The grandson of the Chinese American pioneer whose century-old cannery building has drawn much debate in Palo Alto over the years wants remnants from the property in the Ventura neighborhood saved if the structure itself can’t be preserved as a historic site.
“Concerning the fate of my grandfather's cannery site -- to my knowledge, the permits to construct townhouses have already been pulled, and demolishing 40% of the building will render it ineligible for historic registration,” Thomas Chew said via Zoom during the penultimate public hearing on the property’s fate, which took place on Tuesday night, Sept. 5.
The City Council is scheduled to make a decision on redeveloping the site, which formerly housed Fry's Electronics, next week.
“So with these two items, it appears the building is compromised,” said the grandson of Thomas Foon Chew, who led the fruit-and-vegetable cannery company Bayside Canning in the early part of the last century and opened the Portage Avenue building in 1918.
“Should that be true, then I request that artifacts from the building, be it timber, bricks, etc., be preserved for placement into the future Palo Alto History Museum.”
On Sept. 12, the council is expected to vote on an agreement between the city and Silicon Valley real-estate and philanthropy firm The Sobrato Organization over a proposed redevelopment encompassing the former cannery in the Ventura neighborhood. This decision will be made without taking any more public testimony.
If approved, the agreement will allow Sobrato to remake a 14.65-acre parcel that it owns, including the cannery building, into a development featuring research-and-development space and 74 market-rate townhomes. The project would need to raze about 40% of the building to accommodate the new homes.
But the dominant voice at Tuesday night’s hearing came from those wanting to see the two-story cannery building preserved for its potential historic significance and designation with the local, state or national registry.
Many of them flashed small placards saying “Save the Cannery” while the council heard presentations and testimony.
“You're not looking at a demolition of 40% of the building that eliminates its historic capability or status,” former Mayor Karen Holman said. “You're looking at a total demolition (because) there's nothing left that's historic.”
It’s critical to realize that the cannery building “represents a unique piece of California history, of Palo Alto history and of Chinese American history,” said Rebecca Sanders, moderator at the Ventura Neighborhood Association.
Sanders also contended that the Sobrato proposal is really about commercial use, not housing, in an area designated for homes.
“Simply put, this proposal is turning what should be land for housing into land for offices,” she said. “We also know that there are plausible alternatives that would preserve the cannery and also create housing -- perhaps even more housing.”
The property is within an area zoned multifamily, one that has long been targeted by housing advocates for residential use. But the development agreement would grant Sobrato the right to retain commercial and R&D space in the building, which currently hosts tech and other companies and was home to Fry's Electronics until 2019.
The agreement does call for Sobrato to dedicate to the city 3.25 acres of the current parking lot -- along Matadero Creek -- for future construction of about 80 affordable-housing units and a small park.
In response to arguments advocated for building-preservation, it was pointed out that, under its proposed development agreement with the city, Sobrato would have to rehabilitate the remaining portion of the former cannery in a way that helps raise public awareness of the property’s historical elements such as its distinctive monitor roofs.
This rehabilitation would incorporate educational and artistic display features as well, to commemorate the building’s cultural significance to the city and region. The city stands to receive a healthy financial boost if the council approves the development agreement.
According to the city, Sobrato would contribute $4 million to Palo Alto’s affordable-housing efforts and $1 million for open-space improvements within the 60-acre North Ventura planning area where the cannery property is situated.
According to a city staff report for Tuesday night’s meeting, Palo Alto would gain at least $37 million in overall public benefits based on Sobrato’s land and cash contributions, a building lease that the city could inherit and other factors.
Meanwhile, according to the report, Sobrato would garner an economic benefit valued at about $25 million from a hypothetical code-compliant development.
Others have found the proposed development agreement a reasonable compromise between preserving the building and moving ahead with new housing.
The agreement, they argue, would deliver on the key objectives of housing and open space long sought by the community while including features that symbolize the property’s history.
Otherwise, they say, failure to approve the agreement could result in a less palatable alternative; in that scenario, Sobrato could just proceed with a version of the development that would build 91 townhomes without the various public benefits identified in the agreement before the council.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Thomas Chew concluded his remarks by asking the council to support the Palo Alto Museum and its “inclusion and remembrance of my grandfather's Bayside cannery.”