For Palo Alto, a city that savors startups and hungers for housing, the Ventura neighborhood is truly a land of opportunity.
Located just east of El Camino Real and just south of Page Mill Road, the neighborhood features a diverse array of housing types, retail establishments and tech companies, as well as the city's largest land-use wildcard: the 12.5-acre commercial campus that includes Fry's Electronics and that city officials see as ripe for change.
The City Council took a critical step toward facilitating this change on Monday night, when it unanimously voted to move ahead with a "concept area plan" for a 39-acre portion of the neighborhood. Over the next year-and-a-half, city officials, residents, business owners will propose, debate and ultimately select their preferred land uses for the North Ventura area.
With its vote, the council finalized the physical boundaries for the area; accepted a $638,000 grant from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and $250,000 from The Sobrato Organization (which owns the Fry's site) for the planning exercise; adopted its goals for the concept area plan; and approved the creation of a new working group that will steer the process forward.
For Palo Alto officials, the planning exercise represents both an opportunity for new development and a sharp break from the city's typical planning process. The city hasn't moved ahead with an exercise of this sort since the 1990s, when it launched its two-phase concept plan for the South of Forest Avenue area (the second phase was approved in 2003).
The Ventura plan got off on a hopeful note, with council members, planning staff and residents all channeling excitement for exploring new opportunities for Ventura. Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said staff is at the beginning of "what will hopefully be a fruitful and satisfying planning effort." Senior Planner Elena Lee, who will be managing the effort, called the new plan "a very exciting opportunity to proactively plan for a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood around one of the largest underutilized housing sites in Palo Alto."
Housing will almost certainly be a key feature of the Ventura plan. The Fry's site has about 250,000 square feet of commercial and research-and-development space. At the same time, its zoning designation, RM-30, could accommodate a maximum of 374 housing units (or a "realistic capacity" of 221 units, according to staff). As such, it is the most promising site in Palo Alto's housing inventory, a portion of the Housing Element that lists properties that can accommodate housing.
Yet housing isn't the plan's only objective. The project's other goals include creating well-defined connections to transit, pedestrian and bicycle facilities; a connected street grid that fills in sidewalk gaps and street connections to the California Avenue Business District; new community facilities and infrastructure; and urban-design strategies that "strengthen and support the neighborhood fabric."
The council also agreed Monday that the new plan should minimize displacement of existing residents and small businesses -- particularly the startups that dot the neighborhood.
Most of the heavy lifting on the new plan will be done by the working group, which the council plans to appoint later this spring. The group will include residents, business owners, at least one property owner and representatives from the Planning and Transportation Commission, the Architectural Review Board and the Parks and Recreation Commission.
The city will also invite representatives from Palo Alto Unified School District, the Youth Council and Stanford University to serve in advisory, non-voting roles.
If things go as planned, the group will be appointed this spring and will start meeting in June, with the goal of completing the planning exercise by December 2019.
Rebecca Parker-Mankey, who lives in the neighborhood, said hopes to take part in the group. The new plan, she said, gives the city a chance to prove that it's able to make real progress on housing -- a key issue at a time when California lawmakers are weighing new laws to spur housing construction. She likened Palo Alto to "a teenager who can't control video game usage" and the state Legislature to a parent threatening to intervene.
"It's time for us to address the housing issue on our terms," Parker-Mankey said. "We need to show that we can get our homework done, we can do our chores and we don't need our parent chastising us."
Becky Sanders, moderator of the Ventura Neighborhood Association, suggested that Ventura residents get more representation on the board (the roster, as approved by the council, would include two residents from the plan area and two more from the greater Ventura neighborhood).
"The purpose of a concept area plan is to give the residents -- and other stakeholders -- a meaningful voice in decisions that affect their neighborhoods," Sanders said. "So why are we given so paltry a standing in the working group?"
The only area of disagreement on the council was over boundaries. The proposed district is roughly bound by Page Mill Road to the northwest, Lambert Street to the southeast, Alma Street to the northeast and a jagged line that runs through the middle of several blocks near Ash Street to the southwest. Councilman Greg Tanaka and Councilwoman Karen Holman agreed that the line should be straightened by making Ash as the district's southwestern boundary -- a motion that passed 6-3, with Vice Chair Eric Filseth, Councilman Greg Scharff and Councilman Adrian Fine dissenting.
Fine also made a case for extending the border to El Camino Real. Though no one objected to this idea, Gitelman said this revision is significant enough to potentially require fresh approval from the VTA. The council directed staff to consult with the funding agency and, if there are objections, to drop this proposal.
In general, the council was unified in its enthusiasm for launching the 18-month exercise. Cory Wolbach said he is excited to start the planning process and Mayor Liz Kniss said she hopes it will be as successful as the SOFA I and SOFA II plans. Fine said he wants to see North Ventura as a "forward-thinking district," a place where the city can embrace new technologies, construction methods and policies.
"We're giving ourselves a bit of a canvas to look at the community and draw the kind of district we want to see in the future," Fine said.