Will Ventura become the epicenter for new affordable housing? Probably not, council says | January 14, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 14, 2022

Will Ventura become the epicenter for new affordable housing? Probably not, council says

Palo Alto City Council balks at revising parking standards, adding offices to neighborhood

by Gennady Sheyner

When Palo Alto launched its effort to craft a new vision for the Ventura neighborhood, residents and city leaders expressed high hopes for turning the centrally located but underserved area into a vibrant neighborhood that includes more shops, park space and affordable housing.

But as the area plan advances toward the finish line, it's become an exercise in lowering expectations, members of the City Council acknowledged on Monday. With the two largest property owners in the 60-acre area showing little appetite for replacing the lucrative office spaces on their respective properties on Portage Avenue and Page Mill Road with below-market-rate housing, the area's transformation is now expected to unfold in small steps over a long period of time.

Adding to the challenge is a recent analysis by the city's consultants that determined that any planning scenario that doesn't include significant growth in office or market-rate housing is unlikely to generate enough funding to support a significant influx of below-market-rate units. For most of the residents who have been involved with the planning exercise, such growth is a nonstarter. At the same time, many lamented on Monday the fact that there still isn't a plan for developing park space, despite tentative support for an expensive plan to restore the concrete-lined Matadero Creek to more natural conditions.

With these challenges and limitations in mind, the City Council on Monday rallied behind a relatively modest vision for the area, which is bounded by Page Mill Road, Park Boulevard, Lambert Avenue and El Camino Real. By a 5-2 vote, with council members Alison Cormack and Greg Tanaka dissenting, the council voted to endorse a scenario that would raise the number of dwellings in the area from the current level of 142 to a "realistic potential" of 670, with 100 restricted for affordable housing.

Office space under this scenario would be gradually reduced from 744,000 to 466,000 square feet, while retail space would dip from 111,200 to 103,700 square feet.

The most prominent property in the planning area — the former cannery building at 340 Portage that used to house Fry's Electronics — would be largely preserved, though its research-and-development space would be phased out to make way for more shops and housing. The vision also contemplates adaptive reuse of the history-laden building that was once a cannery, with a possible increased height to accommodate housing.

Office space: the 'addictive drug'

By largely endorsing the relatively cautious scenario that city staff presented on Monday, council members once again reiterated their opposition to approve any additional office space in the Ventura area.

Rather than relying on commercial developers to subsidize affordable housing, the council is hoping to encourage residential development by loosening zoning rules, which may include allowing greater heights, more density and less stringent parking requirements in certain portions of the neighborhood, including along El Camino Real.

In its opposition to office development, the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan is starkly different from many of the other area plans undertaken in other cities, including the North Bayshore Precise Plan in Mountain View, which includes 1.3 million square feet of office space in addition to 7,000 new homes.

City planner Sheldon An Sing warned the council that the two largest property owners, The Sobrato Organization and Jay Paul Company, are unlikely to construct housing unless they are also allowed to build offices.

"Without being able to put some office back into the development or site, there's no incentive for them to move from the position that they're at at this point," Sing said.

Council members, however, showed little appetite for offices, which they argued will only worsen the city's jobs-to-housing imbalance.

"The challenge with using office projects to pay for housing projects, and especially affordable housing projects ... is to do it in such a way that you don't create more demand (for housing) than supply, especially when we're talking about affordable housing," council member Eric Filseth said during Monday's discussion.

"That's like an addictive drug. It feels really good in the shorter-term, but once that wears off, you're worse off."

The downside of the approach, however, is that without an incentive to property owners, major change is unlikely to occur in North Ventura. Cormack noted that the city's affordable-housing fund is currently depleted, making the prospect of building below-market-rate units daunting. She called the concept approved by her colleagues "not realistic" and argued that it won't generate the kind of housing that the city would like to see.

"If the method of funding affordable housing is an addictive drug, then I think we are in withdrawal because we don't have developments coming through to refill our affordable-housing fund," Cormack said.

Council: No concessions for 'workforce' housing

Some residents also urged the council to think bigger.

Gail Price, who served on the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan Working Group and who sits on the board of Palo Alto Forward, a local nonprofit that advocates for more housing, called the preferred alternative presented by staff the "weakest and the least innovative and creative" of the options on the table.

Palo Alto Forward, she said, supports a more ambitious alternative known as "Alternative 3B," which envisions taller buildings and greater density and which would produce about 1,500 new residences in addition to new office development.

