Palo Alto's effort to develop a new vision for the Ventura area hit another unexpected obstacle on Monday night, when a routine vote to provide funding for planning exercise failed despite support from the City Council majority.
The council voted 4-3, with Mayor Eric Filseth, Councilwoman Alison Cormack and Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting, to approve a budget amendment to support the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan. Because a budget amendment requires five votes to pass, the council's vote means that the city has no funding allocated for the various studies that council members requested on Oct. 21, when they last considered the consulting contract for the vision document.
While the vote does not completely derail the planning exercise, much of which is funded through grants, it adds a layer of uncertainty to a project that is already facing numerous obstacles and complications. These include a recent determination by Palo Alto's historical consultant the former cannery at 340 Portage Ave., which is occupied by Fry's Electronics, is a historical building. The finding complicates the council's vision for the sprawling building, which council members have long seen as a promising site for new housing.
Even more disconcerting for council members is the recent announcement by The Sobrato Organization, which owns the Fry's property, that it has no intent of redeveloping the site, which is at the heart of the 60-acre planning area. Sobrato's decision has dampened the appetites of several council members, most notably Cormack and Tanaka. Both have said at recent discussions that without Sobrato's support for redevelopment, the city is unlikely to get much out of the planning process.
Despite these setbacks, most council members have maintained that there is value in drafting a new long-term vision for a centrally located neighborhood that many see as both underdeveloped and underserved. The goal of the concept area plan was to enhance the neighborhood by adding housing, pedestrian and biking amenities and recreational opportunities.
In August, council members agreed to move ahead with the plan and to expand the scope of the study to include an economic analysis of the planning area, an additional planning alternative (for a total of three) for the area and a parking study. The council also signed off in September on a contract with a consulting firm to evaluate improvements along Matadero Creek, a concrete channel that many would like to see revert to its natural form.
And in October, the council voted 4-2 (with Cormack and Councilwoman Lydia Kou dissenting and Councilwoman Liz Kniss absent) to add $368,758 to the city's contract with Perkins & Will to pay for the additional analysis.
The October vote on the contract amendment also included a proposed withdrawal of funding from the budget stabilization reserve. Unlike the other council actions, such a budget amendment requires a two-thirds vote. As such, it failed.
And on Monday night, it failed again. City Manager Ed Shikada brought the budget amendment to the council on the "consent calendar," where a series of usually non-controversial items are approved by a single vote with no discussion. In this case, however, three council members indicated that they planned to vote against the amendment.
Tanaka attributed his dissent to the fact that Sobrato isn't on board with redeveloping the site.
"If the property owner isn't on board, what are we doing here?" Tanaka asked. "That's a big problem."
Cormack did not explain her vote against the contract, though she has expressed in the past her disappointment about the planning exercise's progress. In August, she said that it's not clear that the plan "will achieve the things many people in the community have been hoping for in the medium-run." Filseth said Monday that he believes it is "premature" to increase the consultant's contract by 50%, particularly when the money is coming from the city's general fund.
After the council's vote, Planning Director Jonathan Lait told the Weekly that staff will now have to come up with new ways to advance the project's goals. This could mean "metering" out the work over a longer period of time, having less consulting work and holding fewer meetings of the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan Working Group, a panel of stakeholders that have been working with the city on the planning exercise.
He noted, however, that the city still has funding for the plan. This includes a $638,000 federal grant and a $112,000 contribution from Sobrato. Palo Alto's contributions would have raised the Perkins & Will contract to $1.14 million.
"We're still moving ahead. We have money that has been allocated already, including for the creek study, and we're going to have to think about how to move forward," Lait said.
With less reliance on consultants and fewer public meetings, Lait said he expects the exercise to become more of a "staff-driven process."
The council still hopes to adopt the vision for the Ventura area by December 2021.