Uploaded: Wed, Feb 12, 2014, 10:28 pm
New vision for California Avenue advances
Planning and Transportation Commission supports new 'area concept plan' for quickly changing area
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.
Read the city's Draft California Avenue Area Concept Plan
Posted by Remember 2009,
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm
To Annette's questions. I reply as a resident of Evergreen Park, that has been watching the Cal Ave area for several years, with interest, and I took the time to check facts, speak with people that had first-hand experience:
1. How is policy really set in this town? Does it start with City Council as it should since they are the only elected body? Or does it start with the City Manager? Or does the City Manager leave that to his top staff?
In the case of California Avenue, a district that has had no visible improvements in 40 years, this is based on need. Just look at the condition of the street, trash cans, benches (or lack thereof), etc. Regarding the area including Fry's, there was a Planning Meeting to create a Concept Plan for it, and everyone interested in that area from around the city was invited to come and it drew a group of around 75 people, pretty good turnout. That was in February 2009.
While the city council *should* listen to residents and then bring ideas to council, that is not the way it happens. Staff, in particular, upper management, decides what it wants to do in each department, and then they go to the City Manager, who goes to Council, with recommendations. That is why there are so many do-overs in projects, or projects that take umpteen years to complete, with anger abounding, and needlessly.
NOTE TO THE PA WEEKLY STAFF & INTERESTED READERS --
This Frys topic has been on the table for 5 years, not three. Two years have been erased in news reports, not only regarding the Fry's area, but also for the Cal Ave Streetscape that has also been reported as "new", when most of what we now see is 7 years old, and the project was on the radar screen for at least 10 years total.
2. What is the process for acountability for the City Manager?
I can safely say: none. Remember that the "Executive Summary" regarding the California Avenue Streetscape, dubbed "The Project", was an internal investigation, not everyone involved was asked for their perception/facts of what happened, and the Summary was illegally leaked to the press, without anyone asking questions. No penalty. It all just went away.
3. What is the process for accountability for City Staff, particularly those who may in fact be setting policy simply because of the way things have evolved?
I can safely say: none. The conditions in place when Phase One of the Cal Ave Streetscape was halted, Sept. 2009, likely exist today. City staff go to umpteen meetings each week, but communication is not shared among departments, not to department managers, not to the City Manager's office and as a result, council is not in the loop. There is a lot of turnover, and many new staff members have no memory of past history, so everything is "new" to them. For those that know more, they would go with the flow, with no one really being accountable, until residents learn something that they do not like. City Hall is not proactive, but reactive. That applies to council members too. I learned former Councilman Jack Morton never paid any attention to the California Avenue district at all, until he was no longer on the council, and his office is/was in our area.
4. What is the process for accountability for the ARB and the Planning Commission?
From observation, these volunteer groups are not on the same page. The data they receive may differ. Because the people change, they often indicate ideas are "new", when previous ARB and Planning Commissions have reviewed (and even approved) the same work, years prior.
I thought City Council was supposed to determine what the City Manager and City Staff worked on, but I am doubting that. If that were the case, surely our CM and Staff would be spending most of their time solving the various big problems the city has instead of developing new projects that can, arguably, wait until current issues are sorted out (and that might add to our problems). As it is, Palo Alto compounds problems instead of solving them. This is not smart.
While I agree with your conclusion, this project is simply not "new", in spite of what news reports indicate. Plenty of paper-trails exist.
The more I pay attention to issues involving city planning, the more concerned I am that there really isn't much accountability and that City Staff gets ideas and runs with them even if the community has registered disapproval through the long-established democratic process call elections.
You are very observant. Congratulations on being interested. I first took note, in 2009.
Periodically this venue includes the suggestion that we need to clean house. That idea will gain merit if the status quo continues.
Good luck, because the problem is systemic, and a mindset among everyone needs to be changed. It is not just in Palo Alto. Menlo Park may be worse.
Posted by Stop the Once-lers,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 22, 2014 at 9:06 pm
"This was the first time a PAHC project had gone to a referendum and they were ill-prepared. The personnel of PAHC are professionals who develop and manage affordable housing. They are not political campaigners, and it showed."
Oh please. PAHC and the City ganged up on the neighbors, never thinking residents could pull together or have any recourse. The last land use referendum was High Street, which the City Council won by a hair using the City Attorney to write a totally biased ballot, which they did at Maybell, too.
