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Palo Alto struggles to forge a common vision in Ventura

As critics debate future of 60-acre site, main property owner advances its own proposal

The commercial building at 200-400 Portage Ave. in Palo Alto, which once was used as a cannery, is the centerpiece of the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

Since Palo Alto began its quest in 2017 to come up with a new plan for a 60-acre parcel in the Ventura neighborhood, the city's goal was to develop a vision that would bring affordable housing and a host of community ideas to a site that has long been eyed as prime for redevelopment.

But as the city is nearing the finish line, the plan appears to be in serious jeopardy, with resident stakeholders splitting over different alternatives and the largest property owner proposing its own development proposal that would clash, in many ways, with the city's grand vision.

The site, which until recently was anchored by Fry's Electronics, has long played a major role in the city's housing plans. Palo Alto's Housing Element lists the site in its housing inventory, citing its potential to have up to 249 units (within the entire planning area, the city had identified 19 parcels with the potential to accommodate 364 new housing units).

But since Fry's departed a year ago from its longtime location at 340 Portage Ave., The Sobrato Organization, which owns the site, has indicated that it has no plans to redevelop the Fry's building for the type of dense, affordable-housing development that City Council members and community activists have long clamored for.

Instead, Sobrato announced last month that it plans to move ahead with an 85-townhouse development at 200 Portage Ave., a 12-acre site on the periphery of the historic cannery that Fry's had occupied. Sobrato also indicated that it plans to rely on state Senate Bill 330, a law that prohibits municipalities from changing zoning standards to prevent a housing proposal from advancing.

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The schisms and challenges that now characterize the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan were highlighted on Wednesday night, during the Planning and Transportation Commission's first discussion of the three alternatives developed by the 14-member working group that the council charged with the complex task. During the course of the hearing, planning commissioners and working group members criticized the lack of truly affordable housing in the proposed alternatives, bemoaned the lack of park space and raised flags about a new development proposal by Sobrato that would significantly limit the city's options in a key portion of the planning area.

Commissioner Michael Alcheck suggested that the Sobrato development effectively "blows up the entire NVCAP situation" and urged members of the working group to reach out to the developer and urge it to reconsider (Sobrato itself has a representative on the working group).

Assistant Planning Director Rachael Tanner acknowledged that the Sobrato proposal, in the view of some, "throws a wrench in the plan." In other ways, however, it comports with the city's often stated goals. Tanner observed that the new Sobrato plan does provide housing units — a key city goal — as well as open space, even if falls far short in both areas of what many had hoped for.

Over the course of the planning process, members of the working group found some common ground, even if they could not reach a consensus on any of the alternatives on the table. They generally agreed that dense housing should largely be concentrated on the periphery of the site, along El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, while the interior would include retail, some office space and lower density residential development. They also agreed that the plan should focus on bike and pedestrian improvements, particularly along Park Boulevard. Traffic improvements should discourage cars from cutting through the planning area (unless the retail is the destination) and direct them toward the main arteries, El Camino and Page Mill.

There was also general agreement that the plan should include ample below-market-rate housing, though residents and working group members expressed a wide range of opinions about what the city should do to get these units built.

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The three alternatives that the planning commission considered on Wednesday all share these characteristics. The key difference between them is the intensity of new development. Alternative 1 is the most modest of the three proposals. It would retain both the former Fry's building and the office building at 395 Page Mill Road, which serves as headquarters for Cloudera. Alternative 2 would demolish major portions of the Fry's building and convert parts of both this building and the Cloudera site to multifamily housing. Alternative 3 would do the same, while allowing higher density for housing development as well as additional office development.

Each of the three alternatives raises the city's target for housing at the former Fry's site, while also adding some office space. Alternative 1 would include 500 housing units and 8,600 square feet of new office space. Alternative 2 calls for 1,170 housing units and 33,300 square feet of new office space. Alternative 3 goes well further with 1,490 housing units and 126,700 square feet of office space.

For some residents and commissioners, the biggest flaw with all three proposals is the relatively paltry number of units that would be offered at below market rate. While affordable housing is a key priority of the planning effort, Alternative 1 includes just 70 below-market-rate units, while Alternative 2 and Alternative 3 includes 180 and 220 below-market-rate units, respectively.

Commissioner Ed Lauing said all three alternatives fail to meet a key objective of the area plan: providing housing for a variety of income levels.

"We need a lot more true affordable housing," Lauing said. "Just building a lot more housing doesn't mean you're going to get more affordable housing."

Lauing and Chair Cari Templeton also questioned why the two more ambitious alternatives have such high office numbers. Templeton wondered whether there are other ways, aside from allowing more offices, to make residential projects economically feasible.

"What do we have to do to get a house-heavier version?" Templeton asked.

