Screen grab shows East Palo Alto City Council members
during their October 20, 2015 discussion about community benefits.
What should the City of East Palo Alto do with a $1.2 million Community Benefit payment? That was the big question during the October 20, 2015 East Palo Alto City Council meeting. This payment comes from a local real estate development.
In 2003, a project, then known as “University Palms Project” consisted of approximately 200,000 square feet of class A offices and 20,000 square feet of ground floor retail space. The location: 2100 University Avenue and 675 Donohoe St. After several amendments and an owner transfer to the Sobrato Organization, the project is now known as the University Square Project. In 2011, it was agreed that the Sobrato Organization would pay the City of East Palo a Community Benefit payment—a one-time lump sum of $1.2 million.
East Palo Alto's Finance Director, Brenda Olwin, spoke to the East Palo Alto City Council in October to recommend a number of possible projects that the city could fund with the Community Benefit money. According to her presentation, the “top priority from the staff is water storage capacity.” She added that “If there were a fire or a service disruption, an earthquake, we don’t have our own storage supply” and she reminded the council that “the city was cited this spring. There was some untreated water that flowed through the system. It didn’t cause any harm, but the city was cited by the State Water Resources Board.”
Olwin’s recommendations, however, were met with a bit of resistance from some city council members, who pointed out that the original intent of the payment was to assist with small business displacement.
“I really have a problem with this report,” said Council member Carlos Romero. “There are two of us on this council who were there when we approved this. It was very clear that the discussion was around small business displacement, small business preservation, and creation…There was a reason we had 20,000 square feet on the ground floor—because we were displacing local businesses.”
Council member Ruben Abrica agreed, recalling that the money would be used for small business development.
Olwin responded by explaining that the original intent was considered; however, she said, “We don’t have a lot of retail space for those businesses to move into. We do have water issues.”
Vice Mayor Donna Rutherford responded, “I do think that water is a big issue. I do. But, on the other hand, once again, I feel like the residents are being short changed because maybe we’re not really putting their interests on the forefront.”
Rutherford expressed her gratitude for the recommendations from the staff, but said she felt that the council should take some time to consider what to do with the money.
Adding to the council’s comments, Mayor Lisa Yarbrough-Gauthier said: “I’m hearing everybody’s concern. I really want to make sure that the community benefits.”
Given all of the concerns expressed, the council agreed to reconvene and hold a special meeting on November 10, 2015 to discuss their options further.