When you exit Highway 101 into East Palo Alto, there’s a construction site you just can’t miss. It’s a big, brick, three-story building with huge glass windows. By early next year this building should be home to a company, and the builders hope it’s a tech startup.
East Palo Alto city leaders and development partners want the next 20 years to bring new businesses, thousands of homes, and lots of jobs. It’s all part of a big plan to grow out of the East Palo Alto stereotype of a ‘high-poverty, low-opportunity city.’
A handful projects are ready to go, so the rest of East Palo Alto should sound like a city under construction. But it doesn’t, and the major hold up may surprise you. It’s water.
A changing city
Right down the block from the construction site is the East Palo Alto Senior Center. Inside, a group of women sit in a circle, dancing in their chairs.
The senior center has been here since the early 80s, before East Palo Alto even incorporated as a city. Volunteer Millicent Grant’s been here longer, and she’s seen a lot of changes over the years.
She saw the murder rate rise and fall. She saw tech companies move in, and Ikea. “That’s how every city survives, with developers coming in,” she says.
So this year, when East Palo Alto imposed a moratorium on development because it didn’t have enough water, she was mad.
“Get water, find water,” she says. “I don’t care where you get it from, they can buy water. They can start digging the wells so you can get water.” Grant wonders how the city got into this situation in the first place.
The rush for incorporation
The problem goes back to the early 80s, when East Palo Alto was an unincorporated pocket of San Mateo county, with a lot of problems.
“Most of the undesirable uses in San Mateo County landed in East Palo Alto: the hazardous recycling waste plant, most of the auto dismantlers,” says Carlos Martinez, the East Palo Alto City Manager.
East Palo Alto decided to incorporate so they could clean up that mess. It wasn’t easy. Martinez likens it to a teenager leaving home for the first time.
“They said, ‘I want to be independent, and chart my own future,’” he says. “Well they have to start paying for their car insurance and for their rent and for their food and their transportation and insurance and so forth.”
He says maybe East Palo Alto didn’t plan ahead enough, especially around water. When it left San Mateo county it took with it a really small water allocation, about two million gallons a day. Per-person, it works out to just over the minimum someone needs to survive. Back then, it seemed sufficient, but it’s become an issue as the city’s grown. Construction requires water, which is why East Palo Alto officials halted new development and put the 11 existing projects on hold.
“If those are housing units, more people would be taking showers. If those are commercial projects, people will be using the restrooms and using water in general,” Martinez says.
Isn’t as easy as just asking for more
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) only gets a fixed amount of water from Hetch Hetchy and its other reservoirs, an average of 265 million gallons a year, and it divides that water between San Francisco and other Bay Area cities. Right now, all the water is claimed. If East Palo Alto wants more, they can drill wells, which they’re trying to do right now, or ask other cities like Mountain View or Palo Alto to sell their extra water.
At a planning meeting a few months ago, it’s no surprise that water was on the agenda. But at the end of the night, one city planner said there may not be a need for more meetings after the fall. There’ll be no development to approve.
Javanni Munguia-Brown is a new commissioner who was at that meeting. She jumped into community work after a neighbor knocked on her door, saying the neighborhood needed to get involved in the city’s general planning process.
“I was just like, ‘Alright, let me hear what this is about,’” she says.
Her neighborhood group started lobbying the city not to shift its focus on growth, but to strengthen rent control and keep neighborhoods intact simultaneously.
“We're okay with modernization. We're not okay with displacement of these families. We want that homey feeling that is still there and very much defines our city,” Brown says.
Who is development for?
Brown and I walk toward the new business center of East Palo Alto, past the most visible signs of growth. She glares at the Four Seasons Hotel, towering over Highway 101. Over a decade ago, minority-owned businesses were bulldozed so it could be built. With unemployment at more than 40% of the national average, Brown knows East Palo Alto needs a boost, but she’s worried that most of the development projects waiting for water will come in, just like the hotel did, and push her neighbors out without significantly increasing employment for locals.
We get to a stalled development site with a big banner hanging on the fence. It’s one of those glossy renderings of what development around here could bring, with images of a stereotypical tech company: young people working in an airy office on leather couches.
Brown points to the parking lot imagined in the poster. “I see Mercedes, I see Range Rover, Range Rover, more Mercedes.” Brown actually starts to tear up.
What upsets her the most is that almost all the people in the banner are white.
“The poster looks like we haven’t gone too far in our Civil Rights movement, that’s what this is. It’s supposed to be East Palo Alto, but it does not look like East Palo Alto at all. It looks like a happy city, it just doesn’t look like mine.”
It’s bittersweet, she tells me. Water -- if it ever comes -- could mean new development, new construction, and new jobs, but she doesn’t want that to destroy the city she loves.