After years of talking about plans to transform the area around Fry's Electronics in the Ventura neighborhood, Palo Alto officials finally have the funds to start forging the new vision.
The city received earlier this month a $638,000 grant to craft what's known as the "North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan." The grant, which is part of the One Bay Area program, aims to "develop a comprehensive planning document" for the mixed-use neighborhood close to the California Avenue Caltrain station, the city's "second downtown" around California Avenue, the El Camino corridor and the Stanford Research Park.
The planning area will be centered on (though not completely limited to) what's known as the "Fry's site," a 12.5-acre area at 340 Portage Ave. that has long been talked about as one of the most promising sites in Palo Alto for new housing.
According to the project description, potential outcomes are to "identify opportunities for transit-oriented housing and employment in a well-planned and designed mixed-use area of residential and commercial spaces."
The Fry's site currently includes about 250,000 square feet of office and research-and-development space, along with retail and warehouse. Its RM-30 zoning designation allows for multifamily housing, with a "maximum yield" of 374 housing units and a "realistic capacity" of 221 units, according to Palo Alto's Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lays out the city's vision for meeting its regional housing allocations.
Palo Alto officials have been talking about redesigning the Fry's site for well over a decade. The campus was part of the California Avenue concept plan, a multiyear, community-driven master-planning process that was reaching completion before the council opted to summarily abandon it in 2013. That plan was more expansive in scope; in addition to the Fry's site, it included the California Avenue business district and the evolving commercial area around Park Boulevard.
While the council ultimately decided that the California Avenue concept plan is -- among other factors -- too aggressive in raising the permitted commercial density, members also agreed that the city needs to directly focus on the Fry's site. Since then, the city's pursuit of a new "concept plan" has proceeded in fits and starts. In June 2015, the council took the rare step of turning down a $256,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for the new master plan after members agreed that they should first consider the broader 115-acre area around California Avenue.
At the time, Councilman Eric Filseth referred to a potential pursuit of the Fry's plan before a broader vision is adopted as "putting the cart before the horse."
Even so, the planning process has remained on the city's to-do list. The city's updated Comprehensive Plan, which the council plans to approve later this year, explicitly calls for preparing a coordinated area plan for the Fry's area.
"The plan should describe a vision for the future of the Fry's site as a walkable neighborhood with multi-family housing, ground-floor retail, a public park, creek improvements and an interconnected street grid," the draft Comprehensive Plan states. "It should guide the California Avenue area as a well-designed mixed-use district with diverse land uses and a network of pedestrian-oriented streets."
The new $638,000 grant, which Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority approved at its Sept. 7 meeting, isn't the only source of funding that the city is tapping into to pay for the master plan. City Manager James Keene, who announced the grant at the Sept. 18 council meeting, said The Sobrato Organization, which owns the property, had also agreed to provide the city a $112,000 matching fund for the design work, as well as funding for an environmental analysis associated with the plan.
Keene said he expects the planning work on the Fry's site to kick off in late fall, after the adoption of the updated Comprehensive Plan, a document that will guide the city's land-use vision until 2030. The council will still have to sign off on the grant agreement, as well a on a potential partnership with Sobrato, before the process moves ahead.
Becky Sanders, president of the Ventura Neighborhood Association, told the Weekly that she and other members of the association are "delighted" with the grant funding.
"Venturans are eager to play a part in shaping the vision for the redevelopment of the Fry's site and connecting this area to our community, we look forward to building a project that all Palo Altans can be proud of," Sanders said.
The association, she said, already has a committee looking at the Fry's property. The funding will "help us find expression for all the meetings and discussions we have already had," she said.