News

Palo Alto planners to zoom in on Fry's site

With new vision for Cal Ave proving a tough sell, council agrees to pursue 'master plan' for sprawling site

It took more than seven years for Palo Alto to draw up a new vision for the neighborhoods around California Avenue, and about an hour for an ambivalent City Council to kick this vision back to the drawing board Monday night.

The proposed California Avenue Area Concept Plan, which seeks to create a "unified vision" for future development around the centrally located business district, has been in the works since 2006, when the council first identified the area as ripe for change. But during a wide-ranging discussion Monday, the current council struggled to find a consensus about what exactly this change should look like, with some members calling for more housing, others advocating for retail protection and one characterizing the concept plan as a dramatic upzoning proposal that needs far more consideration before adoption.

The council did agree on two elements, however. One was that the plan, despite years of public hearings and a recent approval by the Planning and Transportation Commission, isn't quite ready for prime time. Council members plan to further debate it on May 5 as part of a broader discussion of the Comprehensive Plan, and most likely at another meeting after that.

The council also agreed to apply for a grant to pursue a master plan for the site of Fry's Electronics, one of the major wildcards in the concept-plan area. With the property recently changing hands, the council has expressed concern in recent months about Fry's leaving and the city having no control over what will happen next at the site. The master plan would zoom in on this site and consider other possible land uses. The goal, as stated in the concept plan, is to foster over the long-term the "transformation of the Fry's site subarea into a walkable, human-scale mixed-use neighborhood that includes ample amenities."

The new Fry's document will add yet another layer to the Russian nesting doll of plans Palo Alto is currently pursuing. The city is still updating its official land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, a nearly decade-long process that staff expects to complete in late 2015. On a parallel track, planners are pushing ahead with a new Housing Element, a state-mandated chapter of the Comprehensive Plan that lays out the city's housing policies and identifies sites that could accommodate new residential units. The California Avenue concept plan (as well a similar "concept area plan" for the East Meadow Circle area) would also be added to the Comprehensive Plan.

Even the decision to apply for a grant came after an extensive debate, with several council members repeatedly seeking assurance from staff that applying for the funds from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority would not lock the city into any kind of a land-use decision. The master plan is expected to cost between $200,000 and $300,000.

The debate over California Avenue's future comes at a time of major changes in the area, with dense new developments such as 195 Page Mill Road, 260 California Ave. and 2640 Birch St. currently being constructed and a nearby project at 3359 El Camino Real recently winning approval. The council also considered approving last year a four-story, two-building office complex at 395 Page Mill Road, though that proposal died after developer Jay Paul withdrew the application in December, citing Palo Alto's political climate.

Though the proposed concept plan for the California Avenue area stresses the need to preserve existing neighborhood, it also advocates for more density, particularly if the new projects are mixed-use developments with small housing units. The plan splits the area into three subsections: the eclectic business district around California Avenue, the tech-heavy commercial area on Park Boulevard and the sprawling site around Fry's. While the concept plan proposes to rezone only the Fry's site (it would go from "multi-family residential" to "mixed-use" to enable more flexibility), it also encourages development on California Avenue "at the higher end of the allowed density range."

Similarly, it seeks to encourage more technology-focused firms to set up shop on Park Boulevard and includes a policy to encourage mixed-use developments with research space, officers and small residential units. Much like on California Avenue, developments in this new "technology corridor" would be encouraged "at the higher end of the allowed density range," provided they're consistent with the city's design standards.

All the talk of greater density proved to be a hard sell with council members Pat Burt and Karen Holman, both of whom argued that far more deliberation is needed before the council goes along with the plan.

"We have not had an opportunity to look at the significance of this very large upzoning for this area and it needs much more consideration," Burt said of the proposed technology corridor on Park Boulevard.

Holman concurred and argued that the council needs more time to review and revise the concept plan.

"This really reads to me like a redevelopment document," Holman said.

Burt likened the concept plan to Jay Paul's proposal for 395 Page Mill, which at 311,000 square feet far exceeded the city's zoning regulations and drew heavy criticism from the surrounding neighborhoods for its ambitious scale.

