BY KYLE MARTIN
Daily Post Staff Writer
Palo Alto City Council last night (June 7) rejected a request from Town & Country Village owner Jim Ellis to allow medical businesses from opening at the shopping center to offset the vacancies caused by the pandemic recession.
Ellis first made the proposal last year when the economy was at its worst. But with widespread Covid vaccinations leading to a return to business and shopping, the economic circumstances seem less dire. In fact, Ellis said last night that he’s signed leases with three new restaurants that will be opening in the next few months.
But Ellis told council that rent collections were down 25%, due to vacancies and rent breaks he gave tenants to help them stay open.
Town & Country spokesman Dean Rubinson told the council that the new tenants would be “a completely different type of medical provider than the orthodontist or podiatrist that we all grew up going to.”
“These are tenants that have thrived and have been invented for synergy within retail centers,” Rubinson said. “They are attractive to walk by, attractive to be in. Many of them have a retail component by nature. And we believe that they will create incredible synergies with the struggling retailers at Town & Country.”
An urgent care clinic and the orthodontic Invisalign company were examples offered to council.
But that wasn’t enough to convince the council to change Town & Country’s zoning to allow for medical businesses.
Councilwoman Lydia Kou said this “really does not benefit our residents at all,” even if new services would fill in some vacant storefronts at the center.
Councilman Eric Filseth agreed, saying that though on the micro-level it may look good for the city, on the macro-level it is not.
“I think we ought to leave it the way it is for a while and see how it is a year from now if we need to come back and re-do this,” Filseth said.
Councilman Greg Tanaka, who joined Councilwoman Alison Cormack in dissenting on the 5-2 vote, said he would welcome the opportunity to add more business at the shopping center that has been hurt by the pandemic recession.
He said the new medical services would result in more foot traffic because “you could do multiple trips at once” for shopping and health-related needs.
“I think people will patronize these locations and that they will be attractively presented,” Cormack said.
But she was outvoted.
“I find this conversation disappointing but not unexpected,” Cormack said.
Vice Mayor Pat Burt said the Planning and Transportation Commission, which council asked to define what types of businesses the city could allow under the change, did not come back to council with proper definitions. And he said he was unhappy with what the commission brought back. He said the commission didn’t follow council’s “guidance.”
“I think within a month or two we’ll have a much better sense of what recovery looks like and what the new normal looks like and what the new normal looks like, how different it was from the old normal,” Burt said. “I think that the future is that we do need to look at refining this definition, but I don’t want to just fling open the gates and start nearly equating medical offices with retail. And I don’t think we got this right here.”
Resident Hamilton Hitchings said the proposed change “basically provides an upzoning, which crowds out regular (businesses).”
Resident Terry Holzmer said he opposes the change because, in his experience at Town & Country over the last several weeks, “there’s a ton of foot traffic plus there’s no place for hardly a vehicle to park.”
“I have had a lot of people say to me also that there’s a lot of activity at Town & Country recently,” said Holzmer, a member of the slow-growth group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning. “I think that it’s too early to make this kind of a change coming out of Covid. I think it’s better to wait and give it another year and see what the impacts are and see if these vacancies continue.”