In San Francisco, where they had an almost identical measure, but an impartial ballot committee, the impartial ballot asked whether to keep an ordinance that allowed the height to be violated by 80 feet, even though that ordinance had arguably more in it for affordable housing. The purpose of the ORDINANCE, the change in LAW at Maybell, was NOT, as our City Attorney portrayed it, to allow affordable housing where it wasn't allowed before (because it was allowed), but to allow the height to be exceeded by so much, the density to be exceeded, daylight plane to be violated, parking provisions to be seriously undercut, etc. Had those been just factually listed in the ballot the way they were on the San Francisco ballot -- had the City Attorney been impartial and simply listed the changes that were the subject of the ORDINANCE in the ballot question, the against side would have won by an even larger margin, closer to the 67% the SF Against side won by. But the City knew before they even began that they would have the advantage of biasing the ballot, and didn't think they could lose.
PAHC was not ill-prepared. The City Council helped them buy the property and was with them at every step. They had over $120,000 to run a campaign, people whose day jobs were spent working against the neighbors, they warned well in advance that if there was a referendum, they would fight it, and they hired a professional campaign firm that specialized in squashing citizen referenda right off the bat.
Contrast that with neighbors who were elementary parents taking care of children, elderly neighbors some with very serious health problems and a few who experienced deaths in the family during all of this. No one had the expertise in land use, and there was barely enough money to pay for the expertise they needed. There was barely enough money to pay for lawn signs. Neighbors were literally pulling money out of their pockets and putting it in a pile at most of the meetings to meet ad hoc steps along the way. Everyone hoped a good enough appeal at City Hall would make further steps unnecessary. Many had tried behind the scenes before April to get the plan changed so it would work for everyone. Back then, CC and PAHC didn't think they had to give the neighbors any more than lip service.
You do realize that PAHC and the City continued the application process for government funding as if their win was assured? Their deadline to apply was in July, and they had basic requirements to meet, including that they needed to have the zoning they needed and all CEQA appeals expired, neither of which were true on that day or ever, even as of today. Our City continued to verify that they qualified, and PAHC continued to submit those papers, even after the neighborhood qualified the referendum and the soonest PAHC would have had even just had the rezoning would have been November, if they won.
This gave the City Council an even greater incentive to spend all that taxpayer money on that November special election instead of setting the rezoning aside and working with neighbors: they and PAHC were just proceeding as if their win was assured, and when they won they election, as they clearly thought they would, they would take they money they were already awarded by the state and feds based on incorrect verifications having been provided by Palo Alto employees, and move on. This is not the behavior of an "ill-prepared" organization. Jessica de Wit began this telling neighbors she had gotten residential neighborhoods upzoned in the past and was not afraid of opposition. They had other housing organizations assisting them politically at every step in the City Council meetings prior to the rezoning, organizations they would have had to approach in advance.
Parenthetically, does it not bother you that other eligible affordable housing projects outside of Palo Alto were not considered because the state funding agency doesn't revisit the info in this funding round, and left other projects out of consideration because of this one that didn't really qualify? Can you not understand that people who care about affordable housing would prioritize ALL affordable housing and not just a particular project in a particular place by a particular organization, especially a proposal they don't hold the same high opinion of as you do?
I, too, thought it was a lost opportunity to build affordable housing and create something better than anyone initially envisioned through a working group and real compromise. Ultimately, that would have been a much more positive path. PAHC and the City never really considered that path.
In the end, I believe Measure D was about the power balance between City Hall and the neighborhoods, and whether the residents' views of what they want for their town need to be respected. I think if the City had felt they needed to consider the neighborhoods more from the start, this whole thing would have proceeded in a more democratic way.
I am having a lot of trouble with the idea that those who say they are for affordable housing could be so vociferously for spending $30million at Maybell while a fraction of those public funds -- in particular, the $7.2 million being loaned from the City could have been put to use to save Buena Vista a year ago.
I disagree with you Jerry, stop calling me names or characterizing my neighbors as terrible human beings to get your way. If you want the hunky dory picture of neighbors you provided earlier to be for real, I hope you will start to entertain the idea that people can legitimately disagree with you without having some horrible secret agenda. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can see they would actually join you for some of the goals you have.
Posted by Stop the Once-lers,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 23, 2014 at 1:50 am
"I think I've been pretty consistent in attacking your positions without calling you names (I'm assuming here, without confirmation, that I have in fact addressed you on this subject in the Town Square over the past several months even though I've not seen the monicker Stop the Once-lers before this current thread. "
We have addressed each other, though not nearly as much as you seemed to think. I've seen posts by other people with similar writing style as mine, one or two unfortunate enough to have chosen similar moniker's as I'd used before, one I think even used the same, I have no idea who they are, and you've often obsessed about all of them and me as if they are the same person.
