Kirsten Flynn knows what an "uncoordinated area plan" looks like.
Flynn, an interior designer who moved to the Ventura neighborhood in Palo Alto nearly three decades ago, said she sees it all around her neighborhood: The once-industrial area is today a mishmash of decades-old homes, brand-new apartment buildings and startup workspaces. Instead of vibrancy, it's characterized by deficits of parkspace, attention from City Hall and joy.
Part of the frustration has to do with the neighborhood's basic location and inaccessibility. The always-busy El Camino Real creates a boundary on one side of the neighborhood; Page Mill Road flanks it on another; and the Caltrain tracks hem in the neighborhood along a third side. In the middle, there is a commercial campus anchored by Fry's Electronics and several smaller businesses.
The area has seen plenty of change, and not necessarily for the better. New commercial developments along El Camino and Page Mill have added traffic to the notoriously congested intersection of the two prominent commute routes. The intersection, Flynn notes, already boasts the worst-possible rating for traffic quality ("F"), and it's getting worse.
Along Park Boulevard, which parallels the train tracks, commercial buildings are rising, with glassy facades, plazas and roof gardens. Employees riding bicyclists and scooters swerve past orange cones or come to a stop to let the latest construction crane or cement truck pass.
The bike boulevard along Park is one of the area's most prized assets, Flynn said. But even this asset is being is compromised by new developments, including a recently constructed residential complex with driveways dumping cars out onto the bike lane, she added.
"We keep doing this piecemeal, one-project-at-a-time plan approval, and each one is a missed opportunity to make a more strategic project," Flynn said.
She is hardly the only resident who sees much to be desired in her neighborhood. City Manager Ed Shikada alluded to Ventura residents' relative pessimism at a March meeting, which brought a standing-room-only crowd of about 100 people to the Ventura Community Center. According to the most recent National Citizens Survey, an annual poll of residents, the southern section of town including Ventura, Barron Park, Charleston Meadows, Monroe Park, Green Acres, Greater Miranda, Esther Clark Park and Palo Alto Hills has "pretty consistently reflected a perception of being at the lower end of the spectrum," Shikada said.
Those residents see their city as a less desirable place to visit, to retire in and to get around than their counterparts in other parts of the city. While 73% of respondents from this area rated the "overall quality of life" in Palo Alto as "good" or "excellent," this is well below the roughly 88% of respondents in the two areas that cover downtown (the citywide rate is 84%).
The North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan (NVCAP) effort, which the City Council endorsed to great fanfare in November 2017, aims to change that. While council members rarely see eye-to-eye on issues of growth and change, they were unanimous in accepting $638,000 in grant funds to jump-start the planning process for the 60-acre area bounded by El Camino, Page Mill, the train tracks and Lambert Avenue. In approving the grant, then-Councilman Eric Filseth channeled the popular sentiment when he cited the maxim, "Don't turn down free money and don't turn down free food," just before the vote.
In another positive sign, The Sobrato Organization, which owns the Fry's site at 340 Portage Ave., kicked in about $250,000 to pay for an environmental analysis and cover the grant's requirement for matching funds. The company scuttled a prior effort in 2015 to create a concept plan for Ventura, and its financial contribution and participation on a new North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan Working Group, which is charged with steering the planning, signaled to the community that change might actually be possible.
That feeling of hope persisted through the working group's March meeting at Ventura Community Center, where residents talked about their desire to see more affordable housing, bus services, retail, rooftop gardens, and less traffic and office construction. Several said they want to see more nature and advocated for removing the concrete channel in Matadero Creek and restoring it to its natural state — an option that the council agreed to consider.
Angela Dellaporte, a teacher who lives in Ventura and is part of the 11-member working group, told the council that a recent survey of the neighborhood showed that most people want to see housing, particularly for teachers, nurses and middle-income families.
"They also want to see some housing go to low-income families; they want to see a reduction in traffic ... and they want to see a lot of green space — accessible and welcoming to the public," Dellaporte told the council at the March meeting.
Before the council directed staff to perform further analysis on the Ventura site, Vice Mayor Adrian Fine cited the simmering frustrations of neighborhood residents and suggested that help is on the way.
"Hopefully, this meeting is the first step toward addressing that," Fine said at the March meeting.
And then there were hurdles
Things took a turn in the spring.
