As jackhammers and excavators roar forth with an ambitious and expensive beautification of California Avenue, Palo Alto officials are putting the finishing touches on a new vision for the rapidly changing neighborhood considered the city's "other downtown."
The latter effort is less visible than the former, but its effects could be as long lasting. The city has spent more than five years putting together the California Avenue Concept Plan, a process that included four community meetings and five public hearings in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission, which signed off on the plan last month. According to a new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment, the concept plan will offer a "unifying vision to guide future development and redevelopment, while preserving and enhancing the quality of life." It would ultimately be included in the city's Comprehensive Plan, the city's land-use bible that is now in the midst of a revision.
So what is this "unifying vision?" According to the document, which the City Council will discuss on Monday night, it includes more mixed-use developments in the commercial core; a "technology corridor" on Park Boulevard; preservation of residential neighborhoods just outside California Avenue and and traffic-calming measures and bike amenities on all major arteries in the area.
The plan splits the California Avenue area into three sections: the business district on and around California Avenue; the job-rich and residential area around Park Boulevard; and the sprawling site that includes Fry's Electronics, which is the only area that would see a zone change.
Under the proposal, the 26.9-acre Fry's site that is currently zoned "service commercial" would be split into two zones. An 11.7-acre portion would remain "service commercial" while the remaining 15.2 acres would be changed to "mixed-use." The goal is to allow more flexibility in redevelopment and encourage housing at the site a few blocks from California Avenue. City planners also see the Fry's site as one of the few areas that can accommodate more housing and can thus help the city meet its regionally imposed housing mandates.
The concept plan notes that with many large retailers opting to move to areas with easy freeway access, Fry's may choose not to renew its lease at the current site, which also includes a mix of smaller retailers and offices.
"Fry's is located on a single large parcel, and should the retailer leave the subarea in the future, there is a significant redevelopment opportunity," the plan states.
At recent council meetings, the plans for the Fry's site have begun to take on a sense of urgency. Councilman Greg Scharff said March 17 that he sees signs that the Fry's site can turn over in the near future and that the city needs to start looking at ways to make sure it retains retail and a mix of uses. Councilwoman Karen Holman agreed and said she is "very concerned" about possible changes on the Fry's site. The city, she said, should "move swiftly" on the California Avenue plan to make sure it has some say over planning for the area.
The concept plan proposes to transform the area into a "walkable, human-scale mixed-use neighborhood that includes ample amenities." New developments that should be encouraged are "smaller dwelling units, single-family residences, multi-family housing types, retail and commercial uses and office space for research and development and technology-related business." Residential development should be encouraged with smaller units "at the higher end of the allowed density range on the site."
One approach to planning for the Fry's site is to pursue a "site-specific" master plan, an in-depth endeavor that would cost between $200,000 and $300,000 and which may be largely funded by grants, according to a report from the planning department.
Similarly, the plan would encourage housing projects on California Avenue to aim for the higher end of the allowed density. The goal is to "support the California Avenue subarea as an attractive, transit-rich neighborhood shopping district." One proposed way to do that is to encourage more mixed-use projects. Another program would require "active uses" on the ground floor of buildings fronting California and Cambridge avenues, which includes "retail uses, personal service uses, and other uses that provide opportunities for people to come and go throughout the day." Among its more colorful recommendations is a design competition to generate "innovative concepts for the use of City-owned parking lots and structure."
Adoption of the plan coincides with the city's ongoing $7 million renovation of California Avenue, which includes widening of sidewalks, creation of two new public plazas, replacement of all street furniture and reduction of lanes from four to two. The project, which aims to turn the eclectic strip into something more like University Avenue or Mountain View's Castro Street, kicked off last month after about four years of planning and litigation.
The third subarea in the concept plan is centered around Park Boulevard. The plan recommends turning the car-heavy boulevard into the city's next hub of innovation, a vision that has already been coming to fruition in recent years with companies like Groupon and Skype leasing properties in the area.
"Palo Alto has a global reputation as an incubator of Silicon Valley talent, and there is an opportunity to build on the nucleus of small-scale technology-related enterprises already located in the subarea to create a technology corridor that attracts and nurtures even more innovators and entrepreneurs," the plan said.
Palo Alto officials aren't the only ones who believe the neighborhoods around California Avenue is ripe for growth. In the past three years, several developers have pitched and received approval for dense new buildings, including a mixed-use development at 195 Page Mill Road, a three-story office and retail development at 260 California Ave. and a four-story office-and-townhouse development at 2640 Birch St. The development activity has sparked concerns from the surrounding areas of Ventura and Evergreen Park about insufficient parking and has prompted the council to consider building a new garage on California Avenue.
The plan recognizes the residents' concerns by identifying as a goal "preserving the existing character of surrounding residential neighborhoods and shopping districts." It also includes as one of its proposed programs developing a strategy to "manage parking supply and demand that considers options for parking policy, parking restrictions, parking pricing, shared parking, and additional structured parking."