Despite a spate of setbacks that have complicated its plans, Palo Alto is preparing to invest more time and money into an effort to forge a new community vision for a 60-acre area in the centrally located Ventura neighborhood.
The City Council is scheduled to approve on Monday an additional $368,758 contract with the consulting firm Perkins+Will, raising the firm's overall compensation to $1.14 million. Roughly two-thirds of that sum is covered by outside sources: a $638,000 federal grant that the city had received for the planning process and a $112,000 contribution from The Sobrato Organization, the developer that owns 340 Portage Ave., a commercial campus in the planning area anchored by Fry's Electronics.
The new contract both increases the city's investment in what's known as the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan and extends the timeline for the planning process by a year. Under the new terms, the process will be completed by December 2021 and will include more — and longer — meetings by the Working Group that is helping the city craft the new vision. It would also involve more council meetings and at least three different redevelopment options for the council to consider.
The new contract will be coming to the council at a time when the city's plans for redeveloping Ventura are as hazy as ever. For years, Palo Alto officials have described the site at 340 Portage Ave. as a premier opportunity for new housing. But while the city's Housing Element envisions up to 249 units at this site, the council had to curb its ambitions earlier this year when Sobrato announced that it has no plans to redevelop the Fry's site to create new housing.
At the same time, the city's recent historic analysis concluded that the Fry's building, a former cannery, is considered historic because of its association with early 20th century agriculture. The finding has prompted calls from some residents to preserve the 1918 building, even as others have continued to advocate for redeveloping the site to create housing.
The council was similarly split at its Aug. 19 meeting, when it directed staff by a 4-3 vote to bring back a contract amendment with Perkins+Will. Councilwoman Alison Cormack, who dissented, wondered whether, given the recent complications, the plan is still capable of delivering the types of benefits that Ventura residents have long called for, including new recreational amenities, affordable housing and improvements around Matadero Creek. Councilman Greg Tanaka also suggested that the city won't have much to show for its expenditures.
At the same time, the city is already moving ahead with some of the ideas that residents had brought to the planning process. Earlier this year, the council finalized its purchase of a 0.56-acre site on Birch Street, next to Boulware Park, to facilitate the park's expansion. And on Sept. 16, the council approved a $93,237 contract with the firm WRA Inc., to study possible improvements at Matadero Creek, including the removal of the existing concrete channel to enable the creek's "naturalization."
If the council approves the Perkins+Will contract, it will effectively double down on a process that had generated significant community enthusiasm before the recent series of setbacks. In March, residents packed into the Ventura Community Center to advocate for improving their neighborhood through the planning process. And up until the August meeting, the council had been unanimous in its support for the city's largest "area plan" exercise since the completion of the South of Forest Avenue (SOFA) area plan, a two-phased plan that the city completed in 2003.
The new contract that the council will consider this Monday will also require the consultant to consider the "economic value" of the existing planning area, a financial analysis of redevelopment proposals and extended environmental-review services, including the creation of an environmental impact report, according to a Department of Planning and Development Services report.
The council is set to approve the contract on its "consent calendar," where numerous items get passed with a single vote.