Your characterization of people and ascribing to them motives that are base and untrue is as much calling names as using the name itself, so, no, you have not restricted yourself to attacking positions. In fact, you have seemed obsessed with figuring out how to go after people individually rather than dealing with just their positions. From my perspective, the No on D people have focused more on the positions and behavior, and the Yes on D people have attacked people. The whole PAHC strategy in front of Council was based on NIMBYism, and the word was used, that is undeniable. You chimed in on BPA lists discussions when people outright made ad hominem and denigrating statements about Cheryl Lilienstein (though I give you that you did not make the denigrating statements, neither did you refute them). So again, you are having a selective amnesia here.
I think you just characterized some of your neighbors as having base motives in this thread, and you were nicer here than usual, so your denial rings hollow.
"Maybell Action Group's total rejection of the project"
Maybell action group was only formed because PAHC would not change their rezoning goals or proposal at all. I don't really understand your obsession with them either as there were probably half a dozen or more groups formed, all loosely connected. I happen to know that if PAHC had knocked the big building down to 3 stories, even if it had still exceeded zoning, provided more on-site parking, gone for 6 consistent houses instead of 12 or 15 (which they could have done if they took the profit from the houses instead of just from the upzoned properties), and done the traffic safety analysis (perhaps getting a light at Clemo and putting the traffic from the project out at Clemo instead of Maybell) Maybell action group would probably never have been formed. I also happen to know several people involved early on who really tried to get PAHC to listen that there would be opposition to that plan and make changes.
>""So long as our City Council thinks the Maybell opposition really was NIMBYism . . .
What makes you think they do? It seems to me that they chose to interpret the results of the election as a message that the community would not put up with continued extraordinary zoning exemptions, even for affordable housing. This was exactly the message that the Against D movement intended to send--message received. "
This is an important discussion for us to have. I think this because I've been told it point blank by some of our Council, because if you go back through the statements made even publicly, you'll see they didn't really get the message. (Mark Berman who got 18% of the vote for office, including mine, somehow thinks this makes his opinion trump a landslide vote against the upzoning.) And most importantly, because the ballot itself was manipulated by the City to be a choice about affordable housing.
I think our City Council doesn't give up on its favoring of developers unless they have just no thread to hang their hats on. All the signs were there before Measure D to make a decision when the referendum was qualified, without putting it to a vote, but they reasoned all of those signs away because they didn't want to believe it.
One of those lines of reasoning got them deep into believing the motivations of the neighborhood were really, as you've expressed, NIMBYism. I heard it in my own discussions with Councilmembers. So long as they believe that, they can talk themselves into believing the neighbors won't bother to overturn an upzoning at BV, especially if the Council allows the eviction to go forward and the residents are no longer there. As long as they can believe Prometheus will prevail in the end, especially since they didn't see the No and Yes people speak as one voice against upzoning of BV after the election, the Council will believe the neighbors are really NIMBYs and the development agenda will prevail at BV. How can you question that when you yourself have expressed a deep-seated belief that so much NIMBYism played such a role (that I am telling you, is just not true).
Don't give up, first of all, for a better fate for Maybell. Some of us are working on it, and if we succeed (by no means certain), it will involve some affordable housing, some saving the orchard, but it will be along very different lines. I can't say I'm sorry that "ship has sailed" as you say, because I think the orchard and open space is worth trying to save. I AM very sorry that a working group didn't come out of the Maybell debates, because I think it could have rehabilitated PAHC's reputation in the community, it could have led to a better way to provide the housing (probably not involving bulldozing the trees).
I'm not being "optimistic" about BV -- objectively, I think the chances of saving the mobile home park are better than the chances of overturning the upzoning ordinance at Maybell when it happened. I'm appalled that you would suggest any kind of "taking" anything from the owner, especially since it's just not necessary for saving the park for the residents as a place of true affordability.
I think the Jissers are decent people, based on everything we know about how they've behaved historically. I think if their contract with Prometheus allows it, they would consider taking a decent offer. The current offer on the table is just too far from what they could reasonably be expected to take, but I think there are ways to make up the difference that are reasonable and eminently doable.
So Jerry, can we agree on this:
1) We will stop fighting about the election and speak with one voice about Buena Vista: the majority opinion in the neighborhood is to save the park. City Council should do what it can to retain it.
2) We should ask the City Council to make a pre-emptive statement to Prometheus that they will not be upzoning that parcel regardless. Neighbors should give Council the ability to do this by immediately circulating a petition that Council can point to when they come out and say it. Again, Council will not believe this, I promise you, unless we make it tangible. Maybe this time they will accept a petition with hundreds or thousands of signatures without making us referend, but they won't just go with the letters and phone calls.
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