March 1996 Newsletter

Click the button next to an article for details.

Midtown Shopping Center Update
Financing: One of the Obstacles to Change in Midtown
Midtown Neighbors Online
Co-op Market Seeks Midtown Board Members
Something New In Midtown
Join Our Next General Meeting on Disaster Preparedness
Palo Alto—Another Atherton?

Midtown Shopping Center Update

City-Supported Midtown Revitalization Process Gets Started

Four members of the Midtown Residents' Association (MRA)—Annette Ashton, Lynn Chiapella, Debbie Mytels, and Ron Wolf—are participating in a series of five stakeholder meetings sponsored by the City of Palo Alto to encourage revitalization of the Midtown shopping area.

Led by Nancy Yeend, a city-paid facilitator, the meeting also includes representatives of the commercial property owners and the retail merchants. City-wide interests are represented by Planning Commissioner Sandy Eakins and Dave Ross of the Architectural Review Board (both of whom are Midtown area residents). Councilman Ron Andersen (also a neighborhood resident) and Mayor Lanie Wheeler are participating as observers. Steve Player, former president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, is also a part of the city-wide stakeholder group.

Others involved include John Northway, a Palo Alto architect who has been hired by the commercial property owners to create some redesign options, and two consultants hired by the City: Tim Kelly, an economic development consultant, and Larry Patterson, a traffic consultant. The Chamber of Commerce has also pulled together a "mentoring group" of local developers who will help the commercial property owners examine the economics behind various revitalization options.

The first two stakeholder meetings, held before the holidays, laid the groundwork for future meetings which are expected to be more substantive. The next meeting has not been scheduled, since the commercial property owners are currently working with the mentoring team to explore the possibilities of a unified approach to the redesign of their buildings. These ideas will then be sketched out by the architect and presented to the full stakeholder group for comment. This stage of the process will probably take several months, and a conceptual plan for Midtown revitalization may be completed by late spring at the earliest.

The Midtown Residents' Association, while remaining flexible about the specifics of how the shopping area might be redesigned, will evaluate the property owners' proposals based on the four concepts that have been expressed by many area residents in various forums:

Local residents who would like to get involved in the revitalization process are encouraged to call Debbie Mytels of the MRA at 856-7580.

Financing: One of the Obstacles to Change in Midtown

by Debbie Mytels

Many of us have seen the empty buildings on the Midtown area for the past several years and have been wondering what the community can do to assist in the revitalization of our neighborhood shopping center. After talking to people and studying the issues, it seems clear to me that the major underlying problem is the cost of financing the significant building improvements that need to be made in order to attract new tenants and viable businesses.

The owners of the Midtown buildings are not deep pockets real estate investors—and because of constraints on building size and parking (which have been establishes as protections to the neighborhood), these sites have also not been particularly attractive to outside investors who might seek to redevelop them. To revitalize Midtown, everyone acknowledges that capital investment is necessary. The big question is: where will it come from?

There are at least four possible models that can be explored:

  1. In the typical Venture Capital Model, the property owner finds an investor. This investor in turn needs to make a profit and cover his risk, so he must charge interest. These interest payments mean that the property owner must earn more rent to meet the cost of the interest payments as well as the actual cost of the remodeling. Therefore, rents on the renovated buildings go up--and for shoppers, goods and services go up, since the merchants need to make more money to cover the higher rents. Alternatively, merchants can try for a higher volume of sales (more traffic for the neighborhood), or the property owner can try to work with economies of scale and build more square footage (larger buildings, more traffic for the neighborhood).
  2. Another possible model is taxpayer funding. An assessment district is created in an area surrounding the shopping district. Property taxpayers within the assessment district pay into a tax fund that is used to provide lower interest loans to the commercial property owners for improvements. The lower cost of capital would benefit the community because the building costs to be recouped via rents, prices, traffic, etc. would be lower. An assessment district would have to be created by local voters, however, and this model may not be politically popular.
  3. Public financing is a third potential method. In this case, City funds are loaned to the commercial property owners at a lower-than-market rate. The community benefits as above because rents, prices, traffic, etc. do not need to be increased as much as with venture capital. The City also benefits from increased sales tax revenue from the revitalized center (as in all these renovation methods). The commercial property and buildings serve as the City's collateral in case of business failure.

