Wanted: Redevelopment that is higher density, mixed residential and commercial, with adequate parking and improved pedestrian and bicycle connections, all without changing the current character as a neighborhood-serving retail district.
That, in a nutshell, is what planners envision and think is possible for the future of California Avenue, Park Boulevard and the large parcel that includes Fry's Electronics south of Page Mill Road.
The draft plan has been incubating for more than five years through various workshops and meetings with residents and businesses in the area and the work of consultants. Because of other priorities and staffing shortages, the process has dragged on for years longer than was planned.
And because it will soon become a part of the larger Comprehensive Plan update and environmental review, once it is endorsed by the City Council as early as next Monday's meeting, it will be at least another two years before it can actually be approved.
The delay is actually not a bad thing, because the proposed development concepts and strategies can be examined and tested in the context of the construction boom currently underway in the area and today's traffic realities rather than through a more conjectural, hypothetical lens of the "quiet" development period during the Great Recession.
The draft plan, with the help of some tweaks by the Planning Commission, does a good job presenting desirable future outcomes from redevelopment of the area in the years ahead. Its purpose is to provide a "tool to help the public and decision-makers frame the context for future planning in this sector of the city."
Except for the Fry's property, where a change in land-use designation from multi-family housing to mixed-use is proposed, no other broad-scale changes are deemed necessary to achieve the goals outlined.
But there are proposed changes in policies and zoning philosophy outlined that are designed to bring about a purposeful evolution of the area. A "technology corridor overlay" is proposed to encourage small-scale technology-related businesses. Recognizing the existing problems of pedestrian and bicycle safety, especially along Park Boulevard, the plan calls out roadway safety as a priority, as well as preserving and protecting the single family neighborhoods abutting the district.
The plan points out that the property Fry's partly occupies is one of the few large parcels left in the city that is ripe for major redevelopment, and suggests that a site-specific master plan be developed with the property owner that would, among other things, require any new development be at least 20 percent residential, a significant shift from the current multi-family designation.
But it is the draft plan's approach to the California Avenue business district that is most fragile, vulnerable to hard-to-control market forces, and in need of much hard work as it gets absorbed into the Comprehensive Plan process.
For all its good intentions, it is difficult to not view it with some skepticism and worry that it seeks to achieve incompatible goals.
For example, reflecting community input, the plan makes the retention of the neighborhood-serving, small town feel of California Avenue a goal at the same time as aspiring to increase the "vibrancy" of the retail mix and to encourage higher-density housing along with new commercial development.
The plan, which was not yet informed by any retail or economic analysis, raises the question of what retail, residential and commercial mix is most conducive to preserving the current character of the area, but it offers no answers or road map for getting answers.
Forty years ago downtown Palo Alto had many of the characteristics of today's California Avenue business district, but as redevelopment occurred and it became a strong regional commercial center, rising property values forced independent and neighborhood-serving retailers out. The growing number of downtown employees attracted restaurants, financial services and specialty retail. The character changed dramatically, but not with intentionality.
With the California Avenue district, the city has an opportunity to learn from the downtown experience and to more actively anticipate, manage and guide the change that is coming. Finding the levers to achieve the sweet-spot between increased vibrancy and preservation of the neighborhood-serving character is ambitious, but it is the critical work that lies ahead as the work proceeds.