Editorial: Cal Ave's future

Long percolating, 'concept' plan for the city's second downtown heads for more discussion

Wanted: Redevelopment that is higher density, mixed residential and commercial, with adequate parking and improved pedestrian and bicycle connections, all without changing the current character as a neighborhood-serving retail district.

That, in a nutshell, is what planners envision and think is possible for the future of California Avenue, Park Boulevard and the large parcel that includes Fry's Electronics south of Page Mill Road.

The draft plan has been incubating for more than five years through various workshops and meetings with residents and businesses in the area and the work of consultants. Because of other priorities and staffing shortages, the process has dragged on for years longer than was planned.

And because it will soon become a part of the larger Comprehensive Plan update and environmental review, once it is endorsed by the City Council as early as next Monday's meeting, it will be at least another two years before it can actually be approved.

The delay is actually not a bad thing, because the proposed development concepts and strategies can be examined and tested in the context of the construction boom currently underway in the area and today's traffic realities rather than through a more conjectural, hypothetical lens of the "quiet" development period during the Great Recession.

The draft plan, with the help of some tweaks by the Planning Commission, does a good job presenting desirable future outcomes from redevelopment of the area in the years ahead. Its purpose is to provide a "tool to help the public and decision-makers frame the context for future planning in this sector of the city."

Except for the Fry's property, where a change in land-use designation from multi-family housing to mixed-use is proposed, no other broad-scale changes are deemed necessary to achieve the goals outlined.

But there are proposed changes in policies and zoning philosophy outlined that are designed to bring about a purposeful evolution of the area. A "technology corridor overlay" is proposed to encourage small-scale technology-related businesses. Recognizing the existing problems of pedestrian and bicycle safety, especially along Park Boulevard, the plan calls out roadway safety as a priority, as well as preserving and protecting the single family neighborhoods abutting the district.

The plan points out that the property Fry's partly occupies is one of the few large parcels left in the city that is ripe for major redevelopment, and suggests that a site-specific master plan be developed with the property owner that would, among other things, require any new development be at least 20 percent residential, a significant shift from the current multi-family designation.

But it is the draft plan's approach to the California Avenue business district that is most fragile, vulnerable to hard-to-control market forces, and in need of much hard work as it gets absorbed into the Comprehensive Plan process.

For all its good intentions, it is difficult to not view it with some skepticism and worry that it seeks to achieve incompatible goals.

For example, reflecting community input, the plan makes the retention of the neighborhood-serving, small town feel of California Avenue a goal at the same time as aspiring to increase the "vibrancy" of the retail mix and to encourage higher-density housing along with new commercial development.

The plan, which was not yet informed by any retail or economic analysis, raises the question of what retail, residential and commercial mix is most conducive to preserving the current character of the area, but it offers no answers or road map for getting answers.

Forty years ago downtown Palo Alto had many of the characteristics of today's California Avenue business district, but as redevelopment occurred and it became a strong regional commercial center, rising property values forced independent and neighborhood-serving retailers out. The growing number of downtown employees attracted restaurants, financial services and specialty retail. The character changed dramatically, but not with intentionality.

With the California Avenue district, the city has an opportunity to learn from the downtown experience and to more actively anticipate, manage and guide the change that is coming. Finding the levers to achieve the sweet-spot between increased vibrancy and preservation of the neighborhood-serving character is ambitious, but it is the critical work that lies ahead as the work proceeds.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2014 at 9:38 am

California Ave is very poorly designed right now with overly wide streets and haphazard on-street car parking creating too many dangers in a potentially vibrant business area. I think the city is on the right track modernizing the area, if they can say no to the NIMBYs who value cars more than pedestrian safety.

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Posted by margita
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 18, 2014 at 10:11 am

Helpful if your stories could include maps...

Hoping the new plan includes safe biking for local children biking from College Terrace to middle and high schools on the far side of the railroad tracks.

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Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2014 at 10:14 am

Sparty is a registered user.

There are two almost always empty parking garages.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2014 at 10:18 am

@margita - I'm pretty sure this article is just about the business district centered around Park Blvd (down to Frys) and California Ave (between the train station and El Camino).

In a separate project, the city is supposedly trying to create a child-safe bicycle route along Stanford Ave that should help College Terrace. Hopefully the tunnel under the train tracks at California Ave will eventually be improved so the bicycle traps at the bottom can be removed.

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Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 18, 2014 at 10:25 am

I echo and applaud Margita's comment: "Hoping the new plan includes safe biking for local children biking from College Terrace to middle and high schools on the far side of the railroad tracks."

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Posted by allen edwards
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 18, 2014 at 12:15 pm

If you want to keep California Ave from going the way of University Ave, you need to zone it to keep the value of the property down. Simple. It will be developed to the potential of its zoning. That is what zoning is for. It is not to maximize the value to the landowner, it is to maximize the value to the community.

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Posted by Who is the owner
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2014 at 1:48 pm

The name of the property owner not given. Protecting the guilty?

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2014 at 2:17 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 Ray Bacchetti
a resident of University South
on Apr 18, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Housing for low and very low income residents needs a prominent place in the mix.

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Posted by JoAnn
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 19, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Back when I was still riding a bike, I fell on that steep California underpass. I'd sure like to see it made safe for scooters and wheelchairs like the one at Homer downtown. Crossing the tracks at Churchill is dangerous, between the traffic and the trains and the new "improved" gates that trap you on the tracks. But I doubt that would add to anyone's bottom line, so it won't get done.

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Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Apr 19, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Sparty is a registered user.

You're supposed to walk your bike through the Cal ave underpass

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

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