News

As redevelopment looms, one homeowner stands firm

Resident has deep roots in neighborhood where black families bought homes during era of discrimination

Lakiba Pittman sits on the porch of her Olive Avenue home, which her parents bought in the 1960s. The Palo Alto neighborhood then was largely populated by working-class families, and about seven African-American families owned properties. Photo by Veronica Weber.

On Olive Avenue, Lakiba Pittman is here to stay.

As a string of houses to the left and right of hers in Palo Alto's Ventura neighborhood have been bought out by two owners, the decision not to sell has rendered her one of three remaining independent homeowners on the block — as well as the last African-American resident on a street rooted in black history.

"I'm very committed to being able to keep my house and maintain the flavor of the neighborhood," said Pittman, an educator and former member of Palo Alto's Human Relations Commission. "It's based on a connection to the house, and not just the house — but the land and the memories."

Pittman's cozy 800-foot cottage, which is decorated with hanging plants and painted pale yellow, cradles her family's history as one of several African-American families who were able to buy homes in Palo Alto in the face of 1950s housing discrimination. Stretching from Park Boulevard to El Camino Real, part of Olive Avenue overlooks a lengthy parking lot; the building housing Fry's Electronics lies to its rear.

Now, as the city prepares for long-term revitalization of the Ventura area, Pittman and other Olive Avenue residents find themselves in the center of what could be a sweeping redevelopment of the neighborhood.

Longtime residents said that two families have been buying homes on the narrow road for years as people have moved away. According to Santa Clara County records, Boyd C. Smith owns nine of the 18 homes on the street; residents confirmed he is Boyd Smith Sr. of the Ash Street real estate firm WSJ Properties. Another six homes are listed under the name Peter Lockhart, who runs Peter Lockhart Landscape out of 405 Olive Ave.

Smith declined to confirm ownership of the homes or comment for this article, and Lockhart did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Mike Harrison, whose parents first moved to their Olive Avenue house in the 1940s, said that members of Smith's family first broached the topic of buying his family's home in the 1990s. Harrison ultimately went through with the deal this year.

"Between then and now, they hadn't approached me about it at all," Harrison said. It wasn't until 2015 that Harrison felt ready to consider the offer, so his son followed up with the Smiths.

"(In 2015) I backed out at the last minute," Harrison said. "I got cold feet and decided not to sell until this year."

The street's unique history has kept Pittman from following in Harrison's footsteps. Olive Avenue, she said, provided a community for black residents during the '60s, when the rest of the city did not. Between Grant Avenue and Lambert Avenue — known today as the heart of the Ventura neighborhood — at least seven or eight black families owned homes, in addition to five to seven on Olive Avenue alone.

This contrasted with the widely documented practice of redlining and anti-black property clauses that shunted black families into the area that would later be incorporated as East Palo Alto. Harrison recalled that when his grandfather bought a home on Fife Avenue in the Crescent Park neighborhood in the 1920s, a friend had to transfer the property into his name for a dollar because it was illegal to sell to African-Americans.

"It became an entirely black-owned street, for the most part, anyway," Harrison said. "I think there's only two black families on the street now — but the whole street was black."

Lockhart's and Smith's plans for Olive Avenue, which is mostly populated by one-story homes, are not clear. In a 2010 letter to the city, Lockhart described his hopes for multifamily housing on the street to enhance the "viability" of the California Avenue shopping and create a "cohesive neighborhood," adding that Ash Street could be opened up to Page Mill Road.

"I strongly suggest that Olive Avenue is designated as Multi Family or PC (Planned Community) allowing up to 30 units per acre that is economically viable," the letter reads. "Both the Fry's property and Olive Avenue property would have the potential for much better development footprints."

Whether Lockhart's vision has changed since then remains to be seen. Over the next 18 months, the city will work with various neighborhood stakeholders to draw up a plan for the area stretching from Page Mill to Lambert; Pittman plans to apply to become a member of the working group.

The demographics of residents on the street have completely transformed in the nearly 70 years since Pittman's and Harrison's families bought their homes. Erin O'Donohue, a single mother who rented from the Harrisons from 2014 to 2016, said that the homes are in high demand as renters come and go.

Although she described the Smiths' ownership of the block as a "monopoly," she said she felt welcomed on Olive for the relative affordability of the property. In San Mateo, she had watched her rent go up by 33 percent She added that learning about the street's historic roots from her neighbors was "so impactful."

According to Pittman, the African-American families who lived in the neighborhood formed longstanding friendships. As recently as last year, a "South Palo Alto" reunion brought together residents from that era who are still in touch, though most have since moved to Stockton, Tracy and other areas that are more affordable.

