Palo Alto took the critical first step Monday toward re-imagining and, ultimately, redeveloping a Ventura site best known for its largest commercial tenant: Fry's Electronics.
By a unanimous vote, the City Council agreed to move ahead with a "coordinated area plan" for a site that officials agree is particularly ripe for redevelopment -- both because it's ability to accommodate hundreds of new housing units and because of it's proximity to the transit services at El Camino Real and California Avenue.
If things go as planned, the process will be roughly modeled after Palo Alto's community-driven plans for two neighborhoods south of Forest Avenue: SOFA and SOFA II. The end product will identify the community's preferred land uses for the area, paving the way for zone changes and infrastructure improvements.
While the 15-acre "Fry's site" owned by The Sobrato Organization makes up a good share of the site, the new plan targets a broader area that goes well beyond the sprawling commercial campus off Portage Avenue. The area studied would be just east of El Camino Real. It would be roughly bounded by Page Mill Road, Lambert Avenue, Ash Street and Park Boulevard -- a neighborhood that is already undergoing significant changes thanks to numerous developments that recently won approval.
According to the project description in the grant program, alternatives that could be considered for the site "include repurposing existing buildings as well as complete redevelopment of the site with new construction."
"We're kicking off a really important process for a really important part of town," said Councilman Adrian Fine, who made the motion to move ahead with the plan.
For the council, the idea of transforming Ventura is far from new. The updated Comprehensive Plan, which the council hopes to adopt later this month, has a policy encouraging a new concept plan for the Fry's area. And in July 2015, the council came close to moving ahead with the plan but chose to defer the project after Sobrato came out against it.
Now, Sobrato is not only on board but it is contributing money toward the effort. The bulk of the funding will still come from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which is providing a $638,000 grant for the plan. Sobrato has agreed to contribute another $112,000 to satisfy the grant's matching requirement, as well as an additional $138,000 for an environmental analysis.
The council's vote Monday sets the stage for an 18-month planning process with extensive collaboration from neighborhood stakeholders and reviews by the Planning and Transportation Commission and City Council. In the coming months, the council will solicit applications for a working group to help guide the process along, appoint group members, select consultants and -- if things go as planned -- adopt a plan by the end of 2019.
Some Ventura residents are already getting jazzed about the new plan. Ken Joye noted that one of the goals of the proposal is to take a comprehensive approach to neighborhood improvements -- something that he said isn't possible when development happens on a project-by-project approach.
"I endorse the comprehensive approach to development and hope it can be applied to other projects in the Ventura neighborhood," Joye said.
Becky Sanders, moderator of the Ventura Neighborhood Association, agreed and said her neighbors look forward to participating in the conversation about the future of the area.
"With the development of the Fry's site, Ventura really wants to enter into a true community partnership where everyone benefits and where we work together to build an environment that all Palo Altans can be proud of and all the neighbors can enjoy," Sanders said.
Council members shared her excitement. Some talked about the prospect of revitalizing the area, which according to the city's Housing Element has a "realistic capacity" of 221 housing units. Others pointed to this process as a model that the city can apply to other neighborhoods.
Councilman Cory Wolbach, a longtime proponent of creating "coordinated area plans" for different parts of town, fell into both camps.
"What this is really about tonight is process and that's a process that is not simply developer led -- which is frankly the way we usually do things. And we've been frustrated by that in a lot of ways," Wolbach said. "This is more a process (that is) community led, neighborhood led, city led."
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss called the proposed area plan "a win on many fronts."
"This is, I think, something we've waited a long time to see," Kniss said.