With Palo Alto's plans for the Ventura neighborhood mired in uncertainty and facing heavy community opposition, the City Council agreed Monday to hit the pause button on the multiyear planning effort.
The council did not endorse any of the three options that were created by staff and consultants for the 60-acre section of Ventura, which is bounded by Page Mill Road, El Camino Real, Lambert Avenue and the Caltrain corridor. Instead, council members challenged the plan's economic assumptions, criticized its heavy reliance on office development and unanimously agreed to resume the debate over the area's future in the fall.
In discussing the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan, the council struggled to find an alternative it likes. The menu of options included two alternatives that the city's consultants deemed to be economically unfeasible and a third option that most residents who worked on the plan found to be deeply undesirable.
All three alternative would add housing to Ventura, with the number of new residences ranging from 500 in Alternative 1, which offers the lightest touch, to 1,490 in Alternative 3, which has more height and density than the other two. The medium scenario, Alternative 2, has a "realistic capacity" of 1,170, according to staff.
A key difference between the alternatives is commercial space. While the first two alternatives focus on replacing commercial use with residential — either through gradual redevelopment as existing commercial projects get phased out or through replacement — the third alternative would add plenty of both. In addition to the influx of housing, Alternative 3 would add 83,800 square feet of commercial development to an area that already had 744,000 square feet.
For most members of the North Ventura Coordinated Area Working Group, a 14-member panel of Ventura residents, property owners and other stakeholders who worked on the plan over the past two years, the preponderance of office space proved to be a deal breaker. Only one member, Gail Price, supported Alternative 3. Meanwhile, the most popular option — Alternative 2 — received only four votes of support from the Working Group.
The office-heavy nature of Alternative 3 made it a tough sell for many Ventura residents and Working Group members. Angela Dellaporta, a member of Working Group, argued Monday that the high level of office space "flies directly in the face of the majority of the Working Group members and also the wishes and needs of residents who want housing and parks — not more offices, not more traffic."
Jonathan Brown, a Ventura resident, agreed and said he strenuously opposes Alternative 3B — a variation of Alternative 3 that was backed by the Planning and Transportation Commission and by city planning staff. The menu of options, he argued, needs to go back to the drawing board.
"It's not fair to shove all of Palo Alto's housing goals into one area of the city — one of the most underserved in all of Palo Alto," Brown said.
The council, for its part, refrained from voting on any of the alternatives on Monday. Instead, council members offered their concerns about the proposed plan and staff's economic analysis, which found that only the third alternative is likely to materialize. Vice Mayor Pat Burt questioned the decision by the consultant, Strategic Economics, to predicate its economic analysis on the assumption that a property owner would have to buy land to develop homes and offices in Ventura. The equation changes, Burt argued, when one considers scenarios in which existing property owners are developing the site.
While the analysis provides one key data point, the city should be "looking at more dynamic modeling on feasibility," Burt said.
Numerous residents and housing advocates supported the staff recommendation and urged the council to support Alternative 3B, office growth notwithstanding. Price, who serves as board president of the nonprofit group Palo Alto Forward, said the alternative would provide "the greatest variety of community benefits and economic vitality."
"It is a unique opportunity to build many homes close to services, shopping, transit, additional jobs, which would set new families and low- and moderate-income families … up for success," Price said.
While the council has long viewed Ventura as a prime area for growth and redevelopment, staff and council members acknowledged that they have only limited power over the neighborhood's future. Alternatives 2 and 3 bank on redeveloping the sprawling site at 340 Portage Ave., former home of Fry's Electronics, either in part (Alternative 2) or in its entirety (Alternative 3). The property owner, The Sobrato Organization, has indicated that it has no plans to redevelop the former Fry's Building or to switch its use from commercial to residential.
At the same time, Sobrato has proposed a townhome project at a site next to 340 Portage Ave. If that project is approved, the "realistic capacity" for housing in the 60-acre site would instantly drop and would now range from 450 residences (Alternative 1) to 1,000 (Alternative 3).
Some council members also suggested Monday that they would oppose demolishing and replacing the Fry's Building, which was constructed by Thomas Foon Chew in 1918 and which served in 1920 as one of the largest canneries in the nation. Council members Greer Stone, a history teacher at Gunn High, said it's critical for the city to offer real life examples of immigrants' contributions to Palo Alto.
"This is a rich history worth preserving and to really just destroy it because developers say that they need to add additional office space to make housing pencil out — I think is really just a disservice to our city and the rich historical contributions of our immigrant and Chinese community," Stone said.
Council member Alison Cormack was more receptive to the staff proposal, which she called "perfectly rational" given the economic analysis. Like her colleagues, however, she acknowledged that the process remains very much in flux.
"It feels very awkward to be where we are, having spent so much time and money and having changes on the part of one of the major property owners," Cormack said.