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Former Palo Alto council members challenge approved downtown project

Original post made on Oct 7, 2020

A dispute between three former Palo Alto council members and the city's Planning Department could determine the fate of a proposed development on University Avenue, as well as the future of the city's seismic rehabilitation program.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, October 7, 2020, 3:05 PM

Comments (28)

9 people like this
Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2020 at 11:26 pm

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

This fight strikes me as odd. Is the objection a complaint about the additional floor(s)? Our city's expert consultants, who were paid well with taxpayer funds, made it clear that the biggest obstacle to affordable housing is the City's insistence on retaining its strict building heights. So we *really* actually need to be allowing our buildings to grow taller, especially in places closer to transportation and business, such as University Avenue.

Or is the complaint one of a poorly written set of policies that give commercial developers too much control? If that is the complaint, the complainants were capable of fixing those problems - rather than participating in causing them (for example, by failing to build a coalition with their colleagues) - during the collective four or five decades they served in elected office in Palo Alto. This bad policy results when a city council spends decades allowing commercial developers a say in how these codes should be written, and when a city council spends hours, days, and weeks fretting over how to meet the needs of a business sector that some say has a larger number of billionaires than any other - even high tech - commercial development. Maybe the current - and especially the previous - city councils should not have let the billionaires write our codes for us?

Or maybe this is a complaint about the fact that our city basically has no department of inspections and enforcement? Well, I ask these former city council members why they voted on numerous occasions to defund and virtually dismantle Palo Alto's office of inspections and enforcement -- even though that department was one of the few departments that actually was profitable when it was supported. If the former city council members valued the office of inspections and enforcement, they could have preserved it, and also protected it by enacting into code funding and headcount minimums so it could not be dismantled -- after all, the city council is a legislative body, and drafting and improving code is their responsibility and obligation.

Putting the blame on the City Manager is irrational, given that it is the City Council's legal responsibility and obligation to manage the city manager.

Putting the blame on the other city council members also is irrational given that it is the job of a city council member to bring problems to the attention of the council, and to build coalitions around a workable solution to those problems -- which did not happen.

Then there is the primary "objection" which is "failure to follow the rules." In this case, the rules have to do with who has the right to make a decision -- again, which seems odd given that these council members took part in dismantling the office of inspections and enforcement. If they actually thought that rule enforcement were important, they would have strengthened the office of enforcement, as well as protected it with additional code measures to ensure that the office always retained its size and authority. The city council is a legislative body -- so writing that kind of code provision to protect an important aspect of the city government is in their job description.

Perhaps this complaint is an effort to attract attention during election time. But was the goal to attract negative attention? After all, the complaint highlights systemic flaws in our city government that were created while these former city council people were in office.

Possibly, this could be an attempt to bring attention to what they may perceive as a problem of buildings violating height limits. That strikes me as particularly tone-deaf, given that our city continues to pay expensive consultants to create reports with recommendations of what is necessary to build more affordable housing, and those expensive consultants continue to state - then and now - that one of the biggest impediments to the creation of affordable housing is these overly strict height limits, especially in commercial districts close to transit like University Ave.

That leads to the biggest irony amongst a highly ironic story: the irony that these former council members are complaining about the failure to enforce a height limit, even though those height limits are amongst the biggest reasons that our city is enforcing a much more important law, with much more drastic consequences and implications: Palo Alto's *legal* obligation to create affordable housing under *State Law*.

So I don't think it's really about law enforcement, because these former council members have vocally lobbied on behalf of Palo Alto not complying with its legal (not to mention: ethical) obligations to build affordable housing. (Which BTW is exactly why the state felt it necessary to enact SB 35.)

Meanwhile, there is such a simple solution here -- one that involves speaking with other people rather than filing lots of documents as if the other people were not one email or phone call away:

If this permit was given in error, the public interest can be served by requiring the developer to use most of the extra building space for affordable housing, while also preserving the restaurant and retail spaces for the clients and for the community.

So many of these long-winded battles can be eliminated just with creativity, courage, ingenuity, and willingness to go to the table and hash things out.

In failing to consider that compelling approach, our former leaders are exactly like many of the current leaders: prioritizing politics over people, and posturing over public interest.


47 people like this
Posted by Long-time council watcher
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 8, 2020 at 2:43 am

Long-time council watcher is a registered user.

@Rebecca Eisenberg
Your comments are so long I may have missed something as I skimmed through. However, I think as someone who is jumping in at the deep end relatively recently, you may not be aware of the very long history of the Planning Department, with the encouragement of the city manager, overstepping their authority to (mis)interpret or ignore codes to profit individual developers.

I once heard the previous Planning Director tell the council it was the Planning Department's job to facilitate projects on behalf of the developers. In addition, although the council allows planning staff some occasional discretion, those "discretions" became the normal standards every developer expects and gets.