"The area could be an inclusive neighborhood with residents of all income levels — a healthier and sustainable neighborhood by incentivizing public transit and bike and pedestrian use while addressing (the Sustainability/Climate Action Plan's) climate change goal," Price said, in supporting the more aggressive growth scenario.

Most of the Ventura residents who addressed the council, however, pushed back against concepts that allow significantly taller buildings and greater density unless the new developments are dedicated to true affordable housing. This does not include "workforce" housing, a term that the city has applied to residential projects made up primarily of small units such as studios, with the idea that these projects would be more affordable.

The council has only approved one "workforce" housing project to date — a 59-apartment complex that is now known as AltaLocale at 2755 El Camino Real on the corner of Page Mill Road. After winning various zoning concessions from the city, including a fewer required parking spaces, the development now brands itself as "luxury living," with its small studios currently listing at $3,368 per month and one-bedroom apartments going for $4,345.

Given the high rents, the council agreed Monday to no longer include "workforce housing" as a category for which the city would provide zoning incentives. Rebecca Sanders, moderator for the Ventura Neighborhood Association, was among those who supported the move away from workforce housing.

"They wouldn't be affordable to graduate students, teachers, day care employees, health care employees, retail employees, retirees — people who really are the heartbeat of our community and the people who we really need housing for," Sanders said.

The council did, however, agree that it would be appropriate to raise the city's 50-foot height limit for deed-restricted 100% affordable housing projects. As part of its vote, the council directed staff to explore new height limits that would be appropriate for a four- or six-story affordable-housing project.

Parking requirements will be studied

The Ventura plan will continue to advance in the coming months, with staff further refining the planning document based on Monday's direction. In addition to exploring different height limits, staff and consultants will also further evaluate revising parking standards to make residential development more feasible. The council firmly rejected on Monday staff's suggestion to lower parking standards to a minimum of 0.5 spaces per residence. Current rules require one space per unit for studios or one-bedroom apartments and two spaces per unit for apartments with two or more bedrooms.

While the council broadly supported the idea of providing incentives such as Caltrain passes and bike amenities to reduce driving in the area, they questioned whether these elements of the proposed "transportation-demand management" (TDM) program will actually reduce car ownership and obviate the need for parking. The council directed city planners to delve deeper into this topic with the Planning and Transportation Commission before making a final decision.

"I'm more open-minded to incorporating TDM measures as reductions, certainly for traffic impacts and perhaps for parking, but not on faith," said Mayor Pat Burt, who pushed back on staff recommendations on parking.

Another option that the city will continue to explore in the coming months is amortization of existing office space, with the idea that they would be replaced with residences over time. Keith Reckdahl, an incoming member of the Planning and Transportation Commission who served on the Ventura working group, argued that amortization is necessary for the city to achieve its goals for housing in the area.

"Without amortization, landowners will continue to milk their office space forever," Reckdahl told the council.

One idea that proved universally popular among council members and residents is the prospect of naturalizing Matadero Creek, which is currently a concrete channel. Cedric de la Beaujardiere, a strong proponent of reverting the creek to its natural state, said the city should make restoring the natural habitat of the creek a top priority.

"Here we are lucky that the creek is mostly bordered by open parkland and parking lots," de la Beaujardiere said. "We should therefore seize the opportunity to fully restore the creek and not allow development to encroach upon and prevent future restoration."

Burt agreed and noted that riparian corridors are critical for fostering biodiversity.

"We have generations of kids and adults who are living in an environment where they don't have a natural setting nearby," Burt said. "For those of us who were able to walk a few blocks and walk down a creek bed and have that experience, it is really important as we go forward to take advantage of some opportunities we have to restore natural habitats, especially riparian corridors."

Even that effort, however, is expected to unfold slowly, if at all. The city's last estimate of the cost of restoring the creek was about $16 million. Staff warned, however, that the number has likely gone up significantly since 2018, when the city last analyzed the project. Cormack said that, given the high cost, she would not want to "get people's hopes up" about the project until there is a plan to fund it.

Filseth also suggested that whatever plan the council adopts will take a long time to unfold.

"We ought to be thinking in terms of decades here because what we do here is going to persist and shape this neighborhood for decades," Filseth said. "And that gives us latitude to implement pieces as land and money become available.

"We don't have to get it all done next year or the year after, and so forth."

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Local Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 11, 2022 at 11:17 am

Local Resident is a registered user.