In their April meetings, frustrated members of the working group proposed a list of reforms, including election of co-chairs, creation of subcommittees and a potentially unreachable goal of getting to a consensus.
Around the same time, the city's historic consultant, Page & Turnbull, found that the Fry's building is actually a historic structure because of its status as a former cannery — the city's largest employer in the first half of the 20th century — a finding that could compromise the parcel as the city's most promising site for new housing.
Also in April, one working group member, Rebecca Parker-Mankey, found herself in hot water — and national headlines — after she berated a man in a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat inside a Starbucks on California Avenue. Parker-Mankey, an advocate for more housing and amenities for teenagers, abruptly resigned from the group.
Over the summer, city planners sparred with the consultant Perkins+Will over the expanding scope of the planning process. And earlier this month, city planners released a report indicating that Sobrato isn't interested in redeveloping the Fry's site, at least in the near term.
"Without willing property owners, the plan will be unable to realize the council's project goals," the report states.
The fresh onslaught of obstacles, delays and contract amendments has dampened the enthusiasm of city leaders and created fissures in the once-united council. It is also threatening to cripple the Ventura planning process and undermine the city Comprehensive Plan's vision for the area as "a walkable neighborhood with multi-family housing, ground-floor retail, a public park, creek improvements and an interconnected street grid."
The council's frustrations and divisions were on display during its Aug. 19 discussion of the Ventura plan, where some council members advocated for injecting more money into the process and others tried to hold the line against the rising costs, even if it means that the council and the working group won't get the kind of analysis they have hoped for.
The meeting concluded with a suddenly ambivalent council wondering whether the Ventura process can still be saved. Fine and Councilwoman Liz Kniss both advocated for staying on course and adding more than $367,000 to the Perkins+Will contract. Both noted that stopping now would require the city to return the $325,000 in grant funding that the city has already received out of the $638,000.
Their proposal barely carried, with the council voting 4-3 to expand the budget and extend the timeline by 11 months. Filseth and council members Alison Cormack and Greg Tanaka voted against the motion, saying they are uncomfortable adding significant city funds for the plan, now that its process is wobblier and its goals murkier.
Tanaka posited that "there won't be much to show after all this money is spent." Cormack's enthusiasm was similarly curbed. Sobrato's reluctance to redevelop has removed some of the urgency from the process, she said.
"I understand we committed to doing this in the Comprehensive Plan and we probably need to keep going. But it's not clear to me it will achieve the things many people in the community have been hoping for in the medium run."
Fine countered that the $367,000 budget addition is "not a huge amount compared to other items we regularly spend money on." The plan, he said, is something that the council has been promising to the Ventura community for more than 20 years.
"I think it's a reasonable investment," Fine said.
The council's Aug. 19 discussion marked a turning point for the process, which is now shifting from an open-ended discussion of all the possibilities for the site to a more focused debate about what's actually possible, given the economic realities.
This will include debating how much height and density the city should offer to developers to make residential development economically viable. It will invariably include a lively discussion about whether it's best to preserve cannery founder Thomas Foon Chew's legacy by retaining the 1918 building or to redevelop the site to include, say, workforce housing — an amenity that, coincidentally, Chew provided for Bayside Canning Company's employees.
And with Fry's confirming this week its plans to leave in January, when its latest five-year lease expires, the council and the community now find themselves staring at two potentially unappealing options: revisiting the city's traditional opposition to big-box stores or allowing the 60,000-square-foot retail building to sit empty for an extended period of time.
While Fry's departure will deprive the city of some valuable sales-tax revenue, it could have the unexpected benefit of adding fresh urgency to the planning process, much in the same way that the departure of Palo Alto Medical Foundation sparked the effort to forge a new vision for the downtown area south of Forest Avenue.
City Planning Director Jonathan Lait, who is leading the Ventura planning process, alluded to the hard work ahead on Aug. 21, when he told the working group to brace for some "uncomfortable conversations" about the costs that the community is willing to pay to get the amenities it seeks.
Lait acknowledged that the prospect of losing the cannery building might be "upsetting" to many but said staff plans to explore that scenario, as well as consider other sites where the city can add housing instead.
"You can't get to where we want to go without having those painful conversations," Lait said.
It all revolves around Fry's
The council's surprise at Sobrato's position not to redevelop the Fry's site is itself somewhat surprising.
