Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 31, 2013

From fast to slow on 27 University?

After unsuccessfully trying the hurry-up approach, city staff reverts to the classic Palo Alto process and asks, "How slow do you want to go?"

Just last fall, John Arrillaga's vision for building huge office towers and a theater where the MacArthur Park restaurant and the Red Cross building now stand was on an unconventional and intentional fast track.

After months of behind-the-scenes staff work with Arrillaga and design consultants that cost the city a half-million dollars, the plan was to put the rough idea to a city advisory vote in March or June of this year, and then begin working on an actual project application from Arrillaga.

The project was a bird-in-the-hand that could evaporate if not allowed to proceed quickly, the reasoning went.

And with TheatreWorks the beneficiary of the proposed theater, its large network of supporters in the community could surely be marshaled to support the project and turn out the right voters in a low turn-out special election.

It was a serious misgauging of community opinion.

In December, the City Council wisely responded to public outrage over both the process and the proposal by unanimously bagging the election idea and asking staff to develop at least two alternative design concepts that would help focus a more open and transparent public process. Those concepts were to have been brought back to the council in the first few months of this year, but for unexplained reasons no work has yet been done.

Instead, in a report prepared for Monday's City Council meeting, the staff outlines three different "community engagement options" that could last from six months to five years and cost between $100,000 and $750,000, depending on which process the council selects.

The staff's preference is for a process that is essentially what the council already asked for at its December meeting: development of several alternative concepts for the site followed by a few public meetings to gain input and reaction, and then refinements based on the input.

We don't see how the other options, involving much more public process, time and money, provide enough additional benefit to warrant the investment, and we don't understand why we are at the same point today as we were six months ago.

Glaringly missing from the staff's discussion is how Stanford should be involved as new concepts are explored. As the landowner of the entire site under discussion, Stanford has de facto veto control over what gets built, regardless of what the city may decide it wants.

With the original Arrillaga proposal for 27 University, Stanford wisely and understandably stayed in the background. After all, as Stanford's largest benefactor, Arrillaga is used to having virtual free rein on projects he is funding, and Stanford could sit back and let Arrillaga negotiate the best development he could with the city.

But as alternative design concepts are explored they may not be ones that Arrillaga is willing to embrace and finance for Stanford's benefit, and there may be concepts that have more appeal than others for the university.

Palo Alto is not without great leverage, however. Under the current zoning, no new development can occur on the site, so the only way Stanford can turn that property into a productive financial asset is to work with the city toward a win-win solution.

Regardless of which "community engagement process" the City Council chooses, we hope it will specifically direct the staff to include high density housing (or mixed use) and a hotel/conference center as part of the new development concepts. These will provide a needed contrast to Arrillaga's office-building proposal.

As we've stated previously, we also hope the alternatives will explore creating a bus transit center on Stanford land on the west side of El Camino. Moving the bus traffic and the need for parking two dozen buses from the area adjacent to the train station will solve a major pedestrian and bike safety problem and facilitate better connectivity between downtown, Stanford Shopping Center, and whatever is built at 27 University.

Finally, what the city should receive as a "public benefit" for allowing any new development on the site should not assume (nor preclude) the originally proposed theater. The process should identify a range of public-benefit options that reflect compelling needs of the community, and that correlate to the value being created for Stanford in whatever development is ultimately approved.

Most importantly, the work going forward must be open and transparent. Anything short of that will prolong, not shorten, reaching a positive outcome that can be embraced by the community.

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