Long before Palo Alto's elected leaders proclaimed the Portage Avenue site that now houses Fry's Electronics as the city's most promising location for new housing, a Chinese immigrant named Thomas Foon Chew came to the Ventura neighborhood with grand plans of his own.
Chew, who owned the Bayside Canning Company in Alviso, purchased the 4-acre parcel in what was then the town of Mayfield in April 1918. By July, he had constructed and began operating a cannery that within a year also included 19 houses for employees and a large new warehouse. By 1920, the cannery was the third-largest cannery of fruits and vegetables in the world, behind only Del Monte and Libby, according to a Historic Resource Evaluation recently conducted by the consulting firm Page & Turnbull.
The cannery continued to expand over the next two decades, first under Chew and later under the Sutter Packing Company, a peach consortium that took over the factory from Chew in 1928 and continued operations until the cannery's closure in 1949. For a time, the cannery was the city's largest employer and canning was the largest industry.
Though largely forgotten, the cannery's historical significance is now becoming a topic of interest and contention, one that could directly influence the city's housing goals. The city is in the middle of putting together the North Ventura Concept Area Plan, a land-use document that will lay out a new vision for a 60-acre portion of Ventura as a walkable neighborhood with multifamily housing, retail, a public park and improved biking and pedestrian amenities.
The Fry's site, which is generally viewed as underdeveloped, is at the heart of the planning area. It is also a critical component in the city's plan to add housing. The city's Housing Element identifies the broader 12.5-acre site that includes Fry's as one that could accommodate up to 249 units. Because it is already zoned for multifamily residential use (RM-30), the residential development could potentially occur without the need for a zone change.
The recent determination by Page & Turnbull that the Fry's site is historically significant could force the city to scale back or, at the very least, delay any proposed redevelopment for the site. The designation of the Fry's building and an associated office building next to it as "individually significant" and eligible for listing in the California Register means that, at the very least, the city will have to perform a supplemental environmental analysis before any redevelopment can occur at the site, according to Elena Lee, the city's long-range planning manager.
"That will require its own lengthy process and analysis," Lee told the Historic Resources Board, which discussed the Page & Turnbull report at its July 25 meeting.
The determination is also prompting new calls for the city to retain the Fry's building — or at least portions of it — as part of any potential redevelopment. This despite the determination by Page & Turnbull that the building itself is not, in of itself, historically significant. Rather, its significance comes from its association with Santa Clara Valley's cannery industry, of which it is a chief example.
In describing her firm's conclusion, Christine Dikas of Page & Turnbull called the former cannery building "a rare surviving example of Palo Alto's and Santa Clara County's agricultural past." After Chew's death in 1933, Sutter Packing Company greatly expanded the building and ramped up production to meet the demands of World War II, according to the historic evaluation. The additions from the period include what is now an office building at 3201-3225 Ash St. just southeast of the cannery.
When the cannery ultimately shuttered in 1949, it employed about 1,000 workers, according to the evaluation. Safeway, which purchased the Sutter, reportedly chose to close the cannery because it didn't fit the company's business model, which focused on obtaining canned goods from other packers rather than processing its own foods.
Since then, the building has hosted a variety of commercial tenants, including Coca-Cola, which used it as a bottling plant. In the 1960s and 1970s, its tenants were mostly shipping, packaging and manufacturing businesses. Later, technology-related stores and offices came to populate the area.
Yet it is the building's original function as a cannery that may complicate its future. To become eligible for the California Register, a property has to meet one (or more) of four criteria: events (Criterion 1), persons (Criterion 2), architecture (Criterion 3) and information potential (Criterion 4). The review from Page & Turnbull found that two buildings are utilitarian in nature and, as such, do not qualify for Criterion 3.
"Neither of the buildings appear to exhibit artistic value nor are they particularly distinctive examples of cannery buildings or industrial warehouse typology such that they would rise to a level of significance on the California registry," Dikas said.
The review also concluded that despite Chew's contributions to the region, the cannery building isn't eligible under Criterion 2 either. Chew's most groundbreaking innovations – including his introduction of a successful method for canning green asparagus (which earned him the moniker, "The Asparagus King") were apparently developed in other plants. And the one in Palo Alto had undergone so many changes after Chew's death that it "does not retain enough integrity to be significant for its association with Thomas Foon Chew," the review found.
Nor is it eligible under Criterion 4, which generally applies to archaeological resources rather than built resources, according to the Page & Turnbull study.
The former cannery does, however, appear to be individually significant under Criterion 1, the consultant found, with the period of significance stretching from 1918 to 1949.
"The trajectory of canning operations at the plant — which began in the early twentieth century, peaked in the 1920s, increased production to meet the demands of World War II, and then quickly declined as residential development and new industries began to replace agriculture industries in the postwar period – corresponds closely to the broad pattern of the history of the canning industry in Santa Clara County," the Page & Turnbull report states. "The building is a rare surviving example of Palo Alto's and Santa Clara County's agricultural past."
The report's findings mean that in addition to determining how many housing units and community amenities the Portage Avenue site can accommodate, the city now has to wrestle with another question: To what extent, if any, should the former cannery be preserved?
While the Historic Resources Board didn't take any formal votes on the issue, all members who were present agreed Thursday that any future plans for the site must take account of the site's past. Board Chair David Bower spoke for himself and his colleagues when he said that the Fry's building "needs to be preserved and incorporated into the new project." Board member Margert Wimmer, meanwhile, suggested that the building's historical significance can be accommodated without actually retaining the entire structure.
Bringing the building up to modern codes so that it can be safely used by the public would require such a drastic redesign that many of the old cannery's original aspects would be lost, Wimmer said. She suggested that the city can honor history by keeping the footprint of the building, retaining some of its architectural features, such as the roofline or taking images of the existing site and incorporating these images into the design of the future redevelopment.
Laura Bajuk, executive director of the Palo Alto History Museum, advocated for preserving an actual portion of the building, rather than simply acknowledge the past with a picture or a commemorative plaque. While the city probably can't preserve the entire building, it could identify a section the cannery that perhaps has particular significance for Thomas Foon Chew's legacy and contributions.
"Real places are the ones that teach history, not recreated ones," Bajuk said.
Another proponent of preserving the legacy of Thomas Foon Chew is Gloria Hom, Chew's granddaughter. Hom, a Palo Alto resident, called the cannery an "important contribution to the area." The local cannery, she said, focused on peaches, pears and other fruit, while the Alviso plant canned primarily tomatoes.
"Certainly, I'd like to see it highlighted in some fashion and certainly maintained," Hom told the board.
Former Mayor Karen Holman, a longtime proponent of historic preservation, also weighed in and argued that the city should be thinking more creatively about how to achieve the North Ventura vision without compromising the past. She lauded Chew's legacy of both operating one of the world's largest canneries and in having a diverse, multicultural employee pool. The city, she argued, has not considered "adaptive reuse" as an option for the new building.
As an example, she cited The Barlow, a former apple cannery in Sebastopol that has been repurposed as a shopping district and farmers market. The development, she said, remains "hopping busy."
"In no plan are you going to accomplish everything but I think much can be accomplished by retaining the building," Holman said.