Publication Date: Friday Apr 28, 2000
EAST PALO ALTO: Whiskey Gulch comes tumbling downDemolition begins to make way for offices, hotel
by Don Kazak
The second new era began in East Palo Alto a little after noon on Tuesday. A tractor with a long crane on it began taking bites out of what had been Popeye's, a former chicken restaurant.
Across the street, under sunny skies and breezy weather, about 50 people sat at portable tables munching sandwiches and watching the demolition. They were mostly city staff whom University Circle developer Linda Law was feting with a free lunch.
The "building breaking," as Law called it, was symbolically comparable to a June evening in 1995 when City Council members took turns with a sledgehammer whacking a cinder-block wall at the old Ravenswood High School, which would soon be razed to make way for the Ravenswood 101 Retail Center, the city's first redevelopment project.
University Circle is the second.
But while the City Council members didn't dent the school wall with the sledgehammer, the crane did make short work of what had been a short-order restaurant.
It will take a couple of years, but a large hotel and three big office buildings will rise from what was the city's sleepy old strip of bars, liquor stores and small shops, the closest thing it had to a downtown and in recent years home to several nonprofit agencies.
The visual impact of the Whiskey Gulch demolition will be evident to thousands of people a day as cars zip by on the nearby Bayshore Freeway or cross the University Avenue bridge on their way to and from the Dumbarton Bridge.
Demolition of the high school and the subsequent groundbreaking for the shopping center were important days in the city's brief history, but the Whiskey Gulch work may have a greater, more immediate visual impact.
"This is right by the freeway, so it will send a broader message that something is happening," said East Palo Alto Mayor Sharifa Wilson.
"The demolition will make a difference," said Vice Mayor Duane Bay. "That's when it changes visually. (People will say) something is happening here."
After thanking the city staff members for their help on the project, Law noted, "It's taken 3 1/2 years, and everyone was laughing at us and said we'd never get it done."
Indeed, University Circle was opposed by a group of residents in the nearby Willows neighborhood of Menlo Park, who filed suit to try to block the project but lost in court.
Some East Palo Alto residents were also dismayed to be losing a pedestrian-friendly street where people congregated. Most of the stores and restaurants closed, rather than relocate. The nonprofits had to scramble to find new homes, which they've done. Eighty-one families were moved out of apartments on nearby Manhattan Street, most to out-of-town locations.
Across the freeway, the shopping center is hitting its stride, with news that Swedish furniture giant Ikea and Best Buy want to build stores there.
"A lot of upscale San Francisco and Palo Alto retailers want to be here," said Ricardo Nogeura, the city's redevelopment division manager. "The negative image has gone by the wayside."
As has Whiskey Gulch.