Council set to adopt new vision for California Avenue

Proposed 'concept plan' includes smaller housing units, technology corridor, zone change at Fry's site

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."


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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2014 at 10:21 am

> "Palo Alto has a global reputation as an incubator of
> Silicon Valley talent

Perhaps this is true, and perhaps it isn’t. However, to believe this claim to the point that developers are given carte blanche to destroy the town in order to make room for more technology startups that do nothing for the town as a whole, such as contribute to the town’s treasury in any meaningful way, is insane.

It’s past time for a Residentialist movement to arise again—and put a stop to the mindless over-development of the past decade.

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Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 18, 2014 at 10:22 am

I haven't heard that Fry's is leaving. Are they? What are the rumors?

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Posted by Robert
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2014 at 11:17 am

This is enough to induce nausea. Why? Because this is the same development-oriented, kitsch-loving City Council that is responsible for the redevelopment of the Alma Street/Charleston Ave/Miki's market parcel, not to mention the Leviathan 101 Lytton Gateway monstrosity and the ever more difficult-to-navigate University Avenue -- and is PROUD of all of these fiascos. This is the same CC that has the gall to ask Palo Altans to go on a website and indicate the "values" with which it wants to City Council to inform its decisions or "visions." Fellow Palo Altans, get ready for another step in the metastasis of kitsch, undistinguished architecture, and traffic congestion, this time on California Avenue.

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Posted by Obvious
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Apr 18, 2014 at 11:32 am

The writing is on he wall. Frys is on it's way out. The store is always empty and the aisles have gotten wider and the sales people fewer. You could bowl down the aisles and not hit anyone! While it used to be a great place for electronics, it's not kept up with change and I predict it will close within a year.

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Posted by DGN
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 18, 2014 at 11:48 am

It is a disaster that this current city council, so incompetent and visionless, and out of touch with Palo Altan's, is leading the way for such an enormous growth spurt in Palo Alto. It is so unfortunate. Joe's comments (above) are right on target. The citizens of Palo Alto need to step in and stop the madness.

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Posted by Kay
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 18, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Unification has a different ring when referring to "mixed use." I would like to see a "unifying " element applied to the over all plan. It sounds like a hodge-podge right now.

You may have noticed that Stanford doesn't use those horrific "goose necked" lamps on their streets. That contributes to the "eyesore" effect. Attractive street lamps of a smaller variety such as the ones Stanford used even out to El Camino on Stanford Ave. Shorter lamps with opaque glass globes say "community" every time where as the goose necked light poles say "Walmart parking lot."
Perhaps you have already addressed this issue, but it is absolutely essential to a unifying harmonious plan.

Other elements that could help in creating harmony, community and unification are: the use of paint in one family of colors,( maybe Spanish/Mexican natural hues, awnings that match, old fashioned planter boxes that have the same plants -- like geraniums with something cascading, street furnishing that are appealing--not concrete.
As you can see, it doesn't take much to address the human scale, visual appeal and a willingness by all to employ at least 3 elements that are the same. Same trees would have contributed to this, but when the tiny varied trees grow tall, maybe they will too.
The last thing we need is the fiasco when one council approved of a downtown improvement and it was so ugly
after completion that it had to be ripped out. Concrete bunkers and all!! Don't let that happen again! Pay special attention to the street lamps. A cold harsh light looming on a tall stick makes everyone want to go home! University Ave works now--but a big reason is that a lot of people just want to stroll down those magically lighted streets.

I agree with a previous writer that some new downtown buildings are hard to look at. Riding the train into Palo Alto from the upper deck is so offensive to the eye that I just want to skip Palo Alto altogether. And please. Please,
Please don't make buildings flush with the side walk no matter how valuable the land ! Human sensibilities don't respond well to that. And where are all the little parklets for the public that were part of the trade off? Please enforce the use of those public spaces at the very least.

Are there any artists on these committees?
Kay C

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Posted by more of the same
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 18, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Really, it's too late. Palo Alto is on a trajectory that is practically impossible to reverse. City Council members all mean well, but they have by-and-large not been very visionary because they haven't *had* to be visionary. When one is surrounded by wealth and success - and are a part of that wealth and success - it's very difficult to get off one's armchair and start to walk down a different path. It's human nature.

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Posted by Ohwell
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 18, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I wonder why they need to spend money on consultants over the years if they are that good.

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Posted by JoAnn
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 18, 2014 at 4:57 pm

A good start at "beautification" would have been to leave the damn trees there and replace them gradually. When they say "upgrade" they mean "higher rents, expensive stores, more traffic, and big profits for developers." We need Fry's and middle-of-the-road retail more than this ridiculous project.

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 18, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

The Fry's site is likely to wind up nearly 100% housing. Because of Council's actions and inactions over the years, the former property owner (WSJ, which focused on commercial properties) sold to a developer specializing in housing.

Although the Council said it wanted Fry's to stay (sales tax revenue), its "vision" was loaded with constraints that made it implausible for Fry's to stay.

We have had a series of Councils that have pursued policies that roughly equates "retail" to "restaurant or coffee shop", high-priced boutiques and other stores able to do high mark-ups to cover the rent. Consequently, Palo Alto doesn't "harvest" shopping from the people that work here and many residents do almost all of their shopping outside Palo Alto.

It was pointed out by me and others that developing the Fry's site for housing would be a traffic problem because it would put cars on the road during peak hours right next to the city's most congested intersection. Retail at that location would have spread out the traffic.

