BY JEN NOWELL
Daily Post Staff Writer
Amazon is interested in moving into the building that is currently under construction at University Avenue and Highway 101 in East Palo Alto, but the city’s policy requiring a good faith effort to hire 30% of employees from within the city has been deemed challenging by the company.
“Given the highly technical engineering work which will occur in the building there will likely be a significant mismatch between the skills required for the open positions in the project and the available skills in the East Palo Alto workforce,” said John Sobrato, of the Sobrato Organization, at City Council’s Feb. 21 meeting.
He added that this is much different than what stores face when they open in East Palo Alto.
The Sobrato Organization owns the building at 2100 University Ave., known as University Square.
Council approved an alternative proposal to the city’s First Source Hiring policy last month.
This proposal, which was brought forward by Amazon and Sobrato, includes opening a 1,500-square-foot employment center within Sobrato’s project. An employment specialist would help East Palo Alto residents find jobs in the city and in surrounding areas, said Assistant City Manager Sean Charpentier. This person would also help residents with writing resumes and developing interview skills, which he said is currently the missing component in the city’s hiring policy.
This proposal “deepens the city’s commitment to finding employment for its residents,” Charpentier said. The employment center would be located in the building for 10 years — the same length as Amazon’s lease — and after that, whoever takes over the location would have to decide how to comply with the city’s policy, he said, which could include continuing the center.
Charpentier told council that if it didn’t approve the proposal, Amazon would start looking at other sites. Council’s vote was 4-1, with Councilwoman Donna Rutherford abstaining, to approve the proposal by Amazon and Sobrato.
Charpentier said the city has struggled with unemployment, which is why the policy was first adopted in 2001. It is geared more toward retail and construction jobs, but also applies to office jobs, he said.
The companies in the city provide reports to the city on their employment, and as of November, Mi Pueblo and Office Depot were at 71% of their hires being East Palo Alto residents, Home Depot was at 56%, and Housing concerns Charpentier said it’s a double-edged sword.
The city wants employees to live locally, but there is also the concern about the cost of housing rising if new people come in and push existing residents out, he said.
Gauthier commended the proposal from Amazon and Sobrato, but she asked what the city could do to make residents understand what the pathway is to these tech jobs. Building these pathways is the intent of Amazon’s proposal, Charpentier said.
Education is the key, said Rutherford, who served three terms on the Ravenswood City School District board, adding that the city has had a problem with its education system.
On a statewide exam last year, only 19% of students in the Ravenswood school district met or exceeded the English standards, while only 12% met or exceeded the math standards.
Rutherford questioned Amazon’s proposal, saying she doesn’t think East Palo Alto residents will get a lot of benefit out of the program.
But Mayor Larry Moody said Sobrato found a tenant for its site, which is something the city should be celebrating. “The building was built not to be empty, but to have a tenant who could bring opportunities, tax revenues, all the bells and whistles that comes with a good partnership in a building,” he said.
The job center will help residents find jobs nearby, Moody said. There was some concern on council about the quick pace in which the proposal was developed.
Charpentier said the city was informed about Amazon’s concerns about a week prior to council’s meeting in February. Neither Amazon nor Sobrato could be reached yesterday.
It’s not known if a lease has been signed or where it currently stands, but council’s approval of this proposal cleared a big hurdle. Amazon has another office in East Palo Alto at the University Circle office complex on the other side of Highway 101.