The commission didn't take any action on the three proposals, which it will continue discussing on Jan. 13. It did, however, hear from working group members and other residents who expressed a wide range of opinions about the redevelopment of Ventura. Some, including Gail Price, board president of the nonprofit Palo Alto Forward and former council member, supported Alternative 3, which she said would greatly benefit the Ventura neighborhood, making it a "more inclusive, thriving and vibrant part of Palo Alto." Price, who also serves as co-chair of the working group, noted that Alternative 3 is the only option that was deemed economically feasible by planning staff and the city's consultants.

Among the working group, Alternative 2 was the most popular of the three options, with five members voting to support it. Three members supported Alternative 1, one voted for Alternative 3 and four expressed no preference at all (another one was unresponsive, according to staff).

Kirsten Flynn, a Ventura resident and working group member who supports Alternative 2, urged the commissioners to support adding amenities to the planning area to complement the new housing. This includes retail, park space and transportation improvements, particularly for bicyclists.

Several residents, including Ventura resident Becky Sanders and working group members Terry Holzemer and Keith Reckdahl, advocated for what's known as "Alternative M," a plan under which the city would buy the Fry's site and redevelop it by building 400 units of low-income housing at the site. The purchase would be financed by municipal bonds under the proposal.

Sanders called the proposition a "bold stroke" and the most certain way to build affordable housing, which is generally not a profitable investment for private developers.

"Let's get into the business of building housing as a community," Sanders said.

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Palo Alto struggles to forge a common vision in Ventura

As critics debate future of 60-acre site, main property owner advances its own proposal

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Dec 10, 2020, 9:17 am

Since Palo Alto began its quest in 2017 to come up with a new plan for a 60-acre parcel in the Ventura neighborhood, the city's goal was to develop a vision that would bring affordable housing and a host of community ideas to a site that has long been eyed as prime for redevelopment.

But as the city is nearing the finish line, the plan appears to be in serious jeopardy, with resident stakeholders splitting over different alternatives and the largest property owner proposing its own development proposal that would clash, in many ways, with the city's grand vision.

The site, which until recently was anchored by Fry's Electronics, has long played a major role in the city's housing plans. Palo Alto's Housing Element lists the site in its housing inventory, citing its potential to have up to 249 units (within the entire planning area, the city had identified 19 parcels with the potential to accommodate 364 new housing units).

But since Fry's departed a year ago from its longtime location at 340 Portage Ave., The Sobrato Organization, which owns the site, has indicated that it has no plans to redevelop the Fry's building for the type of dense, affordable-housing development that City Council members and community activists have long clamored for.

Instead, Sobrato announced last month that it plans to move ahead with an 85-townhouse development at 200 Portage Ave., a 12-acre site on the periphery of the historic cannery that Fry's had occupied. Sobrato also indicated that it plans to rely on state Senate Bill 330, a law that prohibits municipalities from changing zoning standards to prevent a housing proposal from advancing.

The schisms and challenges that now characterize the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan were highlighted on Wednesday night, during the Planning and Transportation Commission's first discussion of the three alternatives developed by the 14-member working group that the council charged with the complex task. During the course of the hearing, planning commissioners and working group members criticized the lack of truly affordable housing in the proposed alternatives, bemoaned the lack of park space and raised flags about a new development proposal by Sobrato that would significantly limit the city's options in a key portion of the planning area.

Commissioner Michael Alcheck suggested that the Sobrato development effectively "blows up the entire NVCAP situation" and urged members of the working group to reach out to the developer and urge it to reconsider (Sobrato itself has a representative on the working group).

Assistant Planning Director Rachael Tanner acknowledged that the Sobrato proposal, in the view of some, "throws a wrench in the plan." In other ways, however, it comports with the city's often stated goals. Tanner observed that the new Sobrato plan does provide housing units — a key city goal — as well as open space, even if falls far short in both areas of what many had hoped for.

Over the course of the planning process, members of the working group found some common ground, even if they could not reach a consensus on any of the alternatives on the table. They generally agreed that dense housing should largely be concentrated on the periphery of the site, along El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, while the interior would include retail, some office space and lower density residential development. They also agreed that the plan should focus on bike and pedestrian improvements, particularly along Park Boulevard. Traffic improvements should discourage cars from cutting through the planning area (unless the retail is the destination) and direct them toward the main arteries, El Camino and Page Mill.

There was also general agreement that the plan should include ample below-market-rate housing, though residents and working group members expressed a wide range of opinions about what the city should do to get these units built.

The three alternatives that the planning commission considered on Wednesday all share these characteristics. The key difference between them is the intensity of new development. Alternative 1 is the most modest of the three proposals. It would retain both the former Fry's building and the office building at 395 Page Mill Road, which serves as headquarters for Cloudera. Alternative 2 would demolish major portions of the Fry's building and convert parts of both this building and the Cloudera site to multifamily housing. Alternative 3 would do the same, while allowing higher density for housing development as well as additional office development.