    Incidentally, there is a precedent in Palo Alto for using public funds for private purposes: the City has recently provided loans to the City Manager and several other top staff to purchase homes within the community. The public benefit of having staff live in town is seen as greater than the risk of default on the loans, and the interest rate on the loans in above the low level at which City funds are normally invested.

  4. A fourth option is to create a community investment fund where members of the local community invest personal assets, and they loan money to the property owners for building renovation at a lower-than-market interest rate. The investor-neighbors receive a modest (but acceptable) return on their investment, and they benefit from an improved neighborhood center. They also avoid the negative consequences of too costly or inappropriate redevelopment. Property owners and merchants also benefit because investor-neighbors are more likely to shop in stores where they also have a financial investment.

Rather than waiting for the typical venture capitalist scenario to unfold, several of us in the MRA are interested in discussing the possibilities of developing other sources of funds for Midtown revitalization, perhaps combining options 3) and 4). If you are interested in discussing these ideas, please call Debbie Mytels at 856-7580.

Midtown Neighbors Online

We are getting close to launching a neighborhood project that will enable Midtown neighbors to help each other out and discuss topics of mutual interest via computer. Anyone with a computer can be a part of it from home, and those without one will be able to plug in at a couple of public access sites.

Neighbors will be able to compare notes on home repair, home sales, street safety, baby-sitters, places to go, parenting, and revitalizing Middlefield Road. People might lend each other tools, recipes, cassettes, or a good ear. It will be easy to start a topic of your own, or go directly to the ones that interest you. Post "buy and sell" notices, help neighborhood kids with homework questions, or find out what the houses on your block are selling for.

So far, there is a local Internet Service Provider that has offered to host our neighborhood conference and provide e-mail accounts for $5 per month per user for a one year pilot project. The Midtown Residents' Association and a volunteer organization called PACOMNET (Palo Alto Community Network) are raising funds to support a part time coordinator position and several phone lines dedicated to our computer project.

We now need a small army of volunteers who can give a couple of hours monthly to help publicize this electronic bulletin board and show our neighbors how to use it. We are looking for volunteers to do the following:

We also need someone who would like to be the coordinator of the project. Any volunteers? No experience is necessary! Call Elliot Margolies at the Mid-Peninsula Access Corporation, 494-8686, to get involved.

Signing On to PACOMNET

If you are interested in joining the PACOMNET online mailing list, here's how to sign up:

  1. Get into your mailing program on the Internet.
  2. Address a letter to
  3. Skip the Subject area of the letter and type the following in the letter body: subscribe PA-Comnet.
  4. Send your letter. You will receive a reply telling you that you are now subscribed to the PACOMNET mailing list. Anything you send to the list will be distributed to everyone on the list.

Co-op Market Seeks Midtown Board Members

The Palo Alto Co-op Market, which was started over 60 years ago, has operated a store in Midtown since the late 1960s. The building is owned outright by its members, represented by a Board of Directors who are elected each spring. Since the Co-op is one of the major retailers in Midtown, local residents have an important stake in how the Co-op is governed. Midtown residents have an opportunity to work with other members of the Co-op Board to set policies for the store and ensure that it remains an important shopping option in our neighborhood.

If you are a Co-op member and would like to find out more about serving on the Co-op Board, contact Joyce Thompson of the Co-ops Nominating Committee at 494-1065. (If you're not a Co-op member, it costs just $10 to join; ask one of the clerks for a membership form.)

Something New In Midtown

The Palo Alto Cafe is a great place to meet your friends, take a shopping break, read the morning news, and pick up some fresh roasted coffee, croissants, and other goodies. Rob Binkley has expanded from La Creme de Cafe at Loma Verde and Middlefield to the heart of Midtown.

