In the latest Around Town column, concerns are rising over the process to create a new vision for Palo Alto's Ventura neighborhood and the city is proposing a new way to select who serves on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority board of directors.
HAZY VISION ... Last March, more than 100 residents and city leaders packed into Ventura Community Center to present ideas for revitalizing a large chunk of the Ventura neighborhood. Some talked about the need to build more housing, while others raised the prospect of adding park space or removing the channel at Matadero Creek to restore the creek's natural flow. All of these improvements are now under consideration as part of the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan, a vision document that the city has been compiling with a group of area residents, business owners and developers known as the Working Group. Now, however, there is trouble on the horizon. Since the March meeting, Palo Alto officials learned that the most promising site in the planning area, the former cannery at 340 Portage Ave. that houses Fry's Electronics and various small businesses, is in fact a historic structure and that the site's owner, Sobrato Organization, wants to retain the building. One Working Group member abruptly resigned after an incident in which she berated a man in a MAGA hat at a local Starbucks made national news. Five of the group's 14 members have expressed concern about the current process and proposed a different approach that involves multiple subcommittees and the goal of reaching a full consensus on a preferred alternative (a goal that staff believes may not be possible). The planning process was initially slated to stretch for two years, but is now estimated to take 35 months, with the deadline currently set for December 2021, according to a new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment. The additional work is projected to cost the city $367,112. The City Council, which enthusiastically endorsed the new planning process, will consider these issues on Aug. 19, at which point it also will discuss whether the new vision should include the preservation of Thomas Foon Chew's old cannery or its redevelopment to accommodate housing.
A GREATER VOICE ... Palo Alto officials have complained for decades about the city's representation on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which ostensibly serves the entire county but which is largely dominated by San Jose. In June, a Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report largely confirmed the city's position when it had determined that the transit agency's leadership structure is, to paraphrase the report, an utter mess. The scathing report notes that the board suffers from a lack of experience by its members, domination by representatives from San Jose and conflicts of interest by members who must balance their fiduciary duties to the VTA with demands from local communities. Later this month, the Palo Alto City Council will consider approving a letter signed by Mayor Eric Filseth that makes a case for changing how board seats are meted out. While Filseth noted that smaller cities like Palo Alto currently don't have a consensus position on the issue, he argued that VTA's governance should be based not just on cities' populations (as is the case today) but also on employment and sales-tax generation. "As a major employment center and sales tax generator at the edge of VTA's service territory, Palo Alto has historically been underrepresented in VTA policy decision in ways that do not serve the travelling public," the city's response to the grand jury states. The letter proposes having the VTA provide funding to a regional group, such as the Cities Association of Santa Clara County, so that the various cities that don't currently have representation on the VTA board can have a "thoughtful discussion" about possible alternatives.