Our last city manage was famous for instructing staff to give everyone who enters city hall the white glove treatment. Which instruction appears to apply most particularly, if not solely, to deep-pocket developers such as the new owners of the President Hotel. In which instance city staff and legal council set aside all other business to jump through hoops and highjack several council meetings (postponing high priority city business!) for hours and hours with the aim of customizing city codes for the sole benefit of this one developer.


58 people like this
Posted by writing wrongs
a resident of University South
on Oct 8, 2020 at 5:25 am

writing wrongs is a registered user.

The comments provided by Eisenberg are, especially for an attorney, amazingly unfocused and include factually incorrect statements. The appeal is about one thing and one thing only: the "interpretation" of the code that the former council members find to be wrong not only for this piece of code but for the precedent it would set in giving staff the latitude to essentially rewrite code at their discretion and call it an "interpretation".

From the appeal and quoted in the article, staff is proposing "significant code change and should not be subject to a Director's Interpretation, resulting in an expensive appeal process rather than normal and proper public hearings for zoning code changes."

The appeal, the only mechanism for the objection to be heard, has not one thing, nothing, to do with the project itself, and it seems odd to this reader that staff's "interpretation" was not brought to the Council and the public for consideration separate from the project. For staff to associate the project with the "interpretation"
is to politicize the matter for readers who, like Eisenberg, do not bother to read the appeal but extrapolate from a news article.

Is this the kind of all over the map, long winded "analysis" the public can expect from Eisenberg the attorney should she get a seat on the dais? Spare us the long debate about irrelevant matters and let us, the public, hear Council deliberate about real issues, in this case, the overstepping of staff in trying to rewrite code and to "establish policy, thereby bypassing the PTC, City Council and public review."


2 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 8, 2020 at 9:34 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

If you all take a jaunt up to Redwood City you will see that the downtown between El Camino and Veteran's is being rebuilt with taller buildings - in excess of three stories. that is where you see new apartment buildings - in excess of three stories, new business buildings which are architecturally very attractive and striking. They are replacing aging buildings with new buildings that maximize the space. We appear to be putting constraints upon the city to upgrade the city scape. Why is that?
I was in one shop on University where the floor was obviously collapsing under the new tiles. Any one who lives in an Eichler knows that concrete slabs start breaking down and cracking when the ground is continually shifting. You have to know that University has a lot of push and pull on the available ground level and there is going to be periodic requirements to replace the buildings and reinforce the land underneath. You have a major creek in the area that is undermining the overall land mass.
The city is going to have to deal with geography at some point here and make the most of it. And that probably will require digging out and reinforcing the basement level of the building. An opportunity for more parking underground?


3 people like this
Posted by Arrow gance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 8, 2020 at 10:32 am

Arrow gance is a registered user.

For all the criticisms of the Eisenberg comment, where have all the know it alls been all these years?




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Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 8, 2020 at 10:47 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

Resident 1: Would you elaborate on "You have a major creek in the area that is undermining the overall land mass." thanks


4 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 8, 2020 at 11:25 am

commonsense is a registered user.

How many resources and dollars will the city use to try and save two brick walls that, in an earthquake, may kill people? Using the existing brick on a new, safe building is totally reasonable. This being said, it makes no sense to rebuild this building to get another 2500 square feet. It's a guaranteed money loser. The owner should wait until it falls down - free demolition, insurance and a larger building.


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Downtown North

on Oct 8, 2020 at 11:26 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Downtown North

on Oct 8, 2020 at 11:34 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


16 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 8, 2020 at 1:01 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

@ Rebecca, still waiting for a 'like' hit on your post? Keep waiting. Tomes are hard to read and get engaged with. Short succinct comments are the way to go. I know from experience because I have violated that several times and I heard about it.


38 people like this
Posted by Claude Ezran
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 8, 2020 at 2:35 pm

Claude Ezran is a registered user.

Thank you Karen Holman, Greg Schmid and Pat Burt for catching this! We are fortunate that you are watching what the city staff is doing.


2 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 8, 2020 at 3:55 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

San Francisquito Creek is the border between Santa Clara County and San Mateo County. Depending on the time of year and rainfall it has a high volume of water and they are now correcting the flooding problems at the bay level. Proximity to the Creek during the high water periods concentrates the impact on the surrounding land. A lot of work has been dedicated to correcting these problems. Increase in the water table level is part of the overall impact since the city is at the base of the foothills. SU is built on a higher level on rock based foundation. The bay has been filled in which changes the distribution of water emptying into the bay. A lot of chatter about the bridges that need to be replaced - in process of replacement. Bridge at 101 has been replaced.


24 people like this
Posted by Long-time council watcher
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 8, 2020 at 6:49 pm

Long-time council watcher is a registered user.

