As the Palo Alto City Council prepares to sign off on a contentious plan to redevelop the sprawling Portage Avenue complex that once housed Fry's Electronics, the city's advisory bodies are mounting a last-ditch push to preserve the legacy of the historic cannery building.
But even as both the Historic Resources Board and the Architectural Review Board have expressed significant reservations about the project in recent weeks, each body acknowledged that its resistance may be futile.
Unlike almost every other development proposal, the project at 340 Portage Ave. is guided by a development agreement that the council negotiated last year with landowner the Sobrato Organization — a deal that would allow Sobrato to keep commercial space at the Fry's building and allow it to construct 74 townhouses on the Park Boulevard side of the property.
In exchange, Sobrato is donating 3.25 acres of land to the city to construct a park and an affordable-housing project on the Portage Road property, near Matadero Creek. The acreage is currently part of the parking lot.
The council is preparing to review Sobrato's proposed development in August, when it returns from its summer break. But over the last few weeks, its advisory boards have raised concerns about Sobrato's plan to demolish most of the Fry's building, which was constructed a century ago by Chinese immigrant and pioneering businessman Thomas Foon Chew and which served as one of California's largest canneries until the 1930s.
Because the project circumvents the city's typical development process, the boards' opinions aren't as binding as they would normally be for new development applications. Historic Resources Board Chair Carolyn Willis acknowledged as much during a May 25 review of the project after the board members were informed by their legal counsel that their recommendation on the overall project isn't necessary.
"We only wish we had authority," Willis quipped.
But while their power may be curbed, both boards are hoping that their influence is not. The Architectural Review Board, which typically focuses on design details like building materials and window placements, made the case in mid-June for broader changes to the Portage Avenue development. These include giving the public greater access to the most important historical features of the cannery building — its monitor roofs — and increasing density to the residential component of the project.
Among the fiercest critics of the project was Chair Peter Baltay, who argued at the board's June 15 review that Sobrato has not done enough to honor the building's historic use.
He recalled going to Fry's Electronics, seeing the monitor roofs and learning about the cannery that once occupied the space. That type of experience would no longer be possible if the building were completely taken over by a commercial or research-and-development tenant, as current plans call for.
The council specified in its negotiated development agreement that Sobrato must create space for the public to see some of the building's most prominent and historically significant features — namely, the monitor roofs — even as it demolishes a large chunk of the building to make way for the townhouse development.
But what exactly that means is subject to debate. Sobrato is preparing to set up a small retail area in front of the Fry's building with two skylights that will allow views of a monitor roof.
Baltay suggested that this design doesn't go nearly far enough. He strongly advocated for revising Sobrato's plans so that the public would have access to those portions of the former Fry's building that are under the monitor roofs. Otherwise, residents wouldn't be able to get a real sense of the building's historic significance.
"The use is not being preserved. It's being lost. And that's the travesty. That's the real shame — that our town cannot somehow find a way to preserve this use," Baltay said.
Board member Kendra Rosenberg concurred and lamented the fact that the building is not being made useful to the public, which she called a "huge shame."
"All of that is being done so that one occupant can be inside this building, and that feels like a tremendous waste," Rosenberg said. "I really think this use should be more public, more open and should be absolutely celebrated for what it is."
The board recommended that the building at 340 Portage be preserved in such a way that the public can experience the interior of the building.
It also specified by a 4-0 vote, with board member Osma Thompson absent, that all of the area underneath at least one of the two monitor roof portions be publicly accessible so that the entirety of the monitor roof's length is visible.
That, however, would clash with Sobrato's current plans. Even Sockalosky, whose firm Arc Tech is working with Sobrato on the project, told the board that the current design aims to provide security and privacy to the building's future research-and-development tenant while allowing public views into the monitor roof area from the single-story retail area.
"That was one reason why we went for a single-story element — to allow these increased viewed into the monitor roof, while understanding that our potential tenant would have security and privacy concerns that preclude the ability to open that to the public," Sockalosky said at the June 15 hearing.
Other board members took issue with the residential component of the project. While Rosenberg found it reasonable, board Vice Chair David Hirsch pushed Sobrato to think bigger.
The new housing development, Hirsch said, would be close to transit, which makes it particularly suitable for being taller and denser. With more housing units, the Sobrato development could do far more to address the city's housing challenges.
"We cannot allow it to be used in the density that is being proposed," Hirsch said.
Sizing up the plan's pros and cons
Palo Alto's land-use watchdogs and historic preservationists also found fault with the project, citing a recently completed environmental review that determined that the project would cause a significant and unavoidable impact to the city's historic resources. Former Mayor Karen Holman urged the council to do more to preserve the historic cannery.
"I ask that you all consider what we want and ought to do with any of our resources. Is it really to demolish, obliterate, remove, disregard?" Holman asked.
Resident Jeff Levinsky also spoke out against demolishing the majority of the former Fry's building, which he called "an incredible, one-of-a-kind, amazing piece of history right in our backyard."
"Let's be creative. Let's save it," Levinsky told the Architectural Review Board.
Concerns about public access notwithstanding, board members found much to like about the proposed redesign of the cannery building. Hirsch called the preserved part of the cannery building an "exciting proposal."
"I think if Thomas Foon Chew were to see his cannery building after it was repurposed, he'd marvel at the change from such a humble processing building near the orchard farms to a gleaming metal high tech center in a transformed economy," Hirsch said. "We can agonize over some of the small aspects of the design, but the end product will clearly be a thrilling statement."
For the council, the decision on 340 Portage will have repercussions well beyond the project site. The 14.5-acre property is at the heart of the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan effort, which aims to craft a new vision for 60 acres of Ventura bounded by El Camino Real, Page Mill Road, Lambert Avenue and Park Boulevard. What happens at the former cannery building and at the broader Sobrato property could determine whether the city's main goals for the area — including the addition of retail, affordable housing and bike improvements — actually come to fruition.
And what happens in Ventura could shape the city's goals for other neighborhoods. Palo Alto is looking to pursue coordinated plans in other sections of the city, including downtown and San Antonio Road.
In May, planning staff and City Manager Ed Shikada acknowledged the city's struggles with coordinated area plans, multi-year exercises that typically involve years of community engagement and analysis by city planners and consultants.
As part of its budget review, the council's Finance Committee recommended that the city review its process for putting together area plans, a mechanism that has been used with far greater frequency and success in nearby cities like Mountain View and Redwood City.
The project also illustrates the city's limited leverage over developers at a time when state laws make it easier for builders to advance residential projects. If the city opts not to advance the project in the development agreement, Sobrato has a backup plan: an application for an 85-townhome development that it filed under Senate Bill 330, a state law that streamlines the approval process for housing projects.
SB 330 prevents cities from revising development standards after an application had been filed. The SB 330 application has been placed on the backburner while the city reviews the proposed development agreement. If the development agreement fizzles, the 85-townhome plan would likely be revived.
Historic Resources Board member Margaret Wimmer also suggested during the board's May 25 review of the Sobrato project that it might be time for Palo Alto to reconsider its process for reviewing historical resources. The board's limited discretion over the cannery building puts it "between a rock and a hard place," she said.
"I think that the process is troubled," Wimmer said. "The historical process and how we review things, how we classify things as historic, is troubled because our ordinance is not protective enough. … There will be a significant and unavoidable impact to a historical resource with this project."