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In The News

The Daily News’ Top 10 Stories Of 2009
A harsh year

Economy takes toll, teens suicides rock Gunn High School

By Will Oremus, Diana Samuels and Shaun Bishop

The Daily News, 12/31/09

Across the nation, this year’s unavoidable story was the economy, as the fallout from 2008’s financial crash echoed in soaring unemployment, stimulus plans, bailouts and huge government deficits. The effects were widespread on the Peninsula as well, as news of development battles gave way to news of vacancies, foreclosures, bankruptcies and budget cuts.

But it was another type of tragedy, more local, personal and confounding, that registered as 2009’s top local story: the cluster of four suicides by Palo Alto students at a single spot on the Caltrain tracks.

Meanwhile, the future of the tracks themselves hung in the balance as three Peninsula cities staked out their opposition to California voter-approved plans for an aboveground high-speed rail line.

Elsewhere, the justice system meted out a death sentence to a convicted cop killer, while a Palo Alto business owner was accused of murdering his girlfriend following a years-long abusive relationship.

In a few places, development marched forward despite the downturn, as East Palo Alto finally landed a full-service grocery and Redwood City fielded plans for the Peninsula's largest housing development in decades. As with 2008, plenty of people will be glad to put 2009 behind them. But before you do, here are The Daily News editorial staff's picks for the biggest news items of the year:

1. Community rallies after Caltrain suicides

In 2009, it took the children to bring a village together.

Between May and October of 2009, four Gunn High School students died on the Caltrain tracks: a 17-year-old junior boy on May 5, a 17-year-old senior girl on June 2, a 13-year-old incoming freshman girl on Aug. 21 and a 16-year-old junior boy on Oct. 19.

Some blamed the "suicide cluster" on high-pressure schools, on the evils of today's society or on hyped-up media coverage. But after each teen died, the Gunn community and PaloAlto as a whole came together to grieve and search for solutions.

Hundreds of people showed up at various forums to hear mental health experts speak. A group of parents continues to keep watch over the East Meadow Drive crossing, where the students took their lives. And residents began peppering Caltrain with ideas, ranging from putting air bags on the front of trains to slowing them to 5 mph. A total of 18 people died on the Caltrain tracks in 2009.

Caltrain expanded its mental health outreach, and the school district worked to make counseling services more accessible. The city, school district, mental health organizations and other groups created a "Project Safety Net" community task force, and last month a private security firm was hired to patrol the tracks.

"In the end, it's our effort that is the only thing we can control," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said at an October forum. "The results, we can't control."

2. Economic woes hit Peninsula

Yes, the financial crisis was last year, but it was in 2009 that the biggest effects were felt locally. In Redwood City, the historic Fox Theatre was sold at a foreclosure action after its owners fell behind on mortgage payments. One owner blamed the downtown landmark's demise on declining ticket sales in the recession and banks' unwillingness to refinance loans. Whatever the cause, it was a blow to the city's ongoing downtown revitalization effort.

In other cities, shopping districts that have flourished for years were hit hard by vacancies. Downtown Palo Alto saw vacancy rates zoom past 10 percent, the highest on record, prompting zoning changes designed to protect core retail buildings from conversion to offices.

Local governments and nonprofits were also squeezed. Stanford's endowment plummeted 27 percent, leading to widespread cuts and at least 470 layoffs, and the university abandoned plans to expand the Stanford Shopping Center - though it blamed that on Palo Alto's planning process, not the economy.

San Carlos sought to address a budget shortfall with a sales tax measure, but it was voted down in November, setting the stage for cuts. Palo Alto risked a city worker strike to impose big benefit cuts on its largest union as it dealt with a deficit of more than $10 million. The strike never materialized, with union members evidently preferring to keep getting their paychecks.

3. High-speed rail plans divide cities

After voting overwhelmingly in favor of a statewide high-speed rail line in November 2008, many Peninsula residents developed a case of voter's remorse as they learned of the details. Early sketches showing 125-mph trains roaring down the Caltrain corridor atop 20-foot-high concrete platforms raised visions of a "BerlinWall" dividing residential neighborhoods. The phrase "not in my backyard" was especially apt, as some residents worried they could literally lose their homes or yards to eminent domain to accommodate the bullet trains.

While Mountain View and Redwood City took a wait-and-see approach, Menlo Park and Atherton denounced the state's plans and joined a lawsuit challenging the decision to run the trains down the Peninsula. The Palo Alto City Council eventually signed on to the lawsuit as well, despite unanimously endorsing the plans less than a year earlier. As residents crowded city meetings on the topic, the state took notice. Rail advocates denounced critics as wealthy NIM-BYs, while state rail board member Rod Diridon controversially likened the opposition to "the rotten apple in the barrel." The rail authority moved to address the issue by holding workshops on "context-sensitive solutions," while some local architects and officials put forth their own plans for running the trains underground through the Peninsula.

The fight figures to heat up again in 2010 as the state hones the details of its plans.

4. Death recommended for cop-killer

In San Mateo County's first death penalty case in five years, a jury chose death for 26year-old Alberto Alvarez, convicted of murdering East Palo Alto police Officer Richard May.

May was killed on Jan. 7, 2006, while responding to a 911 call about a disturbance at an East Palo Alto taqueria. After a chase, the two men exchanged gunfire, leaving May dead and Alvarez wounded.

The trial saw two months of testimony from more than 100 witnesses. Alvarez testified that May fired the first shot - he only pulled out his gun after he was hit and began to fear for his life. But the prosecution argued that Alvarez shot first, trying to avoid going back to prison on the parole violation of possessing a gun.

