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


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By 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.