A Self-inflicted Hardship: The City caves in yet again (Alma Village sign) | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

Local Blogs

A Pragmatist's Take

By Douglas Moran

E-mail Douglas Moran

About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

View all posts from Douglas Moran

A Self-inflicted Hardship: The City caves in yet again (Alma Village sign)

Uploaded: Dec 18, 2013
The City Council's approval of an over-sized sign for the grocery store at Alma Village--formerly Alma Plaza--is but the latest sordid chapter in the Council's mismanagement related to this site. There is already a healthy stream of comments under the news article ("Giant sign approved for new Alma Plaza grocer"), and I will try to provide the backstory and a larger context.

A long, long time ago, a troubled grocery chain, Lucky's, sought to replace its store in the Alma Plaza neighborhood shopping center. Part way through this process, Lucky's became part of a larger troubled grocery chain Albertsons. I know of no one with even a modestly clear picture of what happened: There were just so many meetings, public and private, over so many years, with a large and changing cast of players. My best understanding is that the Council wanted Lucky's to achieve a consensus with the residents, an impossibility considering how many different interests and perspectives that covered. However, this allowed the City to avoid having to make hard decisions. Warning: If you read accounts of that time, be aware that views and positions attributed to "residents" often do not mean any large group, but simply a faction, in some cases as few as two people.

The grocery chain also played a major role in no decision being reached. The industry was in the midst of a transition from 20-40,000 sq ft stores to ones of 50-60,000 sq ft. Such stores were much too large to fit at Alma Plaza, so the new store was going to be a special case, and there was the inevitable tension between Lucky's headquarters legitimately wanting to minimize the variation from their current template for stores and the local need to meet the constraints of the site. Reportedly, various of the delays were the results of the local representatives not being able to get headquarters to provide timely decisions.

Just when there seemed to be a widely supported solution, Council stepped in and torpedoed the deal, possibly unintentionally. What happened was that the City was considering a moratorium on major developments along the Charleston corridor, in belated recognition of the cumulative impacts of the many housing developments there. Staff had worked with the various stakeholder groups and there seemed to be a virtual consensus. However, near the end of the public comments, two -- count them two -- residents asked Council to extend the moratorium to include Alma Plaza, and Council obliged. If Council had bothered to ask Staff about this change, Staff would have told them why this had been rejected by both Staff and stakeholders. And Council didn't bother to ask themselves why none of the many other people testifying had asked for this addition. As a result, Albertsons/Lucky's abandoned their plans.

No one has convincingly explained why Council did this. The charitable explanation is that Council, tired from a long meeting, tried to please everyone, without considering that their impetuous decision could have substantial negative consequences. A Machiavellian explanation related to the pending referendum to overturn the PC zoning for 800 High. The theory was that the backers of 800 High didn't want southern Palo Alto residents engaged in development issues (the referendum failed by the smallest of margins). The Council member who offered the amendment was closely related to the business community.

Albertsons sold the property for $6M to a local developer, John McNellis, who had been working with them. McNellis then flipped roughly 80% of the property to a housing developer for $20.5M, with $5.3M up-front, on the contingency that he could get the zoning approved, and this being Palo Alto, it was virtually certain that the Council would override the Comprehensive Plan in favor of a developer.

To support the retention of retail, Palo Alto allowed retail areas to redevelop as "mixed use", with the concept being that housing would be placed above stores or in the more out-of-the-way portions of the property, with the higher Return-on-Investment of housing in effect providing some subsidies for the retail. The expectation was to have a few housing units and keep most of the retail space. What was approved was a total perversion of the concept of "mixed use", but Council is not about rational assessments of projects, but finding rationalization to help developers, at the expense of the larger community.

During the hearings on the project, resident after resident pointed out many problem with the grocery component of the project, which were borne out in the failure of Miki's Market. The developer, citing his extensive experience in commercial real estate, assured Council that the building would be a successful location for the market. Council too often regards it as impolite to express skepticism of such claims, even when they defy common sense and experience. In the one laudable move, Council required that there be a tenant for the market as a prerequisite for the housing development. However, I don't know if the City has any recourse if stores continue to fail at this site because of bad design.

"Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more." (Henry V, Shakespeare). The developer and his prospective tenant now insist that the problem is inadequate signage. Excuse me. What is the visual clutter that prevents drivers from seeing a smaller sign? The building itself sticks out and immediately draws your attention (incompatible and an eyesore).