Ultimately, the jury convicted Alvarez and on Dec. 22 recommended he be executed. A judge will formally sentence him on Feb. 2.

"It's the highest penalty possible in the state of California, and anything less diminishes the crime," May's sister, Tami McMillan, said after the death penalty recommendation was announced. "It doesn't bring Rich back, but it does bring relief."

5. Page Mill Properties goes bust

Palo Alto-based Page Mill Properties' ambitious effort to buy up big swaths of East Palo Alto neighborhoods, spruce up the apartment buildings and then raise rents came to a swift end this fall. The company defaulted on a loan, then abruptly closed its East Palo Alto offices, abandoning maintenance of some 1,800 units and leaving residents fearful and uncertain whether to pay rent.

It was a dramatic end to a turbulent chapter in East Palo Alto history. The firm had already earned the ire of many residents and city officials with big rent hikes that drove out many low-income families. It was also entangled in about 10 lawsuits with the city, which claimed Page Mill violated its rent control laws. And it hadtaken a steptowardtrying to get its neighborhoods, which mostly lie west of Highway 101, removed from the city's jurisdiction entirely. The properties were ordered into receivership in September, and the city is in talks over a possible settlement to the lawsuits.

6. Cargill plans huge Bayfront development

The biggest environmental battle to hit the Peninsula in years took shape in May when Cargill unveiled its proposal to build a mini-city on the salt flats it owns in Redwood City. The Minnesota-based company and developer DMB Associates revealed plans for up to 12,000 homes, 1 million square feet of office space and 50 acres of sports fields on its 1,436- acre property east of Highway 101, which has historically been used for industrial salt production.

That kicked off a new round of debate over developing Cargill's land, which is roughly the same size as the Presidio in San Francisco. Environmental groups have vowed to fight for the property to be entirely restored to wetlands.

Redwood City officials are reviewing the developer's application, the beginning of an approval process that will likely take years as the city assesses the project's impact on traffic, water supply and other issues.

7. Woman strangled to death, set on fire

When the smoke cleared on an Oct. 15 house fire in Palo Alto, a beautiful young real estate agent was dead and her downtown business-owner boyfriend was pacing frantically outside the crime scene.

Bulos "Paul" Zumot, the 36-year-old owner of Da Coffee Spot and Da Hookah Spot on University Avenue, told The Daily News the next day that he was heartbroken over the death of his girlfriend, 29-year-old Jennifer Schipsi, in the Addison Avenue cottage they shared. He said he had planned to propose marriage to her that weekend.

On Oct. 19, however, Zumot was arrested on suspicion of murdering Schipsi and burning her body to conceal the evidence. Court records added another twist, showing an abusive, off-and-on relationship between the pair. Schipsi's mother told The Daily News later that week she had a "sixth sense" that Zumot posed a danger to her daughter's life.

Initial court proceedings were slow, with the defense putting off a plea while investigators gathered evidence. In an affidavit unsealed in November, police detectives alleged that Schipsi was strangled before the fire and noted that dogs sniffed accelerant at the scene, an indicator of arson. The couple was seen the night before at a birthday party for Zumot in San Jose.

The criminal case will continue in January.

8. Denuding of California Avenue sparks outrage

To a handful of local landlords and city staff members, sawing down all the trees on Palo Alto's California Avenue at once must have seemed like a good idea at the time. As it turned out, just about everyone else in the city disagreed.

With little warning, public works department contractors felled dozens of mature holly oaks on the bustling midtown street in the span of four days in mid-September, leaving only the stumps. Some in the city and the local landlords group initially defended the move, saying the trees were diseased and had to be replaced as part of a beautification program. But as complaints about the "clearcutting" rolled in from stunned merchants and residents, top city officials acknowledged that proper guidelines for public outreach were ignored.

The aftermath included promises by the city to investigate the matter, new policies to prevent a repeat, and a lengthy debate involving three arborists on what trees to plant in place of the old ones. The replanting project is scheduled to begin Monday.

9. Tragic crash kills 6-year-old girl

If there was ever a death that could be described as senseless, it was that of Lisa Xavier, a 6-year-old Menlo Park resident.

The first-grader was riding in a car with her parents on Nov. 12 at the intersection of Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road in Menlo Park when her family's Toyota Camry was struck by a black Ford Mustang that ran a red light. Lisa died the next day, and her mother suffered significant injuries.

Police said the Mustang's driver was involved in a street race down Bayfront, and got into the other racer's car and fled after the accident. Police are still searching for 24-yearold East Palo Alto resident Shannon Fox as a "person of interest."

Dozens attended a vigil for Lisa earlier this month. The Laurel Elementary student loved to draw comic strips, collect bugs and ride her pink Barbie bicycle, her parents said.

"She was such a light in the community," said her neighbor Francesa O'Sullivan. "We used to hear her voice every day, and now it's so quiet."

10. Full-service grocery store opens in city

East Palo Alto finally landed its first fullservice grocery store this year, but not without a hard fight.

The Mi Pueblo Food Center opened in the Gateway 101 Retail Center on Nov. 14, after months of debate at city meetings.

Some residents welcomed the market, saying they were tired of driving to other communities to do their major shopping. But others said the store would cater primarily to Latinos, not all of the diverse city's ethnic groups, and wasn't a big enough tax generator for the retail center.

Smaller grocers worried Mi Pueblo would put them out of business, and the East Palo Alto Merchants Association tried to take the matter to court. The association claimed the city had violated an open meetings act, but a judge in October denied its request for an injunction against the store.

"This store is going to offer us more options, and that's what we need," Council Member Laura Martinez said in October.

 

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