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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Council endorses another year for business district Council endorses another year for business district (May 18, 2005)

Fees support promotions and address homelessness

by Jocelyn Dong

On the eve of launching a downtown street-cleaning program that employs homeless people, the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association Monday night received the City Council's praise for the past year's work and approval of $122,307 worth of assessment fees on downtown businesses.

The annual assessment will cover the association's operations from July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2006.

The group's plans for the coming year include the Downtown Streets Team program, which kicks off Thursday; a coupon book for downtown businesses; a re-designed Web site; an October fashion show/makeover event; downtown-directory signs; planters installed on side streets; and continued programs such as Dine Downtown and special events.

Seven-hundred and sixty-three businesses are in the business-improvement district, which stretches roughly from El Camino Real to Webster Street and from Lytton Avenue to Forest Avenue, and an area bounded by Forest, Ramona Street, Addison Avenue, and Alma Street. The fees range from $50 to $500.

In addition to the assessment income, the business association expects to generate revenue through its special events and other programs.

"We're well-positioned. We have momentum. We're looking forward to it continuing," said Stephanie Wansek, chair of the business association's advisory board and general manager of the Cardinal Hotel.

Even one businessman who came to complain about the unfairness of the fee complimented the business association on its work. He argued that service and professional businesses pay disproportionately more in fees than large businesses, and receive far fewer benefits.

"What this does is like a forced membership in the Chamber of Commerce," said Bruce Gee, who sells computer software and foots a fee of $130. "It feels like a tax."

"I like all the things they're doing and support their efforts. ... I want a vibrant downtown just like anyone else," he added. But the benefits to professional and service businesses "aren't clear."

He suggested that larger businesses contribute more to the association, possibly through in-kind donations to support events and programs.

But Gee, like council members, lauded the Downtown Streets Team.

"If it took the (business improvement district) to start this, it's good," he said, noting that no other group had come up with the idea before. "That's worthwhile."

Council member Hillary Freeman asserted the fee scale for the businesses is fair.

The council approved the annual assessment unanimously.

In other matters, the council endorsed 7-2 a zoning update far less controversial than April's granny-unit proposal, which had been turned down after a public outcry. Monday's changes related to low-density residential zoning districts, of which there are few in the city. The update will allow granny units to be built on lots of between 6,000 and 7,500 square feet. The ordinance also permits second dwellings, attached to the home, to be as large as 450 square feet. Properties in the R-2 district already allow two homes on one lot.

Vice Mayor Judy Kleinberg and Council member Dena Mossar opposed the ordinance update, reprising their arguments from last month's granny-unit discussion that Palo Alto isn't doing enough to increase affordable housing in the community.

In other news, Palo Alto's Open Space staff reported to the council that sightings of mountain lions have become more frequent in recent months. Ten confirmed sightings of cougars have occurred this year in the Foothills Park and Enid Pearson Arastradero Preserve, the most recent being on April 21.

Staff called the sightings "especially unusual," given that some park visitors were accompanied by their dogs, which mountain lions typically try to avoid. It is not clear whether the sightings are of a single cougar or multiple ones.

Mountain lions leapt into Palo Alto's public eye last May, when a young wild cat wandered into the residential Community Center neighborhood and was shot dead by police. While the animals have lived in local open spaces for decades, city staff mounted a public safety and education program since one was spotted near a Foothills Park group-picnic area last June.

The city installed two motion-activated digital cameras in creeks and trail corridors in the past year.

None of the open-space sightings involved the wild cats attacking or killing livestock or humans, though some incidents included "bold behavior," according to the city report.

The staff outlined several courses of action, while not recommending any in particular: continue to monitor mountain-lion sightings; close areas or trails to dogs, either temporarily or permanently; close the entire preserve to the public for three to four weeks; or kill the mountain lion if the city deems it a "critical threat" to public health.

According to the staff report, the public education effort has cost $500 in the past year, but no other funds have been required to monitor mountain lion activities.

Several television news crews showed up to City Hall Monday night thinking that the council would be discussing the options. However, mountain lions were not on the agenda, since the staff report was informational only. Discovering this, the crews quickly left after the meeting began.

Senior Staff Writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at jdong@paweekly.com.


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