It's nice to have a council that focuses zoning exceptions on truly affordable housing and is not fooled into thinking building more office is the way to subsidize below market housing. A business tax, like pretty much every other city on the peninsula has is a better way to go. Thank you for your good work last night.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 11, 2022 at 11:30 am

Online Name is a registered user.

I agree with Local Resident. Good to see most of the CC asking Staff hard questions and calling them out for their unsubstantiated claims. To develop plans based on fairy tails about how many people will willingly give up their cars is absurd. Also odd is the claim that the lowest income people will give up their cars when they clearly need them to get to work.

Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 11, 2022 at 12:53 pm

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

Don't underestimate the weak planning foundation in our city's planning and implementation processes. This Council has begun to discard vague aspiration and prayers; it is moving towards accountability for staff, developers and citizens.

For example, one component for a better future is realistic transportation demand management(TDM). Meaningful TDM is 100% impractical without an entirely new enforceable ordinance. Thankfully I think senior city staff realizes their implementation hurdles.

Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 11, 2022 at 2:07 pm

commonsense is a registered user.

Office will not be needed to subsidize residential if the height limit is raised enough and greated density is allowed. Furthermore, more density of housing with NO office will be a step in the right direction to getting the jobs/housing imbalance under control. The 50' limit is an arbitrary number set up decades ago that needs to be changed. What's the cost/benefit of increasing the residential height limit 20? A slightly larger shadow in return for more housing, more affordable housing and "less" office.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 11, 2022 at 2:58 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

I was pleased to see strong support among both the Council members and the staff report for the maximum restoration of this segment of Matadero Creek. I am hopeful that this will stay a priority, become funded and move eventually to implementation. For those interested in seeing the study that was done with plan-view maps and cross sections of the creek under the various concepts, you can find that here: Web Link
Pdf page 74 of that study has a handy rendering of the cross sections of the current conditions and the three main alternatives with brief descriptions of each.

I am thankful for Mayor Pat Burt's leadership and highlighting the importance of restoring our riparian corridors, and for the support several council members gave to that idea.

I think it is important to keep in mind that a naturalized creek which includes public access would be in itself a park amenity, a positive contribution to a broader park experience, not a detraction from the park. Parks are more than just play structures and playing fields. See for instance the photos of kids playing in creeks in these bay area parks, including our own Bol Park access to Matadero Creek: Web Link

Posted by JonnyK
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 11, 2022 at 4:57 pm

JonnyK is a registered user.

I hope they preserve the old historic cannery. If not the entire building, at least the original footprint.

Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 11, 2022 at 5:06 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

Building tall makes housing more expensive. Midrise at 6 to 8 stories is about twice as costly per square foot as detached single-family homes. Here's a good reference that explains the tradeoffs: Web Link (If anyone has more recent data, please pass it along.) This is one reason why the "teacher housing" project on Grant Ave is estimating a cost of about $800K per unit.

Of course you can always make units smaller, no matter what the height of the building. That improves affordability, though it will also make the units unsuitable for some tenants (like families).

Posted by tmp
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 11, 2022 at 9:06 pm

tmp is a registered user.

The vision for the bay area should be:
1) No more office space. There are too many jobs and people her for the environment, water supply and pollution level. More office space means more workers and more calls for housing.
2) Use this space for the people who already live in the area. They need a large park and community space. They city owes the residents of Palo Alto much more central park space then we have. The city has not added significant park space for the growing population for decades.
3) Do not upzone the area to help developers make more money. Leave the zoning as low as possible so if they decide to sell it will be at a lower rate based on what the area is zoned for.

Posted by Chris
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 12, 2022 at 12:42 pm

Chris is a registered user.

Common sense you obviously have no...

The arbiters of our great city from years past were staunch environmentalists and they realized how bad building underground is in this area. Which is why there are so many Iclers (sp?)

As you obviously do not know, Palo Alto's proximity to the bay makes the water table especially close to the surface. Building underground in this area is akin to filling in the bay. Which maybe you actually understand is bad

Did you know that living in an urban environment is unhealthy for human beings? What's a little more cancer, heart disease and dementia?

Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 12, 2022 at 12:46 pm

commonsense is a registered user.

Ouch! However what does the water table have to do with a building's height? Underground parking is a problem? Shall we move all cars parked under ground to the streets?

Posted by Chris
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 12, 2022 at 12:48 pm

Chris is a registered user.

