Marissa Mayer's proposed new venture -- the transformation of Palo Alto's oldest mortuary into a club geared toward working women and families -- received a mixed reception on Monday night, with City Council members and residents struggling to reconcile its laudable goals with its potential impacts on neighborhood streets.
Mayer, the former Yahoo CEO and current owner of the former Roller & Hapgood & Tinney funeral home, has requested a zone change that would allow her to turn the facility at 980 Middlefield Road into "The Corner House," a club that would include collaborative workspaces, play areas, enrichment classes, a cafeteria, a gym and other amenities.
Before she can meet her goal, however, Mayer has to overcome a significant hurdle: she has to convince the council to approve a "planned community" zone, a designation that has become so toxic over the past decade that the council agreed in 2014 to place a moratorium on it. In doing so, she has to make the case that the project's "public benefits" are significant enough to warrant a waiver from underlying zoning regulations.
In its pre-screening hearing on Monday, council members signaled that she still has some ways to go. Some members praised Mayer's general goal of creating new community space for working families. Mayor Liz Kniss recalled her time as a young mother in the Palo Alto community and concurred that there is a lack of resources. Councilman Greg Tanaka, a tech entrepreneur, emphasized the difficulty of raising a family in Palo Alto, where just about every young family needs two incomes to afford housing and where, as a result, just about every mother is a working mother.
Yet the council also sympathized with the roughly two dozen residents who addressed the council to voice their concerns and, at times, outright opposition to the project. At the top of the list is parking. One speaker after another noted the severe parking shortage that the University South neighborhood already experiences and raised concerns about conditions getting even worse if the project wins approval.
While Mayer had argued that the traffic impacts of The Corner House would be lower than they were when the funeral home was in operation, many were unconvinced. Peter Steinhart, who lives near the property, said the funeral home had events that generally lasted for an hour or two. The Corner House has proposed hosting 250 small events (with less than 75 attendees) and about 150 large events (with more than 75 attendees) annually.
"This is a neighborhood already fighting for parking spaces," Steinhart said. "There are signs on Middlefield now warning Addison School neighbors not to park here and block driveways."
Tom Mees concurred and argued that the project would fail to address the city's goals on traffic, parking and public safety.
"If allowed, it would reduce the stock of potential sites for affordable housing while dramatically increasing traffic and the demand for parking in surrounding neighborhoods."
Others objections focused on the means, rather than the end. The "planned community" zone, they said, have been a bad deal for residents in the past, with developers often receiving valuable zoning exceptions while failing to provide the promised benefits. Even if the project makes sense, the planned community zone is not the best way to accomplish it, some critics said.
"I really oppose these PC projects," said Eric Verwillow. "I think all the abuses of zoning I've seen have to do with the fact that community benefits never seem to realize."
Yet if the property is to become anything other than a mortuary (and Mayer indicated that she has no interest in entering the mortuary business), a zone change of some sort would be necessary. Councilman Adrian Fine suggested that a PC zone would in fact be an appropriate tool here, given that the existing PC zone -- which limits use to mortuary -- has effectively expired. He called the proposal "encouraging," but concurred with his colleagues that there is still "work to be done" on the project to address neighbors' concerns and to ensure that the public benefits would be sufficient.
Despite skepticism from some of her neighbors, Mayer made the case Monday that the new facility would be more a community center than a private club, with plenty of services available to non-members, including classes and rental spaces that would be open to the general public.
"We think by supporting working mothers and modern families and giving them access to useful resources -- that is is something that will strengthen sense of community (and) is in itself a community benefit,” Mayer said.
Many agreed. The council heard on Monday from several supporters of Mayer's proposal, including female entrepreneurs who testified to the challenges of managing family and professional responsibilities.
"If we had one local community center where I can both do my work and at the very same time, my children can do their enrichment opportunities each week, in return we'd have extra time each day in being present and doing what's most important in our lives -- being with our family," said Nicole Pollock, a former Google employee.
Coral Chung told the council that being an entrepreneur is "not glamorous and full of parties every day." It is, in fact, exhausting.
"I feel like there are no community centers or options for me as a young mother with a 5-year-old to go and have support -- and to potentially nurse, if I have a new baby."
The council also found plenty to like in the proposal. Councilman Greg Scharff urged Mayer's team to meet with neighbors and to better address their concerns. He also observed that her plan "is not a business proposal to make money."
"What we're looking at is something where someone is coming in here and saying, 'There's an unmet need.' That's something we should take very seriously and figure out how to accommodate that need," Scharff said.
Others similarly struggled to reconcile the views of the project's supporters and the skeptical neighbors.
"I think on one hand we have traffic and parking challenges and on the other hand, we have the goal of, 'How do we help working moms or women entrepreneurs?'" Tanaka asked.
Vice Mayor Eric FIlseth, who in the past has been skeptical about PC-zoned projects, noted that the city has very few instances where an existing PC zone expires. He did not preclude approving Mayer's plan, but argued that if the city were to go forward with the zone change, it needs to be careful about neighborhood impacts.
"Parking in this area is one of the most hotly contested (issues) in the city," Filseth said, noting that doctors and dentists in the neighborhood already feel excluded because they can't purchase enough parking permits. "We need to make sure that all that fits."