Palo Alto Cafe is located in the front part of the old Midtown Pharmacy, next to the expanded Midtown Video shop and the new Karate Studio, and across the street from Peninsula Hardware. In addition to the Espresso Bar, there is a Bagel and Pastry Bar with a choice of spreads (referred to as smears). If you have a yen for something fruity, the cafe also has a Smoothie Bar and fresh squeezed orange juice.

Come to 2675 Middlefield Road! They're open from morning to night, 6:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (M-F), 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on weekends.

Join Our Next General Meeting on Disaster Preparedness

(help, my house has fallen and I can't get up...)

How well do you know the people on your block? Who would need special help in an emergency such as a flood or earthquake? Not only do we need to be personally prepared for a disaster, we also need to establish, mark, and communicate the MRA's physical boundaries to the Palo Alto Fire Chief. The chief will include the information on a map for the citywide disaster preparedness plan. Each area or neighborhood group is asked to name two representatives to attend the Fire Chief's meetings on preparedness for fire, earthquake, flood, or other disaster, and later share the information with all neighborhood groups.

At our next meeting we will discuss plans for block organization and emergency preparations.

Preparing for an Earthquake

You've probably seen the "Living With Our Faults" booklet distributed by the Palo Alto Fire Department (if not, call 329-2184). So what's in your emergency kit? Do you have one for the house and another in your car? What do you think should be included that doesn't ordinarily appear on preparation lists? Where do you buy supplies? Send us your tips and well pass them along in the newsletter (as well as through our incipient online Neighborhood Conference site). To get you started, here are some ideas:

Basics Food and water for at least 3-5 days (don't forget your pets); first aid kit; flashlight, portable radio and extra batteries (make sure flashlight and radio use same batteries); camping supplies (stove, tent, sleeping bags and lantern); paper plates and cups; plastic eating utensils; towelettes
Personal Warm clothing and boots or shoes, sanitation supplies (soap, toilet paper, paper towels), personal hygiene supplies, prescription medicine and extra glasses
Tools Water purification drops and a pump filter at a camping store, can opener, heavy duty plastic garbage bags, small shovel, gloves, sharp knife, rope, crow bar or other prying tools
Miscellaneous Waterproof matches, notepad and pens in a Ziploc bag, personal ID, cash and coins
Suppliers Earthquake Outlet / IOR Inc.
2225 Broadway
Redwood City, CA 94063
FAX 415-368-881
Simpler Life Emergency Provisions
PO Box 700704
San Jose, CA 95170
Beehive Country Store
5807 Winfield Blvd.
San Jose, CA 95123
FAX 408-973-0470

Palo Alto—Another Atherton?

by Eleanor Bassler

Another new house is about to appear in our Midtown neighborhood. This large two-story house (3155 sq. ft.) is being built by an Atherton developer at the cornet of Bruce and Louis—next to my house. My once bright and sunny home will be in its shadow and my privacy a thing of the past. Developments such as this start quietly. I've learned that neither the city nor the developer are required to provide neighbors with any notice about planned new construction. My attempts to contact the developer were ignored.

The replacement of smaller homes with trophy houses is happening with greater frequency in the Midtown area. Out-of-town developers make large profits building these huge houses. They seem unconcerned that these houses are often totally out of character with the neighborhood or that they diminish the quality of life in adjacent homes. Maximum profit is the goal.

The cumulative effect of these large houses nibbles away at our community life in ways that I think are just as destructive as the larger developments we fight against. I've heard that developers would like to see Palo Alto become another Atherton. Is this inevitable given the increasing land values? Are people with smaller houses and simpler life styles becoming an anachronism in this town? Can anything be done? Existing laws permit the kind of construction that is occurring now. Should changes be made in these laws? Call me at 856-6326 if you'd like to try to find answers to some of these questions!


More WWW Sites for your surfing pleasure. If you'd like to contribute to the list, send a note to or call Sheri at 856-0869.
Consumer Information Center
City of Palo Alto Home Page
PA-Comnet Home Page
Epicurious Home Page
The New York Times
Fun With Maps
Allows you to enter a location in the Bay
Area to see it on the map, and to get
precise text directions between any 2
points in the Bay Area
Cyberteens Home Page

Back to Newsletter
  Return to
MRA Home Page