"We thought we were stepping over a cliff at the Jay Paul site," Burt said. "We're running over the Grand Canyon potentially on approving these major upzonings without real consideration."

Burt and Holman were also skeptical about the Fry's grant, at least until Planning Director Hillary Gitelman offered them repeated assurances that the grant funds would not obligate the city to pursue any policies that the council doesn't support.

Once adopted, the vision for California Avenue would become part of the city's Comprehensive Plan. A report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment notes that the concept plan aims "to identify appropriate development intensities, the potential for additional housing, and plan for retention and enhancement of retail/service opportunities and improved pedestrian and bicycle connections in the California Avenue area."

Several residents attended the meeting to laud the concept plan, which also advocates for various pedestrian- and bike-safety improvements on Park Boulevard and improved connections between the Fry's site and El Camino Real. Eric Rosenblum and Sandra Slater both praised it for encouraging density near a prominent transit corridor, a strategy aimed at reducing car trips.

"I think it's a win-win and an opportunity for the council to look at something that can be really exciting and, in a way, a beacon for how Palo Alto might look at future developments," Slater told the council.

Councilwoman Gail Price agreed and said the concept plan offers the city a valuable chance to manage change.

"I think it provides us with a terrific opportunity -- in conjunction with the 'Our Palo Alto' discussion -- to become more refined and more thoughtful about the kinds of decisions we're in the process of making," Price said, referring to the soon-to-commence effort to engage the community in a two-year discussion about the city's future.

One aspect that the council generally agreed on is that housing should feature prominently in the future of the Fry's site. Councilman Greg Scharff advocated for rental housing in particular, arguing that commuters are more likely to rent apartments near their jobs than buy homes. Greg Schmid, meanwhile, said the Fry's site is one of the few places where the council can realize "smart development," a mix of retail, commercial and residential uses clustered near a transit site. Schmid said such a vision is "what modern urban design is all about." The city, Schmid said, needs to quickly answer the question of what percentage of the city's housing mandate should be targeted for his area.

"I think people tonight have made a convincing case that this is one of the best places in town," Schmid said.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2014 at 8:01 am

The biggest problem with the Fry's site is pedestrian access. The location is squeezed between El Camino and the train tracks, which greatly limits safe routes for pedestrians and bicyclists. Park Blvd is the only real route that pedestrians have right now and previous articles in this newspaper have shown that car speeds are way to high on Park Blvd.

In the past, the city has proposed a pedestrian bridge over the Caltrain tracks at Matadero Creek. This bridge would connect the Frys area to the Midtown neighborhood and to the already proposed Matadero Creek pedestrian path. I think this bridge really needs to be part of any new development at the Frys area.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Residentalists!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 22, 2014 at 9:36 am

I'd like the frenzy to stop and some balance restored in planning, cognizant of how important sunlight, open space, views of the hills, and clean air are to quality of life, and how important quality of life are to, frankly, the property values of current residents. Those developers are laughing all the way to the bank with your retirement fund and your kids' college fund. We do not have to turn Palo Alto into San Jose Mini Me just because more people want to live here.

Those of you in northern enclaves who want to keep this town a reasonable scale, who want to be able to rely on public safety for your families, who want them to be able to leave the house and remember what sunlight, sky, and hills look like - the residents who are fighting need a bigger legal fund...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Berry
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 22, 2014 at 10:40 am

I think we need more density, particularly if the new projects are mixed-use developments with small housing units. Everyone is walking and biking in Palo Alto. We don't need to build any parks or garages. We need affordable dense housing and more people. Palo Alto is the forerunner city in Silicon Valley and we need as many people here as we can squeeze. Hopefully that site will be purchased by a developer and he will allow part of that development to be run by his son with minimal experience. Palo Alto, nothing like Santa Barbara :)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2014 at 10:45 am

@Residentalists!

Well, personally I'd like Palo Alto to be available to families making less than 500k a year, but I guess we all have different priorities...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Apr 22, 2014 at 11:09 am

Ah yes, we lose Fry's, a cash cow, in exchange for more housing sucking at the teat of fire, police, and school services.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by JerryL
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 22, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Having that Fry's within easy travel distance AND with plenty of parking
is one of the things I value about living in Palo Alto. We should be bending over backward to retain that wonderful asset pretty much just as it is.

