20 September, 2012

Four office buildings, theater planned for downtown Palo Alto

City partners with developer John Arrillaga on new plan to transform site near downtown Caltrain station

Courtesy of Palo alto Weekly

The City of Palo Alto and billionaire philanthropist John Arrillaga are pushing forward a sweeping development plan that would add a complex of four office towers, including one 10 stories in height, and a new theater to one of the most central areas of downtown.

The project, which would transform the area around the downtown Caltrain station, is so ambitious in scope that the city is now considering bringing it to the voters in spring of 2013, according to a report the city released late Wednesday, Sept. 19.

The city and Arrillaga have been discussing the project at 27 University Ave. since early 2011, but details didn't emerge until late Wednesday, when the city released a report outlining some of the details. The site currently houses the MacArthur Park restaurant, which would have to be relocated to accommodate the new plan.

The City Council is scheduled to consider the plan and the proposal to send it to the voters at its meeting Monday night, Sept. 24. But Arrillaga's development proposal already seems to have won over the city's planning staff, who describe it in a new report as "an unprecedented opportunity to transform the centrally located, transitional area between Downtown Palo Alto and Stanford University, a prominent part of town where decades of plans have engendered little change."

"The Project is propelled by an extraordinary public-private partnership involving several parties, which would allow goals that have been pursued for many years to be realized," Current Planning Manager Amy French wrote in a report, which was approved by Planning Director Curtis Williams and City Manager James Keene.

These goals include improvements to the busy Intermodal Transit Center, better links between downtown, Stanford Shopping Center, Stanford University and Stanford Hospital, and a new performing-arts theater, which would likely serve as a new home for TheatreWorks.

Aside from the project's massive scope, the proposal is also unusual in its blurring of the line between public and private. Two members of the city's land-use boards, former Planning and Transportation Commissioner Daniel Garber and former Architectural Review Board member Heather Young, resigned earlier this year to work on the Arrillaga proposal. And the city plans to approve on Monday a series of architectural, urban-design and environmental contracts for work on 27 University Ave. The council had already approved $250,000 for design work on this project in March. Now, the staff is proposing spending another $286,000 on four contracts, the largest of which would be a $139,500 contract with Fukuji Planning and Design.

The money would come from a $2.25 million fund that the Stanford University Medical Center provided as part of a deal with the city that allowed the medical center to vastly expand its medical facilities.

In recent months, designers and architects have come up with an urban design plan that seeks to, among other things, create a new, highly visible "Arts and Innovation District" between the Caltrain station and El Camino Real; to create a permanent home for TheatreWorks, which currently performs out of Lucie Stern Community Center and the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts.

But the most dramatic and potentially controversial aspect in the new plan is the four office towers, which would be organized in two pairs with each pair connected by multi-story bridges. The tallest would be 10-stories tall. The commercial complex would also include nine-, seven- and six-story buildings. The floor area of the new office space would be 263,000 square feet.

The city currently has at least four buildings taller than 10 stories, including the condominium building at 101 Alma St., the office building at 525 University Ave., the Channing House and Forest Towers at 510 Forest Ave. The proposed offices, much like these buildings, would far exceed the city's 50-foot height limit for new developments.

"The goal of the mixed-use office buildings is for them to be designed as prominent, carefully constructed, contemporary office space to house premier Silicon Valley technology companies in Palo Alto, advancing Palo Alto's reputation as a global center of technology and innovation," the new staff report states.

While the proposal is still in its early phase, it has already received support from Stanford University, a major benefactor of Arrillaga's philanthropy and owner of the land on which the developments would be built. In a letter to the city, Stanford's Director for Community Relations Jean McCown wrote that while the university has not been involved in the development, "it supports the exploration of this concept among Mr. Arrillaga, TheatreWorks and the City of Palo Alto."

"John Arrillaga is an extraordinary, generous philanthropist who has provided great benefits to the University, as well as other local community projects," wrote McCown, a former Palo Alto mayor. "Stanford is pleased that the City of Palo Alto will be giving this proposal its thoughtful and constructive consideration."

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