It took more than seven years for Palo Alto to draw up a new vision for the neighborhoods around California Avenue, and about an hour for an ambivalent City Council to kick this vision back to the drawing board Monday night.
The proposed California Avenue Area Concept Plan, which seeks to create a "unified vision" for future development around the centrally located business district, has been in the works since 2006, when the council first identified the area as ripe for change. But during a wide-ranging discussion Monday, the current council struggled to find a consensus about what exactly this change should look like, with some members calling for more housing, others advocating for retail protection and one characterizing the concept plan as a dramatic upzoning proposal that needs far more consideration before adoption.
The council did agree on two elements, however. One was that the plan, despite years of public hearings and a recent approval by the Planning and Transportation Commission, isn't quite ready for prime time. Council members plan to further debate it on May 5 as part of a broader discussion of the Comprehensive Plan, and most likely at another meeting after that.
The council also agreed to apply for a grant to pursue a master plan for the site of Fry's Electronics, one of the major wildcards in the concept-plan area. With the property recently changing hands, the council has expressed concern in recent months about Fry's leaving and the city having no control over what will happen next at the site. The master plan would zoom in on this site and consider other possible land uses. The goal, as stated in the concept plan, is to foster over the long-term the "transformation of the Fry's site subarea into a walkable, human-scale mixed-use neighborhood that includes ample amenities."
The new Fry's document will add yet another layer to the Russian nesting doll of plans Palo Alto is currently pursuing. The city is still updating its official land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, a nearly decade-long process that staff expects to complete in late 2015. On a parallel track, planners are pushing ahead with a new Housing Element, a state-mandated chapter of the Comprehensive Plan that lays out the city's housing policies and identifies sites that could accommodate new residential units. The California Avenue concept plan (as well a similar "concept area plan" for the East Meadow Circle area) would also be added to the Comprehensive Plan.
Even the decision to apply for a grant came after an extensive debate, with several council members repeatedly seeking assurance from staff that applying for the funds from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority would not lock the city into any kind of a land-use decision. The master plan is expected to cost between $200,000 and $300,000.
The debate over California Avenue's future comes at a time of major changes in the area, with dense new developments such as 195 Page Mill Road, 260 California Ave. and 2640 Birch St. currently being constructed and a nearby project at 3359 El Camino Real recently winning approval. The council also considered approving last year a four-story, two-building office complex at 395 Page Mill Road, though that proposal died after developer Jay Paul withdrew the application in December, citing Palo Alto's political climate.
Though the proposed concept plan for the California Avenue area stresses the need to preserve existing neighborhood, it also advocates for more density, particularly if the new projects are mixed-use developments with small housing units. The plan splits the area into three subsections: the eclectic business district around California Avenue, the tech-heavy commercial area on Park Boulevard and the sprawling site around Fry's. While the concept plan proposes to rezone only the Fry's site (it would go from "multi-family residential" to "mixed-use" to enable more flexibility), it also encourages development on California Avenue "at the higher end of the allowed density range."
Similarly, it seeks to encourage more technology-focused firms to set up shop on Park Boulevard and includes a policy to encourage mixed-use developments with research space, officers and small residential units. Much like on California Avenue, developments in this new "technology corridor" would be encouraged "at the higher end of the allowed density range," provided they're consistent with the city's design standards.
All the talk of greater density proved to be a hard sell with council members Pat Burt and Karen Holman, both of whom argued that far more deliberation is needed before the council goes along with the plan.
"We have not had an opportunity to look at the significance of this very large upzoning for this area and it needs much more consideration," Burt said of the proposed technology corridor on Park Boulevard.
Holman concurred and argued that the council needs more time to review and revise the concept plan.
"This really reads to me like a redevelopment document," Holman said.
Burt likened the concept plan to Jay Paul's proposal for 395 Page Mill, which at 311,000 square feet far exceeded the city's zoning regulations and drew heavy criticism from the surrounding neighborhoods for its ambitious scale.
"We thought we were stepping over a cliff at the Jay Paul site," Burt said. "We're running over the Grand Canyon potentially on approving these major upzonings without real consideration."
Burt and Holman were also skeptical about the Fry's grant, at least until Planning Director Hillary Gitelman offered them repeated assurances that the grant funds would not obligate the city to pursue any policies that the council doesn't support.
Once adopted, the vision for California Avenue would become part of the city's Comprehensive Plan. A report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment notes that the concept plan aims "to identify appropriate development intensities, the potential for additional housing, and plan for retention and enhancement of retail/service opportunities and improved pedestrian and bicycle connections in the California Avenue area."
Several residents attended the meeting to laud the concept plan, which also advocates for various pedestrian- and bike-safety improvements on Park Boulevard and improved connections between the Fry's site and El Camino Real. Eric Rosenblum and Sandra Slater both praised it for encouraging density near a prominent transit corridor, a strategy aimed at reducing car trips.
"I think it's a win-win and an opportunity for the council to look at something that can be really exciting and, in a way, a beacon for how Palo Alto might look at future developments," Slater told the council.
Councilwoman Gail Price agreed and said the concept plan offers the city a valuable chance to manage change.
"I think it provides us with a terrific opportunity -- in conjunction with the 'Our Palo Alto' discussion -- to become more refined and more thoughtful about the kinds of decisions we're in the process of making," Price said, referring to the soon-to-commence effort to engage the community in a two-year discussion about the city's future.
One aspect that the council generally agreed on is that housing should feature prominently in the future of the Fry's site. Councilman Greg Scharff advocated for rental housing in particular, arguing that commuters are more likely to rent apartments near their jobs than buy homes. Greg Schmid, meanwhile, said the Fry's site is one of the few places where the council can realize "smart development," a mix of retail, commercial and residential uses clustered near a transit site. Schmid said such a vision is "what modern urban design is all about." The city, Schmid said, needs to quickly answer the question of what percentage of the city's housing mandate should be targeted for his area.
"I think people tonight have made a convincing case that this is one of the best places in town," Schmid said.