News

Hopes dim for restoring former Fry's building

Poor condition, new codes challenge city's efforts to preserve Portage Avenue property

The commercial building at 200-400 Portage Avenue in Palo Alto was once used as a cannery. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

When Palo Alto leaders struck a deal with The Sobrato Organization in June to redevelop the large Ventura property that used to house Fry's Electronics, the developer agreed to preserve and enhance a portion of the building that a century ago stood out as the world's third largest cannery of fruits and vegetables.

The development agreement specifically calls for Sobrato to "facilitate public appreciation of the interior historic elements of the cannery building," which was constructed by Thomas Foon Chew in 1918 and which for three decades has been considered as a potential site for accommodating hundreds of apartments.

Terry Holzemer, a member of the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan working group, called the building an "irreplaceable historic resource." The group had been working since 2019 on developing a new vision for a 60-acre portion of Ventura, which includes the Portage Avenue cannery.

"It's time to look at this first and prioritize the historic structure and look at that before any of the processes move forward," Holzemer told the Planning and Transportation Commission last month during a public hearing on the Ventura plan and the development agreement.

Since then, however, the prospects of preserving the cannery have dimmed. On Wednesday night, the Planning and Transportation Commission learned that portions of the building were in worse condition than was previously believed and that the structure cannot retain historic features while complying with modern building codes.

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The roof, for example, would be unable to accommodate solar panels and would need to be reconstructed, project planner Claire Raybould told the commission. The walls between the monitor roof area in the former Fry's space and the neighboring space at 380 Portage Ave. that houses Playground Global would also need more reconstruction than the city and Sobrato had expected when they struck the deal over the summer.

"It came to staff's attention that there may be more modifications to this building than we were originally envisioning," project planner Claire Raybould told the commission. "We wanted to make sure the public and the planning commission were aware of that."

The commercial building at 200-400 Portage Avenue, which once was used as a cannery, would be partially demolished to make way for townhomes. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

One area that's unclear is whether the building's corrugated metal exterior could be reused. A report from the Department of Planning and Development Services notes that some of the cladding "has holes that have been patched over time" or is "otherwise in disrepair."

Sobrato, the report states, proposes to "salvage the corrugated metal where feasible and to replace all materials in-kind that cannot be replaced."

Whether or not the development agreement advances, the building is set to undergo major renovations that would render it ineligible for possible inclusion on the state Register of Historic Places. Sobrato plans to demolish about a third of it to construct a townhome development.

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If the city approves the agreement, the development would consist of 74 townhomes. Sobrato would also donate to the city 3.25 acres of land to make room for a park and a future affordable-housing development.

If the city rejects the development agreement, Sobrato is expected to advance a housing project that it applied for more than two years ago, which includes 91 townhomes. To advance the project, Sobrato relied on Senate Bill 330, which freezes in place the design standards that were in place at the time of the application submission and restricts the city's ability to request modifications.

After a long discussion, the commission voted 5-1, with Vice Chair Doria Summa dissenting, to advance the development agreement process (Chair Ed Lauing, who will join the City Council in January, recused from the commission's discussion). In doing so, however, numerous commissioners indicated that they are unlikely to support the agreement when it returns to the commission for a formal decision early next year.

For Sobrato, a critical component of the proposed agreement is commitment from the city that the cannery building would be able to retain its existing research-and-development use. The site is zoned for multifamily housing and council members had for decades envisioned it as a place that can accommodate more than 200 housing units.

Commissioner Bryna Chang noted that converting the cannery to housing could potentially generate more than 400 housing units, particularly if the city follows suit with planned zone changes that increase density in multifamily neighborhoods. Allowing commercial use to continue at the Fry's building, as the development agreement would do, also runs counter to the city's goal of narrowing its jobs-to-housing imbalance.

"To me, it doesn't seem like the greatest deal given our housing and jobs challenges in the city," Chang said.

Commissioner Keith Reckdahl said he is casting his vote to advance the development agreement "grudgingly." Like Chang, he said he was concerned about continuing commercial use at the former Fry's building.

"We're giving up a lot of housing and that just seems wrong so close to the train station," Reckdahl said.

Summa also objected to the deal, particularly in light of the recent information about proposed modifications to the building. She said she is concerned about the prospect of iconic portions of the building, such as the monitor roof, getting demolished.

"I'm really worried that we're going to get to the point with this where that portion of the building cannot be saved," Summa said. "And If we promised them that it's going to be commercial at a very high FAR (floor-area ratio) and they can't save the building, where are we and how have we come out ahead?"

