Spurred by the potential closure of JJ&F Market, the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission has launched an effort to retain, and encourage, grocery stores.
Midsize grocery stores accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians are key components of a thriving community, the commissioners agreed Wednesday night.
"We all do eat," Commissioner Lee Lippert said.
But grocery stores are akin to residences for low-income families, important but also hard to build and operate at a profit "unless there are some really, strong incentives," Lippert said.
The commission voted unanimously Wednesday night to investigate creating a new zoning designation: "G" for grocery. The G would be added as a "combining district" to existing zones, such as neighborhood commercial, to either require or provide incentives for property owners to include new or retain existing grocery stores.
The commission intends to flesh out the details of the proposal at an upcoming study session, Assistant City Attorney Donald Larkin said.
The city might require grocery stores in certain areas by using the G designation and offer incentives to encourage grocery stores in other locations, Commissioner Arthur Keller said.
The commission also voted to consider creating a zone that specifies the mix of store types in a neighborhood center.
At meeting last February, Keller cited the demise of the All American Market, Lucky's and Albertson's at Alma Plaza, the Midtown Market and the Co-op Market as a concern that should be addressed..
"Can somebody who has a grocery store make a profit in Palo Alto selling food?" Lippert asked Wednesday night. Commissioners asked city planning staff to return with research on grocery store profitability and statistics about grocery stores in Palo Alto and surrounding communities.
Two College Terrace residents, neighbors of the 60-year-old JJ&F Market, spoke in support of the G zoning Wednesday.
"It will encourage and actually confirm implementation of several general plan policies," resident Bill Ross, a member of the recently formed College Terrace Task Force and a former candidate for City Council.
"It can offer pragmatic guidance for properties such as JJ&F."
Developer Patrick Smailey is proposing a three-story office/retail project called College Terrace Centre for the JJ&F site, at 2180 El Camino Real between Oxford and College avenues. It may or may not include a grocery store. Even with a grocery store, JJ&F would be homeless for more than a year.
The only opposition to the G district came via a letter from Palo Alto-based developer Chop Keenan, written Wednesday afternoon.
"To oppose upon a developer an additional restriction going so far as to dictate the precise type of retail use he must include in a new project is, in my view, a completely unreasonable imposition by the government into the free market," Keenan wrote.
"The city and neighborhoods are schizophrenic about the size and location of neighborhoods as evidenced by the Alma Plaza debacle," Keenan wrote.
Neighbors defeated a 1997 proposal to triple the size of Alma Plaza's Albertson's, but called for a grocery store in the next iteration of the 4.2-acre development, approved by the City Council in April 2007.
Developer John McNellis must include a 10,000-square-foot grocery store in the project, a "public benefit" trade-off for permission to build housing on land designated in the city's Comprehensive Plan as a neighborhood shopping center.
Mandated by the development agreement, Alma Plaza is the only grocery store that the city knows will stay, commission Chairwoman Karen Holman said Wednesday.
"I think we have to be as proactive as we can at this point in time," Holman said. She also emphasized the importance of shopping locally to support the city's businesses.
At its yet-to-be-scheduled study session on the issue, the commission is expected to discuss where grocery stores are desired, types of incentives that could be used, potential mandates and the definition of a grocery store.
"I think that the city of Palo Alto has taken steps away from a walkable community, from the closing of neighborhood schools to allowing grocery stores to close," Keller said. "I think we need to be reversing that trend and improving walkability."
The goal is not to create a "grocery store avenue," Vice Chair Dan Garber said.
"The options that will likely work for the community are options that hover around the sweet spot at looking for flexibility versus requirements," Commissioner Samir Tuma said.
(Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at email@example.com.)