Planning staff, with the encouragement of the city manager, have a long history of making unilateral decisions that exceed their authority. If this project is to be an exception to the rule, and it might be necessary, it needs to go through the proper channels and not be quietly decided by planning. Particularly as each decision the planning department makes that exceeds their authority sets a precedent for the next developer.


10 people like this
Posted by Long-time council watcher
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 8, 2020 at 6:53 pm

Long-time council watcher is a registered user.

@Arrow Gance's question, "where have all the know it alls been all these years?" if you paid closer attention to what goes on at city hall, came to city council and planning commission meetings, you would know there are quite a number of residents who closely follow city hall shenanigans!


2 people like this
Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 10, 2020 at 4:48 am

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

Hi! For the record, I tried to edit my post, but I ran out of time while editing, and unfortunately that meant that I could not shorten it.

That said, "it's too long" is not a compelling argument that anything I said was factually or legally incorrect. Nor did anyone else offer factual or legal correction to my post. So it stands.

As to "write wrongs" (clever!) this is my first time checking in to this post since I wrote it, so no I did not wring my hands (or whatever condescending, offensive, sexist-sounding wording you gave it) over whether I had likes. I logged back in to see I had 8 likes.

But if you think I wrote what I did above because I thought it would make me "pretty," think again. I wrote what I wrote because I am tired of the abuse of power by the very few people who continue to run our local government into the ground. I will stand up to them because I am not afraid of them. I will stand up to them because they are wrong. I will stand up to them because our community deserves better.

And I am not sorry if that makes you uncomfortable. I stand up to them because we need a local government free of corruption. And better options are there for the taking, for those like me who are tired of this same old divisive politics as usual.


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Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 10, 2020 at 4:59 am

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

Correction: it was Gale Johnson with the snarky comment about seeking likes. Noted.

Writing wrongs: I know that reading is hard for the uneducated, but I did not say that staff should re-draft the municipal code. City Council is a legislative body so it is the City Council's job to draft and amend code. Time after time we hear that the City Council is "forced" to make one decision or another due to "the Code" -- that THEY wrote! Every other city has worked hard to amend their municipal codes for modernized circumstances, but City Council somehow fails to recognize that they not only have the right to modernize their code, they have a legal responsibility to do so - which they have abandoned.

As to the continued complaint about the department staff overstepping their authority: the staff have the authority that their Managers - the City Council - give them. It is the job, the responsibility and the legal obligation that the City Council manage the City Manager and their staff. Our City Council, who often complain that meetings go "too late at night" and that listening to community comments is "tiresome," has abdicated its legal responsibility. If you are mad about that, you know whom to blame: city council.

If you don't recognize the line of management here - -a line that no one on City Council denies (so if you make this argument for them, you will be speaking for yourself) - I recommend that you grab a cup of coffee, sit down, and read my long-winded know-it-all post. You got this.


5 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 11, 2020 at 8:51 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Rebecca - is case you have not read all of the blogs that would indicate support of the candidates you are mentioned and conflicts with your portions noted. Your legal positions on FHP and the business tax are incorrect / misstated.

Your comment about uneducated people - I heard that comment about the current political environment. Is that a standard, suggested approach to people who disagree with you / the candidate?

I am noting common themes used by the challengers across the whole state indicating that some have gone to political school to come up with responses to those who disagree with their approach - which is common across the political spectrum.
Once the common responses are noted then the qualifications of the candidate come into question.


4 people like this
Posted by Building Owners
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 11, 2020 at 11:03 am

Building Owners is a registered user.

I'm surprised there is so much concern over this project. DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO REQUIRE A BUILDING OWNER TO RETAIN TWO POTENTIALLY HAZARDOUS UNREINFORCED MASONRY WALLS TO RECEIVE THE SEISMIC SQUARE FOOTAGE BONUS??? This building has 13" thick un-reinforced brick walls with deteriorating mortar. These 20 ft walls sit on a 7 ft high un-reinforced useless concrete wall. Even re-supporting these walls, which includes hand digging under them (hazardous in itself) to pour a new footing, does not guarantee they won't collapse. A new wall to today's codes is MUCH stronger and resistant to earthquakes. Does the public not want a safe building?? Not to mention the 2500 sq.ft. bonus comes at a cost of over $1 Million in Parking Fees. So the so-called bonus is not free. We're not a big developer, we are a building owner. The ordinance required that each owner provide a engineer's report to the City in 1986 and to receive the seismic bonus owner's would need to do as recommended in these reports. In the case of 233/235 University, the engineer recommended the building be torn down as the extensive reconstruction required was not logical. Therefore, we are complying with the ordinance to receive the bonus square footage. Please encourage the City Council to act in the best interest of public safety and let us rebuild this building.


4 people like this
Posted by council watcher
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 11, 2020 at 12:35 pm

council watcher is a registered user.

