As Palo Alto prepares for a physical transformation of California Avenue, city planners are advancing a new vision document for the dynamic and eclectic area -- a plan that they hope will spur more high-tech startups, smaller apartments and higher density near transit hubs.
After a brief discussion that followed more than three years of far lengthier ones, the Planning and Transportation Commission voted 5-0 to recommend adoption of an "area concept plan" for a 115-acre site that includes California Avenue, a section of Park Boulevard and the site around Fry's Electronics. If approved by the City Council, the area plan will be incorporated into the city's Comprehensive Plan, the city's land-use bible that is currently undergoing its own years-long revision process.
One function of the new plan is to identify which parts of this centrally located area is best suited for densification. Another is to recommend the types of land use that should be encouraged in each of the concept area's three "subsections." According to a report from Senior Planner Elena Lee, the intent of the plan is to "evaluate appropriate development intensities, potential for additional housing, retention and enhancement of retail/service opportunities and improved bicycle connections."
The California Avenue area is one of two that is going through the land-use makeover (Palo Alto is pursuing a similar effort in the south part of the city, an area around East Meadow Circle and Fabian Way). Seen as a critical location because of its eclectic shopping district and proximity to Stanford University, Stanford Research Park and a Caltrain station, the area has seen a surge of development in recent years, with one large project after another winning approval.
Recent newcomers include Park Plaza, a 102,000-square-feet project that includes 82 apartments and research-and-development space; a 40-foot-tall office building to replace Club Illusions at 260 California Ave.; a four-story office-and-townhouse development at 2640 Birch St.; and a 74,000-square-foot mixed-use project with 48 apartments, a restaurant and retail space at 3159 El Camino Real, site of Equinox Gym. The area's list of high-tech tenants includes recent arrivals Groupon and AOL.
City officials have generally welcomed and, at times, actively encouraged this trend. At the commission's prior discussion of the concept plan, Commissioner Michael Alcheck made a case for density when he suggested that the city "encourage significant growth in the areas designated in this California Avenue Concept Plan."
Individuals in the "next generation," he said, "want immediate vicinity to their residential spaces, their work spaces and their retail spaces."
"They don't want to have to get into a car to get to an amenity," Alcheck said.
The council has long talked about encouraging more density near transit hubs and has recently designated the California Avenue area as the city's only "priority development area," a label that recognizes the neighborhood as ripe for development and that makes it eligible for regional planning grants. The city has already received grant funds for the soon-to-commence reconstruction of California Avenue, an ambitious streetscape project project that includes expanded sidewalks, new plazas, new street lighting and, most controversially, a reduction of lanes from four to two.
Not everyone is thrilled about the drive toward density. At the Dec. 13 commission meeting, former Vice Mayor Jack Morton pointed to the November 2013 vote on Measure D, when residents overturned a 60-unit housing development for low-income seniors. The message of the election, he said, was that "density, high density, increased density is not the direction the majority of people in this community want to go."
He cited the area's traffic congestion and parking shortages and urged the commission to encourage "preservation of the community" as an important feature of the new plan.
For the retail-rich subarea along California Avenue, between El Camino Real and the Caltrain station, the new concept plan proposes more mixed-use projects with small residential units. These should be built "at the higher end of the allowed density range," one policy states. The plan also advocates for more shuttle connections between the Caltrain station and employment centers; a hotel on El Camino Real; and preservation of the area's "neighborhood-oriented commercial character."
The second subarea is around Park Boulevard. The goal here is to promote the area as "an important hub of innovation and entrepreneurship for small new companies." This means favoring ground-floor office use and residential units on higher stories. Once again, the city's proposed policy is to "encourage development at the higher end of the allowed density range," provided it's consistent with standards for "context-sensitive design." The plan also encourages various bike and pedestrian improvements on Park Boulevard, including more bike parking.
The only subarea that would see an actual zone change under the plan would be the one around Fry's Electronics. Here, the concept plan proposes to rezone the area from service commercial (which restricts use to retail and commercial) to "mixed-use," which would allow both residential and commercial use. If Fry's were to leave, the city would try to turn the sprawling commercial area into a "walkable, human-scale, mixed-use neighborhood that includes ample amenities."
One policy that is not in the plan but that some commissioners said should be explored is a restriction on chain stores. Commissioner Michael Alcheck, who advocated for this policy during a recent discussion of the Business Element of the Comprehensive Plan, once again spoke on its behalf. Vice Chair Arthur Keller and Commissioner Carl King joined him in voting to have staff explore the option further. Chair Mark Michael and Commissioner Greg Tanaka both voted against exploring a potential ban, with Tanaka arguing that it's a bad idea.
"I think it's important that the best business thrives, (whether it's) a chain or not a chain," Tanaka said.
He noted the Apple Store is a chain that had a Palo Alto presence before spreading to hundreds of other communities. Banning chains, he said, would "hurt the consumers."
"With the thought of trying to do the greatest good, it's important that the best businesses are allowed to thrive and consumers are given a choice, even if it is a chain."
After splitting 3-2 on the subject of chain stores, the commission voted 5-0, with Eduardo Martinez absent, to support the new concept plan, which will now undergo an environmental review along with the rest of the Comprehensive Plan.