Each of the three alternatives raises the city's target for housing at the former Fry's site, while also adding some office space. Alternative 1 would include 500 housing units and 8,600 square feet of new office space. Alternative 2 calls for 1,170 housing units and 33,300 square feet of new office space. Alternative 3 goes well further with 1,490 housing units and 126,700 square feet of office space.

For some residents and commissioners, the biggest flaw with all three proposals is the relatively paltry number of units that would be offered at below market rate. While affordable housing is a key priority of the planning effort, Alternative 1 includes just 70 below-market-rate units, while Alternative 2 and Alternative 3 includes 180 and 220 below-market-rate units, respectively.

Commissioner Ed Lauing said all three alternatives fail to meet a key objective of the area plan: providing housing for a variety of income levels.

"We need a lot more true affordable housing," Lauing said. "Just building a lot more housing doesn't mean you're going to get more affordable housing."

Lauing and Chair Cari Templeton also questioned why the two more ambitious alternatives have such high office numbers. Templeton wondered whether there are other ways, aside from allowing more offices, to make residential projects economically feasible.

"What do we have to do to get a house-heavier version?" Templeton asked.

The commission didn't take any action on the three proposals, which it will continue discussing on Jan. 13. It did, however, hear from working group members and other residents who expressed a wide range of opinions about the redevelopment of Ventura. Some, including Gail Price, board president of the nonprofit Palo Alto Forward and former council member, supported Alternative 3, which she said would greatly benefit the Ventura neighborhood, making it a "more inclusive, thriving and vibrant part of Palo Alto." Price, who also serves as co-chair of the working group, noted that Alternative 3 is the only option that was deemed economically feasible by planning staff and the city's consultants.

Among the working group, Alternative 2 was the most popular of the three options, with five members voting to support it. Three members supported Alternative 1, one voted for Alternative 3 and four expressed no preference at all (another one was unresponsive, according to staff).

Kirsten Flynn, a Ventura resident and working group member who supports Alternative 2, urged the commissioners to support adding amenities to the planning area to complement the new housing. This includes retail, park space and transportation improvements, particularly for bicyclists.

Several residents, including Ventura resident Becky Sanders and working group members Terry Holzemer and Keith Reckdahl, advocated for what's known as "Alternative M," a plan under which the city would buy the Fry's site and redevelop it by building 400 units of low-income housing at the site. The purchase would be financed by municipal bonds under the proposal.

Sanders called the proposition a "bold stroke" and the most certain way to build affordable housing, which is generally not a profitable investment for private developers.

"Let's get into the business of building housing as a community," Sanders said.

Comments

marc665
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 10, 2020 at 10:02 am
marc665, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 10:02 am

Amazing how so many people think that they control what other people do with their property. If they want to decide what to do with the property, let them buy it and then they can decide and use their own money

/marc


Buy it and make it a park
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 10, 2020 at 10:34 am
Buy it and make it a park, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 10:34 am

This city and the entire Bay Area is woefully overpopulated and given current and likely future pandemics, environmental degradation, sea level rise and pollution now is the time to plan open spaces and less development. The city, according to its own comprehensive plan, is already short of park space per number of current residents by over 100 acres. Buy this spot and turn it into a large park and community center.

We do not need more housing for the techie masses and there is no builder that wants to build housing for the non-affluent. What we do need is to support the environment, keep residents safe and supported with open space and ways to have a quality of life that extends beyond just warehousing the masses.


Alex
Registered user
Barron Park
on Dec 10, 2020 at 11:25 am
Alex, Barron Park
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 11:25 am

I’m totally sure that the city council will make a measured decision to help alleviate the housing shortage.

lmao just kidding, those clowns will hem and haw about it not having enough affordable housing knowing damn well that the % amount they’ve chosen makes it untenable to build. Can’t have new people moving in who might want to vote for candidates who actually want to help make housing affordable!


BruceS
Registered user
Greenmeadow
on Dec 10, 2020 at 11:56 am
BruceS, Greenmeadow
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 11:56 am

@Marc665
So then you don't mind if someone buys up a couple of lots in your single family neighborhood and puts in a high rise, or puts in a refinery next to your neighborhood?


Mark Dinan
Registered user
East Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2020 at 12:05 pm
Mark Dinan, East Palo Alto
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 12:05 pm

I'm sure Sobrato can provide lots of affordable housing units if the height limit is raised to 20 stories, parking requirements are limited, and greenspace/setback requirements are adjusted. Calling for a huge percentage of affordable units while at the same time limiting density simply does not work.


Samuel L.
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 10, 2020 at 2:42 pm
Samuel L., Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 2:42 pm

The headline could have left off "in Ventura" and it'd still be accurate.