Pittman's grandmother worked as a live-in maid downtown, and her father was a postman for 30 years. Olive Avenue allowed them to build their lives for the next three generations — all the way to Pittman's own grandchildren.

"It was a great accomplishment for my parents to save money for years before they were actually able to buy the house," Pittman said. "From my personal feeling, they worked really hard to get this little house ... so I am here to pass it on."

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Comments

62 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2017 at 8:05 am

I'm shocked about this happening, but then again I'm not shocked.

How can 2 families start buying up all the properties on one street and then plan to alter the neighborhood? How can there be plans to replace all the single family homes with something else when the homeowners don't want to sell?

I know that neighborhoods evolve and that the houses will one by one change as new owners update but this should be a natural process, not a mandated or forced process.

Moving Frys who appear to have no plans to move sounds wrong. The Olive Garden went the same way, so did the Bowling Alley. Thankfully the owner of the Milk Pail was able to keep his property.

It is a very different scenario if a large parcel becomes available for sale. But forcing small lots to sell is wrong, wrong, wrong.

It is imperative that we all prevent the forced alteration of our town into a large sardine can!


50 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 17, 2017 at 9:10 am

This is exactly the kind of displacement of community that we should be avoiding as we move forward as a city.

Shouldn't this be a designated a historic district and protected like some of our Eichler neighborhoods?

I hope Ms.Pittman will receive the help and respect she deserves from this community.
And, that she is able to hold out against those that want to redevelop her own beloved multigenerational home.

No doubt the new market rate housing will be financially out of reach for most....excepting those working in high paying industries such as high tech.


35 people like this
Posted by Citizen PA
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2017 at 9:29 am

Well now it makes sense why the City so neglects the sidewalks and roads in that neighborhood.

I think residents are going to have to get proactive or this will not end well for anyone but big developers.


23 people like this
Posted by Citizen PA
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2017 at 9:31 am

It's hilarious that they would want something for the "retail" on CAL Ave which has been decimated by company-town takeover ala Univ Ave.


11 people like this
Posted by Just Curious
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2017 at 9:51 am

What else should we know?


35 people like this
Posted by Vigilante PA
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2017 at 10:18 am

GREAT work Ms. Kelliher! The kind of journalism PA needs!


29 people like this
Posted by dtnorth
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 17, 2017 at 1:36 pm

I am so glad you didn't sell out, I hope for your sake the surrounding area is still livable after they get done with the whole "revitalization" project


8 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 17, 2017 at 1:39 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I hope the city requires true benefits for the citizens of Palo Alto when they upzone this zone, enriching the owners immensely. The only benefits that I think count are PERMANENT low income rental housing (at least 50%) and extra parking to make up for the existing parking deficit that is available to the public. At a minimum, there should be one parking place per bedroom - although even that is probably inadequate.

In any case, to establish the true demand for resident parking in the CAL Ave area, I would like to see a survey of both the existing low income housing, next to the train station as well as the market rate condos on the other side of the train station. That would give real world data as to car ownership of people living next to a train station. I doubt there is less than 1 car per bedroom and probably more.


43 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 17, 2017 at 2:03 pm

Annette is a registered user.

As I read this story I found myself smiling about Ms. Pittman's values. She loves and cherishes her home and all that it stands for. I admire that and hope she continues to stand firm.


22 people like this
Posted by Judith Wasserman
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 17, 2017 at 3:04 pm

Judith Wasserman is a registered user.

You go, girl!


3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 17, 2017 at 4:29 pm

Boyd Smith was a past recipient of Palo Alto's Tall Tree Awards.


34 people like this
Posted by Just Say No
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2017 at 5:49 pm

It's outrageous that by buying up lots people would try to change the zoning for their own profit. In today's environment, this would set a terrible precedent, all residential lots would be up for grabs. Palo Alto, don't let this happen!


24 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 17, 2017 at 6:50 pm

"This is exactly the kind of displacement of community that we should be avoiding as we move forward as a city." - above

"Urban Renewal = Negro Removal" - ca. 1955

Nothing's changed.


16 people like this
Posted by Roger Overnaur
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 17, 2017 at 10:09 pm

"It is imperative that we all prevent the forced alteration of our town into a large sardine can!"

Then recall Kniss, Scharff, Tanaka, Fine, and Wohbach.


18 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 18, 2017 at 6:45 am

I don't know you, but I am proud of you. If only more people were like you. I too, grew up here. Even though I have
a good job, I will leave soon. Can't afford the housing.......

Some people will say "If you can't afford to live in Palo Alto, leave". So there you go.


