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History looms large as Palo Alto vets redevelopment plan for Fry's site

Original post made on Jan 13, 2023

With plans to redevelop the former site of Fry's Electronics slowly advancing, the Historic Resources Board on Thursday blasted a proposal by the city and The Sobrato Organization to demolish 40% of the historic cannery building.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, January 13, 2023, 9:28 AM

Comments (30)

Posted by Jay
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 13, 2023 at 10:24 am

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I think Palo Alto is in dire need of housing and I am glad they are going forward with the project.

Posted by Mark Dinan
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 13, 2023 at 10:40 am

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There is nothing noteworthy in this building worthy of architectural preservation. Tear it down, put a plaque up commemorating the former use of the site, and proceed to build. "Historic Preservation" is just one more tactic anti-development, conservative forces are utilizing to stop neighborhood change.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 13, 2023 at 11:03 am

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I can't agree with Mark Dinan more. In most cases "historical preservation" is just an excuse for NIMBY-ism.

Posted by Garry Wyndham
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2023 at 11:08 am

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I agree with Mark. The cannery history is worth remembering with an on-site plaque or small exhibit.

But the building is otherwise unremarkable except as a place where we once shopped for cheap TVs.

Time to ignore the hand wringers and move on.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 13, 2023 at 11:09 am

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[Post removed.]

Posted by Smrty
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 13, 2023 at 11:27 am

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The peninsula is already far beyond the amount of building and development that should have been allowed for the limited area available. There will be future unwelcome consequences as it appears densification will continue to be the norm going into the future. In my opinion, the building should be retained, the parking lot reduced to perhaps 40 spaces and a city supported public orchard planted to go with the historic canning building. Oh.. that's right, nobody would make a profit from that, silly me.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 13, 2023 at 11:39 am

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I believe the Sobrato proposal should be approved and let the project proceed to be built!

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2023 at 11:52 am

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

While I disagree with this statement, "In most cases "historical preservation" is just an excuse for NIMBY-ism," I think this building is not worth saving in its entirety. I love local history and value the history of Mr. Chew and his creation of a prosperous business that served farms in the Valley of Hearts Delight era. The plan for this building looks pretty good. It preserves enough of the history to carry the story forward. The Frye's building is huge, and housing is a good use for this land, given its proximity to jobs, Cal Ave shops, a crosstown bicycle boulevard, El Camino Real, Oregon Expwy., Caltrain station. Moderating speed and distribution of car trips to minimize their safety impacts on neighborhood streets and school routes should be a key consideration. The current circulation plan needs a lot of work. As it stands, it will encourage cut-through car traffic, creating hazards in neighborhood areas that need protection--both for present and future resident safety.

Mr. Lait, please collaborate more with Transportation. Mr. Shikada, your transportation team is understaffed and so the work you are getting is rushed and poorly thought through. Council, find funding for additional high quality transportation planning and engineering staff who understand multi-modal transportation, because there is going to be a lot more of it as housing planning and construction gets underway around the city. (Grade separation projects are a mess because they are poorly staffed too.)

The city can integrate transportation improvements in the plans now when mitigation dollars are available, or pay for it when car traffic becomes untenable. Pennywise, pound foolish is not good long-term financial planning. Staffing to plan transportation well now is the stuff we should be spending money on as we plan for growth.

Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2023 at 12:25 pm

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Some commenters seem to think the ONLY thing of any importance in Palo Alto is housing development. Ok, let’s go whole hog with that thinking.

Let’s destroy all our standing history. Chop down 40% of El Palo Alto, giving more room for the new Caltrain bridge, allow 40% of Birge Clark buildings to be demolished to squeeze in a new homes, then let’s keep going until nothing is left of historic value that takes room away from new development.

And if anyone expresses a view that you differ with, be it a Commission volunteer or resident, use a pejorative to try to delegitimize them personally and marginalize their concerns.

In actuality, the majority of Palo Altans value their historical buildings and know not to be siloed in their thinking about the many issues they must consider to make good decisions about any issue. And mutual respect and civility above all.

Posted by Miriam Jacobs
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 13, 2023 at 12:32 pm

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Another option would be to convert the former Fry's building into units for the homeless population in Palo Alto.

