In an area marked by rapid change, rising rents and a flood of anxiety about growth and traffic, the 15-acre campus off El Camino Real sprawls like a sleeping giant.
Often referred to as "the Fry's site" for its largest and best-known tenant, Fry's Electronics, the area at 340 Portage Ave. stands out as both a glaring wild card and the place considered most ripe for transformation. A new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment calls it "one of the city's largest underdeveloped sites" and notes that it provides a "unique opportunity" to plan for a variety of uses. On Monday night, the City Council is set to approve an intense planning effort that will survey these opportunities and culminate in a new vision for the area.
For the council, adding housing to the Fry's site tops the priority list. While Palo Alto officials often describe the city as "built out" and agonize over locations for future housing, the Fry's campus is one of the few locations that is widely considered suitable for residences. The city's recently adopted Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out the city's vision for housing, allocates 221 new housing units to the Fry's site, which is bounded by Lambert Avenue, El Camino Real, Park Boulevard and Olive Avenue.
Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, normally one of the staunchest critics of new developments, referred to the site at an April 2014 meeting as "one of the best places in town" for new housing. Councilman Greg Scharff said at the time that he'd like to see the city add rental housing there.
Advocates for new housing, including members of the citizens group Palo Alto Forward, also support adding multi-family housing to the California Avenue area property. At the April 2014 meeting, when the council first considered a staff proposal for a planning effort funded by grants, several members of the group spoke in support of redevelopment at the site. Mehdi Alhassani, one of the group's co-founders, said the proposals to add housing "align with the pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development" envisioned in the Comprehensive Plan, the city's land-use bible.
Adding housing to the California Avenue area, he said, is particularly important because of the city's severe jobs-housing imbalance and the existence of transit services in the area. Palo Alto currently has about three jobs for every employed resident, a ratio that is often blamed for exacerbating the city's traffic and parking problems.
"Adding housing where the jobs are will ease regional commutes, traffic, parking and greenhouse gas emissions," Alhassani said.
Talks of revising and revitalizing the Fry's site have been percolating since at least 2006, when the council agreed the city needs to come up with a new vision for the broader 115-acre area around California Avenue. The draft concept plan for the business district states as one of its goals the "transformation of the Fry's subarea into a walkable, human-scale mixed-use neighborhood that includes ample amenities."
The concept plan, which has not been formally adopted by the council, calls for housing to take up no less than 20 percent of the total square footage of the development in the Fry's area. Should the store relocate, the plan calls for a mixture of uses that include single-family residences, multi-family houses, retail and office space. It also calls for smaller housing units, built at a density that's at the higher end of what zoning allows.
The new $300,000 planning effort for the Fry's area is expected to take about 18 months, involve numerous community meetings and result in adoption of development standards, a transportation-demand-management program and design guidelines. The master plan would be funded by a $265,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and $35,000 in local funds. It is modeled on the two South of Forest Area plans that the city adopted in 2000 and 2003, respectively, and that established design guidelines for two sections of downtown. Those planning efforts have been generally accepted as a major success, resulting in new design standards for new houses and the creation of Heritage Park downtown.
The council unanimously authorized pursuit of the grant-funded master plan for the Fry's site in April 2014. At that time, council members Pat Burt and Karen Holman voiced some concerns about the grant and wondered whether the application would commit city to certain policy directions with which the council may not be fully comfortable.
Since then, city staff has obtained the grant and confirmed that the city will have the ability to directly hire the consultants and ensure that the work's product "reflects Palo Alto's planning needs," according to the new staff report.
The city's enthusiasm about redeveloping the Fry's site notwithstanding, the shift in the land's use is far from imminent. Fry's recently extended its lease and is now expected to stay at its current location until 2019, according to city staff. One task that has yet to be accomplished is convincing the property owner, Sobrato Organization, to support the proposed transformation of the site. The report from planners notes that so far the property owner has "expressed hesitation about initiating the planning process right now."