Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 10, 2013

Commission voices support for new 'tech corridor'

California Avenue concept plan could see departure of Fry's, addition of homes

by Eric Van Susteren

Members of Palo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission came out in favor of transforming a segment of Park Boulevard into a "tech corridor" filled with startups and incubators Wednesday night, May 8.

The idea came up as part of a wide-ranging discussion of the concept plan for the California Avenue area, the 115-acre sector of the city that extends from Cambridge Avenue to Fry's Electronics on Portage Avenue. Among the ideas floated by commissioners was moving City Hall from downtown Palo Alto to the California Avenue area.

The concept plan, which has been in the works for more than three years, is meant to guide future land use and development in the area.

While Park Boulevard already houses companies such as Groupon and AOL, the new plan would seek to give the corridor a more cohesive identity as a haven for technology-related businesses by encouraging smaller office spaces that would attract startups.

Commissioner Alex Panelli said the move would fit Palo Alto's legacy as an incubator for tech companies.

"Google and Facebook spent their toddler years here, and they eventually grew up and moved to places with bigger campuses than we could provide — and that's OK," he said. "We don't want to be dominated by one big company if they hit hardships. If we have hundreds of smaller companies, it hurts us less."

Commissioner Greg Tanaka took the idea a step further by proposing that the tech corridor be expanded into a "tech block that's not just a skinny corridor next to the track."

He proposed that it extend to Page Mill Road, Ash Street and Olive Avenue, with the area closest to El Camino Real reserved for retail space.

While the commissioners present agreed (Carl King and Arthur Keller were absent) that Park Boulevard would make a good location for technology, they acknowledged that plans such as developer Jay Paul's proposal to build two massive office buildings at 395 Page Mill Road could offset the concept plan, which has already spent years bouncing between City Council, planning commission and community meetings.

In addition to the tech corridor, commissioners also discussed repurposing the adjacent land, which currently holds retailer Fry's Electronics. The property is owned by the Sobrato Organization, and Fry's lease is up in 2014, at which point the electronics giant can opt to renew its lease for another five years.

City staff presented the commission with two options: designate the area for commercial service businesses to reflect its current use or designate it as a mixed-use zone to encourage a blend of businesses and homes.

While most commissioners agreed that the area would best be used for mixed use, Commissioner Michael Alcheck came out as the strongest supporter for switching up the area's zoning.

"You have to go back three years to find a good Yelp review on it," he said. "The reviews are shockingly and consistently abysmal."

Vice Chair Mark Michael, while supportive of the mixed-use concept for the area, cautioned that eliminating a lucrative source of income for the city like Fry's by turning the area into densely packed homes could burden the infrastructure and cause the city to lose out on valuable tax revenue.

But Michael, a Palo Alto native, said the California Avenue area is ripe for revitalization.

"It really hasn't changed in 57 years, and that's not a good thing," he said.

Alcheck said that California Avenue's Caltrain station will make it an increasingly important destination for development as time continues.

"Twenty years from now that stop could be so incredibly valuable," he said.

Though staff identified maintaining the scale and character of California Avenue as a key concept for development of the area, Alcheck said revitalization would necessarily boost building density.

"Increasing density is the only way of increasing vibrancy," he said. "Before retailers rush in, the traffic has to be there."

Panelli said he saw "a golden opportunity" to build a new City Hall and public-safety building on Sherman Avenue parking lots, complete with a subterranean parking structure, forming a sort of "local government corridor" along with the county courthouse.

He argued that City Hall's current location in downtown Palo Alto would be prime space for a business and could be extremely lucrative if the city were to rent it out. He also said that California Avenue would serve as a better location for the city's symbolic center because it would be closer to south Palo Alto's larger resident base and would simultaneously counteract any perceived north Palo Alto bias that residents might feel the city harbors.

While some commissioners shared Panelli's enthusiasm for a relocated City Hall and public-safety building, Alcheck said he wasn't persuaded by the argument in favor of its relocation.

"University Avenue is the epicenter of Palo Alto," he said. "City Hall's location is irrelevant. There are a number of cities where city hall isn't at their center."

Michael acknowledged the "intense value and centrality" of City Hall's current location and said that moving it and repurposing the downtown land is "a healthy conversation to have."

Online Editor Eric Van Susteren can be emailed at evansusteren@paweekly.com.

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