Celebrating East Palo Alto's transformation on Monday night, Mayor Larry Moody pointed to the city's achievements this year, which he said have kicked open the door to a new progressive era in the once-troubled city.
"We are no longer the '90s," Moody said during his State of the City address at the Four Seasons Hotel. The city has shed its sobriquet as the "Per-capita Murder Capital" of the country, which it dubiously earned in 1992.
Moody portrayed East Palo Alto as a "city on the move" that welcomed a new 1,300-strong workforce at Amazon and 120 jobs at retailer Target this year. Thanks to a new policy on debt management, East Palo Alto now boasts a balanced budget, he said.
Moody spoke about the city's advancements in commercial development, housing, public safety, the environment, infrastructure and employment, among other issues.
Commercial development and water supply
The city has four major projects on the drawing boards, including 1.4 million square feet of office space at 2020 Bay Road the closed Romic chemical plant site that could add an estimated 4,500 to 5,500 tech and biotech jobs and a proposed 233,840-square-foot office building on University Avenue and East Bayshore Road.
Those and other projects, including the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative's Primary School and a performing arts center, had been on hold until recently, after the city ran out of water allocations to support expansion. But a $5 million deal worked out with the city of Mountain View has transferred 1 million gallons of water per day in water rights, which East Palo Alto secured in perpetuity.
"The water transfer is the first of its kind" for the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Association, he said. He and Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff are working to execute transfer of another half-million gallons of water per day from Palo Alto's allocations, which would help East Palo Alto grow according to its strategic plan, he said.
Funding for the water purchase from Mountain View came from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, The Sobrato Organization, 2020 Bay Road and the Primary School and the City of East Palo Alto.
"Those checks are belief in the city of East Palo Alto," Moody said.
The city is drafting a new development code, which would aid in creating more commercial space and guide the city's development through 2035. The document is undergoing public review.
Moody also said public safety in the city has improved: East Palo Alto is on track to have zero homicides this year, for the first time in its history. He credited the community-policing model and its Clean Zone and Fit Zone programs, in which officers help clean up neighborhoods and take part in community fitness programs, both of which have created greater trust in the police department.
Through the 2007 parcel tax Measure C and the Transient Occupancy Tax Grant programs, the city also funded multiple nonprofit organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club to offer crime-fighting programs and opportunities for youth.
The city has also worked with the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority to make the most vulnerable neighborhoods safe from flooding. The project added new berms, and a new flood wall is nearing completion in the Gardens neighborhood. The project to replace a U.S. Highway 101 bridge and widen the creek will reduce the risk of flooding and protect future sea-level rise within the creek for 50 years.
"This is a significant public safety improvement," Moody said.
The city's streets, which once made the news for their dilapidated conditions, are now repaired to the point that East Palo Alto won a Metropolitan Transportation Commission award for most improved roads in the Bay Area. Moody said additional work will continue.
The largest infrastructure project, however, is about to commence: a pedestrian bridge over Highway 101 from Clarke Avenue to Palo Alto. The overpass is expected to break ground on Nov. 30. When completed, it will provide a safe link between the two communities and will lessen the isolation of East Palo Alto residents. The bridge will also link to the Ravenswood 101 shopping center, which could benefit stores such as Nordstrom Rack, Target and Home Depot.
On the retail jobs front, Target hired 120 employees; about 50 percent of whom are East Palo Alto residents, Moody said. The city has also continued its commitment to aiding youth, adults and immigrants by introducing programs such as Working Scholars, a no-cost program that helps working adults achieve a bachelor's degree.
"Eighty-three percent of East Palo Alto residents 25 years or older do not have a bachelor's degree; therefore, we can greatly benefit from this program" Moody said.
Since last month 33 people completed their first college course in personal finance, he said.
The Sobrato Organization and Amazon have also built and are staffing an employment center to help residents. In October, Amazon held an informational jobs fair. The company also opened full-time jobs, as well as lower-skill jobs in food and shuttle services, facilities management and security, he said.
The city also provided a $100,000 grant to the local nonprofit Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center to encourage residents to become small-business entrepreneurs. The program served more than 60 families and adults, 78 percent of whom were women, he said.
Moody also pointed to efforts the city is making to combat gentrification, which has led very low-income and immigrants to move or become homeless. The city had a ribbon cutting last week for the new $25 million Serenity Senior Apartments, which offers 41 units of affordable and low-income housing for seniors in San Mateo County. Of those units, 20 are marked for East Palo Alto residents, he said.
"Of the approximately 8,000 housing units in East Palo Alto, approximately 3,200 are affordable. Thus, about 40 percent of our entire housing stock is affordable. We are proud of carrying more than our fair share of affordable housing. And, we keep adding units," he said of Serenity, to which the city contributed $700,000.
But the city still has not yet done enough to develop housing for low- and very-low-income residents, he admitted.
One proposal that is providing some hope: 965 Weeks St., where the city wants to build approximately 150 affordable housing units for low- , very low- and extremely low income residents. Supporting the development on the city-owned site is the $10 million Facebook Catalyst Fund.
Transportation and parking
The city experiences a significant amount of cut-through commuter traffic that is not generated by residents. University Avenue has an annual average daily traffic of 22,000 vehicles, and 84 percent of these trips neither originate nor end in East Palo Alto, Moody said.
The city has submitted a Sustainable Transportation Planning Grant to the California Department of Transportation this year to develop a comprehensive mobility study to address traffic, parking, cut-through commuter traffic and bike, pedestrian and vehicle circulation.
"We don't expect this study to be a panacea or silver bullet, but it will be the beginning of a regional conversation to solve the regional issue of traffic congestion," he said.
The city also approved the Bicycle Transportation Plan in October with recommendations for a citywide network of bike routes and programs. The city has also neared completion on another Safe Routes to Schools project on Bay Road and University Avenue to Ralmar Street, an important route for schoolchildren and parents.
Open space and parks
The city completed upgrading Joel Davis and Jack Farrell parks in September, with new and safe playground equipment, he said. The city also completed the design phase of Phase III improvements for Cooley Landing, which include new outdoor restrooms, an open space amphitheater, playing fields and trails. The improvements are scheduled to commence in mid-2018.
Moody said progress in the city is the result of the collective work of the entire City Council working with local and regional partners, and he praised the council and staff as the most professional the city has had.
"East Palo Alto is a city moving forward," he said. "We are East Palo Alto. We carry that brand proudly."