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Jobs, Congestion at Issue

Business: As economic development slowly comes to East Palo Alto, there is still controversy when a big-box store wants to take root.


EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. — A stone's throw from some of the Silicon Valley's most affluent communities, this small, struggling municipality between Palo Alto and San Francisco Bay has long watched the region's economic progress from the proverbial other side of the tracks.

Now, with property values on the peninsula having surged in the last several years, despite the recent downturn, East Palo Alto residents face the fervent interest of major retail developers--and some difficult choices that will determine the shape of their community for decades to come.

Already saddled with heavy commuter traffic, voters will decide in March the fate of a ballot measure on a controversial plan to build a 300,000-square-foot Ikea furniture store next to the Bayshore Freeway. The project would doubtlessly bring even more congestion, but offers the promise of about 550 jobs and guarantees at least $1 million in annual revenue to the city for eight years.

"I'm hoping the community will see that the benefits outweigh the negatives," said Councilwoman Sharifa Wilson, a champion of the project. "The reality is: We're impacted by the commuter traffic right now, and we get nothing out of it whatsoever. That traffic is not coming to East Palo Alto to shop. It's coming through here and making its way to the [Dumbarton] Bridge. With Ikea, customers will be leaving something behind in the form of money."

The plan has sparked acrimonious debate in town, echoing a larger shift in the city's traditional power base. In the last election, there were 16 candidates for three open seats on the City Council.

East Palo Alto's demographics have shifted dramatically in the last decade. As many aging African Americans took advantage of rising property values and sold their homes, the historical black majority dwindled.

In 1990 the city was 43% African American and about a third Latino. Today, whites outnumber African Americans, and Latinos are the new majority. According to the 2000 census, about 59% of the city's 29,506 residents are Hispanic, and 23% are African American. The white population has remained nearly constant, at about 27%.

East Palo Alto has seen other changes as well. In 1992, with 39 killings, it had the nation's highest homicide rate per capita. That figure has fallen substantially since then; only six homicides were recorded last year.

Yet the city continues to struggle. As of October, East Palo Alto's unemployment rate was 8.9%, double the countywide figure. And, come rush hour, commuters choke the main thoroughfares with traffic as they make their way between homes across the bay and their jobs in Silicon Valley.

East Palo Alto is sharply divided over what course development should take. Two council members had to abstain from voting on the Ikea proposal because they own property near the site. The remaining members were divided 2 to 1 in favor of the store, so they agreed to put the proposal before voters. Ikea has hired a public relations firm to campaign for the project, though the outcome is far from certain.

Proponents, such as Councilwoman Patricia Foster, emphasize that East Palo Alto residents are guaranteed priority in filling the jobs Ikea would bring. And, she points out, the jobs offer substantial medical and dental benefits, even for part-time employees, plus a generous tuition reimbursement program.

Miriam Neri, a domestic worker who has lived in East Palo Alto for nine years, said the city's need for jobs outweighs her concerns over increased traffic.

"I have lots of friends who do not have jobs because they don't have cars," she said, using her young daughter as a translator. "If the store will open, they can walk to the jobs."

Indeed, transportation is a major concern in East Palo Alto. Buses stop running at 10 p.m., and many low-paid restaurant and hotel workers must walk or ride bicycles home in the middle of the night. (A new overnight bus route, scheduled to begin operation Jan. 20, has drawn howls of protest from residents of nearby and affluent Palo Alto, who worry about potential noise.)

Others in East Palo Alto--actually north of Palo Alto, not east--say they resent having to choose between economic development and quality of life.

"That's like sticking an elephant in your backyard," lifelong East Palo Alto resident Tiamona Stevenson said of the proposed Ikea. "It's already hell just driving to the store after work. People would be getting jobs, yes. But is it worth the headache?"

Nadinne Cruz, director of Stanford University's Haas Center for Public Service, which facilitates many volunteer projects in East Palo Alto, said city property represents "some of the last remaining vestiges of prime real estate in Silicon Valley. When rich communities protest and say, 'Not in my backyard,' nobody says anything. But when a poor neighborhood goes up in arms against it, they're going to be seen as spoiling this beautiful solution to low income, which is development."

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