Try being humanitarian rather than worshiping the dollar sign.

Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2023 at 12:38 pm

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One last thing -
Fact - The building qualifies for the Calif. State Historical Register and as such, almost certainly for the National Register. The building is a valuable historic resource, easily qualifying with having 8 of 9 criteria.

Some commenters assertions that the building has little or no historical value are uninformed - all opinion, no knowledge, all hat, no cattle.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 13, 2023 at 12:50 pm

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"Some commenters seem to think the ONLY thing of any importance in Palo Alto is housing development."

Make that expensive and more profitable market rate housing development while developers continue to bulldoze rent-controlled apartments aka affordable housing.

How special they get to rig the housing targets and to ignore realities like empty offices, massive local layoffs, a $22.5 BILLION state deficit due to the tanking economy, floods, fire, droughts requiring existing residents to limit their water use, etc etc for the next 8 -- EIGHT years before re-evaluating those targets.

Equally special is Palo Alto's own refusal to respond to questions about those targets as legally required while including long documents from pro-density lobbyists like PAF, YIMBY etc.

Bias ans profits matter, logic and fairness not so much.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 13, 2023 at 1:51 pm

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David Bower is not an Asian American and it is presumptive and arrogant of him to use Asian Americans to push his own agenda. If Asian Americans think the cannery is worth preserving, they will say so themselves.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 13, 2023 at 2:07 pm

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

Posted by Jerry
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 13, 2023 at 2:16 pm

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I had shopped at the Fry's many times before I even became aware that it was a cannery before.
Although I respect the history of it, my primary association with that building is wandering around trying to find packages of assorted resistors and solder flux.

I find it a bit odd that the building has suddenly become the intense focus of historical preservation. I agree with other posters that a historical marker is in order but I think the building itself will quickly become a money sink due to maintenance costs.

Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Jan 13, 2023 at 3:52 pm

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I completely agree with Jerry’s comment above and so many similar comments above. An elegant statue of Mr. Chew with his engraved story would be far more interesting to a passerby. People would stop to look at that and appreciate the unique history of this valley, rather than contemplating an inelegant building. When I happened to see a bust of Mahatma Gandhi in a park in Guanajuato, Mexico, I was both surprised and delighted. I felt a similar reaction when I discovered a statue of Nicola Tesla on Birch Street near the County Courthouse. Create a beautiful spot to celebrate Mr. Chew, not his cannery.

Posted by Smrty
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 13, 2023 at 4:34 pm

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@anonymous snidely asserts: " I can't agree more. This area should be returned to the state before the arrival of Europeans. I suggest @Smrty tear down his house to return his property to wilderness to show that he really means what says." I have lived in Santa Clara Valley since 1955 -45 of those years in Palo Alto- which has given me quite a bit of perspective with regard to development and how it affects quality of life. I am not one to arbitrairly shun development however I think there comes a time when the long view needs to be taken seriously to see how this is affecting and will continue to affect such a gem of an environment (the whole SCValley). I'll be dead long before the prolonged suffering begins. It has already insidiously invaded the major roadways which are clogged with commute traffic. It has already -not so quietly- inserted it's face into my neighborhood where I needn't tear my house down as every other home (ie. 'affordable' small homes and cottages) which get purchased (frequently by Stanford, thereby limiting the local housing stock more) are torn down and rebuilt into large, unaffordable homes which the average person such as a secretary or carpenter would find impossible to afford. I also understand that my input isn't worth 2centavos, I just felt like venting. For the record, I agree with much of what @Consider Your Options suggested with regard to being pennywise and pound foolish. ... Oh, and one more thing, "I'd happily knock a couple million off the value of my house if it would ensure all the surrounding home prices were dropped by an equivalent amount," she said in all seriousness. ;-)

Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 13, 2023 at 5:40 pm

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I too vote for a plaque. I've been to that Fry's many times and if the goal is for people to know about and appreciate the history of that site, then so far, we've done a bad job. I had no idea about the history. Keeping the dilapidated building and preserving history are not really the same thing.

