Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 14, 2014

New vision for California Avenue advances

Planning commission supports new 'concept plan' for quickly changing area

by Gennady Sheyner

As Palo Alto prepares for a physical transformation of California Avenue, starting in March, city planners are advancing a new vision document for the business district — a plan that they hope will spur more high-tech startups, smaller apartments and higher density buildings near transit hubs.

After a brief discussion Wednesday — which followed more than three years of far lengthier ones — the Planning and Transportation Commission voted 5-0 to recommend adoption of a "concept plan" for a 115-acre area that includes California Avenue, a section of Park Boulevard and the commercial site around Fry's Electronics. If approved by the City Council, the plan will be incorporated into Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan, the city's land-use bible.

One function of the new plan is to identify where denser development can be built in the centrally located area. Another is to recommend how land in each of the area's three "subsections" can be used. According to a report from Senior Planner Elena Lee, the plan evaluates where additional housing could be built, opportunities to retain and increase retail and services businesses and how bicycle access could be improved.

Seen as a critical location because of its 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 at Page Mill Road and Park Boulevard 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.

Other developments for the area that have been proposed include 441 Page Mill, which would replace four existing single-family homes with a three-story mixed-use development; and 2755 El Camino, at the corner of Page Mill, a 33,000-square-foot office building proposed by the Pollock Financial Group.

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 noted that young people "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 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 more 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 plan for 12 market-rate, single-family homes and 60 apartments 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 area along California Avenue, between El Camino 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."

In the vicinity of Park Boulevard, the goal is to promote the area as "an important hub of innovation and entrepreneurship for small new companies." This means favoring ground-floor offices, with residential units on higher floors. 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 improvements to bike and pedestrian amenities 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 retail and commercial uses to "mixed-use," which would allow both residential and commercial. If Fry's were to leave, the city would try to turn the sprawling 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. Alcheck, who advocated for this policy during a recent discussion of the Comprehensive Plan's chapter devoted to business, 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 MORE ONLINE

The city's Draft California Avenue Area Concept Plan has been posted with this article on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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