Note: Don't say that the people living in housing at Fry's site will use public transit: The site is outside what urban planners have found to be the distance people will walk to a train station. Plus the location is in a pocket that strongly encourages parent to drive their children to school (distance and danger).

All this has been known and discussed for more than a decade. But ideology trumps analysis.

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Posted by WhenWillWeBeFull
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2014 at 7:33 pm

"accommodate more housing and can thus help the city meet its regionally imposed housing mandates"
Is that ABAG?
What happens if we say "F*** Y**" to the 'mandator' and just don't do it?
What are the consequences?
Can anyone provide links to documents/laws/etc that allow for this 'mandate'?
When all the available land is gone, do we have to tear things down in order to build denser housing?
How absurd!

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Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2014 at 7:41 pm

We need fundamental change here in what we are doing and that is nowhere
in sight. It's the opposite - we are doubling down on everything we are doing wrong as the Council and staff continue to pile it on.

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Posted by Palo Altan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 18, 2014 at 9:40 pm

Ken Hayes, the architect of some of the most horrific, hideous commercial buildings in Palo Alto, needs to be run out of town. His work is tasteless, cold and offensive. The Architectural Review Board, encourages his ghastly work. [Portion removed.]

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2014 at 9:47 pm

My gut feeling is that Cal Ave is basically being used as a dining area for business people and those living further away than a short walk or bike ride.

A decent parking strategy would be the most useful addition. Being able to find the nearest parking lot or garage with an empty space at lunch time or popular evening would be particularly useful. Electronic signs showing lots with empty spaces would make a lot of sense. Charging for parking over 1 hour would also make sense. Meters and pay per hour parking charge for the equivalent of loose change haven't stopped people from using Redwood City and would not stop people coming to Palo Alto either

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Posted by midtowner
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2014 at 11:49 pm

Everyone I know agrees that Ken Hayes is a DISASTER; his architectural work in Palo Alto is hideous. As for the "concept' for California Ave., it is sheer, unmitigated horror. Poor Palo Altans, what have we done to deserve such a mediocre, self serving City Council?

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Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 19, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Downtown the Jos Bank bldg by itself was interesting but when Roxy Rapp's new Ken Hayes mega-building went in next door it became a huge out-of-scale monolith, dark gray with the also very dark gray Restoration Hardware across the street. The 500 block of Hamilton is also being completely
transformed and overbuilt, with a huge underparked Ken Hayes bldg under
construction at Cowper and Hamilton, bordering Crescent Park, using parking lifts with access off of Lane 39. The streets are being plastered with signs and bright yellow paint all over Palo Alto. The transformation of Palo Alto is proceeding under the City Council and staff prescription.
More is on the way.

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Posted by Older Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 19, 2014 at 4:09 pm

I can't help but wonder when the property values we are sitting on will begin to take a downturn as the vaunted livability of Palo Alto continues to spiral downward. I simply cannot believe the tasteless development projects that have been foisted upon us by the Palo Alto Planning Department. And I'm sick and tired of City Council kowtowing to the demands of ABAG. I actually don't work in Palo Alto, so I'm not part of any jobs-housing imbalance. So why am I being punished because businesses like to locate their headquarters here, together with an influx of employees all driving to work and not finding adequate parking? Frankly, I wish these companies would go to Mountain View, and perhaps Palo Alto could remain the lovely, quiet town it once was.

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 19, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Midtowner says "Poor Palo Altans, what have we done to deserve such a mediocre, self serving City Council?" - Palo Alto got the city council they wanted because the majority of voters elected the current council members.

I would suggest that if the voters want different policies, that in this year's election:

1) Do not vote for Scharff, Price or Shepard
2) Obtain an unequivocal stance by candidates that they are thinking about voting for about development - don't buy into any weasel words, like "green", "environmental", etc.
3) Make campaign contributions to those candidates who support a residentialist view.

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Posted by @outbank
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 19, 2014 at 8:24 pm

I live not far from California avenue. I am glad to see that the city is improving the area. In the present form, the avenue is a very boring place to visit or walk. It would be great if the new and renovated businesses can bring some life to the city. A couple of weeks ago, I visited downtown Campbell to meet some friends who live in the area. It is a bustling fun place that attract many nearby residents. I would like to have something like that in my neighborhood. There are plenty of calm tree lined streets in Palo Alto where you can walk for blocks without seeing another sole. People who don't enjoy other folks have plenty space to enjoy their solitude. A revitalized California avenue hopefully becomes a small area for other people in the city who like to mingle with other people.

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Posted by Business
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 21, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Before considering expansion, current needs should be addressed by the City of Palo Alto. Parking is insufficient, and basic infrastructure such electricity and plumbing are substandard. The plumbing in our building has been in disrepair for the past 2-3 months. Shame on the greedy landlords who keep raising rents without maintaining properties.

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Posted by JO
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 21, 2014 at 5:06 pm

Just sent this email to City Council:(Subject:Item 14, Cal Ave Concept 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 up 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.

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Posted by Anna
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 24, 2014 at 10:42 am

The excellent comments above leave me with not much more to say than that I have recently seen the odd, staggered "sidewalk widening" on California Avenue, and I can attest that it makes no sense. At Park and Birch Streets, it is evident that the increased sidewalk width will create constraints on traffic, and force bike traffic into the car lanes. Madness.

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Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 24, 2014 at 11:26 am

One of the big problems in Palo Alto is that the ARB and City Council have set the bar so low, that the local developers have learned to hire the most obsequious, no-talent strip-mall architects they can find to design their projects, because they have been able to get away with it for so long.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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