A year after Palo Alto pulled the plug on a proposed office-and-theater complex near the downtown Caltrain station and committed to more transparency and public participation in planning for the central site, the rules of the game are once again shifting for 27 University Ave.
The 4.3-acre site, which lies on the border of Stanford University and downtown Palo Alto, has been under heavy scrutiny since fall of 2012, when billionaire philanthropist John Arrillaga proposed building four office towers and a performing-arts theater and removing the historic Julia Morgan-designed building that currently houses MacArthur Park Restaurant. Under his initial plan, the tallest of the office buildings would have been 162-feet tall, more than three times the city's 50-foot height limit. Though the revised plan brought down the two tallest buildings to heights of 103 feet, critics continued to decry the proposal, citing what they called a lack of transparency in the planning process.
In response, the City Council opted in December 2012 not to pursue the Arrillaga proposal and instead to launch what was supposed to be an extensive community discussion about the site's future. Last June, the council approved a staff proposal for six to eight public meetings and creation of a new stakeholders' group that would develop a new "vision" for the site.
At the time, then-Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd described the decision as "the beginning of the restart process"; Councilwoman Liz Kniss praised the plan to get the community involved; and Councilwoman Gail Price said the council had received a "loud and clear" message that "individuals and community members want to have more engagement and meaningful engagement."
The six meetings never took place. Instead, the politically charged topic fell off the council's radar, eclipsed by broader land-use debates and angst over downtown's worsening traffic congestion and parking shortage. Earlier this month, City Manager James Keene mentioned during a "year-in-review" presentation that staff has decided not to conduct outreach specifically on 27 University but to fold it into a broader conversation about downtown.
The process that the City Council endorsed in June was quietly shelved.
But now, new ideas for 27 University's future are emerging from a different source -- Stanford University's architecture program. Since October, graduate students from Stanford and partnering universities abroad have been putting together their own concepts for the site as part of a project coordinated by former Councilman John Barton, director of Stanford's architecture program. The program has students working in interdisciplinary teams (disciplines including landscape architecture, urban planning and social sciences) on issues that blend theory with real-world applicability, Barton said in a recent interview.
Though Stanford would have gained plenty from Arrillaga's proposal (revenues generated from the buildings were to be donated to the university), it's not the administration but the design students who apparently are steering this process. In the last few years, Barton said, the interdisciplinary students from the program had worked on projects in Europe. This year, the program was set to come to Palo Alto, with participants focusing on 27 University Ave.
Their assignment, according to a statement, was to study the area and make a proposal for a "21st Century Research Park" at the site, which can range from mainly offices to an "18-hour place vibrant with retail, office, services and housing" or "something in between or something new." Each of the six student teams will make "rational and defendable decisions about density, height and uses whether they be consistent or not with current zoning," according to the statement. Students will also have to take "an affirmative stand" on whether Caltrain and the planned high-speed-rail system should be placed underground, a wildly expensive but locally popular proposal.
The statement also includes a brief background on local land-use history. The city's planning documents, according to the project statement, are designed to "protect the vast area of the city that is built as single-family homes."
"These residential neighborhoods jealously protect their space, quiet and peaceful areas," it states in explaining why the city generally limits new development to 50 feet.
The statement calls Palo Alto's resident stakeholders "very vocal, very educated and very entitled," with each one often being able to make a good claim to be "the smartest person in the room."
"As a result our political dialogue can be heated but focused," the statement says. "This area is not close to many residents but the specter of tall buildings can make the blood boil for many residents. On the other hand there is a growing sense that Palo Alto, and other cities, can no longer be suburban enclaves and need to become small cities with the density that requires."
The six teams, which include students from Germany, Italy and Switzerland, plan to present their concepts for a "21st Century Research Park" on Thursday morning, Jan. 23, in the Council Chambers at City Hall. The presentations will begin at 9 a.m. and will take about one hour each, Barton said.
The City Council, Architectural Review Board and Planning and Transportation Commission have been invited, though Barton indicated in an email that officials needed to let him know of their attendance so that issues with the Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law, could be managed.
The presentations are also open to the public.
Barton, both in the statement and in the interview, emphasized that the point of the exercise is not to pre-empt the grassroots "vision" process undertaken by the city but to "augment it."
"At the end of the day, all the information is valuable, it's just not equally valuable," Barton said. "This is just another set of information that a bunch of people have been working on. If the only thing that comes out of this is students learning to present ideas to people who are highly engaged in a particular project, that's great. If cool ideas come out and the community rallies around some set of ideas, that's great too, but it's not our expectation."
The city has largely been on the sidelines for this exercise, though Mayor Nancy Shepherd addressed the group in October, when she was vice mayor and the program was just launching. City Economic Development Manager Thomas Fehrenbach also addressed the group, Barton said. The role of the city officials, he said, was mainly to answer questions. Though he invited the council and local commissioners to the Thursday presentation, he stressed that the project is not being undertaken "for the city."
"It's an academic exercise that may have some value for the community," Barton told the Weekly.
Keene made a similar point in an interview Wednesday. The Thursday presentations, he said, are "primarily a design exercise for the students" that is "in no way connected to any agenda of the city."
When asked about the staff's decision not to proceed with the visioning process that the council approved last June, Keene said the new approach made sense given the broad range of related issues that have surfaced since the summer of 2013. These include the city's ongoing "downtown cap study," which aims to determine downtown's capacity for new development; proposed parking-permit programs and transportation-demand-management programs; exploration of new downtown garages; and the city's update of its land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan.
Keene said staff will present ideas for approaching 27 University and related downtown planning issues on Feb. 3, as it introduces its new initiative, Our Palo Alto. The topic may also come up on Feb. 24, when the council is scheduled to discuss the Comprehensive Plan update.
"In June, we were looking at is as a one-off issue," Keene said. "Now, we're having a much bigger conversation about the whole city."
"It seemed to us that it would be confusing and potentially redundant and presumably even cost ineffective to try to be running some separate parallel process when we are having a much grander discussion around the Comprehensive Plan," Keene said.
"The question of whether that project or any project should go forward at that site is up in the air" and will not be answered until the broader conversation over the Comprehensive Plan takes place.
He added that the council can always redirect staff to launch the specific 27 University dialogue as originally envisioned in June.
"We're very focused on this broad community dialogue that I think will take several years," Keene said.