By Will Oremus
A proposal to rename Palo Alto's downtown Lytton Plaza after the
locally prominent Thoits family met some resistance Monday from
residents who said it would detract from the park's colorful history.
Several people urged the city council not to sign off on the name
change, noting its role as the scene of free speech protests in the
late 1960s and early 1970s.
The critics were countered by members of the Friends of Lytton Plaza,
the group of business owners that recently helped pay for a major
renovation of the plaza at University Avenue and Emerson Street. They
praised the Thoits family and, in some cases, derided financier Bart
Lytton, the plaza's original namesake.
Despite the spirited debate by residents, the city council stayed out
of the fray. It voted unanimously to refer the proposal to the city's
parks and recreation commission for a recommendation. The council
will still get the final say.
The Friends of Lytton Plaza first brought the renaming plan to the
parks and recreation commission in December. But local watchdog Herb
Borock pointed out that the city's policies require the council to
initiate renaming process before the commission can consider it.
Borock was among those who opposed the idea on Monday, saying Lytton
Plaza is a historic name associated with the free speech movement.
Former council member Emily Renzel agreed, saying, "It seems to me it
should take a pretty strong momentum to change the name given the
important historic events that have taken place there."
Real estate investor Duncan Matteson, who co-founded of Mid-Peninsula
Bank with Warren Thoits in the 1980s, said his former business
partner was a worthier namesake than Bart Lytton.
Besides, he said, "This is not about naming it Warren Thoits Plaza.
It's about honoring the Thoits family that has been eminently
involved in the growth and success of Palo Alto for as long as any of
us can remember."
As for Lytton, he said, "I knew Bart. He was a flamboyant character.
He didn't really care about Lytton Plaza that much, regardless of
what anyone here might have said. I knew the man intimately. He was
from Southern California, and his savings and loan went bankrupt."
Members of the Thoits family, in contrast, extended and refinanced
loans to Palo Altans in the 1930s so they wouldn't lose their homes
in the Depression, Matteson said.
One speaker, local police critic Aram James, called for the plaza to
be named after someone else altogether. The city should honor Malcolm
X or Cesar Chavez, he suggested, to "start to mitigate some of the
long, systemic history of racism this city is all too well known for."
E-mail Will Oremus at firstname.lastname@example.org