The company, which purchased the property in 2011, has never proposed building housing there. In July 2018, shortly before the Ventura process took off, Tim Steele of Sobrato told the Weekly that while the company is happy to participate in the vision process, the Fry's site is functioning just fine from an economic perspective.
"We have a viable building that is producing income and is operating well," Steele said in 2018. The Sobrato Organization declined to comment for this story, noting that it doesn't currently have a plan for the site.
Steele also indicated at that bringing new retail or constructing significant housing at 340 Portage would be tough to achieve under existing regulations. Retail, he said, is particularly challenging, with stores closing all over the country, partly because of e-commerce. The site's lack of visibility from major corridors complicates things further.
The site is currently zoned RM-30, which allows 30 units of housing per acre, and it is subject to a 35-foot height limit. Steele indicated in 2018 that those zoning restrictions make the prospect of replacing the Fry's building with a residential complex economically infeasible.
"I think what we're going to have to consider is intensification of the site to make it economically viable," Steele said.
Housing, he said, can potentially be added to complement other types of uses, such as offices.
"But to say we're going to take this income stream and do away with it and put in much more capital to get the same income stream — it's the economics of that challenge," Steele said.
Given the hurdles to building housing at 340 Portage and the low likelihood of a redevelopment at the Fry's site in the near future, city staff and the working group are increasingly emphasizing the long-term nature of the vision. Lait said at the Aug. 21 meeting that the document intends to apply "15 to 20 years out," when the economic conditions may be different.
Gail Price, a former city planner and council member who serves on the working group, also stressed the long-term potential of the planning process in an Aug. 15 letter to the council. She wrote that she is concerned that the accelerating debate over the historic significance of the Fry's building can become a "premature 'firestorm' that could impact the intensity of needed discussion of all other vision and planning elements of the NVCAP."
She also wrote that she was "dismayed" that the discussion has not so far considered ways neighborhoods elsewhere are evolving to become more sustainable.
"I do not feel traditional approaches and expectations are sufficient for this area. I trust that the various alternatives developed will incorporate these (sustainability) ideas," wrote Price, who previously has advocated for sustainable city planning that reduces greenhouse-gas emissions and addresses climate change.
One area that the community discussion will inevitably consider is zone changes. Lait said it's important to explore potential incentives that the city can offer to Sobrato to motivate it to remove a building where it currently makes $8 per square foot in rent. Some of the options, including allowing more density and height, are almost certain to be controversial, he acknowledged. Even so, it's important for the council and the community to "at least know what we want and what we don't want," Lait said.
At the same time, Lait and the working group are looking at ways to address members' frustrations with the process. At the April meeting, several members complained that they are not getting the information they need to make their discussions meaningful. Flynn and Dellaporte proposed a series of changes, including the establishment of subcommittees focused on specific areas (hydrology, transportation, historical preservation, etc.).
Resident Terry Holzemer, a proponent of preserving the Fry's building and a member of the working group, suggested that the timeline for the planning process should be extended, even if it requires more funding.
"If we create a plan that the community is not behind, if we create a plan that people have problems with or issues with, you'll have much bigger issues than losing $650,000. I think you'll lose trust of the public and you don't want that either," Holzemer said.
Some of the group's proposals are slowly picking up traction. At the Aug. 21 meeting, Lait agreed to let the group elect co-chairs to help facilitate communication between the working group, staff and consultants (which it will do at its next meeting, on Sept. 24). Staff was also open to working group members meeting in informal subcommittees focused on particular areas of interest, provided groups have fewer than six people.
Lait also acknowledged that it has taken staff too long to provide the working group with actual redevelopment scenarios on which they can provide feedback — an exercise that the group will be wrestling with in the coming months.
"We've come to the conclusion that we need to give you something to respond to," Lait said. "We're not looking to hit the nail with the hammer on the first go, but we want to give you the bookends."
Making the process work
Whether the Ventura plan succeeds could have repercussions far beyond the 60-acre planning area. For years, Fine and other council members have long advocated for the creation of more "area plans" — a planning tool that allows residents, businesses and city leaders to rethink the zoning for a section of the city where they want to spur change. The tool has been widely used in surrounding communities, with Mountain View recently adopting "precise plans" for the San Antonio Road area and North Bayshore and now preparing another one for the East Whisman area (the city's website lists two dozen such plans in total).