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.

The development agreement between Sobrato and the city followed years of negotiations that fluctuated between cooperative and acrimonious. Various council members have indicated in the past that they would like to see housing at the Portage Avenue site, a position that appeared to become more viable after Fry's departed in 2019. Sobrato, for its part, threatened to sue the city over its interpretation of a zoning provision that could have required Sobrato to renegotiate leases with tenants to meet the required ratios of land uses.

The proposed development agreement, which came out of meetings between Sobrato and a committee consisting of Vice Chair Lydia Kou and council member Tom DuBois, represented a truce. The council unanimously approved last summer a tolling agreement with Sobrato that keeps both the potential litigation and the application for the 91-townhome project at bay while the city formally reviews the development agreement.

Some commissioners highlighted on Wednesday the benefits of the proposed deal. Commissioner Bart Hechtman noted that the project development agreement would provide more park space than the SB 330 project as well as land for affordable housing.

Commissioner Cari Templeton emphasized the practical benefits to pursuing a development agreement: a willingness from the property owner to actually build the proposed project. The same cannot be said about the 400 dwellings that other commissioners said they would like to see at the site.

"Zoning is theoretical housing," Templeton said. "It's not there yet and it may never be there. And there's no guarantee it will be there. We can't coerce the property owner into doing something with it that they don't want. They own the property."

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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 >>

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Hopes dim for restoring former Fry's building

Poor condition, new codes challenge city's efforts to preserve Portage Avenue property

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Dec 1, 2022, 9:19 am

When Palo Alto leaders struck a deal with The Sobrato Organization in June to redevelop the large Ventura property that used to house Fry's Electronics, the developer agreed to preserve and enhance a portion of the building that a century ago stood out as the world's third largest cannery of fruits and vegetables.

The development agreement specifically calls for Sobrato to "facilitate public appreciation of the interior historic elements of the cannery building," which was constructed by Thomas Foon Chew in 1918 and which for three decades has been considered as a potential site for accommodating hundreds of apartments.

Terry Holzemer, a member of the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan working group, called the building an "irreplaceable historic resource." The group had been working since 2019 on developing a new vision for a 60-acre portion of Ventura, which includes the Portage Avenue cannery.

"It's time to look at this first and prioritize the historic structure and look at that before any of the processes move forward," Holzemer told the Planning and Transportation Commission last month during a public hearing on the Ventura plan and the development agreement.

Since then, however, the prospects of preserving the cannery have dimmed. On Wednesday night, the Planning and Transportation Commission learned that portions of the building were in worse condition than was previously believed and that the structure cannot retain historic features while complying with modern building codes.

The roof, for example, would be unable to accommodate solar panels and would need to be reconstructed, project planner Claire Raybould told the commission. The walls between the monitor roof area in the former Fry's space and the neighboring space at 380 Portage Ave. that houses Playground Global would also need more reconstruction than the city and Sobrato had expected when they struck the deal over the summer.

"It came to staff's attention that there may be more modifications to this building than we were originally envisioning," project planner Claire Raybould told the commission. "We wanted to make sure the public and the planning commission were aware of that."

One area that's unclear is whether the building's corrugated metal exterior could be reused. A report from the Department of Planning and Development Services notes that some of the cladding "has holes that have been patched over time" or is "otherwise in disrepair."

Sobrato, the report states, proposes to "salvage the corrugated metal where feasible and to replace all materials in-kind that cannot be replaced."

Whether or not the development agreement advances, the building is set to undergo major renovations that would render it ineligible for possible inclusion on the state Register of Historic Places. Sobrato plans to demolish about a third of it to construct a townhome development.

If the city approves the agreement, the development would consist of 74 townhomes. Sobrato would also donate to the city 3.25 acres of land to make room for a park and a future affordable-housing development.

If the city rejects the development agreement, Sobrato is expected to advance a housing project that it applied for more than two years ago, which includes 91 townhomes. To advance the project, Sobrato relied on Senate Bill 330, which freezes in place the design standards that were in place at the time of the application submission and restricts the city's ability to request modifications.

After a long discussion, the commission voted 5-1, with Vice Chair Doria Summa dissenting, to advance the development agreement process (Chair Ed Lauing, who will join the City Council in January, recused from the commission's discussion). In doing so, however, numerous commissioners indicated that they are unlikely to support the agreement when it returns to the commission for a formal decision early next year.

For Sobrato, a critical component of the proposed agreement is commitment from the city that the cannery building would be able to retain its existing research-and-development use. The site is zoned for multifamily housing and council members had for decades envisioned it as a place that can accommodate more than 200 housing units.

