Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 31, 2013

News Digest

City looks to redesign 'critical' downtown site

When billionaire developer John Arrillaga proposed last year to build a complex of high-rises and a theater near Palo Alto's downtown Caltrain station, his vision didn't exactly wow the community.

Residents complained about the height of the proposed office buildings, the traffic problems that would ensue and a lack of transparency in the planning process. The City Council considered sending Arrillaga's proposal to the ballot box but scrapped that plan in December after getting an earful of criticism. Instead, the council directed staff to return with several alternatives for 27 University Ave., which is both a doorstep to Caltrain's second-busiest station and a gateway between downtown Palo Alto and Stanford University.

This week, planning for the area took another turn when the city planners released a proposal that would allow the community to offer its own vision for the site. Under a proposal that the council is scheduled to consider Monday night, the city would launch outreach involving community meetings, a process that would culminate in an official city vision for the site.

The proposal by staff represents a significant slowing down of a planning process that many in the community had criticized last year for moving far too fast and for taking place largely behind the scenes. A report released by the Planning and Transportation Department on Wednesday afternoon outlines three different options for a community-led process. The one it recommends would include two or three community meetings, with each meeting focusing on a particular aspect of the redevelopment, such as architecture, site design and building heights.

The city estimates that the process will take between six to eight months and cost between $100,000 and $150,000.

Jay Paul Co. project wins first zoning battle

In a city teeming with major development applications, few fuel hopes and raise anxieties like Jay Paul Co.'s grand plan for 395 Page Mill Road.

The project, which the San Francisco-based developer pitched last year, is still in the early stages of Palo Alto's review process. It would bring 311,000 square feet of office space to a commercial site that currently houses AOL's Silicon Valley headquarters and that is already built out to the maximum of the zoning limit. In exchange for approval, Jay Paul is proposing to deliver to Palo Alto a prize that has been eluding and frustrating city officials for well over a decade — a new public-safety building.

The project is still at least a year away from potentially getting the city's final approval, but it scored a major victory on Wednesday night when the Planning and Transportation Commission voted 6-0 to initiate a zone change that would make the project possible.

Staff and planning commissioners praised Jay Paul for offering to spend $49.3 million on the new police building. Commissioner Alex Panelli voted along with his colleagues but expressed concerns about the already high level of traffic in the area.

"You're offering a substantial public benefit. I'm well aware of the value," Panelli told a Jay Paul representative. "What I'm concerned about is this project could introduce — in exchange for a one-time upfront benefit that has value for many years — we'll have years and years and years of ongoing downside because of the potential traffic and parking problems."

His colleagues were equally ambivalent about the project's ultimate viability, though they all agreed that the opportunity deserves further study. Commissioner Michael Alcheck said he was "excited" about the police building and wondered aloud whether the city is "getting away with murder or not" in the deal being offered by Jay Paul. He said he looks forward to seeing how the process unfolds.

Some Palo Alto parks may get 'smoking havens'

Two weeks after the passage of Palo Alto's landmark law to ban smoking at all local parks, the Parks and Recreation Commission recommended the city allow designated smoking areas in three of the city's largest parks, ban smoking in its open-space areas and allow smoking at the municipal golf course.

The commission voted unanimously for the open-space smoking ban but decided not to significantly change smoking regulations at the Palo Alto municipal golf course on Embarcadero Road.

When it came to designated smoking areas in city parks, however, the commission was divided. It voted 3-2, with commissioners Abbie Knopper and Diedre Crommie dissenting and commissioners Stacey Ashlund and Ed Lauing absent, to recommend smoking areas only in Palo Alto's three largest parks — Rinconada, Mitchell and Greer.

The decisions went against city staff's recommendation not to allow smoking areas in city parks. Staff had said that smoking sections would would be challenging to enforce, costly to implement and not encourage healthy behaviors.

A complete smoking ban would also result in cleaner air, reduced fire hazard and fewer cigarette butts ingested by wildlife, Greg Betts, director of community services, said.

— Eric Van Susteren

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