Wed08202014

First and Main: Get a better deal: Editorial

The city’s handling of its 0.78-acre property at First and Main streets continues to bother us.

Apparently, it bothers others, too. At last week’s Los Altos City Council meeting, resident Robin Abrams offered the results of her research on the city’s sale of the property to developer Jeffrey A. Morris. Her numbers, comparing sales of nearby properties during the same period, appear to show that the city could have asked for much more than the $3.1 million it agreed to in 2010.

City officials counter that they got the best deal at the time, considering a lackluster economy and a lack of serious bidders.

However, the city forged a deal despite the fact that there were other bidders the city did not pursue (a revelation made public due to the efforts of downtown property owner Kim Cranston). As a result, the city sold low, when the market was still low, to a developer with an underwhelming track record of projects.

The city has an agreement in place, true. While councilmembers could break the agreement, absorb the legal costs and turn around and sell the project at a higher price, that’s not likely to happen. Four of the five councilmembers last week (Jan Pepper was the only member willing to further review the agreement) agreed that the city did the right thing and didn’t want to hear any more of it.

We understand that breaking an agreement could further scar the city’s reputation among developers. However, when civic-minded and financially savvy people like Abrams question such a deal, we should pay attention.

Many prominent residents, including former city leaders, don’t like the proposed project and would prefer something better. The city did nothing illegal in the sale. But merely settling for a project just to get something built is a crime.

Monday morning quarterbacking? You bet. But today the site is still a parking lot. It’s never too late to challenge the deal until there’s actual construction on the property – and hopefully a new owner with guaranteed tenants that bring real vibrancy to downtown. This goal has been discussed endlessly and, in fact, led to the formation of the downtown advocacy group Los Altos Forward.

We think the city should ask for more. Any structure built at First and Main could stand for at least 100 years. The city could still negotiate a better deal and get a better project. But councilmembers must be willing to make it happen. That’s why, Los Altos residents, they need to hear from you.

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