The plan for University Circle

Publication Date: Wednesday Apr 8, 1998

The plan for University Circle

East Palo Alto and its neighbors begin evaluating the hotel and office complex that would replace Whiskey Gulch

by Don Kazak

Whiskey Gulch, the strip of stores and modest commercial buildings close by the Bayshore Freeway on the west side of East Palo Alto, had been a destination in past years for Stanford students and servicemen looking for libations. Today the street, with its liquor stores, barber shops, beauty salons and small restaurants, is perhaps best known as where most of East Palo Alto's nonprofit social agencies are located.

By the millennium, though, University Circle will probably be home to one of the top computer companies in the world and will boast one of the poshest and most expensive hotels on the Peninsula, a place where high-powered high-tech executives will come to meet and greet--if the city approves the latest development proposal for the strip.

East Palo Alto's top priority for the last several years has been to redevelop three key areas of the city to establish a tax base for the city government. The Gateway 101 Shopping Center, the first project, is about to start construction.

University Circle is the second project, and the Ravenswood Industrial Area will be the third.

"This project, like the Gateway project, is really critical to the long-term survival of the city," said Vice Mayor Sharifa Wilson, who also chairs the city's Redevelopment Agency.

A plan for the University Circle redevelopment project is now before the City Council, with a final decision due within the next few months.

Sun Microsystems has an option to rent all the office space, but developer Linda Law said negotiations are continuing. She said she is also negotiating with several hotel chains to operate the hotel.

This, of course, is not the first time around for a Whiskey Gulch redevelopment project.

Developer Joaquin DeMonet attempted a larger office and hotel project 10 years ago, but his plans were battered by lawsuits from Palo Alto and Menlo Park, and even a scaled-down version of the project was tripped up by a lawsuit from property owners. The DeMonet project died in 1993.

But the idea behind the project remained attractive: Whiskey Gulch's location, right by the freeway, is the kind of location that developers dream about. And with a booming Silicon Valley running out of space for new commercial buildings, Whiskey Gulch has become an even more valuable piece of real estate.

For the project to succeed, though, Menlo Park developer Law has to convince a lot of people that her project is the right one to build.

Among those she needs to persuade are the East Palo Alto City Council, Whiskey Gulch property owners, the shopkeepers and nonprofit agency workers who now call Whiskey Gulch home, and residents of the Willows and Crescent Park neighborhoods in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, respectively.

The great value of the neighborhood--its location--is also a point of great sensitivity, since Whiskey Gulch is located between the Willows and Crescent Park.

Assuming that Linda Law and her development team are able to win approvals from the city of East Palo Alto, the project could still be tripped up by lawsuits, which is what happened to DeMonet.

Law is confident that won't be the case.

The most common way for a development project to be challenged legally is to attack the project's environmental impact report (EIR). The environmental review of such projects is required by state law, and if an EIR doesn't address all the potential problems and impacts created by a project, a judge can declare the EIR inadequate and tell the city to go back and do it again.

The EIR, which was released last week, was compiled by David Powers and Associates, a firm with a solid reputation for doing EIRs. "David Powers' EIRs have withstood legal challenges," Law said.

Even absent an eventual lawsuit, that doesn't mean people won't be picking away, both at the data in the EIR and at the project itself.

Several people said much the same thing last week: They haven't had a chance to really study the EIR, but they know they will have questions.

"Generally, the residents of the Willows would like to see a redevelopment project in Whiskey Gulch," said Jim Wiley, a Willows resident.

"But we'd like to know what the real impacts would be," Wiley added, indicating he has some doubts about some of the assumptions that David Powers and Associates made in calculating the traffic impacts of the project.

Among those assumptions, Wiley said, was a projected traffic pattern by office workers and hotel guests that is estimated to not include much traffic at all through Wiley's neighborhood. "I just wonder whether they have presented an overly optimistic set of assumptions," Wiley said.

As a result, the Willow Homeowners Association has requested that the city of Menlo Park take a careful look at the EIR.

"We will be reviewing the entire document, with heavy emphasis on the traffic," said Menlo Park City Manager Jan Dolan.

Menlo Park's Planning Commission, Bicycle Safety Committee and Transportation Commission will discuss the EIR in a joint meeting April 27, and the Menlo Park City Council will hold a public hearing on the EIR May 5. Dolan said the council will accept comments from the public May 5 and will likely formulate its official response to the EIR then.

