News

Council holds back funds from plan to revitalize Ventura

After requesting more analysis, council members decline to approve budget amendment to pay for it

Palo Alto's effort to develop a new vision for the Ventura area hit another unexpected obstacle on Monday night, when a routine vote to provide funding for planning exercise failed despite support from the City Council majority.

The council voted 4-3, with Mayor Eric Filseth, Councilwoman Alison Cormack and Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting, to approve a budget amendment to support the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan. Because a budget amendment requires five votes to pass, the council's vote means that the city has no funding allocated for the various studies that council members requested on Oct. 21, when they last considered the consulting contract for the vision document.

While the vote does not completely derail the planning exercise, much of which is funded through grants, it adds a layer of uncertainty to a project that is already facing numerous obstacles and complications. These include a recent determination by Palo Alto's historical consultant the former cannery at 340 Portage Ave., which is occupied by Fry's Electronics, is a historical building. The finding complicates the council's vision for the sprawling building, which council members have long seen as a promising site for new housing.

Even more disconcerting for council members is the recent announcement by The Sobrato Organization, which owns the Fry's property, that it has no intent of redeveloping the site, which is at the heart of the 60-acre planning area. Sobrato's decision has dampened the appetites of several council members, most notably Cormack and Tanaka. Both have said at recent discussions that without Sobrato's support for redevelopment, the city is unlikely to get much out of the planning process.

Despite these setbacks, most council members have maintained that there is value in drafting a new long-term vision for a centrally located neighborhood that many see as both underdeveloped and underserved. The goal of the concept area plan was to enhance the neighborhood by adding housing, pedestrian and biking amenities and recreational opportunities.

In August, council members agreed to move ahead with the plan and to expand the scope of the study to include an economic analysis of the planning area, an additional planning alternative (for a total of three) for the area and a parking study. The council also signed off in September on a contract with a consulting firm to evaluate improvements along Matadero Creek, a concrete channel that many would like to see revert to its natural form.

And in October, the council voted 4-2 (with Cormack and Councilwoman Lydia Kou dissenting and Councilwoman Liz Kniss absent) to add $368,758 to the city's contract with Perkins & Will to pay for the additional analysis.

The October vote on the contract amendment also included a proposed withdrawal of funding from the budget stabilization reserve. Unlike the other council actions, such a budget amendment requires a two-thirds vote. As such, it failed.

And on Monday night, it failed again. City Manager Ed Shikada brought the budget amendment to the council on the "consent calendar," where a series of usually non-controversial items are approved by a single vote with no discussion. In this case, however, three council members indicated that they planned to vote against the amendment.

Tanaka attributed his dissent to the fact that Sobrato isn't on board with redeveloping the site.

"If the property owner isn't on board, what are we doing here?" Tanaka asked. "That's a big problem."

Cormack did not explain her vote against the contract, though she has expressed in the past her disappointment about the planning exercise's progress. In August, she said that it's not clear that the plan "will achieve the things many people in the community have been hoping for in the medium-run." Filseth said Monday that he believes it is "premature" to increase the consultant's contract by 50%, particularly when the money is coming from the city's general fund.

After the council's vote, Planning Director Jonathan Lait told the Weekly that staff will now have to come up with new ways to advance the project's goals. This could mean "metering" out the work over a longer period of time, having less consulting work and holding fewer meetings of the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan Working Group, a panel of stakeholders that have been working with the city on the planning exercise.

He noted, however, that the city still has funding for the plan. This includes a $638,000 federal grant and a $112,000 contribution from Sobrato. Palo Alto's contributions would have raised the Perkins & Will contract to $1.14 million.

"We're still moving ahead. We have money that has been allocated already, including for the creek study, and we're going to have to think about how to move forward," Lait said.

With less reliance on consultants and fewer public meetings, Lait said he expects the exercise to become more of a "staff-driven process."

The council still hopes to adopt the vision for the Ventura area by December 2021.

