Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - November 23, 2012

Debating downtown

Fiercest battles over scale of growth erupted in '60s, '70s

Change has been a constant on University Avenue since its early days, when businesses like Worrel Wood Yard, Thoits Shoe Store and Meany the Tailor lined the downtown strip.

In 1898, the avenue featured a pool parlor, a livery stable and the horse-drawn Palo Alto & University Bus, which served visitors arriving by train, according to Pamela Gullard and Nancy Lund's "History of Palo Alto: The Early Years."

University Avenue blossomed into a town center after the turn of the century. One of the first downtown businesses was G.W. LaPeire and Son, a grocery store where older men "dipped their hands freely in the nearby oyster cracker barrel, chewed their tobacco and spat in the spitoons provided," according to Marguerite Weichselfelder, a resident of early Palo Alto whom Gullard and Lund quote.

Cars came two decades later, bringing with them the usual car problems. In 1920, City Councilman Denison Thomas "branded downtown parking the biggest problem of the day," according to Ward Winslow's centennial history of Palo Alto. The big schism at the time was between the police department, which favored parallel parking to allow more room for traffic, and downtown merchants, who wanted diagonal parking (the merchants prevailed for a few years).

Like the rest of the city, downtown went through a major growth spurt in the post-war boom years of the late 1940s and the 1950s. Planning for the University Avenue underpass began in the late 1930s, and the underpass finally opened in 1941. According to a recent staff report, the project was initiated because the existing at-grade crossings, especially at University and El Camino Real, "were becoming significant traffic-flow problems by the late 1930s as local and mid-Peninsula populations expanded and private automobile use because more common for everyone."

A decade later, in 1952, with parking demand on the rise, the city formed the University Avenue Parking Assessment District. The association was created to build 15 downtown parking lots, according to Winslow's book. The city added more public parking in the late 1960s, when it built the new Civic Center with an underground garage.

The period of development led to bitter feuds on the City Council between the pro-growth "establishment" and the slow-growth "residentialists."

Residents also became engaged. In the early 1970s, Professorville neighborhood residents spearheaded a ballot measure opposing a proposal by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation for an 18-story hospital. The hospital project was soundly defeated. In early 1971, voters also struck down a proposal for a massive, high-rise office building slated for Bryant Street, between University and Lytton avenues.

Gary Fazzino, a former mayor and the city's unofficial historian, pointed out in a May presentation to the Palo Alto Historical Association that the battle between the establishment and residentialists largely wound down by the mid-1970s. In a video clip, which was televised during the City Council's Nov. 13 memorial ceremony for Fazzino, he refers to a "period of peace and good will" that took over in the second half of the decade.

"The big reason for the change was the fact that by the mid-to-late 1970s, the community has decided that for the most part it will remain a slow-growth, pro-environment community and that it was not interested in high-rises, not interested in significant downtown growth," Fazzino said.

This moderate approach to development is reflected in the zoning changes the city made in the two decades after the great City Council battles of the 1960s. In the early 1970s, the city imposed a 50-foot height limit on new buildings, and in 1986, it revised its downtown zoning regulations to make density requirements more restrictive. At that time, the council also set a cap of 350,000 square feet for new downtown development and directed staff to conduct a fresh analysis of downtown parking and zoning issues when development reached 235,000 square feet.

That time has now come. Palo Alto is currently weighing three downtown developments that collectively would push the city well beyond the 235,000-square-foot threshold (see main bar).

— Gennady Sheyner

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