When Palo Alto kicked off its effort to reimagine a 60-acre portion of Ventura, residents clamored for more parks and retail, improved bike connections and, most importantly, affordable housing.
Since then, however, the planning process has become an exercise of managing and, for many residents, lowering expectations. The citizens group that had spent nearly two years developing a report with redevelopment alternatives failed to reach a consensus about which alternative to choose; the scenario that the City Council ultimately chose was deemed by city consultants to be financially infeasible; and the council conceded Monday that there probably won't be any meaningful retail at the Portage Avenue site that until recently housed Fry's Electronics and that is at the heart of the planning area.
The council also agreed that the area, which is roughly bounded by Page Mill Road, El Camino Real, Park Boulevard and Lambert Avenue, might be able accommodate additional housing, beyond the 670 units in preferred alternative that they had endorsed earlier this year. To make that happen, they supported on Monday a series of housing-friendly zone changes, including loosening the height limit for a proposed affordable-housing development near the Fry's site and exploring rules that would allow residential developments on parking lots in commercially zoned properties like the Cloudera building at 395 Page Mill Road.
Another policy that the council endorsed Monday would raise the maximum height for El Camino Real properties that are adjacent to single-family zones from the current limit of 35 feet to 45 feet. And the council supported by a 5-2 vote, with council members Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth dissenting, a height limit of 65 feet for a proposed affordable-housing development near the cannery building that used to house Fry's.
Much of the Monday discussion, however, focused on Ventura's commercial sites, which most council members agreed could be suitable for housing.
Mayor Pat Burt made the case for exploring properties along Park Boulevard, near the Caltrain corridor and for establishing a height limit of 55 feet for residential projects in this area. He also suggested allowing residential development on parking lots of commercial parcels like 395 Page Mill Road.
Jay Paul Company, which owns the site, had previously signaled that it is primarily interested in office development. But Burt argued that with the office market cooling down, Jay Paul's argument that only commercial development is economically feasible may no longer apply.
"We were kind of in a position of either just accepting that at face value, when I believe that's not necessarily the case that they cannot just add housing instead of office," Burt said.
His proposal to evaluate zoning changes that would increase density limits for housing on commercial sites along Park Boulevard and Page Mill Road advanced by a 5-2 vote, with DuBois and Vice Mayor Lydia Kou dissenting.
The council began forming the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan about four years ago with a goal of enhancing Ventura by naturalizing Matadero Creek, expanding park space and improving biking amenities, among other features. Concurrently with the planning effort, council members had been privately negotiating with The Sobrato Organization, which owns the Fry's site, over a development agreement that would settle a long-simmering dispute over what types of uses are allowed in the Fry's building.
In June, the two sides settled on a redevelopment plan that would preserve a portion of the Fry's building for research-and-development use and convert the back of the building near Park Boulevard into a residential development with 74 townhomes. Sobrato also pledged as part of the agreement to transfer to the city 3.25 acres of land near Matadero Creek that would be used for park space and an affordable-housing project.
Not everyone is thrilled about the plan's evolution or the Sobrato deal. On Oct. 24, numerous members of the working group that helped put the plan together argued that the vision currently on the table fails to meet the neighborhood's — and the city's — goals. Members of the housing advocacy group Palo Alto Forward argued that the council's preferred alternative does not include enough housing and submitted a letter that called the current Ventura plan "woefully inadequate." Others countered that the plan tries to spur too much housing growth in Ventura without adding any significant amenities.
"Housing is what we want but why should so much new housing be concentrated in one neighborhood?" Rebecca Sanders, moderator of the Ventura Neighborhood Association asked at the council's Oct. 24 discussion of the preferred alternative.
Council members had their own reservations. Council member Alison Cormack was the sole dissenter in the 6-1 vote Monday to refine the preferred alternative and sided with those who argued that the plan is underwhelming and potentially financially infeasible.
"I could have some strong words on whether or not I think this plan is worth doing, but I recognize that we're awfully far down in the process," Cormack said during the Monday discussion. "I don't think it's going to achieve the goals and I'll therefore be voting against this."
Kou, meanwhile, lamented the fact that the partial demolition of the cannery building will render it ineligible for the National Register of Historical Places. Kou said she was "incredibly perturbed" with how the cannery is being treated in the planning process. She cited the historical importance of Thomas Foon Chew, an immigrant from China who in 1920 completed construction of what would become the third-largest cannery of fruits and vegetables in the world, according to the city's historical consultants.
"He was a huge employer here in Palo Alto," Kou said. "And to render his building and his significance in such a manner is just dishonorable."
The development agreement tries to acknowledge the cannery's importance by preserving and restoring the front portion of the building and to make its most significant architectural features — including its roof and trusses — open to public inspection. Planning Director Jonathan Lait said the redevelopment would also include an outdoor plaza, public art and an exhibit explaining the historic significance of the cannery.
"While it's not eligible for listing, there are a number of aspects of the project where the city is saying, 'This is important to us and these are the things we think need to be incorporated into it,'" Lait said.
Under the council's preferred alternative, Portage Avenue would be turned into a "woonerf" (or "living street") with traffic calming, low speed limits and shared spaces for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists. Ventura residents had insisted at the onset of the planning process that they don't want to see more cars on Portage or other major streets in the planning area. But DuBois suggested that creating a woonerf on Portage could make it difficult for residents in the new housing developments to drive in and out of the site. He urged staff to evaluate alternatives in the environmental analysis that would eliminate the woonerf, a proposal that most of his colleagues supported.
"I'm just concerned about how the people will actually get around in those areas," DuBois said.