Posted by BruceS
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 13, 2023 at 6:03 pm

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I'm firmly on the tear-it-down side. It's not a matter of the almighty dollar, and it's not a matter of abandoning all history. There are plenty of buildings in Palo Alto that do deserve to be saved, but the Fry's is not one of them. And I agree with 'Consider' that the design proposed is a nice 'tip of the hat' to the former cannery, and a plaque and statue would probably do more to value the past then preserving a very unspectacular building.

I actually have more sympathy for Smrty's view of an orchard than the building. It is a shame that we've lost all of those. But it's probably not worth putting there, and it might not even work in the current state of the Valley.

Posted by Chris
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 13, 2023 at 10:27 pm

Chris is a registered user.

There are way too many people in the bay area, Palo alto, and on earth. Get it together people. Developing more housing is not a sustainable endeavor. Do not tell me you are anti climate change AND pro housing. Those are not congruent goals.

Posted by Bill Bucy
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 14, 2023 at 7:35 am

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Preserving an ugly building is a poor way to commemorate Mr. Chew's achievements and his contribution to the community. A statue and an educational display would be far more meaningful, especially in the long term.

Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 14, 2023 at 8:46 am

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The building is ugly and shabby. Get rid of it. Put a giant can statue (like Andy Warhol’s soup cans) somewhere on the property with an explanatory plaque.

Posted by Local Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 14, 2023 at 9:25 am

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Clearly many of the pro development folks who commented above have little concern for preserving Asian American history. It’s also a tragedy that Sobrato is getting away with building such low density housing. Such a tragedy and is an example of why state mandates lead to poor outcomes.

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 14, 2023 at 9:08 pm

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15 acres in one single location is unprecedented in Palo Alto & on the precipice of oblivion. Idea. though it is a social one. honor & sustain living history by making this entire location a dynamic part of a town history: past, present & future. Preserve its RM30 zone for all incomes, ages, abilities. Especially 4 those in blue collar & in local retail labor force. Scrap “Alternative 3” & return the economic/cultural favor of history 4 a multi cultural, multi income current work force which this site served generations, including WWII .

This site & the surrounding NV neighborhood not only served a labor force, fed people beyond its boundaries but also critically, HOUSED employees of the cannery.

The only way forward is in good faith. For the multi-billionaire Sabroto (who snapped this parcel up during the Great Recession of 2010) is to do right by preserving, designing, implementing a cornerstone 4 essential working poor & working class & thus 4 democratic prosperity.

This entails allowing 4 more affordable low wage, local work force housing, open space, public art, street wise biking/walking altaccessibility.

Should anyone care 2 stroll thru Mayfield Soccer field (Mayfield Agreement w Stanford) u can read the plaques, yet little of this parcel (once a cattle coral, then a transit junction w stage coach road house , then a public elementary school — which my brother in-law attended, in 1968.

Create a living history Cannery parcel site w more low income housing, public art, community space. Very high end town homes will bury everything in a real estate holding profit.

Finally. Should private 4 profit prevail. Move a portion of the warehouse 2 Cubberely: re-use, up-cycle the building 4 a community “gym”.,Indoor pickle ball courts & such. Even an indoor skate park in the giant 2 block warehouse.

Randolph Hearst shipped a stone monastery from Span 2 SF in early 20th Century. Hello!?

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 14, 2023 at 10:00 pm

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@Bill Bucy is exactly right. No need to preserve an unremarkable (even ugly?) building - instead inform us of Mr. Chew's accomplishments and impact.

One of the best historical displays in the area is at the site of a 100% demo development -- the 3 giant yellow metal transistor/diode sculptures on the sidewalk at 391 San Antonio Rd. This is the site of Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the first producer of silicon semiconductors in Silicon Valley, near the intersection with California St. From an Electronic Engineering journal blog entry:

"Three Brobdinagian sculptures created by the collaborative artistic team of Mary Bayard White and Vickie Jo Sowell sprout from the sidewalk in front of 391 South San Antonio Road. The sculptures depict early semiconductor devices including a 2N696 transistor and two versions of Shockley’s 4-layer diode. They’re quite detailed, all the way down to the glass insulator on some of the legs of the devices and the schematic diagram of an oscillator based on the transistor and Shockley diode that’s etched into the sidewalk. "

There's also a fountain in the modern complex with a sculpture of a silicon atom as its centerpiece.