NO high density. NO high buildings. NO alternate uses for that wonderful Fry's parking lot.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2014 at 12:43 pm

We used to go to Fry's all the time. I remember when the parking lot was always full and the store was always crowded. Now days, I go far less often and when I do, the parking lot is always mostly empty and I can always find a front row parking space. Inside the store, selection and prices are generally terrible. Even the sale prices are mediocre. I only go there when I need something today and I check their website ahead of time to make sure it is in stock.

Frys has had some many scandals lately that I'm surprised that they still have rabid fans like the ones posting here. Wasn't one of their VPs busted recently for taking kickbacks from low-quality high-priced no-name vendors then giving them prime shelf locations? I think they've also been busted for selling refurbished or used products as new with no warning to the customer.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Tom
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2014 at 12:45 pm

"It took more than seven years for Palo Alto to draw up a new vision for the neighborhoods around California Avenue, and about an hour for an ambivalent City Council to kick this vision back to the drawing board Monday night." Maybe this is just Gennady Sheyner looking for a catchy opening paragraph, but it sure sounds like an incredibly broken planning process. A seven-year effort with so much public input clearly offered endless opportunities for the Council members to take stands, raise issues, seek clarification, and build consensus. Is it really only now when the plan is put together that they talk about it and "kick [it] back to the drawing board" in an hour? This plan should have gone to the Council with pretty much all these issues having been sorted out. If there are truly irreconcilable differences and no chance for consensus, then (1) the plan should not have been brought to the Council and (2) the Council should dissolve itself and go home; we need politicians who know how to make things happen.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by How can we keep Frye's?
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 22, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Why does Fry's want to move? Is their rent going up? Have sales revenues fallen? What's their motivation to move? How can we keep them here? They are a great retail resource. I hate to lose them. What could be done to provide them with incentive to stay?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 22, 2014 at 1:01 pm

The lovely City of Palo Alto in the LATE 80s, early 990s was going to create single family dwellings around Fry's and get rid of all the commercial buildings. That never happened, of course.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I remember the Fry's site was going to become housing, shopped there and worked for Fry's for awhile. The store was going to be open for a "X" number of years then close, the site would become housing.

Palo Alto has a history of zoning sites to for residential use, this happened in the 60's and beyond. Paths for walkers and bikers should be built into the plan, the housing mix should family row homes with space for rental units if the homeowner wishes to have extra income. Small ownership condo buildings should be mixed in with the development along with the required open space.

kQx8M


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Enough!
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 22, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Oh goody! Please DO stuff more people into Palo Alto so the quality of life becomes untenable. Palo Alto is already bursting at the seams with people and traffic. Let's just add to this and make everyone miserable!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by JO
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 22, 2014 at 3:32 pm

I sent the following email to City Council yesterday. Of course they completely ignored everything that I said. They voted to hire consultants to put together a master plan for the Fry's site,and applying to the VTA for money to help pay for that. At least Council member Holman recognized that Council was opting to focus on REDEVELOPMENT. wHICH IS of course the main interest of this CITY COUNCIL--REDEVELOPMENT. The denser the better. We Voters need to redevelop City Council and City Hall.My email:(subject: item14. Cal AveConcept Plan.)Dear City Council Members:
So,have you all resigned yourselves to the position that Fry's Electronics is going to leave Palo Alto, and that all that the City can do is plan for the redevelopment of the Fry's Site? That's what the staff report on the Cal Ave concept Plan seems to say.Shame on all of you! Have you individually done anything to try to keep Fry's in Palo Alto?Do you think that this is a satisfactory result?? Don't approve the staff recommendations. You'd only be wasting more money on consultants like the ones who put together this Concept Pan. I remember thatCouncil asked staff years ago to come up with zoning that would encourage Fry's to stay. And this is all they could come with.? Change the comp plan land use designation of the site to mixed use. Totally pathetic suggestion. But I guess it's the kind of thing I'd expect from staff. They don't care if Fry's leaves. Council may feel the heat, though. More pathetic planning fom the City of Palo Alto. Pathetic Staff, pathetic City Council.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by looking out for our kids
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 22, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Where is the neighborhood school for this development?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 22, 2014 at 3:54 pm

The closest school, a mere quarter-mile, is El Carmelo just across the tracks.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by PASJL
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 22, 2014 at 5:39 pm

@kids; No, not El Carmelo. The schools would be; Barron Park -> Terman -> Gunn. That is, assuming nothing changed from the current scheme.

