As Palo Alto prepares to redevelop the eclectic but underserved Ventura neighborhood, area residents are bracing — with a mixture of caution and excitement — for the wave of change that may soon wash over them.
On the one hand, many are excited about new park amenities, creek improvements and affordable-housing opportunities that the City Council is planning for the area. On the other, some are fretting that these improvements could bring about unwelcome changes of the sort that Ventura has already been experiencing: more tech firms, worsening traffic and more residents getting displaced because of rising rents.
These sentiments spilled out on Monday night, during the City Council's special Town Hall meeting in the Ventura Community Center. More than 100 residents, many from the neighborhood, crammed into the center, filling every chair and lining the walls, to hear an update and offer their thoughts on the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan, a vision document that is now in the works for a 60-acre portion of the neighborhood.
Some came to voice preferences, others to propose specific ideas, including a clinic to serve low-income residents, a refurbished and landscaped Matadero Creek and a new school.
Donald Barr, a longtime proponent of affordable housing, encouraged the council to consider establishing in Ventura a community health center that will allow MayView Community Health Center, which currently occupies a building near the Santa Clara County courthouse, to expand its services. Barr, a Stanford professor of sociology, said such a facility could also provide dental services and other social services to residents in Ventura and beyond.
Barr said the proposal has the support of MayView CEO Ken Graham. Leadership from MayView has also been in contact with Palo Alto Housing, the nonprofit that builds affordable housing and manages the city's below-market-rate program. Palo Alto Housing leaders indicated that they would be interested in building a three- to four-story building of low-income housing above the clinic, bringing about 50 units of such housing to the neighborhood.
Barr was one of the numerous speakers who supported adding more housing, particularly for low-income residents. Kelsey Banes, a psychologist at VA Palo Alto Healthcare System, recounted co-workers who've had to quit because of the high cost of living in the area. Citing the city's astronomic housing prices, Banes described the situation as a "hollowing out of middle class."
"As baby boomers are retiring, I don't know how millennials are going to be able to live here if we're not thinking about how to create spaces for us," Banes said. "I think it's a great opportunity to create housing for people who prefer not to drive two hours to work every day."
While adding housing is one of the central goals of the new coordinated plan, residents also argued that the neighborhoods needs many additional amenities to support both the existing residents and new ones. For many, retail was a key component.
Becky Sanders, moderator of the Ventura Neighborhood Association, said she and her neighbors support Barr's proposal, much like they had supported the recently approved proposal by Palo Alto Housing to build 58 units for low-income residents on El Camino Real and Wilton Avenue, a project known as Wilton Court. They also, however, feel strongly that new commercial development in the neighborhood consists of retail that serves the community.
"I like technology — technology got us our house. But the technology does not do anything for the quality of life of the people in the neighborhood," Sanders said.
For Todd Collins, a member of the Palo Alto Board of Education, schools were — unsurprisingly — a top concern. Collins, who lives in Barron Park, just across El Camino Real from Ventura, channeled the feelings of many in the audience when he called the Ventura neighborhood "grossly underserved" and stressed the need to add more community services. A new school, he said, should top the list of priorities.
"The most important community amenity in terms of defining the community's identity and making everyone feel like they belong is a school," Collins said. "And this area has no school and it had no school in over 50 years and it'll never have a school unless we take steps now to build one for them."
The city's own surveys indicate many residents share Collins' view that Ventura hasn't gotten enough attention from the city in recent decades. The most recent National Citizens Survey showed residents in the geographic area that includes Ventura giving Palo Alto lower grades than residents in other neighborhoods in the areas of walkability, public transportation and quality of new development.
City Manager Ed Shikada noted that 84 percent of residents gave Palo Alto the score of "excellent" or "good" when asked about "overall quality of life." In the area that includes Ventura, 73 percent gave the city high rankings in this category.
The new area plan aims to change that by proposing a host of new amenities to go with hundreds of new housing units, most of which would likely be earmarked for the sprawling, underdeveloped site around Fry's Electronics. At the same time, the council is hoping to add a near-term improvement that many in Ventura have long clamored for: the expansion of Boulware Park. Shikada received an ovation from the crowd when he announced that the city has just submitted an offer to buy a Birch Street site that is currently owned by AT&T.
The need to add more green space to Ventura was a major theme at the Monday meeting, with many calling for the "naturalization" of Matadero Creek, which is currently a concrete channel. Neighborhood resident Claire Elliott, an ecologist at the nonprofit Grassroots Ecology, said she would like to see the city be "more biophilic" — that is, friendlier for nature.
"Opening up the creek along Matadero Creek would be lovely," Elliott said. "Possibly doing something to help Barron Creek as well."
Council members likewise supported this idea, with both Councilwoman Alison Cormack and Vice Mayor Adrian Fine saying that they'd like to see the plan include at least one option that includes a naturalized creek. Cormack also asked staff and the 14-member working group of stakeholders to come up with at least one option that would be "a real challenge to all of our thinking" rather than simply a compromise between stakeholder priorities.
Councilman Tom DuBois, meanwhile, focused his comments on housing and said the city should do what it can to ensure that some of the new housing target specific types of employees, including teachers and city workers — workers who make too much to qualify for below-market-rate housing but not enough to afford local market rates. Councilwoman Lydia Kou concurred and said at least 20 percent of the units should be below-market-rate housing.
DuBois made a motion that, among other things, calls for the city to evaluate the idea of bringing "workforce housing" to the site and increasing the "inclusionary housing" requirement, which requires developers to devote a percentage of their units as below-market-rate housing. The council approved the motion by a 6-0 vote, with Councilwoman Liz Kniss absent.
DuBois also stressed that need to ensure that existing residents do not lose their homes because of the plan. His motion included a provision for preventing resident displacement.
"If we end up gentrifying the whole neighborhood, forcing people out, I think we'll have failed in this plan," DuBois said.