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In the 1980s, political stability and land use battles were contrasts for the decade.

If political and cultural turmoil characterized the 1960s and 1970s on the Midpeninsula, the focus of the 1980s turned inward as residents waged often bitter battles to halt development and protect their increasingly valuable real estate. The mostly sedate years in Palo Alto saw amazing consensus on a City Council that had been rent with dissension a decade earlier, while in Menlo Park, the calm was interrupted by continuing debate over traffic and a major battle over St. Patrick's Seminary land development.


[edit] Debating Development

The 1980s was a comfortable decade during which the city could afford to say no to growth and also maintain funding for services.

But debate still continued, as residents argued over any proposal that dealt with land development. Reactions from residents in Menlo Park to anything significant being proposed had, to some degree, an echo in Palo Alto, part of what came to be called the "not in my back yard" state of mind.

Almost every development offered in the 1980s received organized and very emotional opposition: Menlo Center, the DeMonet office towers in East Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Central condominium project, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation expansion and the St. Patrick's Seminary retirement housing proposal. The last three went to public votes.

An extension of Sand Hill Road was proposed, debated, approved, sued and withdrawn. Westin wanted to build a big hotel on Sand Hill Road, but withdrew the plan in the face of questions about traffic impact. Stanford University wanted to build 1,200 housing units on Sand Hill Road, a proposal that was approved, withdrawn and now is proposed again. The Sand Hill Road extension suffered the same fate.

[edit] Fighting Big Houses

Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton had to deal with a mid-1980s trend that set neighbor against neighbor in the battle to restrict "big houses" - oversize two-story new homes of maximum square footage, designed to capitalize on the skyrocketing property values of the period, but which dwarfed their sedate, charming, one-story neighbors.

Ken Schreiber, Palo Alto's planning director, remembers precisely when big houses became an issue. The former Crescent Park School site in the city was developed in the mid-1980s with homes that towered over their neighbors. "It led to a realization that the housing market had changed," Schreiber said, "that people will pay far more than the average price for a new house. That changed the psychology of home sales."

The phenomenon led to the pressure for ever bigger homes and additions, with the counter-pressure of residents upset with the new houses looming over their more modest homes. Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton all modified their building regulations to severely limit the size of new homes.

The people who fought against big houses and who attempted to block one or more large commercial projects did so largely to protect their quality of life. In a now famous survey taken several years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle named Palo Alto the most desirable place to live in the Bay Area, a finding that many area residents would enthusiastically support.

Others say that while the area excels in many ways there are drawbacks, particularly the lack of affordable housing. But any plan to add multifamily housing, especially if it was targeted for lower-income people, churned up powerful opposition. In Menlo Park, the issue has spilled into the 1990s, where strong opposition continues against proposals for new, higher-density housing.

[edit] East Palo Alto

The decade also saw East Palo Alto come on the stage as its own entity, after a bitterly fought incorporation election in 1983. But the city spent the rest of the decade hurting financially and politically, isolated from its neighbors by a freeway and from the other city governments by a chasm of fear and suspicion.

[edit] Natural Disasters

The 1980s was a decade where natural phenomena often created the headlines and changed the lives of local residents. A devastating fire destroyed homes in the Los Altos Hills and Palo Alto foothills in 1985, followed by seven years of drought which proved that water is hardly an infinite resource.

And the decade closed with a bang, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a rolling 7.1 temblor that slightly damaged buildings in some Peninsula cities but hit Stanford hard, where it will cost more than $100 million to repair some of the university's older sandstone buildings.

And, as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto had all mounted, or were ready to mount, major efforts to revise their general plans, which guide future traffic and development.

[edit] Timeline

1980: Palo Alto council decides to close city Yacht Harbor. "College Terrace rapist" apprehended. To eradicate Mediterranean fruit flies, Palo Alto rejects intensive spraying of malathion in favor of stripping fruit from trees.

1981: After stripping of fruit trees fails to eradicate Medfly, aerial spraying from helicopters begins. City agrees to buy closed Terman Middle School site for $9 million. Palo Alto voters reject gay rights ordinance.

1982: Three Palo Alto elementary schools closed. Palo Alto council invites private groups to submit bids to operate cable TV system. Stanford proposes 1,200-unit Stanford West housing project and extension of Sand Hill Road to El Camino Real.

1983: East Palo Alto incorporates as a city after a close election. Winter storms cause flooding in Barron Park and other creekside areas. Stanford puts Stanford West on hold after Palo Alto council imposes conditions on the project.

1984: Reagan administration OKs Stanford's terms to build Ronald Reagan presidential library on campus. Olympic soccer games are held at Stanford Stadium. Palo Alto council OKs extension of Sand Hill Road to El Camino Real; Menlo Park council files suit to block the project. Jordan Middle School closed, leaving Wilbur as the only middle school.

1985: San Francisco 49ers win Super Bowl at Stanford Stadium. Cable Communications Cooperative selected to operate Midpeninsula's cable television franchise. Palo Alto council OKs regulations to prevent construction of huge homes. Festival Theater, the Hamilton Avenue movie house where customers sat on beanbag chairs, closes.

1986: Palo Alto council imposes growth restrictions to control commercial development downtown. Tinsley school-desegregation lawsuit settled; Palo Alto and other Midpeninsula districts agree to accept Ravenswood district students. Dr. Edith Eugenie Johnson Park opens in Downtown Park North neighborhood. Palo Alto begins to clamp down on gas-powered leaf blowers because of complaints they violate noise limits. Palo Alto district proposes to merge its two high schools at Paly and convert Gunn to the city's only middle school.

1987: Reagan Presidential Foundation decides not to build its library at Stanford. Joaquin de Monet proposes high-rise office, hotel and shopping complex for Whiskey Gulch neighborhood of East Palo Alto. Plan is later abandoned after Palo Alto, Menlo Park and neighborhood groups sue to block it. Voters reject ballot measure calling for city to become nuclear-free zone.

1988: St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park proposes to subdivide and sell part of its 88-acre property for construction of about 140 homes. After contentious 1987 election, Palo Alto school board reverses decision to merge the high schools. Two-year drought forces Palo Alto to activate its antiquated wells for backup water.

1989: Loma Prieta earthquake causes an estimated $150 million in damage at Stanford, additional damage at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto and topples brick chimneys throughout the area. Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton each come up with new rules to assure houses aren't too big for their lots. Palo Alto district adopts plan to reopen Jordan as a middle school and include sixth-graders at both middle schools. After $6 million renovation, Stanford Theatre reopens as a temple to classic movies of yesteryear.

[edit] Profiles

[edit] Sources

  • Palo Alto: The First 100 Years, The Palo Alto Weekly, 1994.
  • "20-year Timeline." Palo Alto Weekly.
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