Also, crossing the tracks (and Alma) is an enrollment-planning 'values' no-no, so despite being closer as the crow flies, El Carmelo would not be considered for this area.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Palo Alto does not need any more apartments or condominiums or hotels. El Camino is like a parking lot from 3-7PM. The residents of Palo Alto do not want any more housing.
And absolutely no new pedestrian bridge to bring even more criminals and burglars into the city.
Spend time worrying about the lack of parking downtown and on California street because of the irresponsible development of those areas. Worry about the rampant crime in downtown Palo Alto. Nobody wants to go there at night anymore.
Leave the city as is and try to convince Fry's to stay or get another business similar to it like Circuit City. The parking lots were all full of customers spending money and that's what Palo Alto needs, not new housing.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2014 at 8:48 pm

>Nobody wants to go there at night anymore

Please, I really would wish people would stop trying to frame their own problems in terms of what other's think or feel. You personally don't want to go downtown. Obviously that feeling isn't shared by everyone, as evidenced by the crowds downtown, and the "lack of parking" you stated.

The same thing with many of your complaints about town and country,that nobody wants to go there because it's hard to get a parking spot. They're trying to make it sound like a genuine concern for the city's economic well being, but in reality its just pithy frustration about change that is beyond your control.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by outlier
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2014 at 11:43 pm

Sorry to hear Fry's may be leaving the area. It is a great store to browse and shop. If that is their decision, I guess it makes sense to plan for the future of the space. The clear need is apartment housing. It is extremely difficult for young people even with good jobs in Google and Facebook, to buy/rent a place in Palo Alto area. Single family housing in that area absolutely does not make sense. It is waste of space and and totally inefficient use of land. We got to learn to live closer together (or move out and live in Texas:)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Details please
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 23, 2014 at 10:47 am

Who owns Fry's? I seem to recall that major developer Sobrato bought it recently, but am not sure. I do know that the owner for many years wanted to develop the land for housing. Big bucks to be made there.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Details please
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 23, 2014 at 10:58 am

It seems that one speaker, Eric Rosenblum who described himself just as living in downtown north and a daddy of two children - just a folksy guy - is in real life a Google Director, Strategy and Business Operations. Web Link
A Marketing man, not just a Daddy. He did some good marketing for development at the council.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 23, 2014 at 11:52 am

SteveU is a registered user.

Uh!
Why not Mixed use Retail on the Ground floor and apartments above?
All the current tenants have businesses that do not present high hazard levels to residential. This works in other Cities.

Delivery hours might need to be slightly restricted to store hours (8AM-10PM), but I don't think Frys receiving has any other hours.

Keep the Cash Cow


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 23, 2014 at 5:47 pm

Please, no more homes in Palo Alto other than those existing home owners who may want to tear down and start over with a new structure. More housing causes all sorts of more parking challenges, traffic, congestion, lowers our quality of life and lowers our home values by increasing the housing stock in Palo Alto. NOT GOOD.

And - a Big No to more dense housing- no multifamily, condos, apartments. We are done.

NO more commercial buildings - shift any other so called job creators to other communities - particularly poor areas in the East Bay and East Palo Alto.

I really like Fry's. Keep it there. If we want to make a small park in that same area - that's great!

Last - can't believe we are spending 7 million to make California avenue with two lanes. Wow, what a colossal waist of our tax dollars. I have been here since 1960 and do not want another University Avenue. Crazy.

It's simple - no more commercial rental space means no more justification to build housing for workers - as pressured by the regional government/State authorities.

