Fry's Electronics, which has been a fixture in the Ventura neighborhood for more than a quarter century, will close its store in January, leaving a vacancy at one of Palo Alto's most hotly debated sites.
The store's lease for the century-old building at 340 Portage Ave. that once served as a cannery is set to expire on Jan. 31. Manuel Valerio, a Fry's spokesman, told the Weekly that the company must vacate the premises by this date and will close for business some time earlier that month.
"Fry's is very sorry to be closing the Store," Valerio told the Weekly in an email. "The people of the Palo Alto community, and surrounding environs, have been great customers and friends of Fry's, and supportive of our business ever since we opened the store in 1990."
He noted that customers can still patronize the Palo Alto store until it closes, order products online or visit its other locations in Sunnyvale, Fremont, San Jose, Campbell or Concord.
The imminent departure of Fry's Electronics isn't entirely surprising. Palo Alto officials were aware of the lease expiration and had already begun planning for the future of the broader area around the Fry's site. The city's Housing Element calls for having up to 221 units of housing in this area, though the plan to actually construct homes seems highly unlikely in the near future, given the reluctance of the property owner, The Sobrato Organization, to replace the 1918 building.
On Wednesday morning, many of the shelves at the Portage Avenue store were virtually empty. There were no customers in line and few employees near the front cash registers. One employee shrugged when asked about the store's potential closure and said he hasn't been informed about the store's future. A store manager directed inquiries to the company's corporate headquarters in San Jose.
The departure of Fry's from the former cannery site marks another transition for the building, which just this year was deemed historic because of its association with Bayside Canning Company. Founded by Thomas Foon Chew in 1906 in Alviso, the company was the third-largest cannery of fruits and vegetables in the world by 1920, according to a report from Page & Turnbull, the city's historical consulting firm.
Despite its historic significance, the building has undergone numerous alterations and has gone through a variety of uses since the cannery closed in 1949 (by that time, it was owned by Safeway). Over the decades, it has housed as a warehouse, a packing company, a paper company and Maximart, a home-goods store that occupied the site between the mid-1960s and about 1978.
Now, the building is set to once again be reinvented. Despite Fry's presence at the site 1990, the parcel is zoned as RM-30, which allows developers to build up to 30 residential units per acre. In 1994, the council voted to accommodate Fry's Electronics by granting it a commercial-use extension stretching 20 years beyond the 1999 deadline, when the housing requirement of the underlying zoning was set to kick in.
In 2006, however, the council agreed to delete a provision in the ordinance calling for the 20-year amortization period for Fry's as part of an effort to retain the store, which was then one of Palo Alto's biggest generators of sales-tax revenues.
Even at that time, council members were talking about the need to create a "specific plan" for the eclectic portion of Ventura, which is near the intersection of two critical commute arteries, El Camino Real and Page Mill Road. The creation of that plan officially kicked off on November 2017 and the council hopes to complete it by late 2020.
So far, there seems to be little consensus on what will go in once Fry's leaves. The city has traditionally opposed allowing big-box stores, particularly in close proximity to California Avenue. And with smaller retailers reportedly struggling amidst a tough labor market, some have opted to close up shop, with The Prolific Oven being the latest example.
While the council has been eyeing the Fry's site for housing for several decades, Sobrato has no plans to redevelop the Fry's building, according to Planning Director Jonathan Lait, who updated the council last week on the city's plan to come up with a new vision for the Ventura area.
"They communicated to staff that at present ... they are not seeking to redevelop or demolish in whole or in part the existing Fry's building," Lait said at the Aug. 19 council meeting.
Even so, the idea of redeveloping the area to add housing to the Portage Avenue campus remains popular, particularly given the site's size, zoning designation and proximity to both the California Avenue Caltrain station and the Park Avenue bike boulevard. Don Barr, a longtime housing advocate, last week advocated that the city redevelop the sprawling one-story building to create a four-story residential complex with clinic for MayView Community Helth Center on the ground floor. Others have argued that the area should be used for teacher housing or "workforce" housing for various types of public employees.
Editor's note: The initial story had failed to state that the City Council voted in 2006 to remove the provision requiring the amortization of Fry's Electronics by 2019.