And the news article (above) reported "Councilman Larry Klein noted that cars typically drive fast up and down Alma Street, which has few traffic lights, and the larger sign is thus justified." Is Klein familiar with that section of Alma? There is a traffic light for the entrance to Alma Village and another roughly 700 feet away at E. Meadow Drive. Apologies, dear friends, for I persist in mistaking Council's rationalizations for actual reasons.

The self-inflicted hardship has become a standard negotiating tactic for developers, because Council is such an easy mark (or partner in a Kabuki dance (Wikipedia)). For example, at Alma Plaza, the developer kicked out existing tenants and allowed the site to deteriorate. He even referred to it as "blighted". This provided cover for Council members to argue that whatever the developer wanted to do was better than allowing the blight to persist. The very same tactic was used at 195 Page Mill where the developer also kicked out his tenants, but he demolished the buildings and left heaping piles of debris on the site for years. Illegal? Of course. Enforce the law? Never! Better to reward the developer with zoning exceptions.

And City Council wonders why there is so much disillusionment with them.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 18, 2013 at 8:57 am

Is there any credence to the argument about how the City Council is paid. Someone posted a while back in another forum about how the City Council is not a paid position so that we get people who have other careers or are beholden to economic interests to do their bidding? I am so tired of reading every few days another story about the City Council thumbing their nose at the Palo Alto public, or what looks like just plain covering up for greedy business interests.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 18, 2013 at 9:33 am

The history of the site forgets the other businesses which were forced out.

There was once a gas station (before my time) but I feel sure I would have used it as it would have been in a useful location to me as I prefer to buy gas en route on my way home rather than having to detour as I do now. I have no idea about the reason we lost the gas station but that history as well as the midtown gas station might be worth discussing also.

I did use Alma Plaza in the old days. I used the Pizza place, the Chinese restaurant, BJ Bull and even the trophy store. I particularly miss BJ Bull as there is no other place that makes pasties either to have in my freezer or buy for a quick lunch or dinner. Luckys went downhill before they closed. They often ran out of staples such as my type of bread and milk (sometimes midtown Safeway does late in the day but Luckys often ran out early in the day), their aisles appeared dirty and poorly stocked and their produce seemed wilted so that I ended up rarely using them.

I never had problems parking there and I never had problems with access or egress. I never had problems seeing them even though there was no big neon sign as I knew they were there and had already planned to shop.

I can't see that Grocery Outlet is going to stop traffic for impulse buying so I can't see the value of the sign. If it is a neighborhood grocery store which can be biked or walked to as we supposedly want in Palo Alto, then won't the neighbors already know about it?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Dec 18, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

@CrescentParkAnon on Council pay:
Last I knew, the Council stipend was $600 a month, with the Mayor and Vice Mayor getting a bit more ($800?). There is also a small per-hour stipend for participating in meetings of some other government bodies as representative of the City. And there is reimbursement for some expenses.

Many Council members that I have talked to over the years regard the $600 stipend as (partially?) covering the many smaller expenses that they don't get reimbursed for separately.

The common estimate of time required is about 40 hours a week to do a competent job. At 170 hours per month, $600/170 = $3.53/hour

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 18, 2013 at 11:19 pm

$3.53/hour is pathetic ... it simple means to me that the council members are not paid by the City of Palo Alto and probably do not feel beholden to serve the city and are using the Council for their own political ambitions.

I think, again as someone else posted on another board, that we should find the all these high-paid contractors, give them notice that their contract will expire at the end of whatever period they are working, and then pay our City Council an actual salary, at a minimum something around 100K plus or minus benefits, and then expect a competent job. It would be great if they actually had to get a vote of confidence instead of just beating out someone with no experience.

Maybe have some kind of bonus system that the voters could weigh in on? Half minimum wage is not even funny.

It would also be nice to expand the city's fledgling 3-1-1 system to include some civic applications so people can comment on problems and ideas for solutions as well as finding out exactly how the city is run. Some other cities are even experimenting with asking the voters how they want their tax money spent ... something the city of Vallejo comes to mind, but I may be incorrect on that.

If Palo Alto is really the heart of Silicon Valley instead of the center of mass of the West Coast's Too Big To Fail we ought to be able to get some civic minded Palo Altans to write or manage the writing of a city-wide Palo Alto App.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 19, 2013 at 4:23 pm

The last statement above is wrong.

The City Council does not wonder why there is disillusionment with them. They do not believe there is any, and even if there is, they do not care.

