Amazon hiring deal comes up throughout evaluation of Laurene Powell Jobs’ workplace park plan

Palo Alto resident Laurene Powell Jobs. AP file photo.
Palo Alto resident Laurene Powell Jobs at an event in New York City on July 21, 2018. AP photo.

BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer

An East Palo Alto Planning Commissioner last night (June 14) cautioned representatives of a company headed by Laurene Powell Jobs to consider how much office space it is proposing to build, citing council’s widely criticized deal with Amazon to bypass the city’s local hiring law.

The commission last night took its first crack at the preliminary plans for the project, which spans 52 acres and is proposed to have 260 homes, 1.3 million square feet of office space and 50,000 square feet of retail space.

The housing will go near the University Village neighborhood, with the office space being built closer to Bay Road. A large amount of open space will be located along the Bay portion of the property.

The property stretches from the ends of Pulgas Avenue and Tara Street to the end of Fordham Street, near the railroad tracks.

Planning Commissioner Ofelia Bello pointed out that an estimate suggests there will be 3,904 employees for the research and development and office space, and only 225 employees for retail.

Bello said she is worried about “adverse impacts” around the high number of office-based jobs. Bello brought up a controversy in 2017 when council allowed Amazon and Sobrato to bypass the city’s local hiring law that requires a company to make a good-faith effort to hire 30% of its employees from East Palo Alto. As a concession, Amazon agreed to open a 1,500-square-foot hiring center to help residents find jobs elsewhere.

When the Amazon deal hit the news, residents held protests in front of the building at University Avenue and Donohoe Street that Amazon was planning to lease from Sobrato.

Bello said “a lot of thought” needs to be done by Emerson as to what sort of jobs residents will be able to get, especially if the development brings in a total of 4,129 employees. Bello pointed out that the 260 homes proposed for the project can’t accommodate that many people, meaning there will be an increase in traffic in an already congested area of town.

But as far as other projects in the Ravenswood Specific Plan area go, commissioner Juan Mendez said he prefers this project since it provides some housing.

The Emerson project is the only one of the three proposed near Cooley Landing to add housing. The other two projects, at 2020 and 1990 Bay Road, are on sites that are likely not safe for housing. Both projects propose to add office space.

However, housing for the Emerson project is not a sure thing. The property slated for housing is not zoned for it, so the city council would have to approve a zoning change.

When asked what would go in the place of homes if the city turns the zoning change down, Emerson’s senior director of investments, Kojo Ako-Asare, said either more offices or a field.

Sycamore Real Estate, a company owned by the widow of the Apple co-founder, purchased the large swath of land in August 2018. Emerson Collective began working with the city in 1997 through College Track, a college completion program for students. Graduates often told College Track about difficulties finding jobs and housing within East Palo Alto.

When the city created its Ravenswood Business District, Emerson asked the city how to add housing, recreation and jobs to the area. The city told Emerson at the time that because of the multiple landowners in the area, seeing the plan to fruition would be difficult, leading to the purchase of the 52 acres.

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