@building owners.

It may make sense. But the planning department director doesn't have the authority to make this decision. The issue is that the planning department, with the support of the city manager, oversteps his authority. If an appeal of the regulations is needed, then the applicant needs to follow that route. And maybe it can be shown that an exception needs to be made in this instance. Looks to be a very ugly blocky building and I hope the design can be improved on.


1 person likes this
Posted by Building Owners
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 11, 2020 at 1:12 pm

Building Owners is a registered user.

@Council watcher.
Actually the planning director does have the authority to interpret the code as per Muni Code 18.01.025 which states:

" Whenever in the opinion of the Planning and Community Environment Director (PCE Director) there is any question regarding the interpretation of the Comprehensive Plan or the planning and land use provisions of Titles 16, 18 or 21 to any specific case or situation, the PCE Director shall have the authority to interpret such planning codes."

The code for seismic floor area bonuses is 18.18.070. THE CODE DOES NOT REQUIRE RETAINING OF ANY WALLS. This was something Planning required due to sentiments of the 2015 city council and their verbal interpretation of the word "rehabilitation". The same 2015 council members, who are no longer on the council, are the ones appealing this. Upon looking at our situation the Director logically concluded that in the interest of public safety the two walls should be removed. The Director's interpretation was not made lightly and only after both he and the City Building Official requested and reviewed further documentation and analyses, and took 6 months to come to his decision. It should also be noted that prior to 2015, 16 of 50 Buildings (32%) were allowed to be torn down and still receive the floor area bonus as directed by Fred Herman, then City Building Official who created the program. The director considered all the facts and interpreted the code as he has the authority to do.


6 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 11, 2020 at 6:28 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I sometimes wonder what we as a community would accomplish especially for the least of our brethren so to speak If we were not inundated with requests by landowners to increase the value of their land through development.


4 people like this
Posted by Building Owners
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 11, 2020 at 8:13 pm

Building Owners is a registered user.

@Mark Weiss
Apparently you did not read the reason for our construction. It is not to "increase the value of our land through development". If it weren't for seismic reasons we wouldn't be doing this project. We're not getting rich doing this. In fact it is borderline feasible. An $8 Million Loan at 4% is about $50K per month payment (comm'l lending is 20 years max). Leasing is down for obvious reasons. If we got $6/ft at approx 8000 sf that's about the same as the loan payment.


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Posted by council watcher
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 12, 2020 at 12:33 pm

council watcher is a registered user.

Is the $6 per square foot an average for a mix of lower rent for retail below and higher rent for the office above? Or is that residential above?


1 person likes this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 12, 2020 at 1:07 pm

Me 2 is a registered user.

Nice move by Pat Burt and his supporters to burnish his anti-development credentials to residentialists.

Now this is political PR at its finest.


2 people like this
Posted by Building Owners
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 12, 2020 at 1:11 pm

Building Owners is a registered user.

@council watcher
Thanks for the question. When we started this project 4 years ago we were told that retail was around $8 and Office $9 to $10. My recent conversations with realtors is that things have changed with Covid. Retail is around $6 and may be less in the near future as many stores are going vacant. Paris Baguette and Jos. Banks are gone. I've heard rumor that Joya and the Old Pro may not come back. Office has come down greatly as well with the full effect still to be seen. Currently companies cannot use their office space and are working from home which economists say may be the trend for the future. Also I have heard that Palantir who leases the majority of office space in the downtown, is downsizing creating many vacancies along with other companies that have not survived the Covid. Currently asking prices are around $7 to $8 for office but not sure this will be achievable given the vacancies. So it appears there will be a glut of retail and office space available which will bring down rents. I'm hoping the the $6 rents will be achievable next year and maybe $7 for office but only time will tell. Pretty scary stuff when considering a huge loan. FYI we thought about residential above but it requires on site parking and our lot is fairly small so we didn't have room for parking and turn around space.


1 person likes this
Posted by council watcher
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 12, 2020 at 1:31 pm

council watcher is a registered user.

Thank you for educating us. While I hope that the council will take back their authority in the gift of extra footage in return for a seismic "retrofit" I trust that they will make an exception for you given the difficulty of renovating such a small property and your family having owned the business for so many years.

Could you put back the decorative brick arches over the windows s a nod to the past?


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Posted by Building Owners
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 12, 2020 at 3:02 pm

Building Owners is a registered user.

@ council watcher.
Thank you. Regarding your question on arches, we went back and forth on that very question- arches or no arches and presented both scenarios to the Palo Alto Architectural Review Board (ARB). The ARB preferred the "square" option as you see in rendering shown in the article and that is what they approved. The approved option is actually the same look as the original building prior to us remodeling in the 1970s.


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Downtown North

on Oct 12, 2020 at 9:14 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


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