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Comments

6 people like this
Posted by Sandra Driscoll
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 3, 2019 at 3:21 pm

The people in Ventura are for upgrading, updating, improving and revitalizing Ventura. We hope the Council will adopt the plan offered.
There have been so many businesses closing that we need to bring
new improvements into Ventura.


20 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2019 at 3:56 pm

Posted by Sandra Driscoll, a resident of Ventura

>> The people in Ventura are for upgrading, updating, improving and revitalizing Ventura.

Really? Which people are for what "upgrades" and/or "updates" and/or "improvements" ? I can't imagine that a majority of actual residents of any neighborhood would be supportive of something without details. The devil is always in the details. I don't think anybody but Liz Kniss is looking for more auto traffic in the their neighborhood.

>> There have been so many businesses closing that we need to bring new improvements into Ventura.

Which buildings are vacant, and why? What "improvements" are you looking for?

Regardless, the driving force for all this was supposed to be 300 or so new housing units built on the Fry's site. But, the property owner apparently wants something much more *high-end*. I hate to agree with Tanaka, but:

"If the property owner isn't on board, what are we doing here?" Tanaka asked. "That's a big problem."


15 people like this
Posted by Housing Element Fail
a resident of another community
on Dec 3, 2019 at 5:55 pm

Palo Alto isn't even trying to meet the goals of its Housing Element. The Fry's site should be able to support 500 to 600 units. Just look what Mountain View is doing at the old Safeway site near San Antonio. Web Link

They are putting 632 new apartments on that site alone within walking distance of a minor Caltrain station. The California Avenue station is just a short walk from the Fry's site. The City and the property owner should be working to support that kind of density there too. Palo Alto isn't even trying, so stop crying.


6 people like this
Posted by MovetheCannery
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 3, 2019 at 7:15 pm

I heard an idea that sounded good to me. Take Fry's cannery building and move it to the Cubberly site. Repurpose this large one story structure as a community center. It would preserve its historic integrity and up-cycle it for broad community use. Way less expensive than building a brand new center and would save on carbon emissions. Besides there are gazillion engineers, albeit software, around to see this through. Win, win, win. The Fry's site then could be cleared for affordable housing. Perfect!!!! Let's get with the 21st Century.


6 people like this
Posted by Failforward?
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 3, 2019 at 7:17 pm

Once again Palo Alto City Council fails its people for profits. Our council members switch and bait so much on housing it gives me whip lash.


40 people like this
Posted by Another Giveaway
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2019 at 7:24 pm

Ventura is "underdeveloped" is code for Ventura is ripe for exploitation by real-estate developers.

With the a little help from their partners on the city council, developers are going to make Ventura into the same very profitable screwed-up mess that they made out of downtown.


30 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 3, 2019 at 9:08 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

The City of Palo Alto has neither the resources nor the responsibility for building housing. And the developers are pretty clear about why they're not building. Land and construction are so costly here that only high-end units "pencil out" (are financially viable), and the market for those is limited.

This has been discussed openly a half-dozen times in articles in the Merc over the past year. For example, in Web Link

[quote] Today high-end apartments, renting out at $3,000 or more a month, are the only ones profitable enough for developers to build here without government assistance, according to Michael Lane, deputy director of the housing advocacy nonprofit SV@Home. “Particularly in the Silicon Valley but this is true in the Bay Area and beyond, the only projects that really pencil are high end projects that can really get those higher rents,” Lane said. “But they need rents to increase on an ongoing basis over time. That’s just the business model to be able to pay back the loans and the expenses.” [end quote]

I'd add that developers have no incentive to build enough housing to bring prices down, because that reduces their profits to the point that the projects are no longer viable. John Sobrato alludes to this in the same article:

[quote] “It’s always going to be a very expensive place to live,” Sobrato said. “We’re not going to be able to reduce the price of housing down to where it’s going to be affordable for the majority of middle income people.” [end quote]

One way to break this deadlock is for the big tech companies to finance projects at rates that make them attractive to developers and affordable for residents. Apple alone had $10B in profit last *quarter*; financing a good chunk of housing at zero interest is well within its capability.