Commissioner Bryna Chang noted that converting the cannery to housing could potentially generate more than 400 housing units, particularly if the city follows suit with planned zone changes that increase density in multifamily neighborhoods. Allowing commercial use to continue at the Fry's building, as the development agreement would do, also runs counter to the city's goal of narrowing its jobs-to-housing imbalance.

"To me, it doesn't seem like the greatest deal given our housing and jobs challenges in the city," Chang said.

Commissioner Keith Reckdahl said he is casting his vote to advance the development agreement "grudgingly." Like Chang, he said he was concerned about continuing commercial use at the former Fry's building.

"We're giving up a lot of housing and that just seems wrong so close to the train station," Reckdahl said.

Summa also objected to the deal, particularly in light of the recent information about proposed modifications to the building. She said she is concerned about the prospect of iconic portions of the building, such as the monitor roof, getting demolished.

"I'm really worried that we're going to get to the point with this where that portion of the building cannot be saved," Summa said. "And If we promised them that it's going to be commercial at a very high FAR (floor-area ratio) and they can't save the building, where are we and how have we come out ahead?"

The development agreement between Sobrato and the city followed years of negotiations that fluctuated between cooperative and acrimonious. Various council members have indicated in the past that they would like to see housing at the Portage Avenue site, a position that appeared to become more viable after Fry's departed in 2019. Sobrato, for its part, threatened to sue the city over its interpretation of a zoning provision that could have required Sobrato to renegotiate leases with tenants to meet the required ratios of land uses.

The proposed development agreement, which came out of meetings between Sobrato and a committee consisting of Vice Chair Lydia Kou and council member Tom DuBois, represented a truce. The council unanimously approved last summer a tolling agreement with Sobrato that keeps both the potential litigation and the application for the 91-townhome project at bay while the city formally reviews the development agreement.

Some commissioners highlighted on Wednesday the benefits of the proposed deal. Commissioner Bart Hechtman noted that the project development agreement would provide more park space than the SB 330 project as well as land for affordable housing.

Commissioner Cari Templeton emphasized the practical benefits to pursuing a development agreement: a willingness from the property owner to actually build the proposed project. The same cannot be said about the 400 dwellings that other commissioners said they would like to see at the site.

"Zoning is theoretical housing," Templeton said. "It's not there yet and it may never be there. And there's no guarantee it will be there. We can't coerce the property owner into doing something with it that they don't want. They own the property."

Comments

Li Zhao
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on Dec 1, 2022 at 10:09 am
Li Zhao, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 10:09 am

The former Fry's site is unsuitable for housing and should be torn down in its entirety to make way for a more modern and accommodating residential complex.

No one wants to live in a dilapidated cannery that is structurally unsound and to make it livable will require additional and unecessary financial outlay.

Good business practices outweigh petty nostalgia and the city should authorize the building's complete demolition.


BruceS
Registered user
Greenmeadow
on Dec 1, 2022 at 10:50 am
BruceS, Greenmeadow
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 10:50 am

Sorry, but let it go. It's not that special a building, and it's not that special to Palo Alto history. The Bay Area has to get denser, and has to have more housing. Those are absolutes. We certainly should save history where we can, but we have to be selective about what's really important, and what the tradeoffs are. And for this building it's pretty obvious to me that the tradeoffs do not suggest saving it. It's too large and means too little.

Now, the other factors are traffic and parking. Those have to be considered in any replacement, but replacement at this point seems unavoidable.


commonsense
Registered user
Professorville
on Dec 1, 2022 at 10:54 am
commonsense, Professorville
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 10:54 am

It's such a beautiful building. We definitely need a dozen more reports, surveys, working groups, lawsuits and decades before making a decision on this valued treasure/Fry's Electronics.


Tecsi
Registered user
another community
on Dec 1, 2022 at 11:09 am
Tecsi, another community
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 11:09 am

Let’s tear it down and build housing.

More people remember this people for Fry’s electronics goods than any pre-existing cannery.


Ellen
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Dec 1, 2022 at 11:23 am
Ellen, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 11:23 am

Actually, most of us old people remember it as Maximart, not the cannery. I agree that housing should be the priority now.


fred
Registered user
University South
on Dec 1, 2022 at 11:36 am
fred, University South
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 11:36 am

If the site is zoned properly, it can support housing. That was the plan decades ago when the original zoning was being amortized. It's too bad that council gave in attempting to support Fry's.
How did that work out?