The rest is right.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 20, 2013 at 1:38 am

And hardly a few days later they cave in yet again for Tesla. Somehow this tarnishes the image of Tesla for me, I was tending to think of Tesla as a new kind of business, not just the same old under the table you backscratching. I think it's a mistake, bad mojo for them to ask, and bad for the city to grant. What's wrong with this city?

Posted by Citizen Doh, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 20, 2013 at 9:06 am

So only rich people, probably with an agenda, can afford to be Councilmembers. (And the agenda seems always to relate to developers.)

We should switch to a district-representative system, with fewer Councilmembers, offering them a real salary, but requiring them to quit whatever else they are doing and work full-time for the City. We could pay for it by eliminating redundant staffing resulting from full-time Councilmembers.

Now...if you agree with me, take the example of Maybell and realize that YOU can make it happen if you get together with some of your like-minded neighbors and just go for it:
1) Study other well-run charter cities with full-time Councils, easy to do from your computer.
2) Look at their City Code and compare it to ours. Adapt it to local needs.
3) Run the whole proposal by a government law firm to make sure it's sound. This is where it helps to have a group to pool the costs, but it doesn't have to be huge -- $1,000-$5,000?
4) Present your proposal to City Council and ask them to make the change.
5) When they reject it, start an initiative.
6) When you qualify the initiative, City Council has to consider whether to adopt it right there, or put it to vote. Luckily, the next vote applicable is the next general election,which would be relatively cheap.

All it takes is a little with your neighbors, and many hands make light work.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Dec 22, 2013 at 3:27 pm

How come the ARB and the planning department approve signs that are bigger than the law allows? Aren?t employees and commissioners supposed to obey city laws and regulations? Or would that be too much to expect from them?

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 25, 2013 at 3:43 pm

I could be wrong, but any changes to the city charter have to be voted on by the public. The CC can't make changes on their own.

Posted by Citizen Doh, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 27, 2013 at 11:47 pm

@Crescent Park Dad,
Are you sure? Do you have a link to City Code? I would like to know as I am quite interested in changing our elections code.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Dec 29, 2013 at 10:48 am

City charter:
Web Link

Posted by Marroll, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 7, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Personally I have no issue with a larger sign being displayed at this location. We should welcome the progress and additional business that it would draw.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jan 7, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE Marroll:
I have seen no *evidence* that a larger sign is needed or that it would draw additional business. If you have seen such, you should cite it, otherwise you are giving just an unsupported personal opinion which may be from total ignorance of the issues.

The sign ordinance was designed to
1. allow signs large enough to be seen and read by drivers on the major arterials, such as El Camino where the speed limit is 35mph.
2. cap the size of signs to prevent an "arms race" where businesses would be installing progressively larger and brighter signs so that their sign would stand out from the rest. Part of this is to protect businesses that had invested in a sign only to have it overwhelmed by a larger nearby sign, effectively forcing them to throw away their investment in that sign and make a new, larger investment in a larger sign.

The area near Alma Village is very uncluttered visually. Standard size signs are highly visible from a distance and when traveling at the speed limit -- as demonstrated by the Miki's sign.

Marroll: Explain how having an unnecessarily large sign represents "progress".

Posted by Marroll, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 8, 2014 at 7:52 pm

As stated Doug this is indeed a personal opinion. I believe that we should consider "progressing" from standards that limit the size of commercial signs, height limits on buildings, etc. In many cases I have no doubt these restrictions are necessary and quite reasonable. In other cases, on a stretch of Alma Street that is generally more insulated from surrounding residences, I can understand the motivation of erecting a reasonably larger sign that would attract business.

Protecting the sanctity of our neighborhoods is important. It's also important to balance those needs with business and commercial considerations. So it appears we have a difference of opinion on this matter. Not entirely, but certainly some difference. No need to discourage the dialogue Doug with suggestions of unsupported opinions or suggestions of ignorance. That's what positive and constructive forums such as these are all about.

Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.



Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

Burning just one "old style" light bulb can cost $150 or more per year
By Sherry Listgarten | 12 comments | 2,990 views

Banning the public from PA City Hall
By Diana Diamond | 26 comments | 2,144 views

Pacifica’s first brewery closes its doors
By The Peninsula Foodist | 0 comments | 1,864 views

Premiere! “I Do I Don’t: How to build a better marriage” – Here, a page/weekday
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,417 views

Holiday Fun in San Francisco- Take the Walking Tour for An Evening of Sparkle!
By Laura Stec | 7 comments | 1,403 views


Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund

For the last 30 years, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund has given away almost $10 million to local nonprofits serving children and families. 100% of the funds go directly to local programs. It’s a great way to ensure your charitable donations are working at home.