Another thing is that the big tech companies building mixed-use projects should guarantee those developments have enough housing to balance the amount of office space, and that the housing is priced at levels that are compatible with the compensation of the employees working in that space (to reduce displacement elsewhere).

There is something the City of Palo Alto might have the ability to do, and that's change the zoning in Stanford Research Park so that housing and mixed-use developments are permitted in more of the Park. (Housing is already permitted in a small area.) The Park has by far the highest concentration of jobs in the City, and it's more than a half-mile from the nearest Caltrain stop. You can see that concentrating new housing in high-rises near Caltrain stops is a poor approach here. It would be far more effective to build housing or mixed-use projects right in the Park. I once discussed this with Adrian Fine, and he told me he had worked on it. It would be good to hear a progress report.


Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 4, 2019 at 12:34 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Matt Sonsini is now CEO of Sobrato and grew up in Palo alto and went to gunn and in fact lived near Ventura, In Evergreen I guess it’s called. We could reach out to him and have him clarify what the company’s plans are.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2019 at 1:08 pm

Posted by Housing Element Fail, a resident of another community

>> Palo Alto isn't even trying to meet the goals of its Housing Element.

So, exactly what would be required for Palo Alto to catch up to its Housing Element and other obligations, including regional and state requirements? Is there a succinct reference for this?


8 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 4, 2019 at 7:19 pm

Finally, some common sense. The city does not own Fry's; the sobrato group does. Put up the money if you want a different outcome. And btw, we have a free market still and property rights.


7 people like this
Posted by B
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 4, 2019 at 7:32 pm

The Fry's building? Historical????? That ugly old warehouse? you're joking, right? That's fraud intended to stop development


11 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 4, 2019 at 7:45 pm

No changes to Stanford research park. Enough congestion already!


10 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2019 at 8:24 pm

Posted by Citizen, a resident of Community Center

>> No changes to Stanford research park. Enough congestion already!

I disagree. I think SRP should reduce office space and associated employment and replace with medium-density housing, particularly in locations that are closest to El Camino/Page Mill intersection. That would be the best way to address the jobs/housing imbalance.


17 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 4, 2019 at 9:48 pm

Palo Alto is meeting it’s market rate housing requirements where we are falling short is in deed restricted subsidized (BMR) housing.

Of course these requirements are arbitrary numbers created by Plan Bay Area / MTC- ABAG an unelected group of folks acting without any true authority of the electorate.....spending our tax money without being elected ....wow ,taxation without representation and no oversight?!!


3 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2019 at 10:03 pm

Posted by Anon, a resident of Evergreen Park

>> Palo Alto is meeting it’s market rate housing requirements where we are falling short is in deed restricted subsidized (BMR) housing.

Is there an online location (URL) where we can see the various targets, numbers, and shortfalls for the categories?


14 people like this
Posted by Another Giveaway
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2019 at 1:03 am

Yeah, that will work.

Let's build housing in Stanford Research Park and office buildings in residential neighborhoods and then everyone in Palo Alto can live in a giant office park.

When Palo Alto has been turned into a giant office park, then everyone living in Palo Alto can drive to Cupertino to work and everyone living in Cupertino can drive to Palo Alto to work because, surprise, the company in that gleaming tower of glass across the street from your home didn't offer you your dream job just because you live across the street.


9 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 6, 2019 at 3:36 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

@Another Giveaway: You have a good point. If there were any city in Silicon Valley that could prove that putting jobs near housing eliminates the need to commute, it should be Palo Alto. We have three times as many jobs here as working residents, so there are more than enough jobs for everyone to work locally. Unfortunately, that's not what happens. 72% of our employed residents work in other cities, and this hasn't changed much for decades. (Those are the most recent figures I have, but they're about a year old.)

These days there are lots of people who are arguing for high-density development where offices and housing are close together. If that becomes the goal, where would we put those projects? Well, SRP has lots of existing offices, large amounts of parking, several points of high-volume transportation access, and no existing residents to disrupt or displace. The areas around the Downtown and Cal Ave train stations are inferior in all those respects. That's why I suggested looking into zoning changes for SRP.


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