Garry Wyndham
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 1, 2022 at 11:48 am
Garry Wyndham, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 11:48 am

Tear it down, erect an interpretive panel, recycle whatever you can and move on.


Lorraine Newberry
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 1, 2022 at 11:59 am
Lorraine Newberry, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 11:59 am

Who cares if the former Fry's/Maximart building was once the site of a cannery?

Do we preserve every old building in Palo Alto?

Tear it down and move on.


rita vrhel
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Dec 1, 2022 at 12:05 pm
rita vrhel, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 12:05 pm

Oh another developer threatening to sue Palo Alto!!!!!!! and shock Palo Alto caved AGAIN!
This continues to be the ongoing scenario every developer uses to their advantage.

The City Council never should have "negotiated" with Sobrato. Once the City caved under threat of a lawsuit, the developer was going to get everything he wanted..... if not, threaten to sue.....again.

Worse, I believe these negotiations and the final City Council approval of the negotiated agreement were done in private; and not open to the public scrutiny or comment.

This is, of course, after years of the City seeking public input, even having a North Ventura Working Group who met for months discussing what the community wanted and giving the City recommendations.

So now, we have a less than optimal privately negotiated "agreement" where "the developer agreed to preserve and enhance a portion of the building that a century ago stood out as the world's third largest cannery of fruits and vegetables."

But SUDDENLY!!!!!! the developer "discovers" the building is too expensive" to rehab? And City staff is supporting the developer????

I personally don't see this issue as one of housing.

I see it as one of another "get rich scheme" developers have pulled with increasing frequency on Palo Alto. using housing as a guise to get what they want.

I have trouble believing a "billionaire developer" does not know the state of his property!

And is it the City staff's responsibility to know?? IMO, no, it is not!

i wish the City would use some of the recently discovered 40 million $ surplus and
say OK, SUE ME! that is, IMO, the only way these shenanigans will end.

Rolling over every time a developer threatens to sue is not a good practice.


Harold Jenkins
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 1, 2022 at 12:27 pm
Harold Jenkins, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 12:27 pm

If that old Fry's building was a significant historical landmark, it would have been designated as one by the State of California and the PACC.

For preservationists still residing in the past, why not preserve all of the now- defunct canneries throughout CA as historical landmarks?


Local Resident
Registered user
Community Center
on Dec 1, 2022 at 1:21 pm
Local Resident, Community Center
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 1:21 pm

Since when are solar panels required on a historic building? Cannot preserve a historic building because it does not modern building codes? Excuses for the developer to get out of the part of the agreement they didn’t like. Its as if the folks buying these excuses never travelled to Europe. Also you can always restore. Even portions of the Great Wall of China were restored.


MyFeelz
Registered user
JLS Middle School
on Dec 1, 2022 at 1:53 pm
MyFeelz, JLS Middle School
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 1:53 pm

Darn it all for the new codes.

Stonehenge is a historic structure. Other countries laugh at our self-congratulatory monuments while they point to their beautiful architecture, objects d'art, magnificent frescoes; and the Mayans have us beat hands down in every department. But the cannery in question is worthy of some kind of preservation. West of the Mississippi, almost nothing has been preserved. These were Native lands just like the area EAST of the Mississippi. Yet they managed to preserve many historic lands in some way, so the past is not forgotten. PA doesn't roll that way. PA is dollar driven. Wiping away all vestiges of the past is PA's way of saying, "we are only focused on the future". Brings to mind "if you don't know where you came from, you won't know where you're going."


community member
Registered user
University South
on Dec 1, 2022 at 3:00 pm
community member, University South
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 3:00 pm

I miss Fry's so much. I shopped there frequently, as so did many others.
And browsing the varied electronics, computers,etc. was a pleasure.
Now the vultures are circling.
Sad days,


Green Gables
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 1, 2022 at 4:21 pm
Green Gables, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 4:21 pm

That whole area where Fry's is/was located said the lovely City of Palo Alto in the 1990s is meant to be RESIDENTIAL.


tmp
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 1, 2022 at 7:05 pm
tmp, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 7:05 pm

What needs to be there is a large park, open space and recreation space for the many thousands of new and soon to be residents of this city. The city is woefully silent on that aspect of the comprehensive plan that details open/park space per resident. They are hundreds of acres behind with no mention of ever doing anything about it.

Apparently they think everyone just lives in their little pod home and plays on their computers all day. And when the next disaster strikes and homes fall in earthquakes, people will live in the street since there will be no parks to camp out in.

