“Palo Alto: ‘High Rises or Homes?'”

It’s a remarkable fact that Silicon Valley’s varied and interesting history is virtually unknown to many of Silicon Valley’s varied and interesting residents.


I learned this as a new agent back in ’98–1998, not 1898–when I discovered that almost everyone I met in the real estate market thought that Palo Alto had been Nowheresville USA until 1) the dot-com era hit town, and/or 2) they hit town.  Scarce inventory, multiple offers, skyrocketing prices, aggressive and well-heeled competition–all characteristics of Silicon Valley real estate in the late ’90s–were an aberration timed by cruel fate to coincide with their arrival.

The prudent response, therefore, would be to outwait Palo Alto’s fifteen minutes, then re-enter the real estate market to pick and choose among the bargains littering its smoking ruins.  I’d love to say “and we all know how that turned out” except that many of us don’t.  That was before their Silicon Valley experience, so it never happened.

Santayana famously said that “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”, but he didn’t say whose version of the past to remember and, anyway, history seems determined to repeat itself whether we remember it or not.

This may be particularly true of Silicon Valley, where history is measured in the product cycles of rapidly obsolete consumer technology, and where new is always better than old.  Maybe that’s the price the Valley pays to continually re-invent itself.  At least we don’t live in the past–we don’t know it well enough to spend a week-end there, let alone live there.  But if we don’t know the past, the present can seem a monstrous aberration–Godzilla eats Tokyo–when it’s nothing more than a remix.

I direct your attention to the December 13, 1970 San Francisco Examiner, then the Monarch of the Dailies and proud Hearst Corporation flagship, now a throw-away, and to an article in its Sunday Homes supplement entitled “Palo Alto:  ‘High Rises or Homes?'”, subtitled Egghead City Tries to Decide How to Redo Downtown.

“Palo Alto, that Santa Clara Valley [“Silicon Valley” hadn’t been coined yet] city of eggheads, electronics and education…is trying to decide if it should be a place to live–or if it should be a place to work.”  Yes, they were asking that question even in 1970.  Yes, Palo Alto was known for its tech and schools even in 1970.  (The derisive “eggheads” reminds me that the Examiner was a conservative newspaper–W.R. Hearst Jr.’s ultra-right editorials graced its front page every Sunday–writing about an increasingly liberal, even radicalized, university town.)

The choice dividing the city back in 1970?  Two blocks of downtown commercial development, or two blocks of downtown housing.

Opponents of commercial development “say all of this is going to create more congestion of downtown streets–and today every street leading to downtown Palo Alto is overloaded”.  Remember, this is before many of you were born, maybe even before your parents were born.

The article quotes “a study by some students of the Stanford Business School” who I hope got an A++:  “The demand for first-class office space in Palo Alto will continue to be very strong…the availability of office space in Palo Alto would cause the demand for office space to rise even faster because the presence of more firms…would make the area a still more favorable location”.  A situation which, says the Examiner, “would be the envy of any community–except Palo Alto”.

“The opponents [of commercial development] say it this way:  ‘…there is the basic question of what type of city we want Palo Alto to be'”.  A question Palo Alto was facing even in 1970.

copyright © John Fyten 2016




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