Other Voices: First Street Green and offices – yes, please!

Downtown Los Altos has suffered too long from lack of private investment and redevelopment, so I love Los Altos Community Investment’s proposal for a new office building and public park on First Street. I find the design appealing, restrained and smart, but it also strikes me as a generous offer for public benefits and potential catalyst for future investments and revitalization in the downtown triangle.

Times change, the economy changes and generations and demographics change, but some local attitudes about preserving a “quaint downtown” never seem to budge. The small but vocal antidevelopment movement must be brought to heel because it stifles downtown economic vitality.

As evidence, I point to meager property value growth (compared to surrounding cities) of what little commercial property exists within city limits. A review of 2008-2017 Santa Clara County Tax Assessor Annual Reports shows that Los Altos’ nonresidential property value appreciation is just a fraction of that in surrounding cities. This hobbles public school funding and city tax revenues to fund other programs and priorities. Annual property taxes from LACI’s parcels on First Street would double – or even triple – after the proposed redevelopment.

If residents of Los Altos want a rejuvenated downtown and new public facilities, our mayor, city manager and city council must get serious about promoting new private investment and redevelopment of commercial parcels and structures. LACI’s proposal to replace a row of small, aged, underutilized buildings with a new premium office building with underground parking and a public park is an ideal illustration of the long-running contest between backward- and forward-looking visions for downtown.

I have seen objections to LACI’s project akin to, “There is no reason we need another large office building when there are plenty of vacant office spaces available downtown.” My response is that if there are empty offices in downtown Los Altos, it’s because today’s businesses don’t want to occupy them; they’re undesirable and/or unsuited to potential tenants. If vacant downtown retail and office spaces were more desirable, they wouldn’t be vacant. 

What makes a retail business successful is customers, and what makes a commercial office building successful is tenants. A recent walking survey tallied more than 25 empty retail spaces downtown, not counting the many empty upstairs offices.

In 21st-century Los Altos, whether you’re a venture investor, engineer, consultant or attorney, a cramped, aged office is no place to host partners or clients. There just isn’t enough demand for the offices in much of downtown Los Altos today, and the same is true of the retail spaces. Downtown parcels will likely remain undervalued and empty until the city gets serious about liberalizing redevelopment rules to allow owners, entrepreneurs and investors to make aged buildings more usable and desirable.

LACI’s First Street office project makes sense in multiple ways, I am hopeful it will be approved and built. Furthermore, I hope it signals an end to an era of undue and punitive constraint in commercial property development policies and attitudes.

Joe Seither is a Los Altos resident.

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