Nice planning for the area.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 1, 2022 at 7:35 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 7:35 pm

the whole point here is to upgrade that whole section which is broken down buildings and huge parking lots. Check out the SU upgrade on Sand Hill Road - nice apartments, play area for kids.
what we need here is residential buildings and a cute restauarant that the locals can walk to to add cheer. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Maybe a tiny service grocery store. Maybe a urgent care center that can help out with small issues and then refer people to a major medical center. I don't get why this is being held up because of a historical angle that can be better served in another failing project - the old PAMF building in the park.


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Dec 1, 2022 at 8:31 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 8:31 pm

All commercial use on the site was amortized in the mid-1990’s with the then owner given 30 years notice as legally required (the “sunset clause”) to recoup its investment, after which time all commercial uses on site would be out of compliance and only multi-family housing allowed.

However, as the 30 year time frame approached, the then council was persuaded to extend the Fry’s lease until 2019 to take advantage of the Fry’s sales tax contribution to the city coffers. Meanwhile council had extensive discussions around the desirability of instructing staff to undertake a broad “coordinated area plan” for the site’s imminent reversion to 100% multi family housing, including the Cal Ave business district, similar to the successful SOFA plan. At some point the property changed hands and was bought by Sobrato.

Then, at the termination of the Fry’s lease, the public discovers that Sobrato has no intention of using the site 100% for housing. Turns out that in the interim Sobrato has such clout in city hall the “sunset clause” was voided just as it was to take effect. Instead the city effectively “up-zoned” the site in favor of allowing Sobrato to not only continue its existing office use, but in addition be allowed to include offices in any site redevelopment instead of 100% housing!

What happened? Looks like this would be an interesting investigative project for a journalist brave enough to take on the establishment figures that greased the wheels so favorably for Sobrato.




MyFeelz
Registered user
JLS Middle School
on Dec 1, 2022 at 9:09 pm
MyFeelz, JLS Middle School
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2022 at 9:09 pm

I too miss Fry's. It was like Toys R Us for grownup computer nerds. I liked building out a PC to perform the way I need it to. Now there are only limited selections for computers, each as dull as the next. I don't want to swipe at my screen. I don't want "S MODE". Nor do I want a glorified tracking device. Remember when we could add our own ram, or repair a heatsink or replace a ribbon cable? Fry's had all the parts and if they didn't they would order it in stock and call you when it came in. Without making you pay for it first. Alas, the City is going to do whatever they want with this site, regardless of public opinion. Another eyesore will be erected, with housing where there's not enough parking for the residents. And multi-use is a crap plan because NOBODY will be able to find a place to park - residents or shoppers or merchants. C'est La Vie.


Jay
Registered user
Mountain View
on Dec 2, 2022 at 10:55 am
Jay, Mountain View
Registered user
on Dec 2, 2022 at 10:55 am

We should be selective of historic buildings. And this definitely doesn't make the cut. Tear it down and build much needed housing.


Jane
Registered user
Ventura
on Dec 2, 2022 at 4:59 pm
Jane, Ventura
Registered user
on Dec 2, 2022 at 4:59 pm

We don't need more density, we need less commercial development to reduce the demand. Check out how the residential streets in that area have all become one-lane because of parked vehicles. Check out how population density accelerates the spread of infectious disease.

That said, the Fry's building never got any significant maintenance and the whole thing is just a rusting moldy rat haven. Even if it could support solar panels (which is an absurd requirement, btw, if your goal is some kind of historic preservation) it should just be torn down. Take pictures first if you care.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Dec 5, 2022 at 1:32 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Dec 5, 2022 at 1:32 pm

Rita Vrehl hit the nail on the head w/her comment about the developer SUDDENLY discovering the status of the condition of the building. That is simply not credible. But practiced, successful developers who enjoy a cozy relationship with the City will simply say this: get over it; this is how things get done. And there's a lot of truth in that. And in Palo Alto, questionable sequencing is becoming SOP.

As for the solar panel requirement, that falls in the just-so-much-blather bucket. Anyone who has paid for and installed solar panels at their home can tell you that the delay in getting final approval from the City is so protracted that one has to question the City's commitment to alternative energy sources.


III
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 10, 2022 at 10:00 am
III, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 10, 2022 at 10:00 am

Was it not the old White Front store in the 1970s?
Is the land underneath still considered contaminated? Used to be.
Housing is logical, but OMG, the traffic concerns it would cause
getting in and out of that location, surrounded by
Rail Road Tracks, Alma, El Camino and Oregon Expressway.
Nothing is easy or simple anymore....
III


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