Some Corrections to
Jack Morton's "Palo Alto at a Critical Crossroad"
regarding Development History
by Douglas Moran
While I agree with some of what Jack Morton wrote,
there is also a lot that is wrong,
from the minor (example: numbers for the Business License Tax)
to major misrepresentations of events.
It is disturbing that he, coming so very late to realizations about development issues,
continues to attack, even vilify, those who recognized those problems early on
and attempted to get Council to respond.
Because these misrepresentations continue to cloud the debate on the issues,
the focus of this message will be on that.
Aside: Candidate scoring:
His presentation of the candidates' positions on the issues is highly questionable
(I have had lots of personal interaction with the candidates).
Also, he does not include either Leon Leong or Greg Scharff as "front runners",
although both have been endorsed by two of the three local papers (Leong: Daily News and the Daily Post; Scharff: Weekly and Daily Post).
I suspect that his assessment of Karen Holman may be colored
by his disagreements with her before his recent switch on the issue of development
(On Stanford, his chart flips the scores given to Price and Holman,
giving Holman the low score. Simple typo or reflection of bias?)
In Hotel Tax (page 3), Morton states
"In response to neighborhood pressure and under the illusion that housing was always preferable,
we allowed the hotel to be replaced by condominiums, ... specifically, by a 139-unit, oversized, under parked development ...".
- In the 1990s, the problem of retail being converted to housing became apparent along El Camino became a significant issue,
but residents were unable to get Council to do anything other than offer workshops or study sessions.
- In 2002, in response to the ABAG's demands for Palo Alto to build more housing,
City Staff proposed that much of the retail along south El Camino be targeted for conversion to housing.
The neighborhood rose up and filled the Council chamber,
trying to save this retail.
There was also strong support for the Hyatt Rickey's hotel because its meeting rooms were heavily used by the community
and seen as an important asset.
Council directed Staff to reconsider.
In 2003, Staff came back with a slightly trimmed list which still included Hyatt Rickey's.
The neighborhoods continued to oppose the designation of it and other retail sites for housing.
However, the Council, which included Jack Morton, approved the list,
thereby further tying the City's hands against any attempts to prevent conversion.
This battle was a significant factor in LaDoris Cordell, who lived in the neighborhood adjoining Hyatt Rickey's,
deciding to run for Council.
- Hyatt's representatives stated several times that the decision to cancel the hotel portion of the redevelopment was based on economic factors.
Because of the downturn in travel after 9/11, Palo Alto had a glut of hotel rooms.
Hyatt first eliminated the conference facilities and then the whole hotel.
Also there had been a shift in beliefs about where to locate hotels,
from sites such as Hyatt Rickey's to being on major highways.
- The neighborhoods never opposed the hotel. It was the extreme density of housing.
The proposal that the neighborhoods fought was far worse than what was built:
- It was roughly 4.5 times as dense: over 300 housing units on half of the property (the other half was hotel).
- Even more underparked: Hyatt attempted to reduce the amount of parking based on the site being mixed-used,
a provision intended for commercial uses such as offices where the employees and visitors use the parking while the residents are away (at their jobs) not a hotel where the parking is predominantly for customers and who will be there at the same time as residents.
- The project was structured so that the housing portion could be split off and sold,
with Hyatt retaining just the hotel.
The location of the split was obvious from the map, and it would have had most of the parking staying with the hotel
(the housing would have been grossly underparked).
- For a developer's perspective, see Guest Opinion: Hyatt needed to learn more about 'horse whispering' by Jim Baer (PA Weekly, 26 May 2004)
- Morton's mention of "Bob Moss' initiative to prohibit substandard streets" (top of pg 4) is disingenuous.
It was necessitated because Council, including Morton, routinely approved developments with this problem
despite residents actively pointing out the problem and trying vainly to get realistic street requirements.
- Morton's claim that "No alarms sounded" is even more disingenuous.
First, the concern about sales tax revenues was a significant factor in every budget discussion that
I can recall since the arrival of the previous City Manager (Frank Benest, in 2000).