But in Palo Alto, where city leaders often take pride in "the process," the tool has, at best, a mixed record of success. Council members often tout the South of Forest Area Plan (SOFA) — a two-phase, multi-year planning effort that transformed a section of downtown in the wake of Palo Alto Medical Foundation's relocation — as the ideal planning process, one that should be replicated in Ventura to the extent possible.
That, however, is looking increasingly impossible, given the many constraints of the current planning process. The SOFA plan was driven by an actual development proposal (the Medical Foundation's move to its new campus near Town & Country Village) and, as such, carried a sense of urgency. Even so, the process stretched for more than six years, with the council launching it in September 1997 and adopting the second phase of SOFA in November 2003.
The Ventura process is progressing on a far more expedited schedule. The $638,000 grant that the council voted to accept in November 2017 commits the city to completion of the plan within two years, unless Caltrans authorizes an extension. The two-year timeframe, according to a staff report released this month, "influenced the scope of work, deliverables and expectations to complete the project within this schedule."
These limitations are already causing pressure. Since March, council members and working group members have been requesting far more information than has been provided. The council requested evaluation of new requirements for below-market-rate housing and "workforce housing," as well as options for ensuring current residents are able to stay and new regulations on office size.
Members of the working group requested a "market feasibility study," detailed zoning maps and additional information about hydrology, vegetation, public safety, utilities, cultural and historical resources.
The growing scope of the exercise tested the relationship between city planners and Perkins+Will, according to Lait. He told the council last week that the tensions appear to have been resolved, with the city proposing a contract extension and the consultant removing about $60,000 from its earlier request.
"Our data-hungry analysis often requires more work than what a consultant might experience in other communities," Lait said. "There is a certain amount of responsibility that the consultant has, as well as the city, in managing the project. I'm not sure if either side lived up to their responsibilities in that regard."
While the council generally supported extending the consultant's contract, the 4-3 vote to do so underscored its limited appetite for further delays and expenditures. Filseth, who as mayor in his "State of the City" speech lauded the North Bayshore Specific Plan in Mountain View as a perfect example of successful planning, balked at expanding the budget for the Ventura process.
"There is such a thing as giving a startup too much money," he said at the council's Aug. 19 meeting.
But while Filseth suggested that the city should be able to get a decent plan for $750,000, Alexander Lew, an architect who serves on the city's Architectural Review Board and on the NVCAP Working Group, observed that the North Bayshore Specific Plan cost about $3 million to put together.
"That's a very bold, very ambitious (effort) and a bigger site, but that's an order of magnitude larger than our project budget," Lew said at the Aug. 21 meeting of the working group.
The debate over the Ventura plan is expected to heat up in the coming months, as the menu of planning scenarios begins to crystallize and the working group (and, ultimately, the council) takes on the topics of building heights and density. Already, there are some signs of tension. When Fine suggested at the Aug. 19 meeting the city could consider a commemorative plaque as an option for honoring Thomas Foon Chew's pioneering achievements, Councilwoman Lydia Kou sharply rebuffed the idea, saying that a plaque "does not do justice to my people, who started this thing."
Political disagreements, as much as further cost increases, could easily doom the planning process in the months ahead, if the past is any example. Two planning efforts that the city undertook after SOFA — the California Avenue Concept Plan and the East Meadow Circle/Fabian Way area in south Palo Alto — both involved community meetings, consultants and heated debates. One meeting on the California Avenue plan almost ended in fisticuffs between community members. Each process fizzled after the council panned and summarily shelved the final product.
But even amid the disagreements, Ventura residents have some reasons for optimism. The council last week unanimously signaled its support for a study that would evaluate improvements around Matadero Creek. Lait said the plan will consider three scenarios, one that would restore the creek to a natural state; another that would retain the concrete channel but create various pedestrian and biking amenities around it; and a third that could mix elements of the other two.
In addition, Ventura residents can soon look forward to the long-awaited expansion of Boulware Park, made possible by the city's purchase of an adjacent 0.64-acre parcel formerly owned by AT&T. The council put the finishing touches on the purchase last week, unanimously passing a budget amendment to make the $2.7-million deal possible.
A report from the Administrative Services Department notes that the expansion will allow Boulware Park to "meet the neighborhood park-acreage (requirement) and potentially integrate the street right-of-way between the parcels."
"The property's location proximate to the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan study area also enhances potential connectivity with the Fry's site," the report states.
Former Palo Alto City Councilwoman and NVCAP Working Group member Gail Price joins Weekly journalists to discuss the planning effort on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.