Posted by Likes Civic Engagement
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 15, 2023 at 7:53 am

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Those mentioned in the story should have the courage to say the truth - they just want to stall and limit opportunity to have additional homes, community, etc.

Many good ways to recognize and preserve historical memories. The physical site today, "pristine" in its preservation state, does little to educate. Innumerable ways to tell the story and even to highlight some of the interesting parts.

Contention that "too much" is lost in any given design though is really quite a dishonest claim by the NIMBY camp.

Posted by PalyJim
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 15, 2023 at 12:46 pm

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Palo Alto is filled with neatly placed plaques at or near its historical places; check that box and continue to replace everything. Developers have far too much influence at City Hall. While the architectural depiction looks nice, it should be accompanied by a permanently funded historical onsite operation, with Palo Alto Museum ownership. In a city where people who moved to Palo Alto a few years ago are seen as locals, everyone should do more to preserve historical places and their stories. Today's affordable housing is tomorrow's tear-down debate, while history remains, so which is more important?

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 17, 2023 at 3:10 pm

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A sorta funny image popped into my mind as I read the various comments about commemorative plaques: they are like tombstones for the past. We should be careful lest we remove too much of what has made Palo Alto interesting.

Serious question: if it is the Canning Company building that is historically important, can it be relocated?

I cannot find the article, but I recall a recent news story about HUGE development planned for San Carlos. Much of it was, I think, planned by Sobrato. I am not one who thinks that all developers are bad. I appreciate their philanthropy and of course the jobs their projects create. But a reincarnated Dickens might write about big development plans as a Tale of Two Regions. There's the region in which new development is planned, approved, and built and there's the region in which existing development, some quite new, sits empty. What do Sobrato et al know about the future of commercial space that encourages them to build more of it? And where do they plan to house the people that will, supposedly, be working in those spaces? I think it makes sense to fully understand all this before approving more commercial development. Evergrande's folly in China is a cautionary tale vis-a-vis development if ever there was one.

I also think it makes sense to build housing for those who are already here and in need of shelter before adding commercial space that increases the demand for housing. And maybe we need to admit that certain areas of this region may never again be described as affordable. That may be the costliest fallout from Silicon Valley's tech-based success.

Posted by Paige
a resident of another community
on Jan 21, 2023 at 4:01 pm

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@Annette "What do Sobrato et al know about the future of commercial space that encourages them to build more of it?"

It's not hard to imagine our region continuing to grow. VC's, Stanford, huge existing tech corporate hq's, etc. The fire is burning.

But to what underlines your question. Many recent approvals of commercial development now include developer's agreements that have vesting rights. True recently for large commercial approvals in RWC and Menlo Park. These DA's give developer's lengthy amounts of time (decade or two) before they have to build anything, and they prevent approvals from expiring even if no development occurs. These approvals lock up infrastructure and then show up in the counting base of future project planning.

Developers then sit on their approvals for little money waiting for favorable market conditions. They can sell approvals, like commodity futures if they need to get their cash out.

Even if market conditions are right, developers will often sell approvals to builders who may then sell a built project off to a future operator, much like Stanford sold off its shopping center to an operator. Underneath each phase, approval, construction, and operation are tranches of capital and capital interests that can be bought and sold. This creates liquidity and distributes risk.

Once, operators and investors were more regional. Now funding comes from huge global funds looking for aggressive returns.

Much of the future of our region is sitting in a pipeline of existing approvals waiting for favorable market conditions.

Sobrato is also building in Menlo Park. It ingratiated itself with the MP council majority faction by helping fund opposition to the recent Initiative, Measure V. One of the many ways developers grease the system for approvals.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 24, 2023 at 11:18 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

WE need to look at the city, county, and state property taxes and state income taxes that are not generated when we dither over large parcels of land with no useful purpose. It is all cement and old buildings that are not up to spec. When you do not develope the obvious locations the city then shifts it's sights on exisitng businesses and homes. That is not acceptable.

This is a central location that needs housing with some commercial elements and support to the transportation elements which are in the vicinity - ECR and Caltrain. Quit dithering and get moving on making this a quality living and working space.

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