<*C> Editorial: Pulling a rabbit
Publication Date: Wednesday May 31, 1995

Editorial: Pulling a rabbit

out of a hat <*C> A credible, last-minute bid may yet save

the city's <*C>million-dollar house on the hill from the wrecking ball "I hope somebody can pull a rabbit out of a hat," said Jim Kellerman, a landscape designer who serves as caretaker for Casa Maximo Martinez, the $1.5 million, 5,700-square-foot house that sits on Palo Alto's 600-acre Arastradero Preserve.

Kellerman, speaking last fall, was referring to the fate of the house where he lives, which is owned by the city. When Kellerman moved in, it was with the idea that he would be a short-term caretaker while the city sorted out what to do with the house on a hill off Arastradero Road, near Alpine.

But that was eight years ago. Since then, several proposals for the six-bedroom, five-bath home, including use as a youth hostel and a learning center, have been blocked by legal challenges, or threats of legal challenges, from nearby residents.

Finally, in exasperation, the City Council voted 5-4 last fall to tear the house down. But since the $90,000 demolition fee was not in last year's budget and the Council majority could not muster the sixth vote necessary for a budget amendment, the actual wrecking ball was postponed until the city's next budget cycle, which is now before us.

And here's where the rabbit may yet come out of the hat.

Since the Council's vote to demolish Casa Maximo Martinez, as the house is known, a new use proposal has come forward from the environmental group Bay Area Action, which would like to turn the house into an academic center and model of environmental stewardship while meeting all of the neighbors' concerns about traffic on the narrow lane leading up the the homes, fire hazards, noise levels and sewage problems.

The youthful and energetic non-profit Bay Area Action, which grew out of 1990 Earth Day Observance and this year has an operating budget of $280,000, has won support for its plan from the area's more established environmental groups, the Sierra Club and the Committee for Green Foothills, as well as from Open Space District Board members Nonette Hanko and Mary Davey.

And earlier this month, the group managed to persuade the City Council's Finance Committee to decide against demolition and agree to reopen the public bidding to lease Casa Maximo Martinez. That is the recommendation the nine-member Council will face June 19 when it considers the 1995-'96 budget. (There was even talk of holding aside the $90,000 demolition fee as a legal defense fund against expected challenges from the neighbors, though that is not part of any official proposal.)

For a number of reasons, we have long opposed the ridiculous specter of the city spending money to demolish a $1.5 million asset. We believe that the plan of Bay Area Action, while not yet a formal proposal, appears to meet many of the city's goals as an appropriate public use of the house, as well as to meet any reasonable concern of the neighbors.

Among other things, the group says it would limit traffic on the road, John Marthens Lane, during reconstruction and renovation, to about what it is now. After that two-year period, it would eliminate auto traffic altogether, except for an occasional electric vehicle (Bay Area Action has three, and is working on an electric van).

Its personnel would be trained in fire safety, would have an evacuation plan, would keep the grass cut and would install a drip irrigation system to keep vegetation near the house moist. In conjunction with the local scientific community, it would attempt to repatriate California native grasses to the area and turn the house itself as a 21st-century model of environmentally sensitive, energy-efficient remodeling and retrofitting, with twice-monthly public tours.

Many more questions need to be asked, and details worked out, but Bay Area Action has put forward a credible plan that may yet save Casa Maximo Martino from the wrecking ball.

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