East Palo Alto hopes new land-use map will attract developers, pave way for smarter growth

New East Palo Alto map lays out vision for development in the Four Corners and Ravenswood neighborhoods through the next decade in hopes it will attract businesses.
East Palo Alto officials have created a land-use map they hope will guide the city's future development. (Photo: Julia James)

In almost 30 years as its own city, East Palo Alto has struggled to provide the most basic services for its residents; development has come in fits and starts, unsupported by a unifying vision for the city’s future.

Given that history, what appears to be a bureaucratic baby step might actually carry some significance: City council members seem to be on the verge of approving a first-ever land-use map that would guide redevelopment of the city’s vastly underutilized industrial areas and lay the groundwork for eventual growth of two new downtown hubs.

The map, which forms the basis of a new specific plan for the city, sketches out a potential, office-speckled future for East Palo Alto’s northeast quadrant, where warehouses and industrial plants, some of them no longer operational, butt up against the environmentally fragile baylands. The area as it’s currently used generates few jobs and doesn’t provide revenue or quality-of-life benefits for the city, in part because it lacks infrastructure.  Many plots, such as the site once occupied by the toxic waste handler Romic Environmental Technologies, are also heavily contaminated.

Of course, anyone who knows East Palo Alto would tell you there’s a giant morass of unknowns that stand between the map – which is a just vision, after all, and not a concrete plan or project – and actual, shovels-in-the-ground progress. In fact, if all goes according to plan, it will likely be another five years before work starts on major construction projects, another three after that until the first few ribbons are cut, and another 12 or so before buildings fill in between the Four Corners and Ravenswood hubs, giving the area a downtown feel.  Just installing pipes is expected to take seven years.

As it stands, the specific plan calls for an initial $55 million installation of pipes, sewers and storm drains in the Ravenswood area.  Officials haven’t identified a source for the money, but it would likely come from a combination of land-owner taxes, grants, redevelopment-agency funding and fees imposed on the eventual developers.  The parks and civic spaces that community members have asked for, and which are represented in the land-use map, will carry additional cost and funding sources for those have also yet to be identified.

Despite all the unknowns and delays, Sean Charpentier, a project coordinator at the redevelopment agency, said approval of the map is a necessary, if weirdly intangible, step.  Without a unifying vision, he said, a sort of conceptual underpinning for growth, it has been impossible for the city to persuade owners to invest in different uses of the land.  “If you think your neighbor’s going to put in a pig farm,” he said, “you’re not going to put in an office.”

The city’s current push to craft a long-range development vision isn’t its first. A similar effort fizzled out five years ago, for reasons that aren’t totally clear.  Charpentier said both council and the planning commission expressed renewed frustration in 2007 that the redevelopment agency was pursuing projects basically as “one-offs.”

Any development initiative in East Palo Alto is bound to be tricky. Unemployment and poverty rates in the city hover around 20 percent; 70 percent of residents have only high-school diplomas. The city is also in the unusual position of having started from nothing, only 28 years ago. East Palo Alto until 1983 was an unincorporated section of San Mateo County.

Those challenges mean the projects that do get built, the ones that can actually bring needed property and sales tax revenue into the city often cater to outsiders and don’t serve local residents – or even necessarily offer them jobs.  Consider, for example, two major development milestones for East Palo Alto in recent years: In 2003, a shining new Four Seasons Hotel opened up along Freeway 101; but it replaced what had been the city’s only semblance of a downtown gathering space, the Whiskey Gulch area.  And when a big-box shopping complex rose up across the freeway, redevelopment agency officials touted the 300 to 400 jobs they said have been claimed by local residents. But it’s certainly not locals who are navigating the monstrous insides of IKEA in search of the elusive Ektorp chair; it’s their richer neighbors from surrounding cities. And some say there’s a general perception that employees hired from within the community to work in the new retail space are the first to be let go when profits fall.

“Every plan of this nature is complicated in some way,” said Charpentier.  “It’s either politically complicated, technically complicated or environmentally complicated.  Here, it’s all of that.  And you’re totally under-resourced.”

Michael Kahan, associate director of Stanford’s Urban Studies program, agrees, but he sees promise in the city’s current push.  When East Palo Alto incorporated in 1983, he said, it did so because the community felt ignored and disrespected by San Mateo County.  The city hoped it would better be able to provide basic services like police protection and roads to its resident.

“Frankly, for the first twenty years, they really struggled because they had no money with which to do that,” he said.  “I think they may have started to turn that around.”


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  1. says: M. Sinkultawongrit

    A Latino themed new urbanist collection of mom and pop businesses, with the odd Pacific Island themed one, would be a perfect type of commercial development for that area. I worked there (in a now defunct tech firm) for 15 years and can say that I went to Ikea only once. Taquerias on the other hand … 😉

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