Dude, try and actually know something before you start acting like you

Posted by Chris
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 12, 2022 at 12:48 pm

Chris is a registered user.

The higher the building, the lower the foundation....

Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 12, 2022 at 12:50 pm

commonsense is a registered user.


Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 12, 2022 at 12:51 pm

commonsense is a registered user.

And that's a problem because?

Posted by Chris
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 12, 2022 at 12:51 pm

Chris is a registered user.

That was your most sensible comment so far

Posted by Chris
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 12, 2022 at 12:53 pm

Chris is a registered user.

Because you're filling in the water table

Thanks for ignoring the cancer, heart disease and dementia you're wishing on everyone.

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 12, 2022 at 2:41 pm

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

Filseth is such a downer, how addictive is that ? Prop13 homeowners are addicted to thier low property tax rates and pro R1 zones. The unhoused at the bottom of the human pool chain and the wealthiest earners, sucking every drop to the top. Our most vulnerable bi-pedal human mammals are suffering the oppression of home price gauging, a very limited existing housing supply chain crisis and climate change. iRemodel and even relocate the said "historic" cannery. Make it into a community center with a gym and indoor pool. Sobrato "has no apatite for housing"?! Yet they look good by giving to local low-income non-profits except in the housing sector. the no apatite argument as "ruining the character of the neighborhood". I love how the city always pushes back or says no to affordable housing yet has endless visionary ideas about Matadero Creek's "naturalization" (millions of dollars and probably coming from the infrastructure bill) and preserving a underutilized, empty warehouse and property into something which could feed everyone's soul. North Ventura is a great solution to an endemic and historic crisis -- local housing for all incomes. I'd say the City is exacerbating and prolonging our unhoused epidemic by the actions taken in their endless motions, welcome and unwelcome...

Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 12, 2022 at 3:13 pm

commonsense is a registered user.

Haha! Filling in the water table. That’s pretty funny. I’ll give you that!

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 12, 2022 at 4:19 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

" Prop13 homeowners are addicted to thier low property tax rates and pro R1 zones. The unhoused at the bottom of the human pool chain and the wealthiest earners, sucking every drop to the top"

Funny how you ignore the fact that Prop13 COMMERCIAL property owners also have even lower property tax rates and "live" much longer than homewners who either sell off or die off much sooner than corporations which are also RICHER than individual "mammals." As for the "wealthiest earners, sucking every drop to the top," where's your outrage at the big corporate lobbyists who spend HUNDREDS of MILLIONS of dollars lobbying in the last election to deprive gig workers of basic benefits and a living wage?

Posted by local gurl
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 13, 2022 at 5:53 am

local gurl is a registered user.

Don’t kid yourself. The last thing Palo Alto wants is “an inclusive neighborhood with residents of all income levels.” They’ve proven it for decades.

Posted by PaloAltoVoter
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 13, 2022 at 8:20 am

PaloAltoVoter is a registered user.

Local girl, what are you talking about? Palo Alto has more affordable housing than most cities in Santa Clara county and ranks even higher when you look per capita! Where are you getting your facts?

Posted by Chris
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 13, 2022 at 8:40 am

Chris is a registered user.

She's getting her facts from the unbridled fury that is her existence. Looking for someone to blame.
Palo Alto is the most inclusive community in the world. So many projects and well meaning people have worked to help the less fortunate. You are a delusional bitter person local gurl

This native to the Bay...you have the worst ideas I've seen ...anywhere! I'd call you a downer but it's more like a clowner

Posted by Chris
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 13, 2022 at 8:44 am

Chris is a registered user.

Common sense you are pathetically undermatched for this. You're already out of things to say. You don't care about the environment or other people. Have a good laugh you disgusting miser

Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 13, 2022 at 9:20 am

commonsense is a registered user.

You are clearly more knowledgeable than I so please explain how deeper foundations “fill in the water table” and how someone who doesn’t understand this point wishes cancer and dementia upon all others and is a miser. And how is it that whatever foundation your home rests on or any building you visit is the “proper” depth and anything deeper is an environmental disaster? Thank you!

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
15 hours ago

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

This flame war is making people hot under the collar. In case of conflagration, harumphitude filter masks will deploy into the cabin. Please secure your own mask before helping others with theirs. Take a few deep breath to recenter, and proceed with a cool head and a warm heart. If we each make an effort to debate facts and opinions, and leave out the ad hominim attacks, we'll improve the experience for all readers of and contributors to the discussion.

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