Also, future protections for certain type of goods and services NOT related to technology (music stores, art stores, bookstores, flower shops, stationary stores, laundry stores, speciality clothing stores, alternative energy outlet stores)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2014 at 11:45 am

Before Fry's is bulldozed into oblivion, be sure to take a closer look at the building it shares with others and consider its history. This warehouse-type building was once a cannery, and the best local metaphor, I can think of that illustrates this area's transformation from an agriculture "Valley of Heart's Delight" to the high tech world of modern Silicon Valley.

In 1906, after the earthquake, when there was still considerable prejudice against the Chinese population, a man named 
Thomas Foon Chew opened a cannery in Alviso called Bayside Cannery. It grew to be the third 
largest cannery of fruits and vegetables in the world (behind Libby and Del Monte, both in 
Sunnyvale). This was at a time when the Santa Clara Valley was mostly agricultural and the center 
of the canning industry.

Bayside grew so large that in 1919 Foon built a second plant in Palo Alto mainly to pack tomatoes. This is the building now occupied by Fry's. Sometime in the 1920s the plant was sold to Safeway, which ran it until 1949 under the name Sutter Packing. It later became a soft drink bottling plant before becoming Maximart, an unusual retail enterprise with an interesting history of its own.
 From mechanically canned tomatoes to microchips 
within the same space, all within living memory.

This building will undoubtedly disappear as we turn our attention to our next major concern, finding housing for the very population modern technology has brought to the area. Change will come. It is inevitable. But with this change we will have lost one of the most important symbols we have that links us with our past. Take a good look at it while you can.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2014 at 11:45 am

Before Fry's is bulldozed into oblivion, be sure to take a closer look at the building it shares with others and consider its history. This warehouse-type building was once a cannery, and the best local metaphor, I can think of that illustrates this area's transformation from an agriculture "Valley of Heart's Delight" to the high tech world of modern Silicon Valley.

In 1906, after the earthquake, when there was still considerable prejudice against the Chinese population, a man named 
Thomas Foon Chew opened a cannery in Alviso called Bayside Cannery. It grew to be the third 
largest cannery of fruits and vegetables in the world (behind Libby and Del Monte, both in 
Sunnyvale). This was at a time when the Santa Clara Valley was mostly agricultural and the center 
of the canning industry.

Bayside grew so large that in 1919 Foon built a second plant in Palo Alto mainly to pack tomatoes. This is the building now occupied by Fry's. Sometime in the 1920s the plant was sold to Safeway, which ran it until 1949 under the name Sutter Packing. It later became a soft drink bottling plant before becoming Maximart, an unusual retail enterprise with an interesting history of its own.
 From mechanically canned tomatoes to microchips 
within the same space, all within living memory.

This building will undoubtedly disappear as we turn our attention to our next major concern, finding housing for the very population modern technology has brought to the area. Change will come. It is inevitable. But with this change we will have lost one of the most important symbols we have that links us with our past. Take a good look at it while you can.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2014 at 11:45 am

Before Fry's is bulldozed into oblivion, be sure to take a closer look at the building it shares with others and consider its history. This warehouse-type building was once a cannery, and the best local metaphor, I can think of that illustrates this area's transformation from an agriculture "Valley of Heart's Delight" to the high tech world of modern Silicon Valley.

In 1906, after the earthquake, when there was still considerable prejudice against the Chinese population, a man named 
Thomas Foon Chew opened a cannery in Alviso called Bayside Cannery. It grew to be the third 
largest cannery of fruits and vegetables in the world (behind Libby and Del Monte, both in 
Sunnyvale). This was at a time when the Santa Clara Valley was mostly agricultural and the center 
of the canning industry.

Bayside grew so large that in 1919 Foon built a second plant in Palo Alto mainly to pack tomatoes. This is the building now occupied by Fry's. Sometime in the 1920s the plant was sold to Safeway, which ran it until 1949 under the name Sutter Packing. It later became a soft drink bottling plant before becoming Maximart, an unusual retail enterprise with an interesting history of its own.
 From mechanically canned tomatoes to microchips 
within the same space, all within living memory.

This building will undoubtedly disappear as we turn our attention to our next major concern, finding housing for the very population modern technology has brought to the area. Change will come. It is inevitable. But with this change we will have lost one of the most important symbols we have that links us with our past. Take a good look at it while you can.


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