With Fry's Electronics closing in Palo Alto last week after three decades of supplying local techies, the city has no shortage of ideas for improving the central and much-studied site in the Ventura neighborhood.
From beer gardens and makerspaces to townhomes and apartment buildings, the latest concept plans for what's known as "Fry's site," proposed by consultant Perkins & Will, aim to find something for just about everyone in the planning process to like — or gripe about. Reflecting the desire of Ventura residents for less through-traffic, the plans include new bike paths, less street-level parking and new pedestrian-oriented corridors lined with retail. For those concerned about Palo Alto's housing shortage, it proposes adding an entirely new residential neighborhood south and west of the Fry's building at 340 Portage Ave. And for those who want to see the Fry's building — an early 20th century cannery — retained, it offers an alternative that would do exactly that and effectively build around the industrial structure.
But for all of their goals and ambitions, the plans come with a buzz-killing caveat. Because the city doesn't own the site, it has little control over what — if anything — can be built here. The Fry's property owner, The Sobrato Organization, recently indicated that it has no interest in redeveloping the site for residential use, putting a dent in the city's plan to have more than 250 housing units.
That has not, however, kept the city from moving ahead with what's known as the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan, a vision document that a group of city leaders and neighborhood stakeholders has been working on since fall 2018. That effort hit a milestone last month, when Perkins & Will released three alternatives for the 60-acre planning area, which is roughly bounded by Page Mill Road, Lambert Avenue, El Camino Real and the Caltrain tracks. Click here for visuals of each alternative.
The alternatives, which were presented to the Working Group on Dec. 5, recognize the various wild cards surrounding the Ventura planning process, including an utter lack of consensus about what should be done with the Fry's building. The plans each address the five major issues that the consulting group said concerned community members: district character, traffic circulation, housing types, open space and ground-floor uses and programming.
Under the first of the three alternatives, the 1918 building would be retained in its entirety and complemented with new developments for retail and housing. Known as the "Leading with Legacy" alternative, it calls for concentrating most of the new housing south and west of the preserved Fry's building, near the corner of El Camino Real and Lambert Avenue. The developments would effectively create a new neighborhood that would be bisected by Portage Avenue.
The street grid in this scenario would be modified to prevent cut-through traffic on Portage Avenue between El Camino and Park Boulevard and to keep car traffic at the edge of the neighborhood. New retail would front both sides of Portage from El Camino almost to Ash Street.
The second alternative, called "Adaptive Core," aims to strike a middle path by preserving a portion of the former cannery and disassembling other parts of it. As an example, consultants pointed to Drake's Dealership in Oakland, where a roof was removed from an old auto dealership to create a beer garden, and The Barlow in Sebastopol, an outdoor marketplace at a former applesauce cannery.
In the Ventura alternative, the semi-developed "flex space" of the former cannery building could be converted to host outdoor movies, a play space or a farmers market, consultants say.
Much like in the first alternative, the site would cut down on automobile access, with limited entry from the Park Boulevard side and no cut-through access on Portage through to Park. Cars coming in from El Camino would be limited to a horseshoe shaped route on Portage and Acacia avenues and an exit onto Ash.
The third and most ambitious of the options would do away with the Fry's building entirely and create what the consultants call a "robust mixed-use and diverse community." The plan would maximize housing and propose housing sites beyond those identified in the city's Comprehensive Plan, its guiding land-use document. Known as "Designed Diversity," the third alternative calls the most street-level uses, including "neighborhood-serving retail, community use, small office, creative lab and maker space."
The third alternative also calls for adding office space as well as additional residential projects on the northernmost portion of the property, a currently vacant area near the intersection of Page Mill and Park.
The plans remain highly conceptual, with no specifics about how much residential or commercial development any of the alternatives would accommodate. Given that limitation, some members of the Working Group have criticized the plan for being either too good to be true or simply not good enough.
Terry Holzemer, who lives close to the Ventura area, has persistently argued that the Fry's building should be preserved because of its historic value. It is probably "the most intact cannery site structure that still exists in the Bay Area," he said.
"If you don't have any concept of what this valley was long before any silicon chip was ever made, they should go back and read their history," Holzemer said. "I have. I know the significance of this building."
Doria Summa, a member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, called some of the ideas "pie-in-the-sky" and argued that it's tough to choose between the alternatives without having any data or any information about the zoning laws that would need to be changed to accommodate the proposed amenities.
"I was hoping to have more definitive data at this point and more realistic data on some of the city laws and state laws that we are contemplating violating when we talk about this," Summa said.
Assistant Planning Director Rachael Tanner said many of the answers group members are hoping to see, including the impacts of adding the new developments, would be analyzed through the environmental review process and considered at later meetings. While existing zoning laws may limit options for development, the City Council has the power to change them if it agrees to adopt a new vision for the Ventura properties.
Tanner also noted that state laws prohibit the city from planning for fewer than 354 units in the Ventura area — the amount that currently exists.
"We don't want the unit count to get below 354, otherwise we have to find another place in the city where those housing units can be placed," Tanner said.
Lund Smith -- a member of the Working Group whose family's company, WSJ Properties, owns nine buildings along Olive Avenue -- noted that the city can make an even bigger impact on housing by considering the parcels along Olive, which are currently dominated by single-family homes. While none of the three alternatives propose redeveloping Olive Avenue, Smith said this should not be excluded from consideration.
"You can accumulate some of the parcels on Olive to do something more significant, if we want to make a bigger dent on housing," Smith said.
The stakeholder group plans to continue its discussion of the three alternatives at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Jan. 21. Gail Price, a former city councilwoman who now serves on the Working Group, called the alternatives "a good start."
"We are aware that there will be a more robust conversation about density, development standards and the issues of housing types and locations. ... That is an extremely critical conversation," Price said on Dec. 5.