Marianne Mueller
Registered user
Professorville
on Dec 10, 2020 at 2:50 pm
Marianne Mueller, Professorville
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 2:50 pm

Can we recently announced Facebook money be tappedfor option M?


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2020 at 3:39 pm
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 3:39 pm

No. No. No to Sabroto plan. Yes to affordable housing at ALL income levels 30 to 120% AMI), age groups and cultural backgrounds ! Have one central waitlist and prioritized for Palo Alto resident/work Open space and retail need to be designed for ample affordable multi family housing within the interior of the site. No good reason to have affordable housing front ECR or PageMill. Limit residential parking and trade in for safe, covered bike lock up storage and station E-bike charge and bike air/repair area. Each unit in lieu of parking should have a small utility room/storage for family overflow. Retail and Green Spaces and public art should look out onto ECR / PageMill (like the city Soccer Field). Family units might then be protected from noise and dirty exhaust pollution. Laundry in every unit with ceiling fans will reduce carbon foot print and small children running accidentally into retail parking area and traffic on ECR and Page Mill. Upgrade PA's Waste Water Treatment Plant now for incoming housing. Us all or a portion of the Cannery Warehouse for community space/office and build housing above. Thank you.


marc665
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 10, 2020 at 5:18 pm
marc665, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 5:18 pm

@BruceS, if you took the time to read, that is not what I said.

What I said is that you don't have the right to tell someone what to do with their property. If someone buys the lot next to you and it is zoned for R1 and they want to build a home, you don't get the right to tell them to build a park so that you can have a place to have weekend barbeques.

If people want low income housing, then buy the property at the current fair market value, spend the money and build the housing. Don't tell someone else that they should lose money by building the housing that you have a fantasy about. And don't buy it with my tax dollars and say that it is for the "good" of the community.

/marc


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2020 at 7:34 pm
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 7:34 pm

Re Taxes. I guess we shouldn't pave our roads or put in stop signs because we are using our tax dollars. Palo Altans believe they can personally bucket exactly where a tax dollar should go or not go. And yes, public opinion falsely speaks volumes in our Council's and Commissions decisions. A private property ownership's tax line / use or non gets special entitlements / privileges here and is not representative of all who pay into them regardless of homeownership or not. Almost 50% of city residents are renters. Yet this population of residents are vastly underrepresented in civic responsibility in decision making. BTW Bay Area based, Chevron refinery gets away with mayhem and billions in Gvnmt subsidies. As well in times of War the constitution can take our homes for military use. I do believe we are fighting a War with Covid and housing. Is it a loosing battle?


Legit Question
Registered user
Palo Alto Hills
on Dec 10, 2020 at 7:38 pm
Legit Question, Palo Alto Hills
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 7:38 pm

How does the State's mandated ABAG/MTC 10,000 units (300 a year) play into the Palo Alto NVCAP's allocation for affordable housing? I mean if Sabroto can use the Calif State Housing Crisis Bill to build above market rate housing at their Fry's site, can't the City or State take advantage of the same bill and reasoning to build affordable multi family housing at Fry's as well?


Mark Weiss
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 10, 2020 at 8:46 pm
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2020 at 8:46 pm

Sobrato bought the 14 acre Fry’s site.
Then insiders had a 39 acre parcel upzoned.
I blinked: how is it now 60 acres?
@marc665– long time local developers sell Frys then buy numerous adjoining residents, THEN lobby city hall to up zone the expanded district: is THAT your model of market forces?


Mark Weiss
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 11, 2020 at 3:38 pm
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 11, 2020 at 3:38 pm

I’m for Alternative Aleph Null or X0 which is zero office space, 200 housing units, 100 percent BMR — 50 or more units for working musicians or guitar techs — and 40 acres of parkland, and a pool. And we find out what this costs Sobrato relative to their plan, and then we raise that money.


Me 2
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Dec 12, 2020 at 2:19 pm
Me 2, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Dec 12, 2020 at 2:19 pm

Affordable housing is a policy fail.

It will turn Palo Alto into San Francisco, a hollowed-out, child-unfriendly mess where only the rich and their help can live in Palo Alto.


JS1
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 15, 2020 at 8:45 pm
JS1, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 15, 2020 at 8:45 pm

Jay Paul and Sobrato control 40% of the North Ventura Plan Area. There is no realism to any Plan developed by the City’ and/or their consultant Urban Planning consultant unless Sobrato and Jay Paul also support the plan and are motivated to implement such Plan. Jay Paul is extremely unlikely to demolish several hundred thousand square feet of office space (that derives twice the income as housing) in order to build housing unless the allowed density of said housing is dramatically increased.

Plans such as the North Ventura Plan can take up to 75-100 years for the majority of properties within the Plan to be fully redeveloped. If existing landowners are incentivized, redevelopment can happen quicker. What time expectations does the City have for this area?


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