Second, Palo Alto Neighborhoods was so concerned about the lack of action
on these issues that it sponsored a pair of forums (under Forums on their website):
- Retail (31 July 2003): Featuring an array of merchants and a retail developer. On retail attraction and retention.
- What Will the Housing Boom Cost Us—A Question of Balance (29 September 2005).
This forum was regarded as having significantly shaped that year's Council race,
in which Morton was running for reelection.
Densification: A financially losing proposition (pg 9)
Although I agree with the sentiment, there are some factual problems that need to be addressed:
- On residents of 800 High opposing the senior housing:
There is a certain irony in residents of an overly dense development opposing an adjoining similar development, but they bought into an existing building.
But it is hypocritical for Morton to oppose overly dense, underparked developments in this document
(but not in his votes on Council) and then call it "unconscionable" for residents to do the same.
- Hyatt and JCC developments:
Morton states "I, for one, did not appreciate the environmental damage that five stories
up to the very edge of the street can do to a suburban horizon. ...
In the future, staff needs to provide Council with better visuals
so that no other projects overwhelm their sites as these do."
First, the overwhelming size of the project was one of the major criticisms of the project.
That it didn't register with Morton, and various other Council members,
is indicative of how little active consideration such Council members give to such approvals.
Second, the criticism of staff is accurate but unfair:
Council has repeatedly demonstrated that it will ignore such information from staff and residents
and rely on the representations of the developer (despite the developer's obvious bias).
Example: On the 800 High project, a resident, David Bubenik, using the developer's numbers and
standard computer software generated a diagram that showed that the developer was substantially understating
the size of the building in its visuals, but he was ignored by Council.
After the project was built, reporter Sarah Wykes of the Mercury News did a story with a photo
that demonstrated that Bubenik's diagram had been accurate.
- Alma Plaza: Morton grossly misrepresents events in ways that it is hard to believe aren't intentional.
- Claim: "Because the neighbors fought tooth and nail to deny any access from Emerson and Ramona,
the development effectively became a ghetto behind a (hoped for) market ... access their homes solely via
the market's Alma driveway."
- The residents' opposition to those connections were a direct result of the City's decision
to allow inadequate parking in the development.
Residents had pointed out the problem and lobbied hard to get more parking,
but the Council rejected it.
To avoid having their streets become parking lots for the development,
the recourse left to them was to make it as inconvenient as possible for the development's residents.
- The layout of the site was the choice of the developer.
Not only residents, but the Planning and Transportation Commission in a withering review, pointed out these problems.
- The developer's choices were not financially constrained:
The zoning change that the Council gave him by itself roughly quadrupled the value of this property, from $6M to roughly $24M.
- During the initial screening of the project, Council was fully aware of these problems,
from the Commission report, from emails from residents and from testimony at the meeting.
Morton and the rest of Council told the developer that they liked the project and that he should proceed.
- During Council discussion, Morton was repeated confused about simple things,
such as what was the front and back of the market,
suggesting a lack of preparation, and hence concern, about the site layout.
- Claim: "The opponents' latest attempt to further delay the project was over whether the developer-funded
community room should be available even at hours that adversely impact the market's viability"
- The community room was one of the few public benefits offered in exchange for the City's allowing the developer
to turn a property zoned for neighborhood shopping center into predominantly housing (with his 4x return-on-investment before building).
Calling it "developer-funded" betrays Morton's bias.
- Even before the project was approved, the developer attempted to convert this "public benefit" into private use.
He attempted to provide it rent-free to the Pacific Art League to facilitate the purchase of the League's building by his partner (the League's membership blocked the sale).
He attempted to limit it to only residents of the development.
He then declared that the room would be closed during prime usage hours.
- In response, residents called for Council to increase parking for both the market—which
they had long argued was underparked—and the community room
by converting to parking some of the space allocated to housing.
In rejecting this solution, it was Council, not the residents, who put parking for the community room
in conflict with that for the market.
And it was Council's earlier approval of a vague proposal (given to them only at the beginning of the meeting)
that allowed the developer to claim that there was no parking for the community room.