challenging the tax, claiming that it was unconstitutional, and a San Mateo County Superior Court judged agreed with the property owners in late 1995. An appellate court decision is due in early 1997.
Palo Alto found that drivers are quick to complain about the lack of parking downtown, but most are unwilling to open their wallets to pay for a convenient space. In May, the City Council decided to stop charging for the first hour of parking at the city's trial pay parking lot, which opened Dec. 4, 1995, between Bryant and Florence streets, north of University Avenue. Use of the lot had only been about one-third of what had been projected, and it was on pace to lose $30,000 for the year. The paid attendant lot was part of the Chamber of Commerce's 13-point parking plan and was intended to provide longer-term parking than the free two-hour zones. On Sept. 9, the council decided to stick with it through the holidays to give it more opportunity to catch on.
The city's Homelessness Task Force was formed last winter and issued a report Aug. 1 making six recommendations to help the homeless in the city. The ideas included increasing the stock of low-cost housing to providing public restrooms downtown. On Sept. 16, the city began a temporary program employing eight homeless in maintenance jobs at $7 an hour.
The start of 1996 brought a big change for landlords in rent-controlled East Palo Alto--a chance to raise the rent on an apartment when a tenant moves out. The city's rent control law, which governed 4,000 housing units, was preempted by state legislation which took effect Jan. 1. The law essentially allows landlords to raise rents up to 15 percent when a tenant moves out. Property owners applauded the new law, but city officials were dismayed. East Palo Alto's rent control law was first adopted in 1983 and had been affirmed by the city's voters three different times.
East Palo Alto's stalled Gateway 101 redevelopment project finally got moving again in September when city officials announced that the Dallas-based computer store chain, CompUSA, had signed a letter of intent to open a store in the complex, and that the city would receive a $2.9 million federal grant from the Economic Development Association. The project, on the site of the former Ravenswood High School, had been dead in the water since late 1995 when Sportmart officials pulled out of the deal they had signed. The other three major retailers--Home Depot, Office Depot and the Good Guys--were still eager to go ahead, but the city needed a fourth store to help pay for public improvements. Late in the year, the City Council approved a set of final steps for the project, which could open for business by the end of 1997.
In mid-January a last-ditch effort by a few Palo Alto citizens failed to derail the City Council's decision to establish a domestic partners registry recognizing unmarried couples, both opposite sex and same sex. The council initially approved the registry without opposition on Dec. 11, 1995. But when it came back to the council on Jan. 16 so a fee could be set, opponents tried to have it overturned. City activist Jim Lewis argued that is was passed without sufficient community discussion. Lewis and another opponent, Elliot Bolter, also brought in a cellular phone so the Rev. Louis Sheldon, a traditional values activist, could address the council from Los Angeles. He called the registry a step toward same-sex marriage and "a threat to our social order." The council didn't agree and set the fee at $35.
In early February, the East Palo Alto City Council agreed to do what it can to help stop the spread of AIDS in its city. A U.C. San Francisco Medical School study had shown that one in three intravenous drug users in East Palo Alto were infected with the virus that leads to AIDS--the highest HIV infection rate west of Chicago. One hundred and ten new cases were reported in the city in 1995.
On March 4, the Palo Alto City Council unanimously renewed the downtown color-zone parking system for another year. The city determined that, despite a few flaws, the color-zone system had met the goal of reducing "sleeper parking" (a practice used by employees who shuffled their cars between two-hour spaces) and freeing up more parking for downtown visitors and shoppers. Council members also expressed strong support for moving quickly with the construction of one or more parking structures that would provide 400 or 500 spaces at a cost of about $8 million. At the end of the year, the city was wrestling with the problems of overflow parking in downtown residential neighborhoods and was considering a permit parking system.
On March 11, the Palo Alto City Council rejected two proposals for use of the Arastra house, the sprawling city-owned house near the top of Arastradero Preserve, and instead accepted an offer of $350,000 from 21 wealthy neighbors of the preserve to tear down the house and build a modest visitor center near the preserve's main entrance. While the council accepted the money, it also supported a proposal by Bay Area Action, a Palo Alto-based environmental group, to let the group become steward of the 609-acre preserve. On Dec. 2, the council approved a plan to demolish the 4,200-square-foot house, as well as a smaller stablemaster's house and the large two-story barn, in June 1997. Bay Area Action plans to recycle or reuse as much of the material as possible to build a gateway structure. For the 10th year, drifting concert noise from Shoreline Amphitheatre continued to disrupt the summer evenings of many Palo Altans in 1996. But efforts by Palo Alto officials to have the volume turned down were rebuffed by the Mountain View City Council on Nov. 26. Although Palo Alto Mayor Lanie Wheeler, two council members, the city manager and the city attorney were present at the meeting to convey the gravity of their concern, the Mountain View council voted 5-2 against turning down the volume and 5-2 not to discuss the issue further. The majority of Mountain View council members blamed the problem on a weather phenomenon known as the inversion layer.
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