17 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 18, 2017 at 12:24 pm

Money talks ... people walk. This is what all the talk about "affordable housing" and continued commercial development is about. Much less easy money available if the city has constraints on growth and development. Growth will make things more expensive, not less expensive.


20 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 18, 2017 at 12:45 pm

"Growth will make things more expensive, not less expensive."

Hear! Hear!

For decades developers have grossly overpaid for real estate, knowing city hall would cover them--with a generous margin--by granting over-development privileges under the PC spot zoning process. This routine misuse of PC zoning has doubtless caused much of our real estate inflation.


11 people like this
Posted by Smith, Mega developer
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 18, 2017 at 3:23 pm

>According to Santa Clara County records, Boyd C. Smith owns nine of the 18 homes on the street; residents confirmed he is Boyd Smith Sr. of the Ash Street real estate firm WSJ Properties.<

Boyd Smith and his son Lund Smith are well known Billionaire property owners and developers.
A few of the properties they own include
Lytton Gateway, 335-355 Alma St (home of Chamber of Commerce)
395 Olive Ave
265 OLIVE AVE
345 OLIVE AVE
315 OLIVE AVE
305 OLIVE AVE
295 OLIVE AVE
285 OLIVE AVE
385 OLIVE AVE
WSJ Properties building at 3201 Ash St.(with partners)
3260 Ash St.
Land under Fry's Electronics, Park Blvd.
3130 Alpine Rd. Ste 190
301 Coleridge Ave.
Office bldg on 500 block of Hamilton Ave. Lund Smith

And many more.
As the TV Law and Order attorney said yesterday, "Today's megalomaniac
is tormorrow's philanthropist."


29 people like this
Posted by Chuck
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 18, 2017 at 4:48 pm

Hang tough Lakiba. There are a lot of residents in Palo Alto who agree with you. The City is just not listening.


5 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 18, 2017 at 8:31 pm

Incredible story. Not sure what I can do about it, but I will thoughtfully ponder..


23 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Nov 18, 2017 at 8:51 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Lakiba - start a Go Fund Me campaign to protect what is left of your neighborhood. I will certainly contribute.


30 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 19, 2017 at 10:31 am

Although Palo Alto may need more affordable housing, there is a limit to what the existing infrastructure can support, and we have already passed that limit in the area surrounding California Avenue. The fact that the Ventura neighborhood is near a trainIt does not mean that residence won’t have cars or use and park them locally. Ms. Pitman should not be displaced: she has every right to remain in her treasure at home. Who among us would like to be kicked out of our homes?!


14 people like this
Posted by College
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 20, 2017 at 12:18 pm

Once I was told how cancer cells grow. These two families grow their property just like that. Please do not underestimate the power of cancer, it kill the whole beings


49 people like this
Posted by Lakiba Pittman
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 20, 2017 at 4:44 pm

Local station KPIX - Ch 5 in the Bay Area came out to interview me today in response to this story - there will be a snippet about the situation with my home being in the midst of a 'revitalization' project in Palo Alto. I am 'standing firm' to keep my home and the great legacy of my parents who saved up for years in order to buy this little cottage. It's also a part of black cultural history in that it was one of the few sections of Palo Alto where Blacks could buy property due to the redlining that was going on. Other Black families lived on my street when I was growing up and many more lived in the larger neighborhood we called So. Palo Alto, running from a couple of blocks north of California Avenue all the way down to Arastradero - now known as the Ventura Area. Just this summer we had our South Palo Alto Reunion where the children and the grandchildren of all of those working class Black folks (and many of our friends of other ethnic groups) returned to the neighborhood to pay respects, check on folks, eat, drink and reminisce. Those who have moved away because of rising prices and the desire to buy a home they could afford have had to leave the area, yet, still feel that South Palo Alto is home. My grandparents came to Palo Alto in the early 1920's. We have generations that have attended schools from kindergarten through high school - and college. There is more to my story, but my story is only one story in the midst of many. The news comes on at 6 pm. Will continue to keep you all posted as I learn anything new, and thank you for all of your well wishes and support.


24 people like this
Posted by Anke
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 20, 2017 at 4:56 pm

Thanks for the update, Lakiba. Rooting for you!!


14 people like this
Posted by Melissa Michelson
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 21, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Thank you, Lakiba, for fighting for this neighborhood. Please us all know how we can help!


13 people like this
Posted by Marie H.
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 21, 2017 at 6:11 pm

Thanks for standing your ground Lakiba. How can we help?


14 people like this
Posted by Gus L.
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 22, 2017 at 10:24 am

You can help by demanding the City put in Single family homes in the Fry's site so it will conform to the area and not be a Three or Four story tall Condo nightmare.
There is No reason to have High Density in that area.


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

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