Editorial A breathtaking proposal Arrillaga concept for high-rise offices, theater and new transit center is unprecedented in both exceeding zoning limits and providing public benefits he largest and boldest commercial development proposal in the history of Palo Alto, located at one of the worst traffic pinch-points in the city, would have been viewed by most as a non-starter under almost any circumstances. Yet with almost palpable excitement, the Palo Alto city staff and consultants Monday night presented the concept as if placing four office buildings over 100 feet tall, including one at 161 feet, and adding some 260,000 square feet of office space was a no-brainer. The dichotomy stems from the unusual applicant, or “patron” as the city staff report describes him, and the generosity encompassed in his plan. Long-time Palo Alto resident John Arrillaga, who became a billionaire through his ownership and development of office parks in Silicon Valley, is not your typical developer. He is best known locally for his extraordinary support of Stanford University, his alma mater, through donating funds for new buildings and then personally overseeing their construction. He is widely recognized as the person most responsible for funding and building the athletic facilities that have made the Stanford athletic program the top-ranked in the nation, including the infamous reconstruction of Stanford Stadium. He has a strong vision for good design, construction and landscaping and has a low tolerance for bureaucracy and obstacles to getting things done. When working in support of Stanford, Arrillaga is used to working out of the public view and getting his way. Today’s Stanford campus has been forever shaped by his philanthropy and determination to achieve his personal goals for building design and landscaping even when not fully shared by the school’s powers that be. Such is the influence of cherished major donors. Arrillaga’s concept for what is being called 27 University Ave. is both intriguing and concerning, in part because the philanthropic aspects are so unusual and in part because the size of the office buildings are completely out of scale for this city. Apart from the pure size of the project, a unique aspect is that Arrillaga is planning on donating the completed office buildings to Stanford, which already owns the land. The concept is that Stanford would then have a permanent revenue stream from the top-of-the-line tenants in the buildings. The donation aspect raises a number of questions, including whether the city would handle the proposal any differently if the university itself were the developer. And should the fact that Arrillaga is not making any profit on the development matter to City Council members in considering the merits of the project? Unlike so many so-called public benefits that have been accepted in exchange for granting increased development rights, the ones this proposal offers are real. Arrillaga proposes to completely re-do the transit center and roadways, create an attractive and functional pedestrian and bike connection between downtown and the Stanford Shopping Center, build the shell for a professional theater complex and create a vibrant hub of retail and pedestrian activity in an area that doesn’t reflect the character of today’s downtown. But the public process is off to a rocky start. The public was inexcusably given just four days to absorb a long staff report prior to Monday’s meeting, a breach of the policy goal of providing at least 10 days’ notice before meetings on major and complex projects. Seemingly mesmerized by the enormity of the proposal and the opportunity to work as a partner with the developer in creating the project, the city staff has done the public and the City Council a disservice in prematurely giving up its role as impartial professional adviser. The staff report reads more like a sales pitch than a careful articulation of the challenging policy issues posed by the proposal and the very significant traffic problems that come with a development of this size. As we await critical traffic studies, the council should resist staff’s attempts to rush this project forward and should not try to meet the timetable for a March public vote. Taking this project to the voters prematurely and without the full impacts clearly identified will ensure its defeat. N
Spectrum Editorials, letters and opinions
Ugly developments Editor, I have lived in Palo Alto for more than 25 years, and I am now moved to complain about the proliferation of offensive buildings that directly abut the sidewalk, rising from the ground to create intrusive eyesores that destroy the pleasant look of our community. This message is prompted by the monstrosity on Alma near East Meadow — a development that apparently had room for open space within the buildings, hidden from view to passersby, but not enough space for a setback, or a lawn, or other feature that would allow the building to fit into the neighborhood. This seems to be a trend. I fear that the planning department may actually want buildings like this, since the Hyatt Rickeys and JCC developments share the same problems. There is no excuse for such designs; I point out that all of the industrial buildings along Page Mill Road are set back from the street, with lawns and trees (and some fountains) presenting a pastoral appearance, and not the harsh and unfriendly appearance of the Alma building, the Hyatt Rickeys development, or the JCC. As a Palo Alto resident, I complain and object to building designs in which the structure starts at the sidewalk, encroaching on the street, presenting a solid wall with no or few windows, with few or no plants or other amenities to make it look like a welcoming building, as opposed to the prison or fortress look of the developments I mentioned above. Jim Fox Carlson Circle Palo Alto
Quakeville kudos Editor, Highest kudos to Lydia Kou, visionary, founder and leader of Quakeville. This is the third year Lydia has held this event — an important exercise for all the Palo Alto Emergency Service Volunteers as well as an opportunity for the public to learn more and experience life after a disaster. This year Lydia organized more exciting components including a fabulous drill for the ARES/RACES, CERTs (Community Emergency Response Teams), NPC/BPCs (Neighborhood/Block Coordinators). Highest credit to CERT leaders: John St Clare III, Bob Sikora and Mark Meyers, who developed these exercises. The new emergency medical unit, led by Geri Spieler and Bonnie Berg, RN, demonstrated their skills in treating victims. The Red Cross, led by Karl Matzke, opened a shelter in Cubberley Gym to allow residents to spend the night. Palo Alto Animal Services,
Connie Urbanski, provided support for “stuffed” animals, which would not be able to stay in a shelter after a disaster. Ali Williams took the lead on media outreach and was the Quakeville public information officer. The information tables were ably staffed by Sheri Furman, who gave residents an opportunity to taste “emergency food,” and Sherie Dodsworth with her product, Portavault. Special thanks to the teen volunteers led by Divya Saini, FEMA Teen Council and organizer of the Gunn “Movers and Shakers.” Everyone was impressed with the make-up — thanks to TheatreWorks’ Sarah Hatton, Amanda Widick from StageArtisan FX and Kam McCowan from Stanford. It couldn’t have happened without the many wonderful volunteers and the sponsorship and support from Kenneth Dueker, director of the Office of Emergency Services.
Amazingly well done. Thanks again to Lydia Kou, organizer/director for leading the team to a very successful Quakevillle 2012. Annette Glanckopf (member of the Quakeville planning team) Bryant Street Palo Alto
No need for streetlights Editor, I agree with Marilyn Mayo (Palo Alto Weekly, Sept. 7). The new streetlights do not belong in residential neighborhoods. For many years I have enjoyed looking at the stars from the deck in my backyard. No more. I have to shield my eyes from the new streetlight, which seems as bright as the sun. Robert Sendelbeck Laguna Court Palo Alto
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Section 1 of the September 28, 2012 edition of the Palo Alto Weekly