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.