News

Palo Alto looks to loosen height limits for housing in Ventura

As City Council continues to modify area plan, members see opportunities in commercial sites

The historic cannery at 340 Portage Ave., Palo Alto, more recently known as the site of Fry's Electronics, is the subject of a negotiation between the city of Palo Alto and the owner, The Sobrato Organization. Photo taken Aug. 2, 2022, by Jocelyn Dong.

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 City Council is exploring zone changes that would allow residential development in parking lots of commercial sites like the Cloudera building at 395 Page Mill Road. Embarcadero Media file photo.

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.

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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.

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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.

A breakdown of the framework to redevelop the former Fry's Electronic site under a tentative agreement reached by the city of Palo Alto and The Sobrato Organization in June 2022. Map by Jamey Padojino.

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.

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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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Palo Alto looks to loosen height limits for housing in Ventura

As City Council continues to modify area plan, members see opportunities in commercial sites

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Nov 15, 2022, 1:40 am

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.

Comments

Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 15, 2022 at 11:06 am
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2022 at 11:06 am

GS is it Thomas Food Chew who began the fruit cannery? Let's get it right for sake of his name and what he provided and importantly history of labor. As well, the employment the cannery provided in the Ventura neighborhood also provided housing on many of the streets in the area for the many who worked at the cannery.

Why not honor the site that provided warehouse working class labor with homes now, that would provide a similar success for low-wage, normal wage workers. Our work for force for retail, service jobs is currently in desperate need of within reason rents for homes, locally. It's the climate footprint, right?

All the sudden history of such a site becomes a commodity for the rich and wealthy.


Becky Sanders
Registered user
Ventura
on Nov 15, 2022 at 11:09 am
Becky Sanders, Ventura
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2022 at 11:09 am

I say we preserve, honor and showcase the rich history of the cannery by preserving it in its entirety for adaptive reuse and provide homes there and all around the plan area. Let’s keep it eligible for inclusion in the Secretary of Interior’s Registry of Histori Resources doe both the state of California and Federal levels. If we ditch office and create a neighborhood all along the rail corridor this area of Ventura can support a coffee shop, a restaurant, a plaza and small community serving retail. If you don’t put enough patrons nearby then the retail will not work. That’s a no brainer. So I’m bummed the Council agreed to bag retail there. It will be a residential services desert for all my new neighbors.

And how about a real landmark to add to our City, and to the agricultural history of the Valley once known as the Valley of the Hearts Delight? This cannery was owned by a Chinese businessman who is arguably the first Asian American in history to make a fortune, and all of this during the Chinese Exclusion Act. I totally get it that not everyone is a history buff, but honestly, what a way to enhance Ventura (the most modest neighborhood in Palo Alto) by calling out its rich contribution to agricultural and canning. Thomas Foon Chew invented a way to pack asparagus that made is possible to preserve it.

Many of the wooden cottages that are still in Ventura were built to house families who worked at the cannery.

We can add lots of housing here. As I said before, I don’t think adding all of the housing we need in Palo Alto to this one site makes any sense or is fair. However, this is a great site, close to Caltrains.


Becky Sanders
Registered user
Ventura
on Nov 15, 2022 at 11:11 am
Becky Sanders, Ventura
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2022 at 11:11 am

[Post removed; successive comments by same poster are not permitted.]


Carol Scott
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Nov 15, 2022 at 3:21 pm
Carol Scott, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2022 at 3:21 pm

Here we go again. All of the housing advocates are NIMBY’s in my book. All they know how to do is cram as much housing as they can in neighborhoods other than their own. Current and new Council members should step up and suggest additional housing projects in their neighborhoods — four-plexus can go lots of places. Using the excuse of the ‘transit-rich’ train stations is ridiculous, and doesn’t keep the focus on who will actually live in their new units. If it is lower-income residents, they are unlikely to be riding the train to and from SF or SJ for work. They need their cars to get the jobs that are not on the north-south train tracks. But sure, let’s build a ghetto of high rises and affordable housing only in one area of Palo Alto so that all of the rest can go back to sleep satisfied that they have done their share by putting all that housing not in their backyard.


Andy
Registered user
Stanford
on Nov 15, 2022 at 3:26 pm
Andy, Stanford
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2022 at 3:26 pm

there should be no height limit at all and let the developer determine what the market and engineering will allow.

more height means more more opportunity to include parking, create green space, parks.

let's stop being allergic to heights.


Becky Sanders
Registered user
Ventura
on Nov 15, 2022 at 4:07 pm
Becky Sanders, Ventura
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2022 at 4:07 pm

Not allergic to height, just good design. There are design standards that have been around since the ancients learned how to inscribe a circle into a square. To put a 50 foot building next to a shorter building makes so sense. Designers step up height in gradations to preserve daylight plane for existing homeowners, apartment dwellers, offices in smaller buildings. We can go up where it makes sense to go up without having to impinge upon air and light for folks in existing buildings.


Me 2
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 15, 2022 at 4:20 pm
Me 2, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 15, 2022 at 4:20 pm

"rich history of the cannery"

Is this like SF's infamous historic laundromat?


JonnyK
Registered user
Ventura
on Nov 16, 2022 at 2:37 pm
JonnyK, Ventura
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2022 at 2:37 pm

There should be no compromise on the old Bayside Cannery building. We should preserve it in its entirety and claim its rightful historical designation. This town is far too quick to demolish it's history for the almighty dollar. It is time to show respect to those who laid the foundations of what we've become today - especially those who fought against brutal and systemic racism of the day and made a way. Don't blow this one, Palo Alto.


Me 2
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 16, 2022 at 3:12 pm
Me 2, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2022 at 3:12 pm

"It is time to show respect to those who laid the foundations of what we've become today - especially those who fought against brutal and systemic racism of the day and made a way. Don't blow this one, Palo Alto."

Did he fight against brutal and systemic racism or was he just an astute businessman?

It's really disrespectful to take something in the past and apply it to fit a narrative that you have in your own mind.


Helen Wilcox
Registered user
Community Center
on Nov 17, 2022 at 8:30 am
Helen Wilcox, Community Center
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2022 at 8:30 am

Are the former Libby and Del Monte cannery sites also being preserved for their historical significance?

If so, the former Thomas Food-Foon Chew site should be converted into a historical museum or a modern shopping and dining center like Cannery Row in Monterey.


Jerry
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 17, 2022 at 7:21 pm
Jerry, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2022 at 7:21 pm

@Native @Helen I know you think that referring to Mr Thomas Foon Chew with the word "Food" is a joke, followed by "Chew". As a Caucasian-American and a person born and raised in America, I'm deeply offended by that. As the son of hard-working Irish immigrants, that's not a joke to me.

This guy worked his butt off to be successful. Refer to him by his real name. Even if it was poorly translated by American immigration authorities from Cantonese.

You might want to listen to Dr. Gloria Hom's most excellent videos describing her grandfather's legacy. There's a lot going on there. Peace out.


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