In Palo Alto, the EIR will be discussed by the Crescent Park Neighborhood Association at its annual meeting April 29, said Cathie Lehrberg, president of the association. Lehrberg declined to comment further, other than noting there is a lot of interest in Crescent Park in the University Circle project.

The city of Palo Alto hasn't determined yet whether the City Council will hold a public hearing on the EIR, said City Manager June Fleming. "In all probability, it will go to the council," Fleming said.

From her discussions with the neighborhood associations, Law said that Willows residents seem most concerned about traffic impacts, while Crescent Park residents are concerned about traffic, about the bulk of the buildings and the visual impact, and about whether the project will have adequate parking. Wiley also touched on that point.

Wiley questions whether the plan for the office complex to share parking with the hotel will really work, given that many high-tech workers routinely work into the evening, when a conference hotel can be expected to draw additional people to events.

Law and the East Palo Alto City Council are also waiting to see whether any significant opposition to the project develops from within East Palo Alto.

Both Law and Wilson believe that the Whiskey Gulch property owners are happy with the project--and with the prospect of selling their land to the city. If the city is unable to negotiate a purchase price with a landowner, it would go to court to force a sale through eminent domain. "Most of the businesses don't want to stay," Wilson said. "They want their checks."

But some of the tenants aren't happy with the thought of being relocated.

Some of them have argued for a "main street" development instead, which would preserve and renovate existing buildings. But for that to work, the property owners have to like and participate in the concept.

"I'm still interested in the main street idea," said Stephenie Smith, executive director of the East Palo Alto Historical and Agricultural Association (EPA HAS), one of the many nonprofit groups that would be displaced by the project. Smith said the details of a main street plan are still being worked out.

But Smith has also been in contact with a lawyer, Deborah Sivas of the environmental clinic at the Stanford Law School. Sivas, like others, hasn't had time yet to closely examine the EIR. "But it doesn't look to me like they've answered a lot of the concerns from the community," Sivas said.

Other lawyers are reading the EIR, too. The East Palo Alto Community Law Project filed the lawsuit in 1992 that ultimately helped kill the DeMonet project, and Kevin Stein of the law project said that residents and some business owners have the same concern about the University Circle project: Where will current tenants go?

Stein notes that the EIR calculates that some 900 units of replacement housing can be built in different locations in the city. "(The residents) want to see significant progress made on the replacement housing before any housing is torn down," Stein said. "How realistic is it that this housing will be built?"

The city's redevelopment agency, of course, is legally responsible for relocating both residents and businesses displaced by the project, but people are nervous about where they might end up.

A separate issue is the fate of the many nonprofit agencies that will have to move. City officials, when discussing revisions to the city's General Plan now underway, have talked about finding another location in the city where the nonprofit agencies can be grouped together.

Priya Haji, the executive director of Free At Last, a drug and alcohol recovery program, said it is important that the nonprofit groups be located where they are visible and easily accessible, as is the case in Whiskey Gulch. "A majority of the City Council members understand how important this is," Haji said.

"We are sensitive to the need to relocate the nonprofits," Wilson said.

As for the local businesses, the city has found two possible places in the city where the small shops can be relocated: the second phase of the Gateway 101 Shopping Center, and the Four Corners site at University Avenue and Bay Road.

But Haji said Whiskey Gulch will be missed. "This is effectively a downtown area, a place for people to congregate and walk and shop," Haji said. "People of color need a place in the community where they can hang out and feel comfortable."

Those issues, and others, are likely to be raised when the East Palo Alto City Council holds public hearings on the University Circle proposal in the coming months. Linda Law, who has been meeting with anyone who wants to talk about the project for about a year now, has been working to convince people that this is the project that East Palo Alto needs.

Law said she and her developer team have also listened closely enough to people who have concerns to make some design changes. Previously, she said, there were going to be two office buildings but there will now be three, to break up the massing effect of the buildings. Also, the intersection of University and Woodland avenues will be kept more or less open so there isn't a feeling that the project is walled off to the neighbors.

The process, Law said, has been "very, very difficult, and very rewarding."

Law also is promising a treat for the community, if the project is approved. Since the buildings will be finished shortly after the turn of the year 2000, she is planning a "millennium party" at the complex on New Year's Eve 1999. "We'll have that millennium party, even if I have to give everyone a hard hat," she said. 

Back up to the Table of Contents Page