University Circle, the prominent commercial park that replaced the Whiskey Gulch neighborhood in East Palo Alto more than two decades ago, may soon get a fresh injection of office space.
Columbia Property Trust, which owns the development, has submitted a letter to the city this week, proposing to add a fourth office building to a complex that currently includes three commercial developments totaling about 450,000 square feet and a Four Seasons hotel. And while the plans are still in a very early phase, some in the community are already voicing concerns about the traffic impacts of the new development.
Under the proposal, which developer Columbia described in a pre-application letter to the city, a new building with about 180,000 square feet of office space would be constructed on what is currently a parking lot.
The building would occupy the southwest corner of the property, close to the intersection of University and Woodland avenues, and would also include a four-level underground parking garage.
In its letter, Columbia states that the project would "replace an under-developed parking lot with a higher and better office use, and showcase a more efficient use of valuable natural resources, thereby enhancing University Circle's reputation as the premier mixed-use campus in Silicon Valley."
The letter also notes that the project is part of a broader plan to "revitalize the University Circle complex," which will also include a "significant redevelopment of the complex's center circle, and addition of a conference center and fitness facility."
While the project is still far from approval, Columbia has already begun its outreach to community groups throughout the city and it claims that the feedback has been "largely positive." Even so, the letter points to several concerns that have popped up over the course of the outreach, with traffic and parking at the top of the list.
The project is located next to one of the most congested road segments in the Midpeninsula -- the University Avenue interchange on U.S. Highway 101 -- and the letter from Columbia acknowledged that traffic has been cited as "one of the top concerns."
The list of organizations that the developer has already engaged with includes Youth United for Community Action; Envision, Transform, Build-East Palo Alto; the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Association and Sand Hill Property Company, which owns about 1,800 housing units in the Woodland Park neighborhood.
Not everyone is pleased about the proposed development. Norman Beamer, president of the Crescent Park Neighborhood Association, told the Weekly that the last thing the badly congested area needs is another office building. Beamer's Palo Alto neighborhood sits just west of the East Palo Alto border.
"This area is totally jammed up already in the morning and evening hours," Beamer said. "This can't help that."
He also pointed to the history of University Circle, which was marked by litigation and a settlement that forced the developer to scale back its initial plans for the office park during the planning phase, more than 25 years ago.
Filed by the cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, the lawsuit challenged the project's compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act and resulted in two agreements that prohibited the developer from further developing the office complex until 2023, when the settlements terminate.
Beamer, whose neighborhood association had joined the suit, said the same issues that were at the forefront back then -- including traffic and visual impacts -- still apply, he said.
Columbia, for its part, cited the settlements in its letter but argued that nothing in it prohibits the city from "planning and processing" the proposed projects.
No one disputes that traffic impacts are the biggest wildcard. The developer wrote in the letter that connectivity between University Circle and most other East Palo Alto destinations, which are east of Highway 101, was a major concern that was identified both during its outreach process and the city's General Plan update.
"The pedestrian/bike path of travel along the University Ave. overpass is in inadequate and dangerous, particularly for residents using it during peak hours when there are numerous conflicts with congested vehicle traffic and a generally unpleasant environment," the Columbia letter states.
The developer also said it supports the city's effort to build a pedestrian/bike lane on University Avenue and looks forward to assisting with the endeavor.
Columbia has also hired a consultant to study the traffic issues around University Circle and is putting together a "transportation-demand management" program aimed at shifting people away from cars to other modes of transportation.
"We know the City is interested in applying TDM concepts more broadly in the community, and we look forward to sharing our plans and being one of the community leaders in improving traffic patterns which impact daily life of the residents of East Palo Alto," the letter states.